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Backpacker Magazine – September 2008

Destination Nowhere

The most remote spot in the Lower 48 is inside Yellowstone National Park. It's also the goal of our correspondent. What he encounters–and what it says about the solitude backpackers treasure–will surprise you. PLUS: See more of his photos and read a Q&A.

by: Mark Jenkins, story and photos

Colored algae grows on thermal pools along the Snake River.
Colored algae grows on thermal pools along the Snake River.
Sunburned brush below electric peak.
Sunburned brush below electric peak.
Hours-old, 8-inch-wide grizzly tracks.
Hours-old, 8-inch-wide grizzly tracks.
Gaillard documents the day's hour-long wolf serenade.
Gaillard documents the day's hour-long wolf serenade.

photo icon  Need More Nowhere? Author Mark Jenkins goes deeper into the concept of wilderness, how to protect  it, and what the middle of nowhere is really like in this extended Q&A interview. Plus, see more of Jenkins's photos in an exclusive online gallery.

Postholing through three-foot-deep snowdrifts across Deer Creek Pass, Gaillard and I pass from the Washakie Wilderness into the Teton Wilderness, both designated as part of the national wilderness system by the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Our National Wilderness Preservation System, established in 1964, was the most progressive and prescient recognition of the value of biodiversity in history. As we walk, I ruminate on the act, which gave legal form to the thinking of my literary mentors.

“To assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

The Wilderness Act also poetically limned both the value and the definition of wild country: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In short, the Wilderness Act was explicitly created to preserve remoteness and all that comes with it: silence, solitude, a functioning ecosystem. It was decidedly not created to preserve remoteness or wildness as a state of mind or national myth, but explicitly to draw lines on a map, to create and enforce physical boundaries, and thereby protect what little land was still semi-unsullied by human impact. Which is not to say that key terms in the statute haven’t been continually debated. The current philosophical furor rages over what constitutes a “natural condition” or a community of life “untrammeled by man,” phrases that have been parsed in different ways by dozens of scholars.

An argument I find highly compelling was published in a seminal 1992 essay titled “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” In it, anthropologist William Denevan convincingly argues that the Western Hemisphere was not an empty, unmodified Eden when Columbus “discovered” the New World. Instead, the “natural condition” of the Americas included humans. By synthesizing the works of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and geneticists, Denevan concluded that there were probably 60 million people living in the Western Hemisphere before European contact–more than in Europe. Furthermore, in terms of agriculture and animal husbandry, these people were at least as sophisticated as their discoverers.

Native Americans frequently used fire to alter the landscape; they also used irrigation and forestry, and they grew a cornucopia of domesticated crops, from chilies to potatoes. Denevan asserts that at least part of the Great Plains may have been created by Native Americans, through regular forest burning designed to expand buffalo habitat.

Up to 90 percent of these populations vanished in the following two centuries from diseases such as smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, measles, and influenza. With this unimaginably massive loss of life, the march of the white man across America from the 1700s through the 1800s mistakenly appeared to be a journey through a gigantic wilderness. Which means that my heroes–Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Roosevelt–misunderstood what they were actually observing and experiencing. Ecologically speaking, the America they encountered was not, as they had so eloquently described, a geography untouched by human hand. It was a deeply loved landscape sorrowfully emptied.

When Denevan first presented his hypothesis, more than a few scientists scoffed. Today, his conclusions have helped create a new understanding of pre-Columbus America. Charles Mann summarized the current geographical thinking on wilderness in his most recent book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, writing: “Far from destroying pristine wilderness ... Europeans bloodily created it.” And this blood-soaked sanctuary, oddly enough, is exactly what the Wilderness Act codified into law.

Some scholars have used the fact that Native Americans modified their environments to dismiss the thesis that a landscape “untrammeled by man” ever existed, but their logic is dubious. Denevan believes that North America–the approximately 7.5 million square miles north of the Rio Grande–contained 4 million human inhabitants before 1492. This would create a density of one person for every two square miles, enough to influence but only in special circumstances remake the landscape. In the big picture, accepting that humans were a part of the “natural” ecosystem is useful in recognizing that “wilderness” is not a static term, but a word that embodies a spectrum of varying wildness.

Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, with its heavy horse-packing use, may not be as “wild” and untrammeled as the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska; on the other hand, it is vastly wilder than Pennsylvania’s 8,663-acre Hickory Creek Wilderness. In all cases, the goal of the Wilderness Act is to minimize human disturbance and restore as much of the native flora and fauna as possible.

“People tend to be parochial and shortsighted about the definition of wilderness,” says Ted Kerasote, editor of Return of the Wild and author, most recently, of Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. “Yes, the Thorofare is much closer to all things we consider civilized than the largely unmanaged wild places in northern Canada, but wilderness is a matter of degrees, not absolutes.”

Kerasote, a hunter, hiker, and resident of Kelly, Wyoming, is a leading thinker about the connection between man and nature, the subject of his 1997 book, Bloodties.

“In the Lower 48, we wisely set aside these tiny tracts of land–museum pieces really–as repositories for species diversity and examples of what this country looked and felt like not that long ago,” he told me by phone.

