S03|E03: Leave it to Beavers & Gnar Pow

In this week's episode we look into the long history of beavers in North America and why we humans seem to always be in conflict with them. Plus when did skiing get so fancy? And can Sam teach show producers who've never skied how fun it is to careen down a mountain on two planks?

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

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Leave it to Beavers

Beavers (Castor canadensis), have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. Ecologically they do all sorts of great things: their ponds ease flooding downstream, and support large numbers of bird species, fish, amphibians, and otters. They're what's called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire eco-system. But they're also the world's second largest rodent and a nightmare for property owners. Humans and beavers have a long history together because they like to live in the same places, but the way we've built our infrastructure has almost guaranteed our two species will be locked in eternal conflict.


Part 2 & 3

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Gnar Pow

Is skiing a sport reserved for rich people? It’s a question that has come up among the Outside/In crew a bunch this winter. Producers Maureen and Jimmy think so. They’ve never been skiing, and always associated it with exclusive resorts and tricked-out gear. Sam wants to prove them wrong. 

In this segment, Sam takes his skeptical colleagues skiing for the very first time to prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy endeavor. Will he succeed? Will it be wicked expensive? Will they enjoy it? Listen to find out.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Ari De Niro, The Marian Circle Drum Brigade, Blue Dot Sessions, Revolution Void, Jason Leonard and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 33: "Gnar Pow"

Is skiing a sport reserved for rich people? It’s a question that has come up among the Outside/In crew a bunch this winter. Producers Maureen and Jimmy think so. They’ve never been skiing, and always associated it with exclusive resorts and tricked-out gear. Sam wants to prove them wrong. 

In this episode, Sam takes his skeptical colleagues skiing for the very first time to prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy endeavor. Will he succeed? Will it be wicked expensive? Will they enjoy it? Listen to find out.

“When did skiing get fancy?”

This was the question that set this all off. It came from Maureen McMurray, executive producer over here at Outside/In. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

“What makes you think skiing is fancy?” I probably didn’t say this in response, but I likely thought it. I started snowboarding because every Friday during the month of February my entire public school would go skiing. The mountain offered discounted tickets, and after a few years of being one of just a handful of kids to stay behind and choose between activities like calligraphy or cribbage, I scrounged together my odd-jobs money until I could get equipment. I’m reflexively defensive of skiing.

Both Maureen and our newest producer Jimmy Gutierrez had never been skiing, and so for me this kicked off a quest to convince them that skiing is not just a sport for “fancy people.”

But the truth is that today, I hardly do any alpine skiing. I essentially refuse to go unless there has been fresh snow in the past 48 hours. Even then, I tend to rely heavily on the “daily deals” that many resorts offer. The lift-tickets are simply too expensive, and I find the dollars-to-fun ratio to be much higher in cross-country skiing.

Nonetheless, I took them both to Loon Mountain, one of New Hampshire’s biggest and most expensive ski areas, where Jimmy revealed himself to be a quick study. “Too much rigmarole,” he said, “Price-wise, value-wise, would I ever do this again? I don’t think I would.” In one day he had reached the conclusion that I seem to have landed on after a decade on the slopes.

Maureen, on the other hand, was determined to try again, despite having had a rough day. “I was genuinely part angry and part humiliated,” she said, after getting down off the trails.

As a new skier, it’s hard to justify spending a small fortune for the privilege of falling down over and over while doing laps on the bunny hill. And in retrospect, going to one of the biggest and most expensive ski resorts for their first day on snow was simply silly. If all you need is a gradual incline, there’s no reason to shell out for big-mountain lift tickets.

So I recalibrated. Our second stop was the Veteran’s Memorial Recreation Area in Franklin, New Hampshire. This is a volunteer-operated community ski area that has a 100-year lease from the city, which cost it $1 back in 1961. Lift-tickets are only $20 for the day and it comes stocked with a basement full of donated equipment, free to use at your own risk.

This is not a hill that will keep experts enthralled for a full day: it has a rope-tow and a T-bar and only 230 feet of vertical drop. But as long as the snow is good, (a big if, given that the hill doesn’t have snowmaking) it’s perfect for beginners.

Little backyard ski hills like this used to be in virtually every town that had any kind of significant incline in New England. The “golden era” of skiing began in the 1930s, according to Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England and Northeast Lost Ski Areas Project. He says at the peak of the craze there were five or six hundred rope tows all across the region.

