OAKLEY - I heard reports of the ice phantom, saw the secret spot where it was said to appear, wondered about it for two years. Other people who'd caught sight of it sent me photos of their encounters. Now, the conditions seemed perfect to catch the apparition.
The brush-covered hills southwest of Oakley hide a little-known spot of startling beauty: Phantom Falls, the highest waterfall in the South Hills. Hikers arrive suddenly in a rugged amphitheater where Fall Creek plunges over the top, into an airy free-fall and onto a rock bed some 65 feet below. It's a mountain stream at its best, reached by one of the few nonmotorized trails in the South Hills.
I wrote about Phantom Falls after a hike there in the fall of 2011. Scott Nannenga, Minidoka District ranger for the Sawtooth National Forest, told me the water and vapor of Phantom Falls form a huge ice sculpture at[0x0b]
the base of the falls in winter. He'd seen it early one May. I was intrigued.
For two years, I hoped to see the phenomenon. But after forest roads were dry enough to reach the trailhead, I was busy with other things and never made the hike.
I blogged about my fascination on May 1 last year, and Burley's Robb Hamblen made the hike the same day.
The ice Hamblen photographed didn't look as big as Nannenga described. But as soon as I shared Hamblen's photo on the "Trails & Tales" blog, Craig Burch, a Declo resident, sent three photos of impressive Phantom Falls ice from January a decade earlier.
Tempting. But Burch, I concluded, was a more ambitious hiker than I.
The next photos to arrive gave me new hope that - with the right timing - a hiker unwilling to break through a foot or two of snow might still spot the ice phantom at its best. Those images were by Gooding resident Elaine Bryant, who'd photographed big ice in mid-April 2012.
"It was quite impressive! It was bigger than it looks in my photos," she wrote.
This year, the time was right.
After a 1 1/2-mile hike on a virtually dry trail March 15, I spotted Fall Creek's familiar tumble over a tall rock face. Below that was the tower of ice - perhaps 25 feet wide at its base and close to 40 feet tall.
Built of frozen mist, marbled by dirt and carved by falling water, the sculpture develops fascinating textures and drips with icicles. On the rock wall behind the falls, where hanging gardens flourish in warmer months, more icicles hang. In their thick layers of ice, the bare branches nearby look like tentacles of underwater creatures. The creek disappears into a dark hole in the center of the sculpture, to flow under a foot or two of ice-encrusted snow that covers the creek and the trail.
With some serious stomping, my husband and I broke enough of the ice crust to venture within a few feet of the sculpture. While I struggled for better camera angles, he looked through the contents of a geocache hidden near the falls.
A Geocaching.com user who goes by "doubleoh7" hid the cache in an ammunition box in 2004. The log inside is peppered with comments by people who splashed and showered in the falls, watched deer and marveled in the lush oasis hidden by desert hills.
I think the comment I entered in the log was the first to mention the ice phantom.