Sharing the Trail with a Beast

So there I was, minding my own business, when a mammoth beast comes plodding up the path towards me. A large bison, upwards of 2,000 pounds, was not something I wanted to share the trail with.  I’ve heard stories of careless tourists trying to get too close to bison for pictures.  They got chased, gored, and severely injured.  That was not something I was interested in.  Fortunately for me, I met the bison at the perfect point on the trail for such a confrontation.

It was a hot, sun-drenched Sunday morning in late July when I headed out on the Slough Creek Trail.  It was my third trip to Yellowstone and a visit to the northeast was long overdue.  I had seen the park’s most popular sights the previous day and thought I would spend some quality time in the less-crowded Tower-Roosevelt area.  My only experience there had been driving through it, whereas I had spent several days in the Canyon, Lake, and Old Faithful Areas.  I drove into the sprawling Lamar Valley, famous for wildlife viewing and fly fishing, for a day of hiking.

The Slough Creek Trail is actually an old wagon road.  It connects the Slough Creek Campground and a working ranch just outside Yellowstone’s northern border.  The wide path spans eleven miles.  Two miles from the trailhead the path arrives at the first meadow.  That is where the still waters of Slough Creek curve through a large meadow littered with wild flowers.  That portion of the creek is also famous for its cut-throat trout.  Anglers across the world make the pilgrimage for pristine fly-fishing.  The first meadow was my destination that morning.

I parked in a dirt lot at the trailhead, just outside the Slough Creek Campground, and headed for the trail.  First I stopped at the trail sign to look at the map and see if there were any bear warnings.  However, I was quickly driven back by a group of hovering bees.  I doubted I would encounter any large animals along the hike since I never had before, so I sped off on the trail and away from the bees.

There was a metal barricade shortly past the trailhead, used to restrict access to the ranch eleven miles away.  It was an uphill climb from the start with a gain of 400 feet in the first mile.  It wasn’t extremely steep or difficult, but it was a constant shade-free ascent under a relentless sun.

I passed through a mostly open forest with trees spread out away from the trail. Large glacial boulders were scattered along the boundaries of the wide path.  The dirt and gravel trail was especially dusty that day.  I steadily marched up the hill dodging piles of horse manure, leaving a cloud of dust hovering over the trail behind me.

Worse than the climb, heat, and sun were the masses of merciless bugs.  There had to be a dozen different breeds of harassing flies and mosquitoes.  I was constantly swatting them off me.  They swarmed me far worse than on any other hike I can remember.  All I could do was attempt to tolerate the malicious insects and get used to them.  They didn’t let up until I reentered my car a couple hours later.

I eventually emerged atop a hill.  It felt like I had travelled much more than a mere mile.  The path descended on the eastern side of the hill at a much more gradual pace.

Shortly after I started down the path I came to a strange fork in the trail. It split equally in two as it bent around a single tree only to reconnect on the opposite side of the tree before entering a forest.  I didn’t understand why the trail split like that since it rejoined so quickly, forming a circle around the tree.  Anyways, I took the right side of the fork and made my way around the tree.  I was almost at the spot where the trail merged when I stopped dead in my tracks.

Exiting the woods and coming up the trail towards me was a gigantic bison. I was totally caught off guard as the bugs had the majority of my attention.  I was curious about bears, but certainly didn’t expect to meet a huge bison on the trail.  Then again, I’d much rather deal with a bison than a grizzly.

Once stopped, I quickly assessed my situation as I slowly backtracked on the path. Meanwhile, the bison continued lumbering up the trail towards me.  It saw me, but didn’t seem too concerned with my presence.  I retreated to the lone tree at the center of the circle of trail.  I figured I could rest under the shady tree and wait out the bison.  That way if it stuck to the trail, I could take the opposite fork and continue on my way.

With my eyes glued to the bison I sat and waited. I drank my water in between swatting the mosquitoes that clung to my sweat-soaked shirt.  The bison eventually walked up the trail to my right.  I shifted from under the tree to the left fork of the trail and kept an equal distance from the bison.  The farther up the trail it went, the farther I continued in the opposite direction towards the path’s entry into the woods.  The bison slowly rambled off trail farther to the right of the tree as I entered the forest.