“My great hope is that as we go forward into the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries, the human population will become more educated, family sizes will decrease, and the earth will retreat to a human population of one to two billion. At that point, places where we’ve kept active gene pools alive, like the greater Yellowstone region, can be used to repopulate and rewild large portions of North America.”



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R. Davis
Jul 05, 2012

I've hiked areas of Kanab Creek Wilderness Area in Arizona that felt like the most remote spot to me. There are also areas north of Lake Meade in Nevada that can feel pretty remote until you get to the top of a peak and see Las Vegas in the distance.

Tom
Jul 05, 2012

I have hiked spots in colorado closer to cities, but where I have only encountered other hikers once in a half dozen hikes.

Buzz
Jul 05, 2012

One should never use the word "Most ..." in the title without stating the parameters used! Otherwise it's hyperbole.

I've always felt The Maze was the most remote spot, as defined by how much time it would take to get to a city or hospital.

J. Duncan
Dec 04, 2011

Why all the hoopala about south central yellowstone being the most remote place in the lower 48? If it isnt, its close enough to it. The idea is that there are still these great places where one can escape this mad every day world with its car horns blowing,undisciplined kids screaming,dogs barking, and rushing around like fools to get no where fast. Ect, you get the point, Thank You.

R Guidos
Dec 02, 2010

Why do a few of you assume that the meat was left to rot? No guide I know of would allow that to happen. Besides being an unfathomable waste, judges are notoriously harsh when it comes to wildlife violations. As for the most remote place in the lower 48, it's my parking spot at Disneyland.

Cynnel
Dec 02, 2010

How did he choose the"most remote" spot. Whilre hiking it, he sees a horse train of people. I've spent days while backpacking on Isle Royale NP in Michigan without ever seeing a soul.
(and everyone has new clothes/gear sometime-would we mock someone for breaking in a new pair of hiking boots?)

John
Dec 02, 2010

This is a good article, but it is dangerous to stereotype hunters based on a few guided hunts. I have met hundreds of hunter and none leave the meat. Hunters love wild game. In my home state of Michigan, hunters pay the most for conservation of all public lands that are enjoyed by hikers, bikers, and others. For example, nearly a million michigan hunters go deer hunting at $15 a license which is $15 million in revenue for the state. By comparison, how much do you think Michigan people donate to the sierra club, as the author suggests? You literally cannot write an article like this without first and foremast thanking hunters for their conservation efforts.

A Bernat
Dec 02, 2010

The Thorofare region of Yellowstone NP and the Bridger-Teton National Forest has long been advertised as the most remote spot in the lower 48. It may or may not be true. I guess it really doesn't matter. The main fact is that its remoteness does not equate to solitude. Hunting is not the only big draw to the Thorofare. The early season fishing, when the Cutthroat trout migrate up the Yellowstone River to spawn, also brings in the 'crowds' of outfitter traffic. This may even cause more trail damage since the trails are often wet from snow melt at that time of year. So if its solitude you want stay away from there in June as well as October.
If you still want to access the Thorofare, do it from Yellowstone Park. You will have a much different experience on the trip in. Horse traffic is still the primary mode of travel however it is more regulated. During a week spent traveling up the Yellowstone from Yellowstone Lake my wife and I saw only two mounted parties, one was an outfitter and the other was a park ranger. We saw no hikers. The Park Service designates camp sites as hiker camp sites or horse camp sites and we found the hiker sites to be almost unused. One day the only other tracks on the trail were fresh griz tracks. If you choose to go east from the Yellowstone valley up some of the side trails into the Absaroka Mtns there is even less use. You won't find the overuse until you leave the park at the southern extent of the Yellowstone River. The only drawback to this approach is the long, kind of boring, 20 mile approach along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake. My wife and I took a canoe up the lake which was a great trip in of itself.
Back in the 70's I was a backcountry ranger for the forest service. I was mounted. I've spent most of my backpacking time since then trying to avoid those places where there is a lot of horse traffic. I have nothing against horse people. There are good ones and bad ones, just as there are backpackers who don't practice LNT principles. The fact is that horses have more impact on the environment. In the Rocky Mountain West horse use is part of the heritage and that isn't going to change. It is easy enough to plan routes where the horses don't go so if you want solitude don't go into areas where the horses go and certainly don't go into famous hunting areas during hunting season.
One of the comments above mentions that hunting groups and outfitter groups are also wilderness advocates. I agree with that however, they are also a force that is lobbying to open up the hunting of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. I don't have anything against hunting for food however as far as wolves go, I don't think anyone eats them. Hunting just as an act of killing something doesn't agree with me.

Doug Welker
Dec 02, 2010

I am curious how Mark Jenkins defines "the most remote spot in the Lower 48." Where he went is certainly not the place farthest from the nearest road. I suspect that location may lie within the big wildernesses of northern ID or MT, or perhaps even in the Grand Canyon. It is also certainly not the point farthest from the nearest trail, since he was on a trail, and he is unlikely to get more than five miles from the nearest trail in that area. It is also not the place that requires the longest walk from a trailhead. There are also certainly places he could have gone where his chances of meeting someone are even less, and places that are farther from where anyone else has ever stood, such as on the walls of the Grand Canyon. I have heard elsewhere that the most remote place in the Lower 48 is in Yellowstone, but never with documentation. It would be great if someone could provide that.

On another note, the impact of hunters on horseback, or horseback riders in general, in wild areas is directly related to the management policies of the agency that manages them. It is hard to blame hunters if the Park or nearby National Forests allow hunters on horseback in large groups, allow them to cross fragile meadows, don't provide enough leave-no-trace education, and don't give high enough priority to hiring backcountry rangers to enforce the rules and provide on-the-spot wilderness education.

Mike
Dec 02, 2010

I often run into hunters in the Oregon and Washington Cascades and have been in the Wind River Range in Wyoming in September when I came across hunters. Most of have been just like anyone else...nice folks.

As for stereotypes of hunters, I think the writer is correct when he describes clients on guided hunts. I've seen them myself. They are often wearing brand new politically correct outfits, are overweight, and according to a guide I know locally, many expect their trip to be like a 4-star hotel and they have no clue how to field dress an animal nor how to take care of themselves in inclement weather. They're often very good at drinking.

And I learned a long time ago that if you're on a major horse highway you're on the wrong trail. Also, people on horseback pioneered or improved many of the trails we all use and, at least here in Oregon, many horse people get out in the spring with their crosscut saws and axes to clear blow-down.

Oh, and when you encounter horses on the trail I believe the thing to do is to move off the trail to the downside of the trail if there is downhill that's not too steep for safety.

J Gindy
Dec 02, 2010

Lest we forget who paid for the reintroduction of wolves, is still bearing the costs and pays the largest majority of wildlife conservation... I also noticed that groups like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Mule Deer Foundation are not on your lists of groups to support. They too support preservation of land for wildlife propogation, and not just for hunting purposes. Through purchase and conservation easements, they set aside land for wintering grounds, calving grounds, and yes, in some cases, even hunting.

C Miller
Dec 26, 2008

Well said, J Miller.
I'm both a backpacker and a hunter and I find it amusing to an extent on the back and forth jabs.

Could this article have anymore stereotypes about hunters?
When the suburban hiker/backpacker finally ponies up the money and supports wildlife like hunters do THEN they can grip.
Hunters and Ranchers are the true environmentalists.

Larry L. Murphy
Nov 14, 2008

"Remote" isn't just being the farthest from a road or human habitation. I did a survey on "Summit Post.com" and the two places that won the "remote" award were not even close to Yellowstone National Park. Number one on climbers and backpackers list was the Picket Range in North Cascade National Park. Specifically Mt Luna in the heart of the range. Number two was in Canyonlands National Monument. What both sites have in common is a lack of humans. Getting to either of the two locations takes time and inflicts its share of pain on he who ventures there. Although both places offer very different environments they hold in common a real threat of danger reaching them. Reaching the Pickets requires bushwacking, river crossings, glacier travel, ice climbing and rock climbing skills in a weather environment which can go from sunny 80 degree temps to snowing and 35 degrees within two hours.
Canyonlands is approached mainly by river running the Green and Colorado River System. Then backpacking up canyons with little water and either extreme high temperatures over 100 degrees or cold temps in the 30's.
No! Yellowstone may have the farthest point to hike to from civilization, but it "taint" the most remote spot in the Lower 48!!!!!!!!

D. Conoley
Nov 10, 2008

Wonderful article. The feeling of being at the most remote spot in the lower 48 must truly be inspirational. However, the discussion along the trek about the "nature" of "wilderness" is what makes the article so noteworthy. I think what we're dealing with here (and I find this every time I discuss "wilderness" with anyone) is conservation vs. preservation, and the lines that blur between the two and also between conservation and unchecked overuse/abuse. What a catch-22 we are all in as lovers of the wild. I am unquestionably guilty of wanting the entire length of my hike to myself...therefore, I cannot scold others for their desires to enjoy the land in their own way. For me, it comes down to a question of sustainability and respect for nature, however you choose to enjoy it...and as always, keeping the over-indulging characteristics of our society in check. Shame on anyone who would hunt an animal simply for a wall mount. To leave an animal to rot while taking home its rack is as bad as slaughtering a cow to mount the hooves. And shame too, on anyone who scolds a man who responsibly hunts and eats what he kills.

Everyone has their own sense of "wilderness"...its up to all of us to realize that there is nothing stopping us from completely destroying it except ourselves.

J Miller
Nov 08, 2008

You might want to thank those outfitters and "wranglers" you demonize in the backcountry for paying for the conservation of the land they love more than life.. Sure there are a few bad apples but i've met a bad apple or too with a high tech backpack as well... One trip into a place you have never been and you are an expert on the subject. Spend three years there and tell me what you learn.. You might find yourself insignifigant and lonely.. That's how anyone feels back there.. Be carefull who you judge.. You are no different than those "dudes".. They are searching for adventure same as you except they just happen not to be walking.. Build yourself a "walking" trail if you don't want to get muddy next time..

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