Wyoming's Absaroka: Wild At Heart

If you think the last truly wild, unexplored land is in Canada or Alaska, you haven't been to Wyoming's Absaroka range.
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If you think the last truly wild, unexplored land is in Canada or Alaska, you haven't been to Wyoming's Absaroka range.

October wind slices through our grove, flinging campfire sparks into the blackness. Winter's coming to these mountains. You can feel it in the contrast of sun-drenched afternoons and deep-freeze nights. We felt it in the cold wind earlier in the day, as Jennifer and I climbed the steep switchbacks toward Eagle Pass, in the middle of Wyoming's Absaroka (Ab-soar-kuh) Range. We didn't make it over the wind-whipped saddle, but as consolation we have this snug little grove, with a sweeping view north across 100 miles of mountains we've already hiked.

The valleys and passes have led us southward over remote, brawling country for 2 weeks now, through what is arguably the biggest, healthiest mountain wilderness in the Lower 48. From their beginnings near Livingston, Montana, the Absarokas wind southward for roughly 160 miles and encompass some 6 million acres. These mountains feel overwhelmingly huge as you hike through them, and their pine-ringed parklands and buttressed mountainsides are breathtakingly gorgeous. But the Absarokas are impressive for another reason: They're so alive. You can see it, hear it, smell it, and feel it-in the morning moose encounter, the long-clawed grizzly prints in the muddy trail, the midnight elk wails, the musky smell of a buffalo wallow, and the stiff fur of a long-dead kill. Spend any time here and you know the Absarokas are different.

This wild thrill has been sinking in for the past 2 weeks, ever since a nervous van driver dropped us off in a blizzard at Box Canyon Guard Station along the Boulder River. That was late September, a month later than we should have started our 24-day thru-hike. Now, the temperatures drop near 0?F every night, and we break shoreline ice whenever we ford creeks.

Jen's doing well in such challenging conditions, especially considering that it's only her second backpack trip. She rises early, starts the fire, and makes the coffee while I pack up our frozen camp. In the evenings, I gather wood and rig the bear bag; she cooks, I wash. There's a deep satisfaction to the teamwork.

A hint of anxiety accompanies the journey, as well. We stick close and move carefully. Whistles dangle around our necks. The Absarokas are a remote, powerful land of steep, crumbly mountainsides, deep timber, and big rivers, with scavengers aplenty to mop up any mistakes. And winter lurks in the background, waiting to pounce. Each storm begs the question: Will we get dusted or buried?

But for now, this particular storm is clearing. The night is an unruly but grand one. The fire dances wildly in the clearing, and it looks like good weather across the pass.

Our packs heavy after a resupply stop, we run late crossing the saddle beneath Eagle Peak. Gloomy skies gather rapidly as we drop through the spruce forest, descending headlong for a meadow campsite in the valley below. Two hundred feet ahead, a stump suddenly stands up.

"We got a bear," I say needlessly, hearing Jen gasp.It's a big male grizzly, with a coffee-

colored coat and a darker yoke rippling from shoulders to chest. The thick-furred statue sways from side to side. We help him figure us out, speaking much more calmly than we feel. Out here, this is not considered benign wildlife watching. It's a sudden crisis, a negotiation for passage, a judgment, an audience with the bear gods.

We've been expecting such an encounter for days. Grizzly tracks are everywhere. Morning light reveals enough prints to suggest that some of our camps have seen four or five bears pass by at night. On timberline ridgetops sprinkled with white bark pine, a favorite food, we've seen tracks so fresh that skin pores were still visible in the dust. The trailhead signs we pass and the hunters we've met warn of grizzlies. "Can you believe they call 'em endangered?" is a comment we've heard often.

"The bears are doing pretty well currently," said Mark Brescina, a Wyoming biologist I'd called in August before we set off. "Grizz numbers are growing, and they're expanding south into the Wind Rivers." In fact, greater Yellowstone grizzlies are populous enough that hearings are being called to decide whether or not to delist them as a threatened species. The move is considered controversial for many reasons and doesn't have wholehearted support, even from the respective states. If the big bears are delisted, the states will shoulder the expense of their management, which runs several million dollars a year.

But this dilemma illustrates how the health of the Absarokas, and the land's pending management, is critical to the future of much Rocky Mountain wildlife. As a key component of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and a southern lynchpin of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon migration corridor (see "A Grizzly A Day," April), the Absarokas form the critical path gray wolves and grizzlies will follow if they are to reoccupy parts of Wyoming, Utah, and perhaps Colorado.

After what seems like an eternity, the bulky ursine twists sideways, drops to all fours, and shuffles down the trail. We holler and whistle bloody murder to reinforce his decision, then wait a few minutes before moving along noisily and slowly. Then he's there again, motionless, facing us in the trail. Another showdown. And again, he lopes off into dense forest.

I turn to Jen and find myself staring down a tiny square barrel. She's got the bear spray out, safety clip popped, aiming right through me. I behave myself all the way to camp.

The view is bad. Not the aesthetics, mind you-those are plenty impressive. From my perch on the southern escarpment of the Trident Plateau, I get a huge panorama of narrow, timbered valleys and steep, overlapping alpine ridgelines. It's the route-finding potential that's bad news. I scout a ways along the top of the rotten drop-off, then scramble back up the talus to Jen, who's packing.

"Sorry, hon. It cliffs out all across the mountain face. We gotta go back."

"Three days to get here, and now we've got to go back?!" she exclaims. "Down that cliff where I swore I'd never go again? We've got to go back?!"

"Yeah, sorry."

"So, it's like that guide told us... 'deadly.'"

"Well, not exactly," I offer.

"I think I could kill you."

We're headed for a promising route out of upper Howell Fork when we walk into the middle of an outfitter's hunt camp. A small city of canvas wall tents and packed dirt alleys surrounds a tower, from which hang elk carcasses. Five guys stand around six skinned elk heads.

It's a jarring transition from our utopian wanderings, but we'd been told to expect commercial hunting operations around the southern and eastern margins of Yellowstone Park, in the Washakie and Teton Wildernesses.

"Camp Grizzly," as it's known, proves similar to other operations we'd later encounter: Several guides cater to seven clients at a time on weeklong hunts. Average cost, about $5,000 per hunter. There's always a string of pack horses in camp. Virtually every client bags an elk because the guides are good buglers. Based on napkin math, I figure such an operation grosses around $100,000 a month for the 3-month fall season and accounts for 80 or 90 elk per season.

The advice from this camp's resident guides varies widely. One tells us it's impossible to cross the Trident Plateau looming ahead of us. "Only one person's been across...The Boss," he says. A guide named Allen, meanwhile, points out the route of a trail they've built to the top of the plateau. A third guide recommends we cross an untrailed saddle further east (the one I originally planned on), saying, "It's easier down the back side."

We opt for the sure-thing trail, and it's a day of the toughest hiking we've had. We eventually bash halfway back down the windswept mountainside, and pitch camp in the burnt and creaking forest. Fatigue and anxiety keep me up late, reading maps and weighing options. I'm learning that most trails here follow the valleys and end at high meadows, and that few paths cross the divide or run north-south through the high ridges. I'm also realizing how far ahead you have to plan, and how aware you have to be; slip up in country this remote and it'll take you a week of speedy hiking to find your way out.

The next morning, fortune smiles, the weather warms, and travel is easier. We stride rapidly upstream along the Yellowstone River, enjoying the broad valley and brief afternoon heat. It's here that we suddenly encounter more people-rangers, patrolling the park's important southeast frontier.

"I like the long stints out here," says Patty, who's heading back from Thorofare Ranger Station to Yellowstone Lake after 18 days. "But you get so feral, it's hard to go back."

Then we met Tim Eicher, a soft-spoken, cowboylike U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent patrolling the southeast margins of the park against poachers. "Just out here protectin' grizzlies and wolves," he tells us. "So far it's been a pretty clean hunt. Hope it stays that way."

A few miles later, we're overtaken by Richard Jones, a 30-year veteran ranger of both Yellowstone Park and the Fish and Wildlife Service. He's heading into Thorofare to meet a Cody newspaper reporter for an interview about outfitters who use salt to draw game from the park and closer to clients. "It's illegal," he explains, "but it's traditional."

We're hiking along in Jones's wake when a low howl floats across the meadow to our right. A black wolf sits upright in the tall grass. Answering howls float from four gray forms loping across the river. The pack groups up, crosses the trail ahead of us, and vanishes into the forest. We make a point of camping nearby, and deep in the night we're rewarded with mournful serenades echoing across the meadows. Spruce boughs crackle and pop, and a column of smoke rises straight and thick into the still air. A full moon slides up over turreted ridges, spilling cold light onto the thin ice of Upper Brooks Lake. It's our last night out, and we're at a beautiful campsite, on an open knoll between the forested notch of Bear Cub Pass and the gray battlements of Brooks Pinnacles.

