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2010 Slough Creek backpack

Winter and spring
by Mike O'Connell

Sept. 6, 2010

Friday, May 28

What started as drizzle in Bozeman turned into pouring rain by Livingston, dampening hopes of a dry start to a four-day backpacking trip. But 20 miles into Paradise Valley, the rain stopped, and to the east, the heavy clouds turned into mist hovering low above the deep-green foothills of the Absarokas.

Farther to the south and inside the park, an elk and her days-old calf stood high above Boiling River. Several bison herds stalled traffic between Mammoth and Tower, and by the time we reached the Slough Creek trailhead, the sun shone brightly.

Several Uinta ground squirrels scurried from their holes to grasses and back again as we loaded our packs and set out. About a mile up trail, two bull bison grazed close by and watched lazily as we passed about 30 yards to their right. Along the trail between the bison and the First Meadow, a few bear and wolf tracks showed in the mud.

Near a lazy bend in the creek just south of the meadow, yellow-rumped warblers flitted about small shrubs, and a male scaup rested by the far bank.

Chorus frogs sang, and a few bison foraged out in the meadow. High above them almost to the skyline along Anderson Ridge, two nervous cow elk grazed and about nine bull elk lay resting.

Between the First and Second meadows, thousands and thousands of pasque flowers bobbed their purple heads in the breeze along the trailsides. Fresh badger diggings dominated the meadow on either side of the trail about a mile south of the first camp site. Last year, a badger and her two young had waddled up this stretch of trail towards us before slipping into the grass to hunt for ground squirrels.

Ice shelves still spanned the creek by the second camp site, and piles of snow slowly melted in the dark recesses of the forest nearby.

A bull bison grazed in the rolling hills across the creek from our camp, which had been redesigned since last year. The bear pole, fire ring and cooking area are now up in the forest where the tents used to go, and the tents are now put up beyond that, near an area where black bears forage and travel. Just beyond the fire ring, ice shelves covered the shady spots along the creek.

Off and on, cranes trumpeted in the afternoon and evening, and the rain began again, falling more steadily as the day wore on.

Robins began to accumulate by camp, and a ruby-crowned kinglet flitted about underneath a conifer and scolded me for getting too close.

Seeing no let up in the wet weather, we turned in early. With the new camp design, the music of the small, rushing creek, which once pulsed within feet of the tents, now barely reached us, but the steadily falling rain had a pleasing rhythm of its own. And despite the rain, the nearly full moon glowed strongly through the clouds.

Saturday, May 29

The chattering of a pine squirrel and the slow mournful cheeps of robins foretold the coming of dawn an hour or more in advance.

By the forest, robins, cranes and white-crowned sparrows are some of the familiar voices in the Slough Creek soundscape. Closer to the stream, chorus frogs, spotted sandpipers and savannah sparrows dominate the music.

A junco foraged on the ground close to the tent, and a pair of mallards flushed from a small pond as I walked down to camp.

The rain had stopped, and the temperature hadn't dropped as much as was forecast. Still, fresh snow glowed from Anderson Ridge, Cutoff Mountain and elsewhere.

A bald eagle glided in for a landing on the camp side of the creek and soon fluttered across the water and set down on the other side.

Besides the eagle, a bison, a few cranes and the ubiquitous robins, not much else stirred. The robins sat in the tree tops, apparently waiting for their food to warm up enough to start crawling or wriggling about.

On a small bridge below camp, an old wolf scat lay beside wagon wheel and boot tracks. A bald eagle, maybe the same one who'd been along the creek earlier, sat on a limb to the north.

Around camp, yellow-rumped warblers, chipping sparrows, and ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets flitted around busily feeding or making nests. A lone raven momentarily rested atop a conifer before continuing on its way.

Graupel fell off and on through the day in waves. Occasionally, the sun peaked through, but mostly it was a day for those blunt-edged snowflakes. Most years, winter is in no hurry to leave Yellowstone, and it was probably in the 40s all day.

Thousands of shooting stars painted the sage hills around camp with streaks of pink. In places, bluebells colored the landscape, as well, but so far, just the leaves of prairie smoke poked up from the earth. Usually, they're in full bloom, but this year, we came a week or two early.

The green tips of the grasses in the meadow were just peaking up, too, over the winter tans and golds, and much less water stood in the meadow than the previous two springs.

