The formations in caves, such as Carlsbad Caverns, can be fantastic creations.

Just three years ago, a group of Idaho men traveled to an unnamed Western state and in an unnamed range of rugged mountains, hiked up a steep trail. At the top, they unraveled climbing ropes, stepped into harnesses and rappelled down into a fissure in the rocky face of the mountain. The leader of the team had scouted the area previously with his aerial drone and was sure that there was an entrance to a cave there. With a little searching, they discovered the entrance he had envisioned and entered into a magical world, likely heretofore unseen by human eyes. This new cave, still a secret known only to this group, is deep, full of cave formations and the skulls of bighorn sheep, animals that hadn’t been seen in this range for 100 years.

Caves are fascinating and we have been to a number of them, most recently Carlsbad Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeast New Mexico. This cave has incredible formations, a long natural entry pathway and, best of all, visitors are self-guided. There is also nearby Lechuquilla Cave, considered one of the ten longest caves in the world with over 150 miles of explored tunnels, the extent of which was not known until about 1985. Until then, it was thought to be a fairly shallow and boring cave. However, this one is not open to the public.

The vast majority of caves form essentially the same way (I will cover lava tubes next time). Limestone (there are several other rock types such as dolomite that are similar to limestone so I will lump them all under the moniker, limestone), a rock created at the bottom of ancient seas largely from the accumulation of corals and the shells of sea creatures, is lifted up through plate tectonics. This lifting creates cracks in the rock which is otherwise impervious to water.

Rainwater falls on the surface, often far above the limestone layer. As the water percolates through the soil, it picks up minute quantities of CO2 from rotting leaves, pine needles and such. The water and CO2 form carbonic acid, the same substance that gives soda pop its fizz.

Since limestone is impervious to water, the water table usually ends up perched on top of it. This acidic water seeps into the cracks and crevices of the limestone. The acid goes to work dissolving the limestone and voilá! you have a cave. In a few million years.

The process doesn’t end there though. Water continues to seep into the cave through tiny cracks and holes. The acid in each droplet dissolves the mineral calcite. As the water comes to rest, it deposits the calcite. If the water is a droplet, it creates formations of hollow straws, stalactites and stalagmites which in turn, given time, form columns. If the water is flowing, it still deposits calcite, but this time sheet formations such as curtains and cave bacon develop. This is a continuous, but slow process—it may take 100 years for a straw to grow an inch.

Caves are one of the few natural features that still offer the opportunity for discovery in this world. There are a few clues that can help you if this is your quest. First, find limestone mountains. Then, as you explore, look for sinkholes which indicate dissolving rock, and listen and watch for wind movement (Wind Cave of Wind Cave National Park was discovered when a wind gust from some rocks blew a cowboy’s hat off). Streams of water that disappear suddenly may indicate a cave, as well as springs appearing (could there be a cave under Big Springs or Warm River Springs?).

In a story similar to that above, in November 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts were exploring the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains near Benson, Arizona. They were looking “for a cave no one had ever found” and found it. To protect the cave from vandalism, the two kept the cave a secret for four years when they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, about their awesome discovery. Later, it became Kartchner Caverns State Park and offers guided tours. Wouldn’t that be a cool claim to fame?

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho