Dec 1, 2002 | Marmot, Winter 2002

Never Eat Yellow… I mean, Red Snow!

If you are interested enough to take a walk through Paradise Meadows in the spring when the snow begins to melt, you will likely notice blotches of red in the snow. Some of them are patches the size of a large foot and others barely span the tip of a finger. Are they the remnants of nocturnal nightmares or something more sinister?

According to ancient Aboriginal legend a certain tribe lived on the fertile coast of the Comox Valley. They fished in abundant waters and lived off a generous land. Their homes were solid and their families flourished. The sounds of joy and laughter rang throughout their village. Word of their wealth reached another, less fortunate tribe and those people began to covet everything that belonged to the other tribe. When cautioned of an eminent attack of their peaceful settlement, the wise men decided the women and children would hide from their foes at the top of Forbidden Plateau. The men would remain behind to fight. And so, the women and children set off on the long journey to the summit of the mountain.

The enemies arrived and the men fought a long and valiant battle. Eventually, the aggressors were vanquished and the men set off for the mountain to proclaim their victory to their families.

To their shock and horror, the men found no women or children on the mountain. All had vanished. The only sign that they had ever been there at all were the random smears of red in the snow. The warriors believed it was the blood of their beloved families who had been eaten by evil spirits while they awaited word of a safe return. From that moment on, the summit of that mountain was considered forbidden.

Hence the name “Forbidden Plateau”.

Interestingly enough, the phenomenon of “red snow” is not unique to Forbidden Plateau nor is it unique to Mount Washington. It can be found in various alpine climates throughout the world.

Scientifically, the smears are nothing more than algae. Often referred to as “watermelon snow”, this algae has a light red hue and is a food source for a variety of mini-critters that live within snow’s ecosystem. These include snow worms, snow fleas and Tardigrades or snow bears. Watermelon snow is most prominent in the spring due to natural warming that draws the algae to the surface of the snow where it reproduces. Once the snow melts, it sinks back to the ground to await the next snowfall. If you step in red snow it will stick to your boot. If you eat red snow it will give you the trots. And since red is not the only colour of snow algae, my advice to the unwary, curious is: Never eat red …or orange…or green…and especially…not yellow snow.

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