Americas most remote site the undiscovered side of Yellowstone

The south-eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming takes a week of backpacking to hike in and out and is populated by wolves and grizzly bears

The most remote place in the contiguous 48 states, the farthest you can go to get away from it all the only place you can be more than 20 miles from a road is deep in the south-eastern corner of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

I discovered this after spending an afternoon at the University of Wyomings Geographic Information Systems Science Center, where geographer and GIS specialist Shawn Lanning explained that hed discovered it by using a spatial analyst extension to access the Euclidean distance tool, and a Lambert conformal conic projection, with a raster 100 meters x 100 meters cell parameter. I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. Minutes later, he printed out a topographic map with a red dot dead center. That was my destination. The question was: could I actually get there? And could I do it without having uncomfortably close encounters with the sometimes sour, hirsute locals: grizzlies.

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A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park Photograph: Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images

It wasnt going to be easy it would take a week of backpacking to hike in and out but Id done several long trips into Yellowstone and thoroughly looked forward to this one. I chose Dave Gaillard, a long, lean, carrot-headed scientist as my partner. An indefatigable backpacker, Gaillard was a specialist in endangered species, namely the wolf, wolverine, grizzly and lynx. These are species that only thrive where there are very few humans. All four of them had been exterminated from 95% of their natural habitat, only surviving in the most remote pockets of Americas backcountry. The lynx and wolverine were already so rare that the chances of us seeing either was small. But we had high hopes of spotting wolves and, at a distance, grizzlies.

Our plan was simple: hike through the largest roadless area in the lower US, an 80-mile jaunt exploring the most unknown part of our most well-known national park.

We started on the eastern edge of the Washakie Wilderness, an hours drive east of Cody, Wyoming. It was late October, snow had fallen and the hunting season was in full swing. We werent on the trail 10 minutes before a wrangler high on a black horse and trailing six mules trotted by.

Best watch yerselves! shouted the wrangler, pushing a plum-size wad of chewing tobacco from one side of his mouth, Seen 11 grizzlies in seven hours!

How far down the trail? asked Gaillard excitedly.

Just a little ways back there was a sow with a cub. Reared up mad as hell and swatted at my dog.

Dave and I expected to see bears. We wanted to see them. Wed both spent months in grizzly bear country, from the Beartooth Wilderness in Montana to Katmai National Park in Alaska. Grizzly bears have little fear of humans and often use foot trails like the one we were on.

As we hiked, we talked loudly so as not to surprise a griz on the path. We had bear spray and knew how to use it.

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A grizzly bear sow and her cubs walk through the underbrush in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Photograph: NPS Photo/Alamy

At the time of Lewis and Clark, it is estimated that there were over 50,000 grizzlies in North America. Today there are less than 2,000 in the lower 48, most of them roaming in or between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park

We came upon the tracks of a sow and cub in the snow a few miles later, but the bears were long gone. We camped that first night in a meadow, hanging our food in a tree. The night air was cold and pine-scented and it felt good to sleep on the ground.

The next morning there was frost in the meadow and a skim of ice on the pond. My hands froze filling our pot but soon warmed up clamped around a scalding cup of hot chocolate. Its clich, but camping does simplify your life. Your biggest concerns are staying warm, staying dry, eating, moving. It is a rare opportunity to live like humans lived for thousands of years.

Back on the trail we discovered an enormous, steaming pile of bear scat not 100 yards from where our tent had been. We spent the whole day gamely walking through mud in the low country and snow in the high country, our feet getting soaked despite waterproof boots and gaiters.

Dave regaled me with stories of critters that inhabited the landscape. How wolverines build snow caves as far as they can get from humans and have their kits in the winter, which are born snow white. How the primary diet of the lynx is the snowshoe hare, and without it, the population dies.

There probably arent more than 300 wolverines left in the Rockies, he lamented.

