Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yellowstone Backcountry - Buffalo Plateau Trail - Part 5

On our way to Slough Creek and "home"....

Our last day hiking - out of the backcountry. Got up before dawn to get an early start on the hike back to the car and the long drive back into Jackson. We were now very efficient at breaking down camp and made quick work of making breakfast, preparing the fire pit for our departure, pumping water, taking down the tent, and repacking the packs (minimal yard sale). I really liked the way the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL tent is designed so that you can take down the tent and pack that dry and only have to worry about a damp fly and footprint. Saves weight!

We got going, forded Buffalo Fork creek, and found our way to the Yellowstone Border.

Our legs were good or maybe that it was that we were trending downhill! We marveled at the surrounding slopes and their mineral outcroppings - the stuff of Yellowstone that most tourist need to get in line on a boardwalk to see!

As we weave in and out of wooded sections of the trail, we find fresh bear and wolf tracks left after the previous day's rain. Cool! We continue to fly.

We come to a spot on the trail with a great view of one of the Slough Creek meadows. It was really cool to see the former oxbows that had filled in after the stream changed course. Beautiful!

Wish we had another day to fish! Family and the flight home beckoned...

The trail was well defined, and we passed interesting geology - rock walls, rock peaks, glacial erratics.

Skulls, vertebrae, and various bones scattered about remind us that we're still in the backcountry and of the life and death struggle going on just beyond the tourist campsites. One of the last skulls we saw still had blood on the bones so we didn't linger - no need to risk attack or injury so close to "home"!

Suddenly, we see tents, and we realize we're back at the Slough Creek campground. We ford the streem and we've made it! We're at trail's end. Safe and sound. I fill out the trail register and we take a moment to whoop it up!

Then, it's all business. We throw packs in the rental car, change into comfortable shoes, and make a beeline for Jackson. We make a brief stop at Yellowstone's Canyon campground backcountry office to report on our trip, reporting downed trail markers, lack of bear sightings (for future hikers), difficlty in Poacher's Trail intersection location, etc. We were surprised the park rangers didn't seem too interested in the post-hike brief/intel, especially since the many we talked to had never heard of the Buffalo Plateau Trail and it was obvious it was not often hiked. Oh well, we did our duty.

Made it to Jackson, and got a room for the night. Organized some gear and set out socks, boots, and other stuff for drying. Beat feet to a mexican restaurant in Jackson and had a nice dinner basking in the late afternoon sun. After dinner, we made our way to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar only to fend off a cougar attack, as we drank some well-deserved celebratory beers and recounted our hike with gusto and loud storytelling - a good way to cap our spectacular trip! Can't wait to do it again!!!!!!!!!


Yellowstone Backcountry - Buffalo Plateau Trail - Part 4

Buffalo Fork Creek campsite.

Finally a rest day! Wahoo! Time to do some trout fishing!

Got up at 7:30, got the packs down, pumped water, and backwashed the filter but it's still pumping harder than it should. Still serviceable though. In the morning light we found the campsite fire ring. As the sun rose, and I boiled water to prep for breakfast, I spotted an ermine (short-tailed weasel) as he scampered along a log by the campfire. Too quick for my camera to capture.

Made coffee, and oatmeal with papaya, cranberries, and other fruit Tom has been lugging over hill and dale as extra gorp rations. Even with all those goodies, the taste of the Ya Ya Gumbo from two nights before lingers on. That was some powerful Ya Ya!

Tom and I removed the tops to our Osprey Aether 70 packs and re-rigged them with the hip belt for an ultra convenient and functional fanny pack! This is a great feature of this pack!

Put our rods and reels together, tippits on - Blue Ribbon flies (hoppers and terrestrials, irish caddis, black caddis, Adams, damselfly nymphs, etc) out and ready!

As we walked to the stream, I told Tom to catch a few of the grasshoppers that were abundant in the meadow grass. He wondered why out loud. As we neared the stream edge, I picked out a run and tossed one of the hoppers at the head. As soon as the hopper got into the tailwater - gulp! I explained "highcountry chumming" as a means to determine where the fish were holding. Cheating? Maybe a little, but we were both novices in the ways of the highcountry so this one act of hopper chumming gave us the knowledge we needed to be effective.

