The afternoon of July 21st was hot and dry. After leaving Yellowstone Falls we planned to hike along the Slough Creek. I don't recall what made us pick this trail, except that it was on the other side of the road from the Lamar Valley, a hot spot for wildlife viewing. Our first goal however was to find a shady spot to eat lunch.
We pulled into a parking area at the trail head for the Slough Creek Trail. There was no shade to park in, all the prime spots were already taken. We fixed some sandwiches and climbed a rocky outcrop that was surrounded by trees and ate there. While we ate, movement out the corner of my eye caught my attention. I looked to my right and saw the most beautiful coyote trotting past us, not more than 50 yards. This creature looked right at us as it moved past. We stared back, in awe and agony since I'd left my camera in the car.
After lunch we moved the car down near the creek and campground area, donned the water shoes we'd gotten in West Yellowstone to protect our tender feet from the river stones, and went to cool off. Near the camp ground the creek moves through an S curve and a gravel bar with some larger rocks. We sat in the sun with our toes dangling in the cold creek waters. This is the view upriver, with the gravel bar where we sat in the foreground.
While we sat, talking and relaxing, I looked upstream and saw two fairly large objects bobbing side by side, floating down the river. They were a ways off, and in the shade, and it took me a moment to realize it was a pair of river otters. They were heading right for us.
You would think I would have learned my lesson with the coyote, but again I did not have my camera with me. I leapt up, scrambling over rocks and stones in my thin water shoes and dashed to the car. I grabbed my camera--wrong lens! Quickly changed lenses--no polarizer! Crap! No time! I dashed back to the creek and ran down the bank, zigging around tents and jumping over logs as I ran through the campground. I got only a few shots, and most of them were not in focus--hand-holding a 200mm lens when you're panting does not result in very good pictures, but at least I have proof!
They were diving and playing as they floated past. Part of me wanted to join them, such happy and free creatures they seem to be.
Since I was now all hot and dusty we decided to hit the trail. We donned our hiking boots, grabbed our walking sticks (for that all-important false sense of security) and hit the trail.
The Slough Creek has its headwaters in southern Montana, somewhere in the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness. It flows southwest, gathering up smaller streams. Downstream from the campground it joins the Lamar River, which flows into the Yellowstone. The area is known for its wolf packs, most notable the Driuds, which has been well-documented by the PBS series Nature, and their rivals the Slough Creek pack. We were well aware of this, and even though it was mid-afternoon on a hot summer day we were very aware of every sound in the woods surrounding the trail.
We hiked for some time, then came to a stretch of the creek littered with boulders. I have no idea where they all came from. Most of the creek is placid, but here the waters tumbled through the rocks.
As far as I can tell the peak in the background is not named, but is part of the Buffalo Plateau.
My intrepid companion, shouldering my camera gear. I look utterly ridiculous in shorts and hiking boots so I'll spare you and myself the agony of a shot of me by the creek.
The woods along the trail were cool, with spruce, pine, and mossy stones. Lisa loved this place, calls it the Fairy Forest. I can understand why.
We reached a spot where it was either cross the river or turn back. I had a rather uneasy feeling, so we turned around and started back to the car.
I don't know if it was the sunlight and the direction that we were walking that caused us not to see the wolf tracks in the mud along the bank on the hike out, or if they weren't there when we passed the first time. They looked very fresh, no drying out of the edges or other signs of age. (BTW, that's a quarter in the shot for scale.)
The idea that a pair of wolves may have crossed the trail behind us was rather electrifying. But whatever the case, a pair of tracks, about 15 feet apart, made a straight line down the bank, across the river, and then followed the far edge of the river for another 30 feet or so until the animals moved up the bank and into the meadow beyond.
A little ways farther downstream we found an old elk skull, partly buried in the mud. It was small, a female or perhaps a youngster. After seeing the wolf tracks I could just imagine the drama that may have played out, one winter day perhaps, the Slough Creek pack surrounding this elk as it foundered in the deep snows, procuring a meal that would ensure its survival for another week or two.
Upon our return to the campground, we changed into our bathing suits and plunged into the cold waters of the creek. There was a deep hole just upstream from where we'd seen the otters, too deep to touch bottom, the current not so strong, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.
In hindsight I would have to say this was my favorite place of the entire trip, and when we go back, some day, I want to camp here. A fairyland indeed.
Next: Pronghorn revisited, and maybe a moose.