Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What if Punxsutawney Phil was a Marmot? (He already is!)

Every February we all wait in breathless anticipation to see if our East-coast born mammalian weatherman sees his shadow and scoops the Weather Channel by 2 weeks. For those of us out in the West, I pose the question—what about us?

We should take heart, a marmot IS a groundhog—with both belonging to the esteemed Marmota genus. If Phil lived out west, he’d probably be a yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), not a lowly, lowlander groundhog (Marmota monax). Yet, he’d be a marmot, just the same.

So what about the big SHADOW question that looms large on February 2nd? Do we want more winter or less?

You see, six weeks from now will be the middle of March, and the middle of March in these high western states usually means lots of sun, hiking, skiing, running, a more stable snowpack, snowshoeing, possibly good and possibly dicey ice-fishing, mountaineering, biking, and a probably a lot more skiing. And, frankly, I think we would PREFER to be able to do those things...so bring on the winter!

As a Kansas native, I understand that winter in the Midwest and on the East coast is a different creature. Cold, wet weather that chills you to the bone; high frigid winds with obscene wind chill factors; and gray, gloomy skies that seem to sit on you day in and day out. Phil's high-tech predictions are a hopeful break in an interminable progression of cold, gray, freezing, wet, and more cold.

But what would happen if we had our OWN regional brand of Phil...let’s call her Mountain Maisy...to make a weather projection for those of us in the high country?

In February, yellow-bellied marmots are holed up in long rock, grass and fur lined burrows on high-elevation slopes snoozing peacefully under LOTS of snow. By the time they come out of hibernation for good (and to find some love), it is April or early May. Thus, Marmot Day would actually have to be celebrated around the 15th of April (wouldn't THAT be a nice change--to remind us that the gift of playing in our high altitude playgrounds are as certain as taxes).

By now, as a high country Colorado native—our young Maisy is guaranteed to see her shadow, because with over 300 days of sunshine a year, she would have to come out during a blizzard to not see her overwintered, slim self. Female yellow-bellied marmots typically only breed every other year, so Maisy would be a hot commodity on the hillside...a bit like women in a ski town, I suppose. So like all mountain women, if she DID come out in a blizzard, she would simply return to her burrow, put on a few warm layers, grab her Gore-Tex jacket and head out again to check out the backcountry scene.

If she sees her shadow, that means spring has arrived and the snows will melt quickly--a reminder that water in the West is precious, so we should conserve all year round. If she doesn't see her shadow, it just means that--once again--we can all get our winter gear on clearance...because everyone else has started to buy swimsuits.

In this case, Maisy sees her shadow, and then sees the shadows of three intrepid ski mountaineers who are getting ready to hit the late spring snow fields off of Horseshoe Mountain…so she happily waddles after them, shrilly asking THEM about the weather for the day, and scrounging for a few M & Ms and bits of granola they might have left behind.

Happy (almost) Marmot Day!


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