by Timothy Hannifin
Slough Creek Campout
On pondering New Years resolutions and growing older, I often feel life is slipping by and I have not made the most of what God has given me. Sometimes an entire winter will pass and all I have done with my time is to maintain my comfort. This year things could be different, I could take a day off work and go to Yellowstone for a three day trek through the snow. This plan was not perfect. None of my intelligent friends wanted to go, no stupid friends were willing either. Not even the psych ward of the local hospital yielded any willing participants. So alone I shall go.
I departed my flatland home Friday before sunrise, this was easy since its dark ‘til almost 7:30. The wind was howling in gusts to 60 mph on the drive to Gardiner. Aborting the trip was beginning to look like the right idea. My tent would not withstand gale force winds. I prayed…, and inquired at a gas station about Park winds, the answer was reassuring. I continued. I arrived at Mammoth to procure a permit at 10:00am. The permit process took one hour. Two grizzly bears had not hibernated yet in the Lamar valley, so the ranger advised me to go up Slough creek, that was fine with me. Time was slipping away, it would be dark in 6 hours.
I loaded my modified tobboggan ( which I borrowed from my son) with all my camping gear at the trail head . The sun was shining and a mild breeze was at my back as I began to ski down the trail with my gear in tow. While I was behind schedule, it was awesome to be moving across the valley, gathering a few strange looks from the resident bison. The 70 lbs. Sled kept my skiing to a walking pace, I could not glide while towing my camp. But on the other hand, my shoulders loved the free ride. My original plan was to cover four to six miles this day. I only had four hours of light, I decided to alter my scheme, I would travel two miles today and set up in a summer campground. Perhaps Saturday I could move camp up country to less civilized digs. I set up camp along slough creek. My kitchen was on a table in the campground, with plenty of open space around it . A real nice bear box would be my pantry. The bedroom was fifty yards upwind in the shelter of some trees. Bathroom facilities lacked running water, but the huge concrete outhouses are nice, you don’t have to use snow for toilet paper.The potty’s must be made so wheelchairs can roll in with ease. I felt kind of guilty having it so easy. Dinner was chicken soup, it was pure black by six o’clock- a new moon makes for a long dark night. I could hear coyotes, and wolves howl and yip as I lay in my tent reading a book. I lit a candle, it was a smelly lemon one, yuk I blew it out and scrounged up a plain one. They won’t allow winter campfires in Yellowstone, so I just put my legs in the old army bag and read of the Washburn Expedition of 1870. Some poor soul named Everts was lost alone for 37 days. He got seperated from his party in some of that nasty deadfall down around the lake. That man knew solitude. He must have been tough, because he lived.
Saturday was nice and warm, I was lazy and didn’t get up until daylight. I dressed in the tent, hopped out and started jumping around to get my blood pumping. Whoa, Stop- There are over fifty bison wandering within forty yards of my bed. All morning more bison keep migrating across a snow bridge from bison creek, through my camp and out into the flats. Breakfast is oatmeal with my bison-buddies. I can’t break camp ‘cuz I can’t move. Getting mauled by woolies is not in my game plan, if I get hurt, no one goes for help. Plans will have to change again.
I attempted to skirt the majority of buffalo by abandoning the trail with only my ski’s and a day pack. After slugging through deadfall for two hours I reached a ridge overlooking the trail, I stopped for a rest.
Now the wolves took their turn messing with my plans, the hills erupted with howling on at least three sides. Howles are hard to pinpoint-they seem so close-but I can’t spot anything-and then- there they are.
Three gray wolves and one black, two hundred yards away, howling, and barking at another pack that is across the valley and a third up the draw. Down the hill my four wolves romp –pursuing their unseen advesaries. Proud , strong, warriors running into battle. I shoulder my pack, hoping to get to the clearing in time for the confrontation. Fifty yards down the hill I meet my heroes in full retreat. He who runs away today can fight fewer wolves another day. They had found the enemy, but they were seriously outnumbered. If they fight and get hurt, there are no hospitals, no help would come, healing would be slow, life might end. They retreated to rejoin the rest of the druid pack several miles to the west.
I continued down the trail, hoping to see the other packs that had scared my wolves so terribly. No such luck, my day was about done, I needed four hours to see the big meadows and get back to camp. Barely three hours light remained. Maybe I should go see what kind of havoc the big woolies wreeked in my camp. Yes they were still there, but no they hadn’t stepped on my tent.
I cooked a nice hot lunch, and put my feet up to watch the woolies They’re not real exciting, but one female with a calf had a front shoulder that was hurt real bad. She would not put any weight on it aand had to walk with the utmost difficulty. A wolf howled. I decided watching bison might not be so boring after all.
She continued to move with the heard, ignoring her pain out in to the open sagebrush. Night fell. Still no wolves. I guess watching plans fall apart too. I returned to camp.
Might as well cook dinner. No counting calories up here, most authorities say the more fat calories you eat the better you weather the cold. Nice home made stew with big chunks of venison, has to simmer for thirty minutes, but I’m in no hurry. Then I began to hear it. Low, but loud, very guttoral, not bison, not wolf, definitely bear, and definitely grizzly. Across the creek, up the draw, a grizzly was raising cain with something. The sound had to be within a mile. He didn’t squawk once and quit either, the growling roar went on for thirty seconds. Every second of which I was pondering my next move. I hid my dinner in a bear box for half an hour and waited. It was snowing lightly, the moon was dark, I could only see about 50 feet. I reluctantly retrieved my dinner ate it, no longer savoring the flavor. This would be a long restless night. I dare not break camp, and exit in the blackness. It would be far too easy to stumble into a hole, or worse yet the grizzly. Tonight every rustle of the ripstop would snap my eyes open.
Might as well get ready for bed. No sloppy camp this night, everything with any semblance of food was hidden away in the box. Tonight I pee on the trees around my tent so bears know humans are about. Every splash in the creek aroused my suspicion. Creaks in the trees snapped my head. I couldn’t afford to fight with a bear. There would be no call to a rescue squad if I got injured. There would be no hospitals to call.
No help would come, healing would be slow or life might end. I would love to retreat like the brave wolves of this afternoon. But I have no den but a thin sheet of ripstop. All this worry made me need the bathroom.
Wait a minute… I went to the tent for some candles. Then off to the outhouse, I did my duty and left a lemon candle burning. I returned to my tent swinging my flashlight at every rustling branch. Then back to the privy with my mattress and bag. Sometimes it’s best to tuck your tail and hide.
Morning dawned bright and clear, there was three inches of new snow to greet me. I checked out my tent, no critter tracks to be found. I scolded myself for being such a chicken, but you know, I sure slept good. Suffering catfish, I think them privies might even stand up to a nuclear blast. They sure make a great den in a pinch. I cooked me a nice breakfast and considered exploring the area I heard the noise from. What would I gain. I laughed at my bedroom and loaded my sled.
The trek to the car went too soon. Some folks were at the trailhead. They took my picture for me, and called me crazy, I didn’t argue. I giggled “if they only knew.” The pictures didn’t turn out, but the negatives in my mind are “fantastic”.
About the Author
Unmatured 48 yr old. Perhaps some day I shall stop being a kid. In the meantime I shall thoroughly enjoy and laugh at myself. I have three kids and a patient wife.