I almost immediately came upon a group of three men with backpacks and fishing poles making their way to the trailhead. We had a brief chat about the bison.   They had been following it up the trail and asked if I had any trouble with it and which direction it went.

Next I continued downhill through the woods.  The path sliced through very tall grass surrounded by Aspen trees.  After waiting for the bison for so long earlier, my trek through the woods flew by.

I emerged from the forest to the first meadow. The landscape was far different from anything along the trail before it.  The forest opened up to a huge grassy valley, divided in its center by the meandering Slough Creek.  The path branched off to a thin, sandy beach beside the creek.  The wide waters of the creek were perfectly still and flat.

A handful of people were fishing there. Some cast their line from the shore, while a couple others waded halfway into the creek.  I had never seen someone fly fishing in person before.  I was mesmerized for a moment while I watched.  I found the motion of the line curling high above the angler before gently falling to the water to be incredibly graceful.

Small rocky hills, half covered in pines, reflected perfectly in the placid creek. Surrounding the hills were lush, expansive, green meadows.  Broad round mountains spanned the distant horizon.  It was like walking into a Bob Ross painting.  The landscape was not overwhelming like a thunderous waterfall or jagged snow-covered mountains.  Instead it was a perfectly calming, peaceful scene.  Everything about the landscape exemplified tranquil beauty… except for one little problem, the bugs.  Those same pestering insects that had been my horrifying shadow since setting foot on the trail continued to stalk me.  They clung to me with every painstaking movement.

Despite the hot sun, a few of the fishermen wore long pants and lightweight jackets to keep the bugs off of them. They had clearly done their homework.  One man even had a bug net over his head.  I was immensely jealous of this angler’s wisdom.

I wandered along the creek taking some photos. But the bugs hovered over the stagnant water even worse than the rest of the trail. Before long I was driven away by the incessant mosquitoes.

I picked up my pace on the way back and quickly marched up from the beach and into the forest. The brief respite from the blaring sun was appreciated.  But the shade was no safe haven from the bugs, so after a quick water break I carried on.  Within minutes I emerged from the woods again.

Soon I was back where the trail circled the tree. I cautiously proceeded along the right side of the tree.  Then I paused and surveyed my surroundings searching for the large bison I played chicken with earlier.  It had probably been about an hour since I had last seen it.  If it was moving at the same slow pace as before it could still be nearby.  I stood completely still while I looked and listened for any movement.  My detective work came up with nothing.  Satisfied I was alone, I continued on my way.

Once atop the hill, I was only a short mile from the trailhead. I was excited to finish the trail and get to the friendly confines of my air-conditioned car.  I had enough of the hot sun and all the mosquitoes.

Nonchalantly, I started my descent down the wide wagon road. I rounded a turn and nearly stumbled upon the bison.  It was ten feet in front of me, maybe less.  I immediately came to a halt.  I was definitely invading its personal space, but I was behind it and it hadn’t seen me yet.  It was slowly but surely making its way down the trail in front of me.  Apparently it was moving just as sluggishly as before, because it certainly hadn’t made it far.  I waited where I was and let the bison continue, creating a larger buffer zone between us.

Once I deemed there was a safe distance between us I slowly continued down the path. Off we went, myself and the two ton bison, leisurely walking along the trail.  Then the beast decided to stop cooperating.   Actually the bison just stopped altogether.  It stood still and started to sniff around.  So I stopped too, a ways back on the trail.  Then I waited… and waited… and waited.  After about twenty minutes I got pretty anxious.  Yet the bison stayed put.

I had to move on, but I was not about to just walk next to an enormous bison. After some more waiting, I decided I’d try to walk off-trail and detour around the bison before rejoining the trail.  I veered off from the path and into some tall grass.  Next I bushwhacked into a marshy area where I climbed over some downed trees and trudged through mud.  Once I was certain I bypassed the bison I rejoined the path.

I looked back and couldn’t see the bison. It was behind me, I just wasn’t sure how far back.  Thankfully, I was finally on the homestretch.  I sped up and power walked the remainder of the distance to the trailhead.

slough creek


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