“That’s what’s really incredible about the whole thing, is you look at the sheer volume of these places, and they were pretty much everywhere,” said Davis, “I think it’s really hard for people to realize how many of these places there were.”

These ski areas were done in by a number of factors that lead to consolidation of the ski industry: rationing and travel bans during World War II took the first bite, increasing competition from mountains that were able to invest in new lodges and better grooming, not to mention higher costs for insurance and snowmaking today. In the end, smaller ski areas have all but ceased to exist.

But for new skiers like Maureen who find the big mountains intimidating, places like the hill in Franklin are hard to beat. “I love this,” Maureen said upon walking into the lodge and seeing the families seated next to a hot wood stove, outfitting their tiny children with second-hand boots and skis.

But, the truth is, the future doesn’t look great for these community ski areas. Last year, Franklin was unable to open at all, because the conditions were terrible all winter long and the outing club that runs the hill can’t afford snowmaking. “We rely on natural snow,” said Kathy Fuller, matriarch of the Franklin Outing Club, “and that’s an issue.”

In other words, these inexpensive, truly accessible ski areas are an endangered species. A 2012 analysis by an economist based in Canada forecast that in the 2020s, ski areas in New Hampshire would experience a 25-40% increase in the need for snowmaking. As these snowmaking expenses start to increase, this analysis forecast that even major ski areas in New England would start to go out of business. Of the 103 resorts the study modeled, it predicted only 30 would be economically viable in the 2070 to 2099 timeframe.

And that’s ski areas that make artificial snow. Those that don’t... how long can they last?

Skiing is not an inexpensive sport, but at least when I was growing up it was one that most kids in my public school class were able to afford. I think the question in my mind is, given the way things are going, will that be the case when my kids are ready to try skiing?

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks this week go out to Veteran's Memorial Recreational Ski Area, Loon Mountainand New England Lost Ski Areas Project

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 31: Ask Sam | Snow Fleas, Wind, Mount Mitchell

Every so often, we take some time out from telling stories to answer questions from you, our friends and listeners. These questions have been piling up, and so we thought we’d dig through them and bring you some of the more interesting ones.

If you want us to answer your question, you should give us a call! The number is 603-223-2448. If you’re technologically inclined, record your question on a voice-memo and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org.

Enough preamble, the the questions!

Question 1. Eric: I’m standing in the middle of Blue Job State Forest in Strafford, and it just snowed, and there are all these tiny little black bugs crawling around the snow. They look like snow fleas? I don’t know what they are. But there’s probably, oh there’s got to be billions of them, because they’re everywhere. And I was just wondering, what are they and where on earth did they come from?

A local caller! If you’re an out-of-state listener, Blue Job is a a little knob with very nice views in southeastern New Hampshire, but this particular type of tiny beasty is found all over the globe. Snow fleas are a type of springtail (cue link to a Wikipedia page!) which are one of the most abundant types of creatures on earth. They are literally everywhere there is dirt.

If you cast your memory back to our episode about all of the hidden biodiversity in a routine traffic circle, you might remember that we talked about microarthropods — which is science speak for itsy-bitsy bugs — as being the largest critter in the soil food web. Springtails are one of the creatures we were talking about. The munching that they do is one of the mechanisms that serves to decompose organic matter that falls onto the ground. Up here in New England, we call them snow fleas (and not dirt fleas) because, even though they live in the dirt, we only tend to notice them when they come out onto the snow, thanks to the contrast between their tiny black bodies and the white surface.

There’s an incredible variety in the number of species of springtails, and much we don’t know about the lifecycles of all the individual species, but there is a lot of interest in them because of their ability to survive and even be active in extremely cold temperatures.

One additional fun-fact. Springtails are useful to folks who care for insects in cages, like Gwen Pearson who manages Purdue Universities Insect Zoo. Because springtails eat mold and fungus spores, they can be used to keep the sultry enclosures of tropical creatures free of gunk. In fact, you can buy them in bulk on Amazon for just this purpose.

Question 2, Aubrey: I wanted to ask Sam about wind, because anecdotally I feel like there’s a lot more wind recently, than there was in the past. I’m just wondering if there’s any correlation between increased wind events and our global warming situation. It seems like intuitively, if there’s more energy in the atmosphere, there should be more wind, but maybe I’m just imagining it.

