-The Los Angeles Times
Torrey House Press
2015, paperback re-release with an all new foreword
Beginning with his hundred-mile hike to reach the Lower 48’s most remote place, Ferguson gives us a fascinating, personal account of three months living alone in the wilderness – a summer spent monitoring grizzly bears and wolf packs in Hawks Rest, the heart of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Through his encounters with park rangers, wildlife biologists, outfitters, and intrepid visitors, Ferguson weaves a poignant story of a land under siege. Opinionated first-hand accounts illuminate the dream and the difficulty of preserving the Yellowstone wilderness – America’s first national park and a touchstone of all things wild.
Survival of the Fittest
The day is brilliant, the sun pouring through the air at 10,000 feet with the crisp, blue tinge of early summer in the high country. After what seemed an endless period of drought, the magic of May snows returned this year, which has led to an early fireworks of wildflowers. Our every footstep falls beside alpine forget-me-nots, their perfect, tiny blooms the color of a spring sky. Here too is the pink of moss champion, the bright lemon of cinquefoil, the deep blue of penstemon. Wet meadows announce themselves a mile distant, given away by blankets of globe flower and marsh marigold. Underlying it all is a mat of grasses and forbs as green as Ireland, sprawling into what for those on foot is quite literally the middle of tomorrow.
During a short pause on the tundra to catch our breath, LaVoy—the man with eagle eyes—spots three brown lumps dotting a side hill nearly a half-mile away. Moving forward cautiously, we’re able to approach to within several hundred yards, finally recognizing them as three bull elk, bedded down near the head of Spring Creek. On catching sight of us, they rouse themselves and begin moving slowly north, are soon joined by four cows, then continue ambling toward the lip of the plateau. Certain the show is nearly over, LaVoy and I stand there for a time admiring how healthy they look, how fine their color and coat. Then, with a quick glance behind us toward the head of Spring Creek, LaVoy notices three other animals slipping into a small ravine. Focusing my binoculars on the darkest member of the group, at first I think of bear. But no sooner has that thought hit the ground when the black face of the lead animal turns toward me, and I realize this is something else entirely: wolves.
Bear and cub
There are six of them, two black and four gray, and it’s clear that if they keep moving in their current direction there will be a collision with the elk. Sure enough, part way up a small ravine the pack catches scent of the traveling elk, and drop fast into stalking position. (There are, by the way, clear rules to this game. On a number of occasions in Yellowstone I’ve watched wolves stroll right by a herd of elk with hardly a response; let them drop into hunting position, though, and the elk react immediately.) Continuing in the lead is the large black wolf, who, by her actions, is more than likely one of the alphas. She moves fast toward the head of the ravine, easily crossing a small, rugged boulder field without a stumble; at the same time the other wolves are shifting left, and when the leader tops the ravine the startled elk double back, leaving them suddenly facing the rest of the pack. The chase is on. And it’s being staged a mere three hundred yards away. Two of the elk bail off the edge of the plateau at double speed, but the wolves all but ignore them. Instead, they set about running the herd, both singly and in pairs, watching carefully to see if any of their prey stumbles or limps or even breathes hard—all signs that an animal may actually be catchable.
Not once do either elk or wolf break into high speed. The elk run just fast enough to stay ahead of their pursuers, and the wolves run only hard enough to get the information they need to evaluate the situation. At one point one of the bulls, perhaps bored with the whole sordid affair, turns to a lone wolf chasing him and faces him—horn to snout—eight feet apart. And with that the lone wolf walks away. His fellow pack members stop immediately, settling onto the tundra, paws in front of their faces, panting. LaVoy is astonished, and not just for having had the great fortune to stumble across this spectacle—the only known pack within at least forty miles. Having heard and read for years that wolves prey only on the weakest animals, and having dismissed such claims as wishful thinking, he has seen exactly that. My whole outlook on wolves just shattered, he says breathlessly, still trying to get his head around it. This is one of the great experiences of my life.
No Rest at Hawks Rest
July has barely taken its last breath, and already there are signs of summer unraveling. Our patrol cabin, which sits part way up the 1,700-foot swell of Hawks Rest, is this morning barely holding its own against a blanket of cold fog rolling down the Yellowstone. Looking west across the valley from the front porch there is nothing but sky, moon, and a mile distant, the summit of Two Ocean Plateau, lit by the breaking sun. Even now, well past dawn, the temperature has yet to break 28 degrees. Along the east wall of the cabin, the lavender blooms of fireweed—as well as those of yampa and aster and harebell—have all gone limp, sagging under a thin glaze of frost.
Still, there’s much summer business left to do. The pups of the Delta wolf pack, for example, are still far too young to travel, and so continue to spend much of their time at the den. On many mornings the main trails to the north are lined with the fresh tracks of the adult members of the pack, moving in and out of the Thorofare on a steady search for elk—a few pounds for themselves, a few pounds more brought back in their stomachs, to be regurgitated for their hungry offspring. More often than not, lying beside the wolf tracks are the prints of grizzly—not just because bears are fond of moving about by trail, but because by keeping an eye on the wolves, they stand a good chance of scoring food for themselves. Out of five elk recently taken by another wolf pack farther to the north, four were lost to grizzlies.
There are other movements, as well. The frenzy of human activity that began in early July is easing somewhat, thanks to swarms of fly-fishermen drifting home as spawning cutthroat leave the area to return to Yellowstone Lake. To the frustration of many, cutthroat numbers have been low again this year—whether due to the predatory lake trout, whirling disease, or drought, no one can say for sure. Whatever measure of quiet does come to this place will last no more than a few weeks, when outfitters will again stream up Atlantic Creek to begin setting up hunting camps. All through the bright days of autumn, scores of elk hunters will be scouring the northern reaches of this wilderness, the last of them likely pushed out in the closing days by heavy snow. And then will come winter, long and cold and deep. A season of stillness, the hush broken only by the yip of coyotes and the howl of wolves, singing up to the stars.
A Fall to Grace
Shortly after crossing Papoose Creek in the central Absarokas, the path braids and dwindles, and moving up trail we miss the second crossing—a fact quickly noted by LaVoy from the sudden absence of horse tracks. Unconcerned we carry on, our eyes on Boot Jack Gap and the eastern edge of Yellowstone, barely three miles away. The trail continues to deteriorate, and at one point is completely washed away by recent floods, leaving only a high, steep bank capped by a line of short but rugged cliffs. LaVoy and I scramble about lower down across loose volcanic soil, at one point moving forward like a couple of over-the-hill Tarzans, swinging on the branches of the occasional lodgepole pine. Jane, on the other hand, seeks a route higher up the slope. Halfway through she suddenly finds herself trapped on precarious footing, stuck fast high above the creek, a one-inch ledge of buried rock her only anchor. Hamstrung, unable to move in either direction, she finally decides to free herself of her pack, letting it slide down the slope into a downed log, where I scramble to retrieve it.
No sooner do I reach for it than out of the corner of my eye catch sight of her falling with astonishing speed, heading for the same log that caught her pack, which is spiked along its entire length with pointy stubs of broken branches. After a forty foot slide she comes to rest tucked under the fallen tree—cuts on her hands and arms, a bruise on her thigh, but by no small miracle, nothing more. Even so, all of us are shaken, knowing full well that the fall could have easily resulted in a serious, even fatal puncture wound. LaVoy and I shake our heads, internally calculating how long it would take for one of us to trek fifteen miles out to a phone to secure a rescue. Jane, meanwhile, stands by the creek alone, running the event through her mind again and again, scolding herself for not having either waded the creek or gone higher, onto the more solid footing of the upper cliffs.
The episode proves to be only the first of several trials brought about by our decision to stay on the north side of the creek, forgoing the official path for an elk trail. Given that elk rarely travel in stream bottoms, thereby avoiding possible ambush by predators, the path climbs and stays several hundred feet above Papoose Creek on a fearfully steep side hill, traversing a series of tightly pinched ravines. In places the route is entirely washed out, leaving for purchase only tiny, broken runs of three-inch wide ledges. Jane’s strategy is to go slow, while LaVoy and I scamper across thinking light thoughts, trying to move fast enough so that if one foot slips off we’ll be able to recover with the following step. Most of the slots are filled with sizeable streams of snowmelt; we cross them in a delicate dance of leaps and hurdles and hops. After every crossing the trail vaults steeply upward, levels out, then rounds the next headland only to repeat the same pattern. Over and over: nearly a dozen times in all.
And so it is that we come at last to Boot Jack Gap, and Yellowstone—exhausted, hungry, tired, humbled. During dinner, the sour taste of her nearly disastrous fall washed away, Jane turns philosophical. “I figured out why it’s so important for me to get out here again,” she says, referring to this being the first summer in seven years she hasn’t been in the wilds, leading courses for Outward Bound. “I need to feel vulnerable.” Life, she explains, has become safe, and the days lived best are those lived at the edge of the comfort zone. It wasn’t that the slide was a good thing; clearly, it might well have resulted in tragedy. But it has forced her across a threshold of sorts, to a presence of mind unknown in more common hours.
Hawks Rest Close-Up
Hawks Rest Mountain sits nearly 1800 feet above the valley, looking like the prow of a mighty ship that sailed west through the stormy terrain of the Absaroka Range, landing just shy of the banks of the Yellowstone. There are other, similar-looking formations docked nearby: Yellowstone Point to the south, and the three massive promontories of the Trident to the north, each parallel to this one. No trails of any count traverse these ridges, and cross-country travel tends to be on a sour mix of loose volcanic soil and cobbly breccia, as well as over jack straw piles of trees burned in the 1988 fires, sixty to seventy percent of which have now been toppled by the wind. As a result, few visitors ever make it to these ridge tops. Those who do summit Hawks Rest, however, are rewarded by views into one of the largest, most extraordinary meadow complexes anywhere in the Rockies.
To the north lies Thorofare Creek, running through a gravelly flood plain for nearly twenty miles, tossing back and forth from the north bank to the south with all the swagger of a rumba dancer. Meanwhile, coming to the meadows from the southwest is Atlantic Creek—a beautiful watercourse rising from a smaller creek that exactly straddles the Continental Divide; this parent creek actually splits in two at a place called Parting of the Waters, one part going west on a 1,300-mile journey to the Pacific, the other heading east for roughly 3,400 miles to the Atlantic. The final watershed visible from Hawks Rest is a long and dramatic slice of the Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in America, at rest after having made a twenty-mile long tumble from its birth place among the remnant snowfields of Younts Peak. From this perch the river appears as a soft blue twist laid across the landscape like a rope tossed casually to the ground, full of meanders and oxbows, easing past Hawks Rest and then making north for Yellowstone Lake. It’s a western wilderness version of Thomas Cole’s famous painting from Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the artist dovetails the ideals of the yeoman farmer with another, older hunger for unsullied nature. Here, however, the farmers have been replaced by outfitters, leading strings of weary dudes day after day through the summer, toting not grain or plows but collapsible lawn chairs and fly fishing rods, steaks and beer.
My tiny two-room cabin sits a mile or so from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Atlantic Creek, perched some eighty feet above the meadows in a loose toss of lodgepole pine. Simple from the start, the harsh climate has humbled it further, scouring the logs and cedar roof shakes to the same ash gray color of fallen timber. The logs have been chinked inside and out not with mud or cement but with a jigsaw puzzle of wood strips, each carefully angled, fitted and nailed into the cleft formed by adjacent logs. A tiny porch squats beside the front door, just big enough to set up a folding chair—a kind of box seat for watching the evening sun as it drifts toward Two Ocean Plateau.
Inside this door is the main living area, not quite eighteen feet square. A table covered in yellow oilcloth sits at the center of the room, surrounded by small wooden benches. Within arms reach are two bunk beds tucked into the northeast corner, and beside them, placed diagonally in the adjacent corner, a wood-burning cook stove and oven. Under the window on the east side of the room is a counter and two-basin sink, fed by a small spring on the hill behind the cabin, squatting in a patch of raspberry and fireweed. The room is not without its finer touches. Kitchen towels are draped across an elk antler above the sink, while another set of antlers next to the bed holds the hats, shirts and pants of the sleeping. A row of iron skillets hangs on the log wall next to the cook stove. A person crawling out of bed in the morning need take only a single step from his mattress to light the wood stove, where he can also pluck a skillet off the wall to begin warming it for pancakes. A stack of large metal tubs in another corner of the room serve as dish pans and washing tubs, though when it comes to taking baths, a plunge in the Yellowstone River works just as well. Laundry is done outside in five-gallon buckets, a toilet plunger serving as an agitator; once rinsed the clothes are laid out to dry on the top rail of a wooden fence. They’re officially done, by the way, at the point the wind blows them off the fence.
Cut into the south wall of the main quarters is a door leading to the tack room, which contains another set of bunks, as well as saddle racks, horse feed bins, a small tool bench and miscellaneous tools and supplies, from white gas to lantern parts, horse panniers to bridles, axes and shovels and cross-cut saws. Another door then leads out of the tack room to a set of hitching rails. Beyond that a dusty path winds along the edge of the forest to a log outhouse, the interior of which is heavily engraved with the names of dozens who have lived or worked here, another scratch for every year of service. Locally famous horse whisperer Jack Hatch has etchings of a dozen years. Other long-timers include ranger Gordon Reese and his kids, one of whom – Natalie – was baptized below the cabin in the Yellowstone River. Rounding out the restroom roster are the names of countless trail crew workers, many of them having been here for at least five or six seasons, each summer leading strings of mules through the wilderness, knocking apart fallen logs with cross-cut saws.
Inside the outhouse is a tree branch nailed to the wall to hold the toilet paper; a spare roll sits under an inverted Maxwell House coffee can in order to keep the mice from making confetti out of it. The final touch—and this is an important one—is a piece of foam padding duct-taped to the top of the plastic toilet lid, thus offering the user both warmth and comfort. For those who by choice or necessity must linger in their duties, the door of the outhouse swings wide open to reveal a small slice of the Yellowstone River, barely visible some three hundred yards away, flashing between scattered branches of Englemann spruce and lodgepole pine. Of course while all this may be utterly romantic in July or August, it can be less so toward the end of hunting season, when answering the call means running through the woods at zero degrees only to find the door of the outhouse blocked by drifts of snow. And there can be other hazards, as well. Several years ago, while sweating out the inglorious job of digging a new outhouse hole, Ranger Michelle Tibbetts had the misfortune to puncture her can of pepper spray on a rock at the bottom of the pit. Writing in the cabin log book, she offers a piece of advice that parents everywhere would do well to drive home to their children: “Never dig an outhouse hole,” she warns, “with your bear spray on your hip.”
© 2002 by Gary Ferguson, all rights reserved.
Award-winning writer Gary Ferguson sets off on a 140-mile hike into the most remote corner of the lower 48 states believing he will spend a quiet three months tracking wolf packs and communing with nature. The reality he encounters is entirely different. Ferguson comes to know the wild and beautiful core of greater Yellowstone “as a kind of sanatorium for the disenfranchised, a way station for men riding and hiding spring to fall to escape whatever curses they imagine hovering in the culture at large.”
Inflamed passions over wolves is just one of the issues Ferguson confronts. He also meets greedy outfitters intent on breaking the laws, troubled juveniles acquainting themselves with nature, a loner who has an uncanny rapport with wildlife, park rangers turned enforcers, and wildlife biologists grappling with the challenges of preserving this magnificent slice of wilderness. It’s a wild assortment of characters each with his own agenda Ferguson’s account is both a celebration of a magnificent American wilderness as well as a cautionary tale about the potential for its unraveling.