Copper Creek

A tributary of the Blackfoot River northeast of Lincoln holds both fish within its waters and animal tracks along its banks.

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LINCOLN — It started with the colors. A mustard yellow, a deep red bordering on burgundy and the ever-lasting green of pine that together herald the arrival of fall.

As we drove up the gravel road into higher elevation, it felt like we were traveling forward in time, leaving behind the still-warm temperatures of the Helena Valley for the crisp bite of autumn in the alpine.

My boyfriend and I had a weekend together, a brief break from the constant burn of long days in an unrelenting wildfire season for him and the anxiety of unanswered emails for me.

With only a few requirements — no cell service, limited people and a body of water to fish — we headed to a tributary of the Blackfoot River northeast of Lincoln.

The Saturday morning was an unhurried start to the day with our coffee sending tendrils of steam into the chilly air.

Along the creek, we saw deep impressions in mud and scattered river pebbles. It showed us that animals had wandered the water’s edge before us. And they left their tracks behind.

As we headed down to the creek and followed the meandering boundaries of the water, the tracks were easy to spot in the wet sand or disturbed river rocks.

One of the first was the impression of a long, narrow hoof pressed deep into the river mud. Too large to be an elk or a deer, it looked to be left by a moose’s cloven hoof. Once I saw the first, I couldn’t help but notice more tracks as we continued tracing our way along the water’s marshy edge.

Copper Creek

A tributary of the Blackfoot River northeast of Lincoln holds both fish within its waters and animal tracks along its banks.

Copper Creek

The leaves begin their fall turn along a mountainside northeast of Lincoln in September.

Gregg Treinish, founder of Adventure Scientists, described the phenomenon as similar to when you’re hiking and notice a pretty purple flower near the trail only to look up and realize there are thousands of them around you.

“You can piece together who might have been there and what they might have been doing,” Treinish said, speaking to me after I returned from my trip. “You start to see the forest with a different set of eyes. The level of detail you can glean just by stopping and paying attention.”

Treinish previously worked at a nonprofit where his job was to track wildlife and teach the public how to do it, too.

“I loved following tracks and telling a story, piecing it together. Did they go on top of this log or under the log? Did they go to the edge of the forest? Why might they do that? You can piece together a story based on their tracks,” Treinish said.

While my novice eye couldn’t piece together a complex story based on the tracks I saw that Saturday morning, I did understand the animals were brought to that spot for the same reason we were: the water.

We stopped to cast a couple lines into a deep pool formed by a pick-up-sticks pile of burnt and fallen trees from a wildfire. Nearby was a series of large cat-like tracks in disturbed pebbles, like something had paced a tight circle. As we bent down to take a closer look, my boyfriend noticed the smell before I did: the pungent aroma of cat urine.

“Mountain lions are going to be about four inches across, four toes and most often you won’t see any claws. They have a very large interdigital pad, or that palm-type area,” Treinish said, adding mountain lions are likely to mark and spray.

Treinish said a wolf track could also be around the same size as a mountain lion but the wolf’s print would likely show claw marks whereas a large cat can retract its claws.

After catching only a fallen log, we continued upstream, weaving our way in and out of the tall brush along the water’s edge, passing a handful of trampled moose beds.

The occasional “Hey, bear!” broke the quiet around us.

The next stop was to an even deeper, wider pool. As my boyfriend cast his fly into the open water, I cast my eyes on the ground around us, caught up in deciphering what I could.

Copper Creek

ABOVE: Brandon Wallen nets a cutthroat trout on a tributary of the Blackfoot River northeast of Lincoln. BELOW: The leaves begin their fall turn along a mountainside northeast of Lincoln.

Copper Creek

The leaves begin their fall turn along a mountainside northeast of Lincoln in September.

On the edge of the stream, there was the distinctive wide pad and five toes of a dried bear track in the small river pebbles. But whether it was a grizzly or black bear was beyond me.

Learning to distinguish between the two bears is a common tracking question for beginners, Treinish said.

“For grizzly and black bears, you draw a line from the first to the fifth toe and if it intersects the palm of the track, it’s probably a black bear. And if there’s separation there, it’s a grizzly,” he said.

For Treinish, he looks at identifying tracks as a fun game of elimination, dismissing what it can’t be to determine what it likely is.

“I think it’s important that people pay attention while they’re out there, not only to stay safe and stay aware of their surroundings, but there’s just so much to learn,” Treinish said. “It’s a great way to slow down and think about who might have left this track.”

As the sun drew closer to the surrounding mountains on that early fall day, the golds and reds burned brighter.

For a few hours the stories of the animals around us had revealed themselves. And all it took, like Treinish said, was slowing down to notice the few thousand purple flowers scattered along the riverbank.

Copper Creek

The leaves begin their fall turn along a mountainside northeast of Lincoln in September.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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