Territorial robins zipped through the dense boughs in the forest, chipping at each other loudly. And chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches called from above as did a flicker and a hairy woodpecker.

Down along the creek, what looked like a flock of vesper sparrows flushed and fanned out from us, and about 25 American pipits foraged near the water. They'd soon continue their journey to breeding grounds in the high country.

Two snipe noisily burst from the underbrush by the "S" curve in the creek. This is alarming when seen and heard for the first time and nearly as much every other time, especially since the birds often wait until you're just feet from them to take flight.

Coyote tracks went from south to north in the mud along the inside of the "S", and common yellowthroats and MacGillivray's warblers sang from and darted in and out of the willows. Bluebirds and savannah sparrows called in flight, and a pair of cranes slowly walked nearby probing for prey.

By a bend in the creek, a pair of gadwalls floated near a male lesser scaup and a male Barrow's goldeneye. The female gadwall quacked continuously, and eventually, the goldeneye and scaup lifted from the water and winged their way down creek. Not long after, two pairs of raucous geese landed on the creek and continued their wild honking.

A male kestrel sat on a conifer scanning the area back around camp, and not far away, a northern harrier flew low over the meadow. A red-tailed hawk appeared from the forest about eye level and slowly circled higher and higher.

The evening brought a few sunny spells, and after dinner, Emily spotted a grizzly and her two yearlings to the north on the side of Anderson Ridge. The two-toned youngsters were blond in their mid-sections and darker elsewhere, and they chased and wrestled each other as the sow moved along. Occasionally, she stopped to dig for roots or tubers. When the yearlings fell too far behind her, they raced to catch up and then continued playing.

A lone cow elk grazed to the north of the bears, and two bull bison fed closer to the creek. Another bull continued to spend his time in the rolling hills across the creek from camp.

A bald eagle soared to the south as thunder rumbled in the southwest. Ominous dark clouds moved parallel to us and then suddenly overtook camp as the winds whipped in and the skies dumped graupel. Almost an inch accumulated before the wind calmed and sunshine broke through, creating a misty, glistening landscape.

The grizzlies had weathered the storm in place, and the calls of a sora and chorus frogs showed they hadn't been put out either.

A crane trumpeted loudly beyond the first camp site. Trumpeting often sounds alarming, but rarely do we see what makes the birds so agitated. This time, however, the answer was obvious--a black wolf had trotted too close to the crane. The wolf stayed in view just a few moments, stopping briefly to jump a puddle or to pounce on a rodent, and then it jogged southwest.

Late in the evening, sunlight illuminated six robins in one tree and seven in another. The scene looked not unlike Christmas trees adorned with large orange bulbs glowing brightly.

The grizzly family made its way down to the valley floor and traveled along the backside of the meadow, heading southwest. Occasionally, the sow stopped to dig, and the cubs chased each other. At one point, the young bears splashed through a wet area and sent water flying everywhere. The sow trudged slowly into the same pool, but after a few moments, she charged through it, having grown tired of getting stuck in the mud. About dusk, the family disappeared into a rocky area beyond the "S" curve.

Cranes trumpeted throughout the meadow as darkness fell, and three deep hoots spaced several minutes apart came from the forest. After the third, a robin chirped in alarm.

Sunday, May 30

During the night, coyotes howled twice from within a few hundred yards and might have been distantly answered by a wolf.

A little snow had fallen and stuck in areas around the meadow with more accumulating up high. What likely was a merlin flew by and perched briefly beyond the tent. The two bull bison remained overnight above the creek to the north; the lone bull still held on in the rolling hills across the creek from camp; and two ravens foraged in a bend of the "S" curve.

Cranes, geese and savannah sparrows called throughout the valley, and juncos and robins took wing from the muddy trail as I neared them. An unseen Stellar's jay squawked from the woods south of camp and possibly imitated a red-tailed hawk's call.

A mystery sparrow spooked from the ground, alit in a small bush and scolded me with a husky almost quacking voice. I studied the bird for a long while, planning to look it up in a field guide later. Too many times, I just call it a sparrow or "little brown jobbie" ("LBJ") and move on. This bird had a distinct, though streaky, breast spot; a dull-colored belly; a creamy, tan and darkly streaked collar; a gray/dark/gray/dark/gray striped crown; and streaky wings.

The entire time I watched the sparrow (it turned out to be a Lincoln's), a snipe "cricked" boisterously from the top of a 15-foot pine. What an odd sight--a long-billed, ground-nesting bird sitting on top of a tree!

