The No-Snow Snow

What does a ski resort do when there’s no snow during ski season? They make snow.

The climate activist in me only sees the ultimate irony in this situation.

Embarking on our annual snow cabin family adventure, we chose Calaveras County with their giant Sequoia groves as our destination to combine with the promise of sledding and handcrafted snowpeople. It all started with a children’s library book, actually: flipping though the beautiful artwork of Sequoia, the sad truth that the world’s largest trees are endangered at the hand of man and the changing climate motivated the location of our trip. A snowshoe through the giant trees with our children would not only be fun, but I would have the satisfaction of knowing my kids could tell theirs that they saw these magical beasts in person.

Standing tall above the tree line, Sequoia stretches his ancient arms and gathers clouds to him. He watches as days, seasons, years pass by. His branches are home to owls and choirs of frogs. Beneath his broad canopy, a world grows.

Will the discovery story of Sequoiadendron giganteum ultimately mirror their demise if they no longer exist? Known to the Native Americans who lived among them but otherwise a fable analogous to Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, the sequoias were only “discovered” in the spring of 1852, as Augustus T. Dowd was tracking a wounded grizzly bear through unfamiliar territory when he came upon a forest of enormous trees. It took him days to convince a party of people to come with him to see the trees. They removed the bark off of a tree, (which disrupts the cambium layer— like the vascular system of a tree— which killed it) to reassemble elsewhere and otherwise exploit their existence.

Gerrans and Aherns on the Discovery Stump

People didn’t believe the reassembled bark was real, so 8 men took 22 days to fall the Discovery tree so they could take a cross section to display with the bark. As I stood on that stump, I felt little else but ashamed and sorrowful, telepathically issuing an apology to the girthy platform, somehow willing my desire for the tree’s forgiveness to permeate through my boots. IMG_2664Now the biggest threat to these endangered trees includes the byproducts of climate change affecting their narrow areas of habitat: excessive heat, drought, extreme wildfires, lack of snow. Will future generations be able to marvel in person at these legendary wonders? Or will they be left with a bark shell and a cross-section to muse over, wondering if the tale of their existence is a bunch of malarkey?IMG_2666

The lack of snow during the first weeks of January in this region of California simply could not be overlooked. Even as we wandered through the North Grove of Calaveras Big Trees State park on their weekly Saturday “snowshoe,” the kids pealed their waterproof layers off as the rain gave way to warm sticky humidity and mud. Dogwood trees, naked of their leaves, threatened to bud afresh at the tip of every branch, on January 5th! More than one docent commented on how the dogwoods were “confused” by the unusually warm weather. One element essential to a giant sequoia’s ecosystem, we learned from our docent, is snow. So the question asks itself: “What will happen to the giant sequoias as we know them as our climate changes?”IMG_2670

One satisfactory finding that made me squeal with delight and dance a little happy dance, was the water bottle offering in the gift shop. Instead of offering your typical single-use water bottles to visitors, you were able to purchase profiled and chilled reusable and commemorative water bottles. This change of mindset in being carried out in practice made me filled with excitement and gratitude. Like I’m not in this fight alone!

When we arrived to the area without the presence of snow on the ground or the promise of it in the forecast, we decided to seek out snow at a higher elevation. We drove up the hill to the Bear Valley ski resort, where patches of the Earth were crusted with patches of old dirty ice. It was sad. In the parking lot, I recall being there as a kid, donning gigantically puffy pink powder pants with a great snow wall towering several feet taller than me carved out by snow plows looming all around. There were no walls of snow, only patches of dirty ice that made it look like God had dropped his snow cone.


The runs were flanked by snow-making machines. I asked a seasonal snow bunny and ski ‘bum’ about how they operated. They recalled how 2016 snow was “epic” and the drought years prior were devastating and they relied heavily on the machines for their snow. The snow machines come on automatically, when the temperature and humidity are just right. The 100% renewable pusher in me pondered the energy profile of the ski resort. It was likely they purchased energy from PG&E, and therefore only about 22% comes from renewable sources. So greenhouse gas emissions were produced to create the snow that didn’t fall due to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Lunch in the ski resort cafeteria only reinforced my dismay over the total disconnect between climate change and no snow and the self-defeating choices this ski resort was making. The menu had beef served up in many more ways than other menu alternatives. As we waited in line as other patrons ordered their tri-tip sandwiches, and cheeseburgers sizzled on the griddle, we were served soggy and barely warmed-through veggie burgers. Their haphazard assembly felt like punishment for not ordering the delicious yet environmentally-devastating beef.

Climate change makes it hard for me to really relax and enjoy myself.

Snow making machine

I decided I would quitchabitchin and enjoy, and we really did have a good time. The fake snow was moldable into life form and cupped into balls that I was able to heave at the husbands. We tubed down the hills, and the squeals that came from the girls were priceless. Their initial timid venture down the slopes soon gave way to demands for “big, BIG spins,” in the tubes down the hills.


After all, this trip was about showing them the beauty and wonder of mother nature and things they may not get to experience in the future, and we checked this one off of our Climate-Change bucket list.

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