Just voicing those words conjures visions of a wild landscape, of jagged, snow-shrouded peaks, forests and meadows roamed by grizzly bears and wolves, and mountain rims traversed by wolverines. Of course, it's not as it was century ago, or even 50 years ago. Development has hemmed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and even in Montana.
But there's a place, the Crown of the Continent, (a tag applied to the region in the 1890s by George Bird Grinnell) where wild still reigns.
A 2004 book attested to that right off the bat with its title: Crown of the Continent, The Last Great Wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. The next year we had Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, which put the concept of wilderness into words -- essays by noted nature writers Rick Bass, David Quammen, and Douglas Chadwick, among others -- that were married to magnificent photographs captured by Florian Schulz, a German whose boyhood dreams of someday visiting places like the Rock Mountain West were stoked by the marvelous works of Jack London. For ten years Schulz worked on this project, hoping to capture on film images that would inspire conservation.
The latest, and arguably the best, attempt to capture the Rockies comes from Steven Gnam, a photographer who grew up in this fantastic landscape and who traversed "thousands of miles" by ski, foot, bike -- and even pulled on a mask and bit on a snorkel mouthpiece -- to bring the landscape, its residents, even its emotions, into focus in Crown of the Continent, The Wildest Rockies. What we've been presented with a book, appropriately large format, that displays in all its dimensions the Rockies that are defined in a 250-mile-stretch of western Montana and Alberta, Canada, the heart of the Crown of the Continent.
Wildlife, appropriately enough, is well-represented. We see tightly focused, colorful images of Harlequin ducks, mountain goats ducking an avalanche under the safety of an overhanging ledge, amorous bighorn rams, grizzlies, even a wolverine on the run across a talus slope, and tundra swans against a full moon. But Gnam broadens and deepens the imagery of the "Wildest Rockies." We are treated to geology via striated bands of rock, forestry in stands of aspen, and the human aspect through the faces of a Blackfoot woman who practices traditional methods as an herbalist, a rancher whose family has long made a living off the land near Choteau, Montana, and some of the residents who make their living near Polebridge, Montana, on the western edge of Glacier National Park.
If the photography wasn't enough, we have the words of Douglas Chadwick, Michael Jamison, Dylan Boyle, anf Karsten Heuer to build on the imagery. Chadwick, a wildlife biologist with a lengthy resume of National Geographic articles to his credit, addresses the region's biodiversity; Jamison, long a local journalist and now running the Crown of the Continent program for the National Parks Conservation Association, discusses the human history of the area; Boyle, a member of the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council, points to natural and cultural sites in the region worth visiting, and; Heuer, executive director of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (and who walked the route from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon), focuses on the conservation needs.
In sum, a beautiful and thorough approach to describing a slice of wilderness nirvana.