High country is beautiful when covered in snow, but that same snow can form a deadly snare when it avalanches down hill.

Almost 50 years ago, my friends and I donned our wood and rawhide snowshoes and headed up Millcreek Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. Our destination was Alexander Basin beneath Gobbler’s Knob where an avalanche, reported to be the biggest in Utah’s recorded history, had occurred several days earlier. After an hour or so of slipping and sliding around in our less than perfect snowshoes, we could see the avalanche and the path it took from the top of the ridge at over 9,000 feet on its 2,000-foot vertical run.

The huge pile of snow was studded with broken trees jutting out like a box of discarded toothpicks. We couldn’t tell how deep the snow actually was, but it completely filled the draw at the bottom.

I was reminded of that very spot last week when the tragic news out of Utah hit the wires. Four back country skiers were killed and four others were able to dig themselves out after the snow in Alexander Basin broke free and avalanched to the bottom. I suppose we should be glad only four of the eight were killed, but that is still a terrible death toll, part of the 21 avalanche deaths occurring in seven states this winter, 14 since February 1.

Avalanches occur when gravity exceeds the adhesive quality of the snow layers. Imagine a snowpack as layers of glass. Each layer represents a snowstorm and there can be many layers in a snowpack. If you put glue between some of the layers, they now essentially become one layer. However, if you put oil between two layers, the layers will not bond together. Add a trigger, something that breaks the bond like the weight of a skier or snowmobiler, and the upper plates will slide off.

With snow, where and how this happens is a matter of conditions. Fresh snow, especially when there are piles of it, is often the most dangerous. It has not had time to sinter (adhere through pressure) to the existing snow and can easily slide with just a little motivation.

The type of snowflake also plays a role. Some storms start out with tiny round balls called graupel, and as might be expected, these can act like tiny ball bearings between the existing snow and the new snow making an unstable snowpack.

If snow falls on an existing unstable surface such as hoarfrost, avalanches will follow. These large ice crystals keep the two layers from bonding together and so long as the crystals don’t change, when enough snow builds up, gravity takes over.

Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Unfortunately, these are the same types of slopes humans like to recreate on. A black diamond run on a ski resort is typically about 35 degrees. Steeper slopes tend to run more frequently and trees don’t get a chance to establish there making these dangerous spots easy to see. Low slope avalanches do occur though, and even trees on a slope are not a guarantee that an avalanche won’t happen.

Sometimes an unstable layer forms within the snowpack. These changes can occur without warning, creating a depth hoar that may be several inches thick. When something causes these crystals to collapse, a slab avalanche occurs.

Avalanches are one of the most dangerous of all naturally occurring phenomena. When a slab avalanche is triggered, it brings snow that may weigh as much as 1,000 pounds per cubic yard barreling downslope at speeds up to 80 mph. Very little can withstand an avalanche.

Winter back-country travel is dangerous. Avalanches do happen naturally, but 90% of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in his or her party. Proper gear, training and common sense will go a long way to keeping you safer.


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 Nature-track.com!

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