Fresh wolf tracks stood out farther along the trail as well as older scat. Coyotes howled to the north, and closer by, a common yellowthroat and flicker called. From the edge of the forest, the accelerating sounds of a drumming grouse came.

The calls of the coyotes were soon followed by the animals themselves--four soaking-wet adults hunting rodents by the horseshoe pond. At least one caught something and gobbled it down before they bedded, keeping an eye on me. Eventually one by one, they disappeared into the forest opposite the pond.

Thirteen geese flew in from the south and landed on the creek, while nearby, a scolding common yellowthroat zipped through gold and burgundy willow.

Up towards the forest, a robin, its breast set ablaze by the early morning sun, sat low in the sage. Were robins as uncommon as harlequin ducks they'd be prized. And were harlequins as numerous as robins, they'd quickly be forgotten.

Down near the next camp site, the sound of gushing water indicated a few breaches in a 25-foot-wide beaver dam, and along the "S" curve, a killdeer escorted me through its home range, repeatedly flying ahead a short distance, landing with a run and crying "killdeer, killdeer".

Along the banks of meandering Slough Creek in springtime, long, sizable clumps of sod drop into the water with audible plops, and the fallen turf glows green and yellow from below the surface. The force and volume of the runoff changes the shape of the creek yearly. Opposite the sharply cut banks are pebbly, sandy beaches with sparse vegetation, but in a few years' time, they'll be less likely to flood and will grow rich with plant life.

On the way back to camp, a few ground squirrels whistled in alarm as I neared them, and large badger holes appeared amongst the rabbit brush. A few badger or coyote tracks were stamped in the damp soil heaped next to the entrances.

At camp, an acrobatic kinglet, hanging upside down at times, gleaned food or nesting material from underneath boughs. Nearby, an olive-sided flycatcher hunted insects by the small creek.

In the afternoon, a red-tailed hawk circled and screeched at us south of camp--we'd unknowingly walked too close to its nest high in a tree. Several bear scats lay on the animal trail that wound its way through the forest, and Emily spotted what might have been grizzly hair snagged on the bark of a fallen tree, about three feet from the ground.

Back out in the meadow, a lone wolf's tracks headed north along the creek, and a beaver's willow clippings floated in a quiet bend of the water.

Hidden in a rocky area beyond the first camp site, a robin's nest sat about four feet from the ground in a small pine. Four vibrant blue eggs shone from the grassy nest, but we didn't linger after having inadvertently flushed the female from her clutch.

Across the creek, a marmot chirped in alarm from a rocky cliff as two ravens flew closely by. And down along the creek, we first saw and then smelled a bull elk carcass from the late winter or early spring (he'd died before shedding his antlers).

A peeping male green-winged teal came in for three landings on the creek between the meadows. He'd disappear into the thick vegetation at the creekside, swim back out, fly off and then splash down again.

Back on the main trail, crisp-edged deer tracks cut into the dark mud, and down near the second camp site, a sandhill crane sat on its nest in a small pond. It wasn't a good place to nest, being vulnerable to predators and hikers with their cameras.

In the evening, a grizzly made his way down the side of Anderson Ridge before disappearing into the forest. Later, a black bear came into view grazing above and to the left of where the grizzly had been. The grizzly reappeared in a thin gap in the forest a few hundred yards downslope of the black bear and fed on vegetation as well.

About dusk, just as we were about to turn in, wolves howled from across the valley. In the dim light, a gray and black trotted into view traveling upslope beyond the creek. A second black stayed behind them and constantly scratched himself, likely because of mange.

The wind quieted, and the sounds of snipe and chorus frogs soon reached camp. Something spooked the geese on the horseshoe pond, and they flew noisily off to the north.

After dark, a lone wolf howled from beyond the creek, and later, several group howls floated to us from far down the valley.

Monday, May 31

In the middle of the night, light rustling noises came from outside Emily's side of the tent. Mouse? Deer? Bear? Or just the wind? The sound was easy to ignore the first few times, but not the following ones. Finally, I crawled out of the sleeping bag, unzipped the tent and rain fly and stood in the cool, dark air with my headlamp on and looked down. Tied to the side of the tent, our camping permit flapped lazily in the breeze. I yanked it off and didn't cast the light any farther than necessary. Who wants to see glowing eyes when the sun's still hours from rising?

