Welcome to Winter Creek, just past Grizzly Lake! This site was a first for me. I’m not sure how after all these years I’ve managed to avoid it but I finally got a taste. It was a little more than a three mile hike to our campsite but it felt more like ten with our packs on. Nevertheless, it was beautiful! And just like the area promises, we saw some grizzly footprints and some wolf footprints on the way in. That never sets me at ease when it comes to backcountry camping (especially after Gibbon Meadows).
Our campsite was glorious! Deluxe, four-star, glorious. It was the nicest backcountry site I’ve ever been lucky enough to camp in. We had a great view of Trilobite Peak which I found to be a little slice of home because we’re all about the trilobites in New York. There was a stream with crystal clear water running nearby, elk grazing in the valley and a trail leading to an old tiny Forest Service cabin. And I of course took a zillion photos of the adorable tiny structure and proceeded to lose them. Sorry, lovers of all things small and quaint, I let you down.
We quickly set up camp and then hiked to our first survey site so we could take some of the burden off the next day’s workload. The hike was AWESOME! The “trail” started literally right at our tents and it consisted of walking up a dry streambed between two mountains. It was like hiking in the Ithaca gorges but uphill and dry. This kind of terrain is in my DNA. This was my jam.
We surveyed this enormous lake and halfway through it began to storm. I was in such a frenzy to finish that I ended up blowing past my field partner who started 20 minutes before me. And right at the beginning and the very end of my survey I apparently found the one and only salamander in the entire lake. It was right where I had left it from a few hours back so I was able to count it. Then we decided to cut our day short and head back to camp because the weather was threatening to get even worse. It’s a good thing we did because we were hit with a hail storm as soon as we entered our tents.
We started early the next day because we had a lot of bushwhacking and sites to hit and then we had to hike all the way back out before dark. We utilized our trail again and found most of our sites to be small and easy to survey with abundant tads. However, there were a few remote sites that were absolutely treacherous to get to. The, it-took-us-more-than-an-hour-to-walk-a-quarter-of-a-mile, kinda crap. This was even using every dry, semi-clear stream channel we could find but it was still rough going. This several-hour-long walk between wetlands was when I discovered my partner to be the toad whisperer. It seemed like every second she was finding one at her feet and I never discovered a single one. They were absolutely flocking to her. That’s okay though, I didn’t take it personally, I’m the salamander whisperer so we’ve all got our gifts. There’s actually more truth to this than one would expect. Each field biologist seems to be more adept at finding one specific species. It may be that our eyes are better at seeing certain movements or color patterns. There’s something to it though…there’s a master’s thesis hidden in all this somewhere.
When we arrived at the remote sites, they were bone dry, of course. These moments test your patience and acting skills. You’re mad at this point because you’ve gone all that way, through hell, for nothing. On the other hand, you’re also relieved because you’re exhausted and the last thing you want to do is trudge through a wetland with your heavy waders for an hour. So you have to slap on your best game face and pretend to be absolutley devastated.
The hike back to camp was a bitch which involved sliding down the side of a steep mountain on our butts and then realizing it was totally unnecessary after the fact. Oh well, you live, you learn. The hike back out to the car was easy and long but beautiful. We met three girls who were staying at our site and while we were crouched down looking at fresh grizzly tracks, a group of hikers snuck up behind us and scared the absolute crap out of us. We thought they were bears so we screamed bloody murder and jumped into each other’s arms. Needless to say, they got a kick out of us. Adding to that, there was a stream crossing and I was so tired that I didn’t even bother changing into my waders. I just plowed through the water with my sneaks and long pants on. Well, the hikers probably thought I was out of my mind but at least I was memorable…maybe.