With a single Blue Ribbon chaos hopper, I caught dozens of cutthroats. Beautiful fish! The largest was perhaps 9-10 inches, but it didn't matter because they were beautiful and plentiful. Although the water seemed shallower than I'm used to in eastern streams, each tailwater contained an eager fish or two or three!

We also fished some pools that had been formed by the placement of brushpiles across the stream. Beavers? Looked like human engineering to me....

A little after mid-day, Tom and I got chased off the river by a thunderstorm and we retreated back into the tent hoping that the storm would be short lived so we could resume fishing and make our way to Hidden Lake and try fishing for trout with damsel nymph flies. We spent an hour or two recounting our hiking mishaps from the day before, cursing the map makers and carin maintainers, comparing trails in WY and MT, and generally celebrating our bushwhacking prowess. Good fun!

After the thunderstorms and lightening subsided, we headed back upstream for more cuts. After dozens of trout caught, I lost my BR chaos hopper in a tree and switched to a BR Flies Royal PMX and that worked just as well.

Here's Tom with one of his many fish...

Tom and I fished along Buffalo Fork Creek among the mineral deposit outcroppings that marked its volcanic past.

We coaxed a few trout out of these pools and runs.....

Really....We didn't plan matching outfits! See our shorts are differet! Really!

As dusk approached, around 7:30 pm, we beat it back to camp ahead of another approaching thunderstorm. We made Will's couscous with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes for dinner (still tinged with Ya Ya seasoning), hung the packs and food, and hit the hay.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Yellowstone Backcountry - Buffalo Plateau Trail - Part 3

Got up at 7:30 and Tom was already getting the packs and food down from the bear pole. Breakfast of coffee and oatmeal that had a tinge of Ya Ya flavoring. The "Yard sales" are getting smaller and more organized and the pack up is getting quicker and quicker. Passed a backcountry milestone by digging my first cathole.

We backtrack to the intersection with the Buffalo Plateau Trail and as we climb from 8,400 feet we, having lost some macho from the day before, both agree to take frequent breaks as, the Hawaiians say, we "talk story" on the climb. Conversation takes our minds off the climb and keeps us going.

The trail is still not well defined, but we're not having trouble following the ruts from previous hikers.

We only have to climb to about 8,900 feet when we find the Buffalo Plateau Partol Cabin. Tom Had been wanting to get rid of some extra food since Hellroaring Creek, and I convinced him not to dump it somewhere - that we'd leave it at the Patrol Cabin, with the occupant or in their bear box. Unfortunately, the cabin appear unoccupied and there was no outside bear box. Tom decided against dumping the food in the latrine so on we went.

As we continued to climb, the trail was getting less and less distinct. Luckily, like mariners, we were able to sight from carin to carin and convince ourselves we weren't on a wildlife path. We made it to the topographic crest of our trip at around 9,200 feet. It seemed almost as challenging only climbing 800 vertical feet vs. 2,400 the day before so we must've been "feeling" the altitude. We busted out the tripod and took a group photo.

After our "summit", we had lunch and started down into the tricky part of the day's hike - finding the east-west Poacher's Trail. I had used Orville Bach Jr.'s Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry to plan my trip. It also recommends that for the circuit hike of the Buffalo Plateau, one purchase a 15-min topo map of the Mt. Wallace, Montana area. I bought the Rocky Mountain Surveys Backcountry Waterproof Topomaps: Gardiner-Mt. Wallace Quadrangles. Both these sources showed the trails connected, but other books I purchased showed the trails not connected. Google Earth topo maps showed them separated and I could not discern the trail on the Google Earth aerial photos. I knew the connection between the end of the Buffalo Plateau Trail and the Poacher's Trail could be trouble, so I had 4 different trail maps, topo maps, the Mt. Wallace quad topos, and (turns out most importantly) a compass.

We descended and started to get nervous because the carins and the trail distinction seemed to disappear. We'd see two rocks together, but not necessarily a pile on not in a way that didn't look natural. Trails were not worn, but just visible places where vegetation had been pushed aside - wildlife trails?

Where's the trail ??????

We referenced the maps and made out landmarks. We were in the neighborhood, but couldn't find a clear trail, intersection, or trail markers. We circled around for about an hour looking for something that gave us confidence. Worried that were were losing daylight and we could see storms brewing in the east, we pulled out the compass and decided to start bushwhacking toward Buffalo Fork Creek. Luckily, we spotted the creek and valley on our descent from 9,200 feet and a distintive volcanic/hot spring face to guide us to the creek below.

We used the compass to work our way east and tried to wind our way along the easiest topo. At one point we found a clearly delineated trail (Poacher's ?) and followed it until some downed trees forced us off the trail and we lost it again. More bushwhacking to the east with the compass...

There were lots of large treefall (from the '88 fires?) so we were watching or step as we climbed over large whole trees and navigated down some steep slopes. We found moose and elk antlers and spooked to large elk traversing the same slopes. We kept a sharp eye for bears since we were off trail.

Bushwhacking through the deadfall.....

One of the great things about the Rocky Mountain Surveys topo map was that it showed wetland features. During the planning phase, and having poured over the Google Earth aerials trying to find the trail, I knew the Poacher's Trail should pass through a large wetland complex on its way to Buffalo Fork Creek. As we descended, I could see a large wetland area and we made a beeline for it.

It was dry enough to cross without getting wet, and low and behold, at the far side, we found a distinct trail, right where the Poacher's Trail was supposed to be! There was much jubulation! Now the hard part, the trail we found was going north-south and we knew we had to head east and descend. We followed the trail south as it was trending downward. We only went a quarter mile when the trail turned back west and went swithcbacking up a steep slope. Wrong Way!

We retraced our steps, headed north, climbed a little, and then the trail turned east and down. Home free! We contniued to descend as the trial crossed dufunct hot springs and mineral deposits like we had seen active in Yellowstone. Very cool, but we hustled becasue it was getting towards dusk and the storms were still brewing in the east where we were headed.

Travertine deposits?

Defunct Mineral Springs with depsoits....

We finally popped out into the valley at 7,600 feet with the Buffalo Fork Creek laying out in front of us. Unfortunately, there were no trail signs, no markers, or directions to a campsite. Our minds immediately turned to finding a tree to hang the packs and food so we headed north towards a peninsula of trees that stuck out into the meadow.

We saw a canvas-sided “tent-cabin” near where Grassy Creek flowed into the Buffalo Fork Creek. It had lights on at night and there was a flag pole in the clearing flying the American flag. Was this a Forest Service camp? It was some official camp. The Rocky Mountain Surveys topo map showed a “Buffalo Fork Guard Station" to the north beyond Hidden Lake, but nothing where we were. Maybe the Forest Srvice moved the camp since the map was printed in 1988.

We set up the tent and made a hasty dinner (double Mountain House meals to alleviate Tom's pack burden) as the raindrops and night began to fall. While looking for a good limb, Tom spotted a bear pole and our route-finding/bushwhacking/backcountry intuition senses tingled and swelled. We covered our packs and hoisted everything up on the bear pole and beat it back to the tent for a little journaling and sleep.


A couple of folks have asked about the location of the campsite and bear pole at Buffalo Fork so here's some additional information:

Here is the map I purchased online for navigating the backcountry....

Here is the section of the Backcountry map that covers where the Buffalo Plateau is supposed to connect with the Poacher Trail It doesn't show well in this image, but on the map the connection between the Buffalo Plateau Trail and the Poacher Trail is a dashed purple line. We realized after we got home that the dashed line is described in the legend as "seldom travelled, little or no signs of a path and may be impassable for horse travel. Suggested for experienced back country users only, unless the route is marked with carins on the map" The color purple on the map signified "approximate location" God damn! (Double click to enlarge)

Here is a topo map for the same area and it doesn't even show a connection between the two trails! (double-click to enlarge)

Here is the Google Earth topo map. It shows the Buffalo Plateau Trail (highlighted in pink) hitting that 9200' high. We followed the topo line on the ground along what we thought might be a trail so that we would intersect with the Poacher Trail. We walked around the rim of this valley, but never found the intersection. We dropped down into the valley to look for the trail, but found a variety of confusing, what we surmised were, wildlife trails crisscrossing the valley. From our high elevation, we could see to the east and see the valley where the Buffalo Fork was. We also knew from the Backcountry map of Gardier/Mt. Wallace, that the trail was supposed to cross a big wetland area. So with the light fading, we started bushwhacking to the east, compass in hand, continuing downhill until we in fact found the marsh and were able to pick up the well defined trail on the downhill side.

