An Ode to Slough

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Born high in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, Slough Creek wanders south through rugged country to the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.  Once it enters Yellowstone, it takes its sweet time, bending and turning constantly, as it meanders through huge gorgeous meadows to its confluence with the Lamar River.

Throughout its entire length, Slough flows through prime grizzly and wolf country.  In the Park, bison are drawn to the lush meadows through which it flows.  And under its surface, in its cold, clear water, swim Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a fish so unique and beautiful it makes you wonder if Edward Evolution decided to have a little extra fun with this species. 

Slough Creek loomed large on my horizon for years before I ever hiked into its upper meadows.  I read about it, ogled photos of Slough, and it played a leading role in many of my daydreams.  The summer after my sophomore year in college, I vividly remember driving along the northeast entrance road to fish Soda Butte Creek and seeing the sign for Slough Creek for the first time.  I went silent and got a little nervous; it was like I was ten years old and about to get an autograph from Wayne Gretzky.

My first trip into Slough Creek was a solo mission the summer after I graduated from college.  To get an early start, I slept in my car at the Mammoth Campground the night before I hiked up there.  I dropped the tailgate of my old 4-Runner, Tanya, and futilely tried to fall asleep staring at the stars, with nerves and excitement getting the best of me. 

That first trip was love at first sight, and I've been back several times since.  I have also introduced Slough to some special people in my life, including my wife, my dad, my younger brother, and my fishing and hunting partner, who goes by Vollms, Captain Clark, or Bear Spray.

My most recent visit to Slough took place a couple of weeks ago, and it did not disappoint.  The wildflowers sparkled, the mountains sang, and Slough looked as lovely as she ever has.

NRDC fights hard to protect wildlife and wild places, and a trip into Slough Creek is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake.  We need more wilderness, fewer roads, more big critters, and fewer oil wells.

We need more Slough Creeks. 


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(Slough Creek unhurriedly flows down to the Lamar River, which flows into the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So the water I waded high in Yellowstone's northeast corner will ultimately end up in the Gulf, which is pretty wild -- and a bit of a bummer for the water these days.)


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(A big bull bison takes a sip of holy water.)


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(A big, beautiful Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Besides westslope cutthroat trout, this is the only trout native to Yellowstone, but it unfortunately faces some serious threats today (e.g., climate change and competition, predation, and hybridization from non-native fish (e.g., lake trout and rainbow trout)).  Historically, Yellowstone cutthroat trout were one of the four key food  sources for Yellowstone grizzly bears (with the other three being winter-killed ungulate carcasses, army cutworm moths, and whitebark pine seeds), but the precipitous drop in Yellowstone cutthroat trout numbers in Yellowstone Lake (thanks, non-native lake trout) has made this food source basically irrelevant for Yellowstone grizzlies.  (And, while we're on the subject, whitebark pine trees aren't faring much better.))


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(Old aspen trees.  Young aspen trees.  No middle-aged aspens.  Explanation?  The return of wolves, which were gone from the Park from the late 20s through the mid-90s.  Without wolves, the over-browsing of aspen by elk prevented new aspen growth.  With wolves back on the landscape, and elk behaving again like wild elk, aspen is reappearing in the Park.  It's pretty cool to see the effect of wolves on trees up close.)


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(A big Yellowstone cutthroat in Slough Creek's magical water.)


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(North America's largest land mammal ambling through a sea of sagebrush in one of Slough Creek's meadows.)


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(Slough Creek's "second meadow" haunts my dreams.)


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(Another gorgeous Yellowstone cutthroat trout, another wonderful memory.  See you next summer, Slough.)