Eleven weeks spent in what arguably is the most remote corner of the continental United States taught writer Gary Ferguson that, sadly, some who pass through the landscape take it too much for granted.
Hunkered down in an ancient cabin owned by the U.S. Forest Service, Mr. Ferguson trekked to the Thorofare region beyond the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park to take the pulse of what GPS technology tells us is "the most remote spot in the lower 48." Beyond the wolves and grizzlies and elk and moose and raptors, he found a surprising number of humans. Some, he easily saw, where trekkers looking to experience the backcountry. Others, he soon discovered, were outfitters who happily took advantage of that setting and its wildlife as if they were king of the realm.
"Time after time the outfitters I wrote about sat beside me – my tape recorder in full view – and boasted about all the illegal things they were doing. After the second or third round of it, I decided their shenanigans should be a major part of the story," he says.
Hawks Rest, A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone is part love story and part crime novel. If you're comfortable in the backcountry and surrounded by wildlife, how couldn't you jump at the chance to live in this setting, if only for a short period of time? In the pages of his book Mr. Ferguson shares his love of nature with us, recounting the natural history that is infused in the Thorofare.
Only last week the plants of the tundra were still rushing to bloom, playing catch-up to the lower country, as they've been doing since spring first borke along the Yellowstone (river) in early June. No more. The bloom that spilled across the high ridges and plateaus has come to an end, ground to a halt by frost, turning the leaves of cushion plants to rust and orange and red. From now on it's the highlands that will lead the season, rushing headlong toward autumn, with the lower forests and the meadows along the Yellowstone falling a day, two days, a week behind. Gone is the illusion that summer has somehow broken free, that it's no longer tethered to the same rhythms that bind winter and fall and spring.
There are different smells now -- dust instead of dampness, a thin sweetness from curing grass instead of the perfume of lupine and rose. But for the persistent bob created by beavers working the lower sections of Atlantic Creek, the trails are dry, free of the sucking mud that once grabbed at horse's hooves and hiker's boots. The meadows are all cinnamon and butternut, only the willow holding onto shades of green. Asters, harebells, and gentians are still in bloom, and in shaded, wet places sticky geraniums; the fireweed is holding up well but looking ragged, the heads of the stalks missing more and more petals with every passing day. In the lowlands, strawberries and whortleberries are heavy with fruit, swelled by a season of decent rains, soon to be vacuumed away by black bears and grizzlies -- a juicy, sugar-rich appetizer that marks the front end of a hyperactive feeding phase that will run all the way through fall.
And yet, the story sours a bit as Mr. Ferguson learns more and more about outfitters who, turning a blind eye to game regulations, place salt blocks to lure elk out of the national park and into the gun sights of their clients. The protagonist in this section of the book is Bob Jackson, a park ranger who is widely praised by his supervisors for his work in the Thorofare, and for documenting the problems of salt baits, until a five-page report he authored on how salting could be contributing to grizzly bear deaths gains wide circulation. Almost immediately the ranger seemed to become, in his supervisors' eyes, a liability, someone who lacked sound judgment and who "has not achieved basic level of acceptable performance."
Now, you'll have to read the book to find out exactly how this all came about and how it played out. But suffice to say that outfitters are the antagonists in Hawks Rest.
As for the book's premise, that Mr. Ferguson would find himself in the most remote corner of America, well, since it is the 21st century that has to be put into its proper context.
"I got the idea for the book when I happened to read about a team of geographers at Harvard, who’d used what was then rather new GPS technology to locate the so-called most remote spot in the lower 48 (as defined by proximity to roads)," he told me. "The good news is that it was in my back yard; the bad news, as you know by now, is that it was less than 30 miles from a road.
"Once I got National Geographic interested, there was never any question in my mind that the best way to check out the place would be to walk there, crossing what’s often touted as the largest 'generally intact' ecosystem in the temperate world," he added. "I knew there was a Forest Service cabin nearby, having hiked passed it on another trip; happily, the agency was willing to trade me lodging in the old guard station in exchange for doing various improvements on the cabin and grounds, as well as giving general information to the visiting public."
Hawks Rest is a book of insights. Mr. Ferguson's musings and observations about the wildlife, the scenery, the vegetation alone could carry the book. His reporting on the salting issue, well, it's disheartening to learn how officials supposedly responsible for instituting and upholding game laws are quick to look the other way.
I went to the Thorofare to gauge the state of nature in the most remote place in the lower 48, he writes near the book's end. On first glance it seems remarkably intact. No doubt wolves will howl and bears will scratch yampa and biscuit-root from the meadows along the upper Yellowstone for years to come. On any given summer afternoon there will be soaring overhead everything from sandhill cranes to Swainson's hawks, eagles to marsh hawks, pelicans to peregrine falcons. Despite the growing knot of humanity sprawling southward from the shores of Bridger Lake, it will still be possible to wander off windswept ridges or hidden vales swimming with quietude. Yet even a sprawl of wildness as grand and unfettered as this one cannot survive forever a culture increasingly hard-bitten and self-absorbed. One that in many days seems willing to trade a heritage of conservation, with its requisites of empathy and affinity, for mere adjudication. A society in which good science becomes less important that good press releases, where on most days the battle seems less about guaranteeing an actual future than securing an imagined past. Beyond the creatures it plays host to, the Thorofare serves an enormous range of human hungers. Perhaps one day those who depend on it will look around at the palette of life there and realize that such abundance owes less to survival of the fittest than it does to the creative potential of diversity -- that he who would dominate the system is sewing the seeds of his own destruction.