Full disclosure, Aubrey is my lovely wife (and as I often joke — as a powerhouse middle school science teacher —  the source of all of my knowledge). We have talked about this question for a long time, and she finally got fed up with me stalling and called it into the hotline so that I’d be forced to answer it.

There’s also a fairly easy answer, Ian Young of the University of Melbourne has been working on the surprisingly tricky task of teasing out global trends in wind speed. As you might imagine, its a big world and there are a lot of places that wind isn’t getting measured second-by-second, and satellite wind data can be a little noisy. But despite the challenges, he has an estimate, largely derived from wind speeds over the oceans.

“What our observations show is that for an area like the northeast coast of the United States we’ve seen wind-speeds increase, on average, by about seven percent,” Young told me when we managed to connect over the phone (at 11 PM his time, and 7 AM ours).

The tricky business for professor Young has been determining whether that increase is due to a general increase in background windiness, or a rise in the power of extreme wind events… stronger storms. He says they aren’t yet sure, but he leans towards stronger storms.

This discussion also yielded a fascinating revelation from executive producer Maureen McMurray: she hates wind chimes, and equates hanging up a wind chime within ear-shot of your neighbors to blasting Steely Dan’s Black Cow from your back porch all-day, every-day.

PSA: Take in your wind-chimes, people.

Question 3. Alex: I was just in North Carolina and went up to Mount Mitchell, which had a sign very proudly proclaiming it to be the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but we all know that’s false because the highest peak east of the Mississippi is Barbeau Peak, up on Ellesmere Island. So, I’m wondering how the state parks system can get away with such a catastrophic lie to the public?

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Wow, Alex. Tell us how you really feel? He is correct, ladies and gentlemen, anyone with access to a search engine can indeed discover for themselves that Barbeau Peak is taller than Mount Mitchell. (Although it looks somehow… sadder.)

This is clearly a question of semantics. I think we can all agree that since if you go far enough east you’ll eventually circumnavigate the entire globe and find yourself back at Mount Mitchell, this sign is missing some sort of important qualifier. Is it the highest peak east of the Mississippi in America? In North America? WEST OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN?! MY GOD WHICH IS IT?

Leaving aside how exactly this “lie” is “catastrophic,” we at Outside/In do believe that accuracy is paramount. As such, in collaboration with Alex, we have come up with a proposed solution. If any listener happens to hike Mount Mitchell in the near future, try to figure out a way to make the sign more accurate. Using a method that does not deface the sign, please! Add a note using a sticky note, perhaps. Or stand in front of the sign without your own hand-fashioned placard which adds an appropriate geographical caveat afterward.

Once you’re done, send us a picture, and maybe the internet will make it go all viral. (Ok, I confess, I probably don’t know how viral things on the internet work.)

Question 4. Maureen: In the last few weeks we have had very cold weather and then a warm up and then it gets cold again.  As the snow has melted and I’ve been out walking, I’ve noticed what looks like rocks that have sunk into the ground.  My guess is that the rocks stay colder and heavier longer and the soil warms and expands, or loosens and the cold heavy rock sinks, then the ground refreezes over it.  Can you explain this phenomenon?

This one came in over email. And you know what that means: exclusive web only content!

I’ve been observing this phenomenon in my own back yard, Maureen, and what you’re witnessing (or at least what I’m witnessing and assuming is the same at your house) is the formation and later melting away of needle ice.

Basically, what happens is that when the soil is above freezing but the air is above freezing, moisture in the soil is drawn towards the surface (through capillary action, the same process that plants use to send water from the roots to the leaves) and as it rises it freezes in a column. As it rises it brings the mud or sand around it up as well. If the ice then melts (as it has done numerous times this winter in New England… *sigh*), you’re left with disturbed, aerated, slightly taller soil. So what you’re actually seeing is the dirt around the rocks rising up, not the rocks sinking down. Oh, those tricksy rocks!

Indeed, any gardener from New Hampshire will tell you that far from sinking because of their density, rocks in New England soil have a tendency to “heave” their way towards the surface as they undergo freeze-thaw cycles. This occurs for the same reason that you always find all the brazil nuts at the top of a can of mixed nuts.

As a fun bonus, needle ice can also be incredibly beautiful, if you’re willing to get down on your belly and look.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder