I wanted to believe that this deep in the wilderness, practically as far away from civilization as one can get in the Lower 48, the trail would have vanished. I imagined hiking through pristine conifer forests across Wyoming’s majestic Absaroka Mountains on an indistinct game path, the paw prints of a wolf or mountain lion faintly visible in the pine-needle duff. Instead, we’re wallowing in a muddy horse trail a foot deep and sometimes 10 feet wide. In the pockets of grassland between stands of timber, the track immediately fans out, furrowing the meadow with a dozen side-by-side troughs.
David Gaillard, my companion, is balancing on the rim of the trail with his towering pack when he suddenly slips knee-deep into the bog.
“It takes hundreds of horses to trash a trail like this,” Gaillard groans, grabbing tree limbs and pulling himself out of the mud. “This isn’t a trail, it’s a thoroughfare.”
True enough. We’re moving through northwestern Wyoming’s Thorofare Valley, once an intermountain pathway for the hunting parties of the Absaroka, or Crow, Indians, a tribe known for their flamboyant horsemanship.
Of course, the Crow are now gone–they were forced onto the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana in the early 20th century. But the Thorofare is still a Holy Grail for hunters and outfitters, who charge sportsmen up to $10,000 each for the opportunity to hunt by horseback in this bountiful land of Boone-and-Crockett elk. It’s October, hunting season, and we’ve seen numerous pack trains since starting our hike two days ago. Here comes one now.
On the lead horse, with his leather scabbard just behind his saddle, a guide winds his group down the trail, his cowboy boots, spurs and chaps, Stetson, and de rigueur scarlet neckerchief signaling that he’s a roper or rancher in the off-season. Three overweight men and a red-cheeked woman, each in new pearl-button shirts and stiff Wranglers, trail behind. The guide and the dudes all have celebratory beers in one hand and hold the reins in the other. Behind them, a string of pack horses lumbers along, loaded with elk antlers so large that, flipped over on the pack saddles, their white tips practically drag on the ground.
We step away from the trail to let the hunting party pass, but the cowboy tells us we’re waiting in the wrong place.
“Stand over there,” he says, swapping a plum-size wad of chew from
one cheek to the other and pointing to a spot on the opposite bank. We’re
considerably older than he is, but, like schoolboys, we trudge through the mud
to where he wants us to wait.
The dudes, riding five feet above the mud, are shocked to see people traveling this far into the wilderness, afoot and unarmed. “You walk here?” asks one of them.
Gaillard and I nod.
“Why, you’re in the middle of nowhere!” spouts another, raising his beer in a toast.
When they’ve passed, Gaillard quietly responds.
“Not yet. But we’re getting there.”
As far away as you can get. This has been my perennial, implacable need since I was a youth. I guess I’ve read too much Thoreau, Whitman, and Leopold. (I have three heavily-underlined editions of Walden, two worn copies of Leaves of Grass, and a dog-eared Sand County Almanac, which I received for Christmas in 1970, when I was 12.)
As far away as you can get. Growing up in Wyoming I was always pushing toward it, bicycling through the red dirt prairie, camping beside clucking alpine creeks, scrabbling up giant granite towers and then scaring myself to death trying to get back down. When forced to come indoors, I would read about the outdoors. To this day, famous phrases from outdoor literature weave together in my mind like the mellifluous, teal-colored braids of an Alaskan river.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately ... to celebrate myself ... to front only the essential facts of life ... to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world ... to witness a river in the painting mood ... to experience the intrinsic beauty of the organism called America ... to be not a bit tamed, to be untranslatable.”
I had come to the Thorofare because I wanted to remove myself from the man-made environment of our thick-with-flesh-and-asphalt contiguous USA. I wanted to compare the vision I’ve carried in my mind for decades with what actually exists, today. Having been to many of the most remote places in the world, from Greenland to Tibet, with stops in Afghanistan, Alaska, the Amazon, and the Congo, I wished to rediscover what the best of the American outside feels like–from the inside.
This required some pre-trip planning.
First I had to ask myself where, or perhaps more precisely–what–is the middle of nowhere. To the elk hunter, hiker, and most outdoor adventurers, the middle of nowhere is a wild-feeling geographic phrase that refers to someplace extremely remote, somewhere beyond the plastic conveniences and constant safety checks of urban life. In the middle of nowhere, you can’t call for a pizza or an ambulance or check into a hotel. And you definitely can’t drive there. You have to walk, or maybe ride a horse. The romance and risk of remoteness implies, nay, insists upon having to take care of yourself. Remote means roadless. Which is problematic for today’s hiker. Roadless regions have all but vanished from 21st-century America. According to Harvard Professor of Landscape Richard Forman, who wrote Road Ecology: Science and Solutions, about the environmental impact of roads, there are almost 4 million miles of public roads in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of miles of private roads. Roads are the first thing we build, before houses, warehouses, and water slides. “Americans in the 1990s converted open space to developed land at a rate of 2.2 million acres a year, or 252 acres per hour,” writes Forman.
Once upon a time, wide-open spaces–not asphalt and concrete–defined our landscape. They’re gone now. In less than 250 years, the U.S. went from a country of Indian footpaths and horse trails, wagon tracks, and game paths to a domesticated nation of streets, strip malls, parking lots, and superhighways. West of the Mississippi, the mythological hinterland of rolling plains and high peaks, the countryside has been drawn and quartered by bulldozers. Paved county roads checkerboard farmland from Iowa to Idaho; gravel roads stitch together the ranches, ranchettes, and resorts.
Even our once immense forests have been carved up. In the last century, logging roads, truck routes for oil, gas, and mining, and ATV tracks have crept into the most distant regions of our mountains, forests, and deserts. Officially, there are more than 430,000 miles of roads in our national forests–unofficially, it could be twice that.
As you might expect, roads cause a litany of negative impacts to the environment. Road-paving destroys habitat, poisons the ecosystem, and provides a causeway for the invasion of non-native plants. Roadkill may be a good thing for a few scavengers such as eagles and ravens, but the vast majority of wildlife suffers. Forman documented the carnage: cars squashed 205 painted turtles in just four months on a highway adjacent to Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge in Mission Valley, Montana; drivers crushed 856 snakes over two years around Everglades National Park; and they killed an average of 36.3 snakes per mile per year in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (seriously reducing the region’s rosy boas and shovelnose populations). Roadkill mortality figures for larger game–including deer, elk, moose, skunks, rabbits, and birds–are also astronomical.
Roads alter animal behavior as well. Traffic noise alone has reduced bird life by 50 percent in some species, including pink-footed geese, spotted owls, and a host of woodland birds. Grizzlies in Montana, bobcats in Wisconsin, ungulates and large carnivores across the Rockies: All have shifted their home ranges away from roads–when there are roadless areas to move to.
Unfortunately for these species, the only notable roadless regions left in the contiguous 48 states are the tiny designated wilderness areas and parts of a few national parks. East of the Mississippi, the nation is so heavily highwayed that remoteness hardly exists; it is not possible to be more than 10 miles from a road. Even in the West, there are only four places one can truly escape roads: Utah’s Escalante region north of the Grand Canyon; the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho; Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness; and the Yellowstone National Park/Teton Wilderness/Washakie Wilderness trinity in northwestern Wyoming.
And yet, even in these putatively isolated regions, you’re still just a two-day hike from a highway. As the crow flies, the farthest you can be from a road in Idaho’s River of No Return is a mere 15 miles; in the Escalante and Bob Marshall it’s even less. Astonishingly, in the entire continental U.S., coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, there is only one place left where you can get more than 20 miles from a road: in the greater Yellowstone region.
To find the most remote point, I went to the Wyoming Geographic Information Systems Science Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. Hovering over a computer screen bouncing with colored lines, geographer Shawn Lanning combined a bewildering array of GIS programs. “Let’s use spatial analyst extension to access the Euclidean distance tool, and a Lambert conformal conic projection, with a raster 100mx 100m cell parameter,” he said, cranking out an original, full-color topo map. In the dead center was a red dot with a latitude/longitude number. I promised not to share the exact coordinates, but I will say that the most remote point in the Lower 48 is located on the Two Ocean Plateau in south-central Yellowstone National Park.
David Gaillard and I met for the first time in the windy parking lot of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Tall and tan, with trim orange hair, Gaillard, 40, lives in Bozeman and works for Defenders of Wildlife. A specialist in five endangered species–the wolf, wolverine, grizzly, lynx, and fisher–he came highly recommended as an indefatigable hiker and ecosystem expert.
Our plan was simple: hike right through the middle of America’s last grand expanse of roadlessness. From the Deer Creek trailhead on the South Fork of the Shoshone River (an hour drive southwest of Cody), we would travel end to end, east to west from the eastern edge of the Washakie Wilderness, up and over Deer Creek Pass, then down Butte Creek to Thorofare Creek. Continuing down the Thorofare northwest into Yellowstone National Park, we’d pick up the South Boundary Trail, dip in and out of the Teton Wilderness, and hike all the way out to Yellowstone’s south entrance. It was perhaps 80 miles of walking.
Not five minutes up the trail we encountered our first pack train. “Best watch yourselves!” bellowed a young, unshaven wrangler trailing six mules. A burly little ranch dog kept the beasts in line. One carried the rack of a large mule deer.
“Seen 11 grizzlies in seven hours!” the cowboy said, spitting a stream of brown saliva. “Sow with cub just a little ways back. So close I could see her lip curled over. Reared up mad as the devil and swatted at my dog.”
Gaillard and I expected bears; in fact, we wanted to see them. Grizzlies are an integral part of what we imagined someplace remote, like the Washakie Wilderness, should contain. Farther up the trail, we came upon the tracks of the sow and cub. They were going our way.
Being October, it was dark at 7 p.m. Not interested in hiking in the dark, we left the trail and stumbled through deadfall and a foot of snow to set up camp. Galliard put our kitchen 100 yards from the tent. After dinner, floundering hilariously in deep snow with dim headlamps, we hauled our food bag up into a tree.
In the morning, we followed the same grizzly tracks toward Deer Creek Pass. At one point, I thought I saw the prints of three different bears and suggested the sow had an infant and a two-year-old.
“Don’t think so,” said Galliard, responding delicately to my ignorance. “Cubs stay with the sow for three years, during which time the mother doesn’t mate.”
The other set of tracks belonged to a lone male or female. Probably foraging far and wide before hibernation.
“Grizzlies have a massive home range, between 300 and 700 square miles,” Gaillard said, and then commenced to sketch out the fall and rise of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.
Before the spread of neo-Americans, grizzlies ranged from Minnesota to the Pacific and from Mexico to the Arctic. Lewis and Clark saw grizzlies all along their journey, particularly in South Dakota’s Black Hills. At that time, from 1804 to 1806, as many as 100,000 grizzlies roamed the West. But according to Gaillard, fewer than 1,000–that’s one percent of the original population–now live in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, an area, when combined, that accounts for less than two percent of their original range.
Remarkably, these few grizzlies represent an endangered species success story. In 1975, after two centuries of unregulated slaughter, grizzlies were near extinction–fewer than 200 animals existed in the continental U.S.–and the great hump-backed predator was placed on the endangered species list. Thirty-two years later, in March 2007, the Yellowstone grizzly was determined by the government to be sufficiently recovered, and was removed from the list. But not without constant threat. The coming decade will determine whether this controversial decision was good for the bears’ health. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana all hope to legalize grizzly hunting, but this likely won’t happen because of the grizzly’s limited rate of reproduction.
“You probably need something on the order of 50,000 square miles to support a viable, self-sustaining grizzly population that can be large enough–perhaps 2,000 individuals–to deal with the various genetic, demographic, environmental, and catastrophic uncertainties of their existence,” Chuck Neal, author of Grizzlies in the Mist, told me when I interviewed him in Cody. Now in his 70s, Neal is a legendary conservationist who worked for federal agencies for 50 years. A platter-size cast of a grizzly paw sits in his living room. “The single best thing Clinton did in office was to push through the roadless rule.”
In January 2001, the Department of Agriculture adopted the Clinton Roadless Area Conservation Rule prohibiting further road building and logging in the few roadless areas left in the Forest Service system. The rule put about one-third of our national forest lands, 58.5 million acres, off-limits to road construction. According to the Department of Agriculture’s own documents, the roadless rule is essential to protecting the “health and diversity of American forests.”
Conservation groups have repeatedly hailed the rule as one of the greatest policy decisions of the past century. The Forest Service has received more than 2.5 million letters in support of it. One survey showed that 86 percent of anglers and 83 percent of hunters favor it. Yet the current administration has done everything in its power to open roadless areas to logging, drilling, and mining.
“So grizzlies need wilderness to survive,” I summarized.
Neal laughed. “Not exactly. This may come as a shock, but the grizzly doesn’t need wilderness. He could thrive on the outskirts of Cody, but we won’t permit him to do that.”
I think about how grizzlies, when given the opportunity, will gladly exchange the hard work of digging pine nuts for the ease of tipping over garbage cans. Unfortunately for them, we humans don’t like this kind of behavior.
“The grizzly is far more tolerant of us than we are of him,” said Neal. “He needs wilderness as a sanctuary from our intolerance.”
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.”
We pass several outfitters’ horse camps late in the afternoon and pitch our tent on a bluff that burned during the 1988 fires. Already, seedlings have turned into brilliant green, 20-foot saplings standing tall among the blackened totem poles of their ancestors. The tranquil, outwardly simple beauty of the scene, which conceals a still-not-fully-understood ecological and evolutionary complexity, evokes an almost religious feeling in me. Given even half a chance, nature is astoundingly resilient. Leave it alone, and it will rebound all on its own.
That night, well after dark, gunshots wake me. Night hunting is illegal, but no one is out here to witness it.
In the morning, we carry on along the Thorofare River. Another pack train passes. More trophy antlers, more dudes, but I notice that the saddlebags look practically empty.
“Where’s all the meat?” I ask Gaillard. “They had five sets of elk antlers, but the saddlebags were flat.”
Gaillard smirks. “The bears have learned to follow the hunters,” he says. “They come south out of Yellowstone during hunting season. We thought it was just to eat the gut piles, but now we know that some of the hunters are illegally leaving most of the carcass and just hauling out the antlers. A gunshot has become like a dinner bell for the grizzly.”
Late in the afternoon, we finally slip into Yellowstone National Park, where hunting and trapping are prohibited, and stroll up to the Thorofare Ranger Station. Built in the 1920s, this is the most remote cabin in all the national parks outside of Alaska. A tiny, quaint log bungalow with a sloping front porch, set amidst tall grass and even taller pines, it’s the kind of place Ed Abbey would have holed up in to write a howling treatise. Ranger Frank DeLuca, a good-natured former New Jersey firefighter, invites us inside.
“More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone every year,” says DeLuca. “But you know what?” He pulls off his green, flat-brimmed ranger hat, revealing a bald head, and grins. “Probably not more than a hundred get back this far.”
He’s interested to hear what we’ve seen. We tell him about the pack trains and outfitters and dire bear warnings.
“We’ve had to kill six grizzlies this season,” DeLuca says reluctantly, “all because of hunter/bear encounters.”
“We haven’t seen a single one,” I volunteer.
“Well then,” says DeLuca, “I guess you’re doing every-thing right.”
That evening, we traverse the wide Thorofare Valley, spooking up three bull elk that have intelligently stayed this side of the park boundary. At dusk, we ford first the freezing Thorofare Creek, then the icy Yellowstone River, our white feet going numb as blocks of wood. We camp on the far bank of the Yellowstone amidst enormous wolf tracks.
Wolves once roamed the entire continent, from Panama to Prudhoe Bay. Yet due to government bounties and extensive predator-control programs designed to support the commercial interests of a few ranchers, the last original Yellowstone wolf was killed in 1926. Exterminated from 80 percent of its natural range, the gray wolf was only protected by the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
“Wolves are wisely mistrustful of humans and avoid contact,” says Gaillard, brushing his teeth inside the tent and telling me what I already know: There has never been a documented case of a wolf fatally attacking a human in U.S. history.
Over the vociferous objections of ranchers, the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Not surprisingly, the 31 relocated Canadian-born wolves found their new home much to their liking. Thirteen years later, an estimated 1,250 wolves populate the Idaho-Wyoming-Montana region. As with the grizzly, the wolf program represents an impressive endangered species success story. Wolves bring the greater Yellowstone ecosystem back into some form of natural balance–admittedly human-managed–but guided by natural ecological principles.
“Wolves are a top-level keystone species,” Chuck Neal told me on the phone. “They are the principal predators in Yellowstone. Take them away and the ecosystem begins to unravel.”
A keystone species is one that directly impacts the entire ecosystem. In Yellowstone, the extermination of wolves caused the elk population to explode. Starving and diseased, elk chewed down the aspen saplings, which depleted the home-building materials of the beaver, reducing their numbers. Fewer beavers caused a change in riparian vegetation, which caused a drop in neotropical songbirds.
Everything is connected.
Like grizzlies, wolves require a sizable block of land to survive. The average range for a Yellowstone wolf pack is 350 square miles. Individual wolves searching for new territory to start their own pack can travel 50 to 70 miles beyond their natal range.
“Wolves searching for food regularly leave the park,” explains Gaillard, only his nose poking out of the sleeping bag. “In 2006, more than 25 percent of Wyoming’s wolf population was killed by ranchers or contract hunters hired by state or federal agencies to protect sheep and cattle.”
On March 28, 2008, as I was writing this story, U.S. Fish and Wildlife delisted the wolf as an endangered species and handed wolf management over to individual states. More than half of the Northern Rockies wolf population, some 650 animals, lives in Idaho, where governor Butch Otter publicly committed to reduce that number by 500–to only 150–through hunting. An in-state license costs $26.50. “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket myself,” the governor told a rally of hunters in Boise last year. In the greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming, wolves are now designated as trophy game–hunted for sport, not food. In the rest of the state, they’re considered predators that can be poisoned or shot by anyone, at any time, no license or permit needed. In the first month after delisting, 37 wolves were slaughtered.
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.
This is not the Himalayas, but Yellowstone is still wild. Yes, land managers have monkeyed with the variables, but solid science is finally ascendent. Many citizens will never come here, yet they care enough to fight for such places. Which, for most of us, starts with sending a check to the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council or Audubon or any one of the hundreds of groups that defend wilderness, and ends with radically reducing our carbon footprints.
Hiking into the timbered Plateau Creek valley, I relearn what I knew as a boy: that wilderness is not a mythical place, nor a region of virginal exquisiteness as the Transcendentalists would have us believe. Rather, it is real, ecologically complex, necessarily human-managed geography where biodiversity matters more than money. Wilderness is in our backyard, and with the healing influence of minimal interference, it will endure.
Gaillard and I knock off miles faster than we expected and surprise ourselves by reaching camp at 2 p.m. In an hour, we have the tent up and a pile of wood. This is our fourth day of walking, as directly as we could, and we still haven’t reached the most remote spot in the Lower 48. But we’re close.
Gaillard looks at his watch, at the sky, then at me. We’re beat. We have less than four hours of daylight.
We quickly shove food, water, headlamps, GPS, and jackets in hip packs and strike out due north along the Two Ocean Plateau. A moose has broken trail for the first mile.
After crossing the plateau, we have to regain it again to reach the most remote spot. On a mission, we proceed with exuberance, and our muscles respond. On the northern aspects, we plunge up to our knees through crust. When the trail curls around to southern aspects, the track melts to a soft pine needle path and we practically trot.
According to my custom map, we should enter a mile-long clearing with two ponds. We hit it dead on. Gaillard is charging ahead; I’m looking at the map and the GPS, shouting “go north of the ponds,” then, “Okay, go straight.”
Gaillard kneels to examine tracks. “Pine marten,” he says.
Passing the last landmark, a pond half-skimmed with ice, we discover antlers sticking out of the water. Perhaps the elk died last winter. Perhaps a grizzly ate the carcass. No matter, whatever happened, it was as it should be. The antlers feel like some kind of symbol, the earth’s wishbone, a talisman.
Beyond the pond, using the GPS, we walk precisely to the most remote place. The middle of nowhere. As wild as wild gets in the Lower 48. A place that may become wilder in the next century.
We stop, stand still, and listen.
Sky. Forest. Snow. Silence.
The birds. The unseen insects and animals all around us. And hope.
Mark Jenkins’ s latest book is A Man’s Life: Dispatches from Dangerous Places.