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Top of the World

Where Ghost Trees Haunt Winter

Published in the January 2023 Issue Published online: Jan 09, 2023 Outdoors
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By Kris Millgate

Hand warmers and feet warmers. Thank the heavens for both when you’re snowmobiling with Ann Marie Anthony during the coldest and deepest weather.

Her kind of winters attract riders from all over the world. They’re here for cold play in Island Park, a playground less than two hours from Idaho Falls. It’s where Anthony lives and she’s invested in her wooded community, including its ghosts. She visits them several times a year, making many stops every time she goes. She knows the route well, but not every other sledder does so she stops a lot. She’s the unofficial door greeter as she parks her sled, takes off her pink and black helmet and starts visiting with tourists on the bridge at Big Springs. They’re from every state but her own. They’ve stopped to watch fish rise out of the water, but they’re heading to the same place she is. Two Top, where the ghosts are.

“It’s our No. 1 attraction in the wintertime by far,” says Ann Marie Anthony, snowmobiler and Island Park News publisher. “Everybody wants to see those trees, see our ghost trees, and see how beautiful it is.

Ghost trees, in all their twisted-tortured glory, only haunt the high country. Down low along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River where wildlife winters, there’s less wind and more cover. That’s where the mellow, powder routes of the 6,000-foot elevation range are. That’s also where the trees stand straight. You have to ride higher, above 8,000 feet, before trunks turn. Way up there, harsh conditions morph flakes into crust and trees into ghosts.

“You only find them on the tops because that’s where the wind and snow accumulates the most and makes those beautiful, beautiful trees,” Anthony says. “Every one has a different shape and every one of them could be a relative of Casper The Friendly Ghost because they all take on that form of being a ghost.”

Ghost trees, or snow ghosts, are at the mercy of the weather when it’s in a foul mood. So foul, it takes you longer to get to them (45 minutes of riding) than to look at them (four to five minutes before freezing). Their pocked posture is created by rime ice. Rime ice is a crippling combination of cloud moisture freezing to snow pack while simultaneously being swirled sideways by extreme gusts of whipping wind. Sound miserable? Indeed it does. That’s why you ride longer than you look. Your skin can only tolerate a few minutes of what the trees must endure for more than half of the year. The flecks of frostbite on Anthony’s face from her last trip to see the ghosts are proof of that. Fremont County’s famous snow ghosts stand hunched like icicled sentries on a prominent ridgeline that offers views of the Tetons, Yellowstone National Park and Montana. That’s the other reason for riding on the top of the world. There’s a slight possibility you will get to have a peek at all those peaks on a clear day, but clear days are hard to come by.

“It’s generally socked in. If you get a bluebird day up there, that’s a precious day,” Anthony says. “When you’re up there, there’s nothing quite like it. So many different shapes and so many different icicles coming off one side and the light that can shine through.”

Light shining through is also a rare sight. The top of the world, also known by sledders as Two Top, is blasted with one snowstorm after another, wind all the time and the constant flurry of fog between flakes. The sun might show for about an hour a day before another blizzard blows in, but time it right and you’ll nab a few minutes of sun on the snow ghosts. That makes the ride worth it despite the frost factor those warmers try to deflect for extremities, but not faces. The recovering pink skin on Anthony’s cheeks is sensitive to the cold, but she’s riding anyway. She has tourists to welcome and ghosts to visit.

“Temperature drops 20 degrees when you get up on top. You can get frostbite very easy,” Anthony says. “As long as you don’t hurt yourself no better place to hang out and have fun.”

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. My Place Among Fish, the sequel to her first book, My Place Among Men, is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.

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