The Nation's Pulse

Another Winter

The subject is snow -- and bald eagles above the slushy Salmon River.

By 1.12.09

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It's snowing as I write this, a frequent occurrence in the Idaho mountains for the last month. Day after day our Beaverheads -- as seen from downtown Salmon -- fade in and out of view in veiled squalls. We had a White Christmas, when it snowed. We had a White New Year, when it really snowed. In fact, most of the northern half of the country had a white "Holiday Season."

It turns out that all this "climate change" can get a bit expensive to remove from streets and parking lots. Just ask the city public works department of Spokane, Washington. Spokane has recorded 78 inches of snow since early December, and it's only January. There was even a road rage incident when a snowplow driver was shot at. In liberal Seattle -- where it rarely snows -- the eco-crats in city government finally permitted salt to be used to thaw icy streets when four inches of snow brought the city to a standstill.

The only people besides ski resort operators smiling about the weather are the water wonks who distribute reservoir and river irrigation allocations every summer. Most mountain watersheds in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies have 90% to 100% of normal snowpack this winter. In eastern Idaho, our "Salmon Basin" is 104% of normal, up from just 47% in early December. Many feet of snow has fallen on the highest peaks, and has increased the avalanche danger.

It's been a bad winter for avalanches. This is a problem mostly related to "back country" or "out-of-bounds" recreation (snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing). So far this winter thirteen people have died in avalanches in the U.S., and another ten in Canada. They include seven snowmobilers in British Columbia, an ice climber swept off a mountain in Wyoming, and "in-bounds" skiers at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming and Snowbird, Utah. And an avalanche slammed into the backdoor of a mid-mountain restaurant at Jackson Hole; fortunately diners inside weren't injured.

The in-bounds incidents are interesting, showing the difficulty resorts have in performing avalanche control during very snowy winters. (The ski patrol triggers avalanches from atop ridges by simply skiing across them or using explosives.) This year, October snows and rain were followed by a dry November, then the heavy snows of December, which fell on a rotten, unstable base that can be likened to a house of cards.

It was -64F (that's 64 "below zero") in a little burg called Chicken, Alaska, the other day, which certainly frosted some feathers. In Salmon lately the coldest it's been was a relatively balmy 11 below one morning. But I have electric baseboard heat, and I'm not looking forward to my next electric bill, due in late January, which will include the kilowatts consumed during our frigid Christmas and New Year's billing period. Though I'm doing everything I can to cut energy costs, including having put heavy plastic on some windows, and turning down the thermostat at night, as I sleep in pajamas, thick socks, a sweatshirt and a ski hat, the latter marvelous for discouraging drafts on the scalp and ears. I can't sleep when my head is cold.

It's been consistently cold enough to bring ice floes down the swiftly running Salmon River. During the coldest days last month it turned into a sluggish, hissing tide of slush like a floating Slurpee. The river normally emits a sucking-gurgling sound, and a sharp crackling over gravel bars, so to stand on the bridge at Island Park in Salmon and hear that steady snake-hiss is eerie.

Bald eagles winter along the river, as they do along rivers throughout the West. There in the skeletal branches of cottonwood trees our national symbol motionlessly perches with eagle eyes cast downward looking for fish in the shallows. On a recent trip with a friend fifty miles upriver to Challis, Idaho, the road hugged the river and I counted four along the way. They're easy to spot in the bare branches of the trees. You first notice a solid, black compact form about eighteen inches tall. Then, with binoculars you see the noble white head, yellow beak, and glaring yellow eyes with black pupils; the head still, then abruptly darting from side to side as those powerful eyes examine the world of prey. One of the four took flight while we watched. The bird pushed down hard off the branch as if it were a diving board, and simultaneously the great wings unfolded and embraced the air upward as if reaching for God. Then it was aloft and on the hunt, wings pumping against the bitter wind.

At night I lie in bed all bundled up and I think about those stoic eagles roosting in the river woods, subzero breezes ruffling their tousled white heads, falling snow sifting down through the branches. Any animal with such an intense gaze must possess a shrewd brain behind those eyes.

I wonder if they ever contemplate "climate change."

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.