We hightailed it to the bottom of the slope where the Poacher Trail came to a "T" as we faced the river. Because we had this Google Earth image, we knew there were trees to the north that we could hang food from if we needed to (double-click to enlarge).

With a storm approaching, we quickly made dinner on a rock outcropping at the tip of the "phallic forest" shown in the picture. On our way to pitch the tent in the clearing to the north we spotted a proper bear pole, and then right nearby we found a stone-ringed fire pit. Neither was marked as far as we could tell, but maybe that's changed since. I guess I wouldn't count on it.

The next day we fished and relaxed. The next day we rock hopped across the Buffalo Fork (as shown in the Google Earth image below) to continue on the trail back into Yellowstone an onward to the Slough Creek campground and the end of the trail for us. (Double-click to enlarge)

Hope this info helps!


Yellowstone Backcountry - Buffalo Plateau Trail - Part 2

Got up early and headed for the creek to retrieve the packs and food bags. In the light fog, I spied a lone bison on the opposite side of Hellroaring Creek making his way towards a clearing along the bank. Tom joined me to get the packs down and as we made our way back to the campsite, we found the bison had crossed the creek onto our side ans was ambling up the slope. Glad we didn't set up the tent in that clearing like we had talked about the night before!

Campsite 2H4: Big Agnes tent and Osprey Aether 70 packs

We pumped water from Hellroaring Creek with my new MSR Hyperflow (nice and fast!), made breakfast, coffee and oatmeal, and reorganized our packs for the uphill hiking we would do this day. It took us too long to clean up our respective "yard sales" of gear, food, trash, and clothes, but we finally bid our campsite and the bison farewell.

Hellroaring Creek

Starting out at around 6000 ft, we retraced our steps to the junction of the Hellroaring Creek trail and the Buffalo Plateau Trail and made the left and started the climb that would continue on for the rest of the day's hike.

Trail signs

In the morning we were fresh and the open grassy terrain did not seem like too much of an obstacle. We talked and joked jovially, and watched our footing in areas where the trial was rutted.

It was obvious that the Buffalo Plateau Trail was not heavily travelled, but it was easy enough to follow.

At first, as we passed the carins, at least I didn't recognize them for wheat they were; they were just curious features as we climbed. This easterner is used to blazes on trees. But after seeing half a dozen or so we figured their purpose out and repaired as many as we could along the way - restanding poles, renailing orange metal blazes to the posts, stacking rocks, etc.

Within the first mile or two, we came across this erratic with a circle of antlers at its base and a few more left on top of the rock.

We continued on steadily upward, taking breaks as needed and stopping for lunch along the grassy slope. As we neared the Wyoming/Montana border and started to be flanked by some wooded areas, we came across this burned trunk that reminded us of one of the Easter Island monoliths.

Tom and I were both getting tired and we stopped for a break, a snack, and a drink in the shade of a tree right next to the trail. Half an hour later, my eyes opened. My fellow TATC members would probably frown, but a trailside nap is SWEET!

At close to 8,400 feet, we made the left turn off the Buffalo Plateau Trail and headed to our campsite for the night - a stock site labelled 2B1 on the maps. We stopped at a small stream to pump water again, at this point not wanting to carry the weight, but worried about not having a source of water for cooking at the campsite.

The distance from the turn off the Buffalo Plateau Trail to campsite 2B1 was supposed to be 0.7 miles according to the Nat. Geo. Trials Illustrated map and it was supposed to be mostly ridge running. NO WAY! I wish I had GPS because we hiked for an hour or two thinking we had somehow missed the campsite, especially as we hiked up and down several steep ravines. We stuck to the trail, and finally spotted an orange blaze, and as we got closer, a nice bear pole and fire ring. We had done about 8.5 miles and 2,400 of elevation gain in about 8-9 hours on the trail (hiking, breaks, lunch, water-pumping, and nap!).

We scouted out a place to put the tent. The ground was all hummocky (animal activity) so flat ground was at a premium. We finally found a spot within a crescent of live trees that was fairly flat and level. We set up the tent and then got busy making dinner.

I had brought along a "Pack-it Gourmet" meal of Ya Ya Gumbo. There was an ingredient missing for the sauce, and the preparation was more time consuming than I would have liked, but the result was good and we ate heartily after the arduous hike.

We hung the packs and food from the bear pole and enjoyed a nice campfire until it was time for bed. The next day's hike would be more of the same - up and up.