At dawn, the mallard pair flushed again from the pond, and a bald eagle landed near the willows across from camp. Two bull bison grazed down by the first camp site, and the same lone bull remained in the rolling hills across from camp.

A lone cow elk traveled slowly above the "S" curve moving north. She took an hour or so to cautiously cover a quarter mile, alternating grazing, scanning and walking. Finally, she disappeared into the rolling hills above the bison, possibly to drop her calf or to nurse one already born.

Later in the morning, five cow elk, including a yearling, jogged beyond the first camp site far to the southwest in the valley. A good while later, they appeared in the meadow and followed the creek northeast, stopping to graze here and there.

Most mornings, the valley can be pretty quiet, and one rule of thumb in the spring is you don't stop watching any ungulates who are out in plain sight, whether they're elk, moose, white-tailed deer or whatever.

Yet I broke the rule as a hungry Emily repeatedly called to me to come down for breakfast. When I reached the fire ring in the conifers, something urged me to walk back out into the open to see what the elk were doing.

Damn! Only four were in sight by the "S" curve, a good distance from the last place I saw them. Looking quickly to the right, I saw a gray wolf speeding after the sleekest cow. Whether the wolf singled this elk out from the beginning or split it from the group will remain a mystery, but confidently and with head held high, she strode stiff-legged and stayed easily ahead of the wolf before reaching the creek and splashing in.

Two other grays lagged behind the lead one and met it at the side of the creek, where the cow stood belly-deep in the fast-moving water. Unlike two years ago when this pack ran three bull elk into the creek, the wolves didn't circle back and test the other cows, who were wary but not overly so.

Abdominal hair loss and extended nipples on one of the wolves indicated she was nursing pups; another had a mangy tail and stopped to scratch.

The elk waded out of the water after about 10 minutes and walked away to the north. But the reclining wolves quickly rose, raced towards her and might have nipped her hind end before she again reached the safety of the deep water. One of the grays approached the creekside for a drink and eyed the cow as he lapped water. Maybe something in her eyes told the wolf that this wasn't her time to die. Whatever the case, the three wolves soon turned and disappeared into the tall vegetation.

About 10 minutes later, the cows regrouped and walked up the valley still on the wolves' side of the creek. They slowly made their way to the hills opposite the fourth camp site and edged out of view.

Two of the wolves lifted their heads from behind some willow and watched the cows go. Later, one of the grays rose to answer chorus howling to the southwest, and eventually, the three wolves trotted fluidly in that direction and out of view.

A Clark's nutcracker called from the forest next to camp, and about 50 honking geese in V-formation flapped high above us moving roughly south to north. In camp, a kinglet gathered moss and other nesting materials from beside the creek.

Back along the trail, a pair of hairy woodpeckers and a gray jay flitted among some trees close by. Between the meadows in a dense stand of aspen, the musty smell of coyote or fox urine rose from the base of a tree trunk.

The two bull bison who'd been by the first camp site grazed near the crane nest by the second camp, and grizzly tracks appeared here and there in the mud along the trail from just after the Second Meadow to beyond the first one.

In an aspen stand by the hill north of the First Meadow, a pair of downy woodpeckers flew back and forth the trail calling to each other.

Year after year, young aspens continue to grow taller along several sections of the trail. Some researchers believe this is because the reintroduction of wolves has meant an overpopulated elk herd, which had severely over browsed aspens, has been thinned and kept on the move and that some of these aspen stands are in unsafe areas for elk. They call this dynamic the "ecology of fear". Whatever the case, many of these trees have grown taller than 10 feet and appear to have reached the threshold for survival.

Just below the skyline on Anderson Ridge, at least 30 elk rested or grazed. A black bear foraged not far from them, and several of the bulls remained bedded and unconcerned even as the bear walked closer.

Back by the trail, a prairie falcon whizzed by us and quickly went out of sight, and two bull bison slowly moved off the trail down by the cabins.

The two-and-a-half-mile road down to the trailhead and front-country campground had just opened the day we hiked in, and as we walked out the final two miles, more and more people passed us. Soon, the front- and backcountry camp sites would be booked solid for weeks to come. No view of the creek would be absent of anglers; few stretches of the trail would be void of hikers. They could have it for the summer. We'll return at a quieter time, when winter and spring tug back and forth at each other and the valley is reborn.

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View slide show

Home for three nights

Cutoff Mountain with fresh snow

The "S" curve

Looking south