The moon is a welcome sight after weeks of starry darkness, and beneath its pleasing light, we've spent several hours in celebration of our near-finished journey. Now Jen's off to bed, resting up for the morning shift. I stay up, letting the fire warm my tired knees, watching the coals fade from orange to gray as the blue flames race along the blackening, curling twigs.I've never been a conoisseur of campfires, but I learned to appreciate them on this trek. Every day, the magnificent mountain autumn scenery changes, but fire remains a constant, more welcoming and comforting than our trusty tent.

We changed, as well. Your sense of life and time alter during the course of such a long trip through such a wild place. Rhythmic footfalls and the routines of camp and travel dominate your thoughts and demand your energy. But as your body toils, your mind sharpens and focuses on details, such as how autumn is capturing the land. You can feel it, you can see it, in the willowy tones of russet and mauve, and in the morning hoarfrost gracing a well-cured cattail.

This change can't be hurried and must be allowed to sink in gradually. For that, you need a big journey that lends perspective to the life that came before and the one born after the trip. It takes a place like the Absarokas, a wilderness true enough and primitive enough to work its slow magic and imprint itself on your soul.

Expedition Planner

The name Absaroka comes from a pioneer mutation of the phrase aps-ah-look-eee, or "People of the Driftwood Lodges," the Crow name for its own tribe. The namesake mountains begin southeast of Livingston, Montana, and build toward Cooke City at the northeast corner of Yellowstone. From there, they run due south, form the eastern border of the park, wind through the Washakie Wilderness, then eventually taper down to the alpine plateaus of Togwotee Pass near Jackson, Wyoming.

Trails: Trail elevations range from 6,000 feet along valley floors to 9,500 feet over the higher passes. The best travel season is from July through September. Trail distances are vast. It's easy to follow the river corridors, but trails across the high ridgelines are rare.

Cautions: This is remote country. Rescue will be slow to nonexistent. During spring runoff, the numerous river crossings are difficult and sometimes dangerous. There are black bears and lots of grizzlies, so hang all food, cook away from your tent, and generally follow all bear-

country travel and food-storage protocols. Don't carry or consume smelly foods like tinned fish or smoked oysters. I recommend you don't fish.

Walk softly: Campfires are allowed in national park

campsites and the wilderness areas. Downed deadwood is readily available, an ironic legacy of the 1988 Yellowstone blaze. There are plenty of established campsites in the Absarokas; keep your impact low by using them. You'll need backcountry permits and a campsite map for overnight travel within Yellowstone (Yellowstone Backcountry Office, 307-344-2160).

Maps: For a thru-hike like this one, a two-map set is best: a 15-minute, 1:250,000 scale map set for general overview, combined with a second, more detailed set of 7.5-minute, 1:24,000 quads. Since our route covered more than 20 quads, we custom printed our own maps, using iGage's All Topo software and discs for Montana and Wyoming (iGage, 888-450-4922). This simple but comprehensive collection of digital maps has zoom and mileage tracing functions that allowed us to survey and measure our intended routes easily. Statewide collections of all USGS 7.5- and 15-minute maps are available.

Logistics and info: Here are the contacts and services we used.

Billings, MT

  • Billings Chamber of Commerce, (406) 245-4111.
  • Shuttle to trailhead: Phidippides shuttle, (307) 527-6789; www.wyo.net/ phidippides; Phidpdes@wave.park.wy.us. For two people, the 2-hour ride to Boulder River cost $180.

Cooke City, MT

  • Resupply, shipment holds, and gear replacing: Cooke City Bike Shack, (406) 838-2412; bikeshack@aol.com.

Pahaska, WY

  • Lodging and shipment holds: Pahaska Tepee, (307) 527-7701.

Togwotee Pass, WY

  • Lodging and shuttle to Jackson airport: Pinnacle Butte Lodge, (307) 455-2506.

Land management/ contacts:

Absaroka/ Beartooth Wilderness (for the Absarokas north of Montana/ Wyoming line): Gardiner District, Gallatin National Forest, (406) 848-7375.

For the eastern and southern sections of the Absarokas: Wapiti Ranger District, Shoshone National Forest, (307) 527-6921.

For backcountry camping permits and information on sections in Yellowstone

National Park: Yellowstone Backcountry Office,

(307) 344-2160.