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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.

According to the Department of Commerce, there are only 12,000 farmers and ranchers in Wyoming. That’s less than one-third of one percent of the workforce. Triple their number work in hotels and restaurants alone. According to the Wyoming Office of Travel and Tourism, tourism brings in more than $2 billion to the state. Studies by Yellowstone National Park, which hosts more than 3.3 million visitors a year, show that one of the park’s premier attractions is the wolf–or simply the hope of spotting one.

In the entire greater Yellowstone region, a few hundred ranchers are regularly reimbursed the full market value for every domestic animal verifiably killed by a wolf. In 2006, Gaillard’s organization, Defenders of Wildlife, paid ranchers more than $181,000 for wolf kills. Since the program began in 1987, Defenders has paid ranchers almost $1 million.

“But to the ranchers,” Chuck Neal told me, “it’s not about getting reimbursed. Wolves are a direct threat to their hegemony over the land–and they’ve had total dominance for more than a century now.”

Having worked on Wyoming ranches in my youth, I know that Neal is right; however, I also know that these foreclosure-and-bankruptcy times are tough for the small cattle or sheep rancher. Which leads me to a simple solution that would accommodate hunters and ranchers: wolf hunts. Outfitters in Africa charge tens of thousands of dollars for a lion hunt. The ranchers of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho could use cattle and sheep as bait and invite rich hunters in for the kill. I find trophy hunting despicable and cowardly, but the wolves are already being shot. Why not do it in a manner that increases wolf habitat and puts money in ranchers’ pockets?

In the morning, a deep-throated howl cracks the black dawn. The roar is so close and so loud, I think Gaillard must be having me on. The next moment, I’m crawling from the tent, cutting through the trees. I find Gaillard kneeling in the snow, pumping the stove, his furred red face grinning ear to ear.

“Quite a wake-up call, isn’t it!” he says. “Not 50 yards away. Biggest wolf I’ve seen in my life.”
Envious, I scan the valley. A snowstorm of stars is vanishing into the lavender sky, and the orange buck brush stands dark as mounds of coal against the pale blue snow.

This is all I see. Wild, open, cold country. No wolf.

But it’s out there; they’re out there.

The temperature is 20°F, no wind. The wolves can smell us a mile away. Their hearing is so acute, up to 10 miles, that they probably heard us coming yesterday. In the gloaming, they could have easily seen us; like dogs, they have a thin, reflective film inside their retinas that gives them night vision.

Gaillard heads off to break a hole in the ice and fill our pot. Ten minutes later, we’re digging into bowls of steaming granola and watching the sunlight gild the surrounding summits, when the gorgeous howl comes back. This time, it’s much farther away and echoes across the chiaroscuro landscape. Another howl answers it from the stony mountainside to the northwest, then another from the dark line of forest to the southeast.
The wolves have triangulated us.

“This is the Yellowstone Delta pack,” says Gaillard. “Could be as many as a dozen individuals.”
We are their captive audience, two small, pink creatures inside their prodigious sanctuary. The wolves commence to sing, three or four in a group, a call and refrain. Gaillard throws his arms back like some rapturous preacher, closes his eyes, and listens.

They howl together in thundering choruses, bringing music to the morning. Individual voices can be distinguished, just like in a choir. Numerous basses, two baritones, even a tenor trying out its young pipes. They ululate collectively, the sound echoing off the mountain walls, then tremolo individually, rough solos that rise, punching the purple sky, and slide back down, before they all join in again.
Abruptly, it all stops.

I glass a bank of trees to the south where the closest howling came from, stopping for some reason on a stand of spruce. Two huge black wolves step out into the open. Dark as night, they look right at me, then lope off through the golden grass, their gait effortless and primeval.

It is only as we push up Lynx Creek toward Two Ocean Plateau, the next morning, that I finally begin to feel a sense of remoteness–a kind of geographic anticipation fluttering in my chest. No horses have been here lately. No people, either. Only bears and wolves. We’re placing our feet in holes punched in the snow by their paws. It reminds me of a journey I took in Bhutan through the Himalayas. After a dozen days of hiking, we finally reached a region so remote that, caught in a blizzard, we followed snow leopard tracks to find our way over a pass.

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