The next night we camped just outside the Yellowstone boundary on a bluff that burned during the 1988 fires. Already, tall, brilliant saplings were taking over the blackened totem poles of their ancestors.

We made a little fire, just enough to warm our knees and hands, but not enough to alter the starlight pouring down through the trees. We were tired, that good tired, and didnt speak much. By now, the madness of everyday life was as far off as the Milky Way.

The next day, we arrived at Thorofare Ranger station, the most remote cabin in all national parks outside Alaska.

A park ranger came out and shook our hands and said more than three million people visit Yellowstone every year, but probably not more than a hundred get this far back!

He wanted to know if wed seen any bears.

Just scat, Dave said with disappointment.

Well then you must be doing everything right.

At dusk we forded the freezing Thorofare Creek, bare assed and barefoot, and set up our tent amid enormous wolf tracks in the snow.

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A pack of gray timber wolves at snowy Yellowstone. Photograph: David Parsons/Getty Images

Wolves once roamed the entire continent, from Panama to Prudhoe Bay, Dave told me that night. But due to government bounties and predator control policies designed to help ranchers, the last original Yellowstone wolf was killed in 1926. Then, over vociferous objections of ranchers, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Today there are an estimated 1700 wolves in the Northern Rockies, Dave said. They are a keystone species.

A keystone species is one that directly impacts the balance of the ecosystem. In Yellowstone, the extermination of wolves caused the elk population to explode. With no wolves to disperse them, elk chewed down the aspen saplings and willows along streams, which depleted the food source for the beavers, reducing their numbers.

Fewer beavers caused a drop in beaver dams, which reduced the amount of cool, shaded water, which reduced the fish populations. Fewer willows caused a drop in migrating neotropical songbirds.

Everything is connected, said Dave, poking the fire with a stick.

Today, what visitors to Yellowstone most want to see more than elk or buffalo or even geysers is a wolf.

That night, after days of hard hiking, I slept like a dead man. I awoke to a deep-throated howl. The roar was so close and so loud I thought Gaillard was having me on. I crawled from my tent to find him pumping the camp stove, his furred red face grinning ear to ear.

Quite a wake-up call isnt it! he said. Not 50 yards away. Biggest wolf Ive seen in my life.

Envious, I scanned the valley. It was twilight, the stars still vanishing into a lavender sky, straight dead pines white with frost.

I didnt see a wolf. I saw wild, open, primeval country.

Wolves
Photograph: Mazzini/PA

After that first howl, we assumed a portent silence. Wolves have an acute sense of hearing. I knew they were watching us right now, through the gloaming, but we couldnt see them. Like dogs and cats, wolves have a thin, reflective film inside their retinas, called the tapetum lucidum, which gives them night vision.

Dave headed off to break a hole in the ice and fill our pot while I lowered the food bag out of the tree. A short time later we were standing over the dead coals of last nights fire, stomping our frozen boots, digging into our bowls of hot granola and watching the sunlight gild the surrounding summits.

Then the gorgeous howl came back. This time it was much farther away and echoed across the still-shaded valley. Another howl answered it from the stony mountainside to the northwest, then another from the dark line of forest to the southeast.

The wolves had triangulated us.

This is the Delta pack, said Dave, could be as many as a dozen.

We were standing in the most remote place in the lower 48, two small, pink creatures inside a prodigious sanctuary. The wolves commenced to sing. Perhaps three or four in a group, a call and refrain. Dave threw his arms back like a preacher.

Now this is Yellowstone!

They howled together in thundering choruses, bringing music to the morning. Individual voices could be distinguished, just like in a choir. Numerous basses, two baritones, even a tenor trying out her young pipes. They ululated for perhaps five minutes, then abruptly stopped.

I began glassing along a bank of trees to the south from whence the closest howling had come, stopping for some reason on a stand of spruce. I was studying the conifers when two huge wolves stepped out into the open. Black as night, they looked right at me, then loped off through the trees.

I had so desperately wanted to get away, to escape and Id done it. But now everything was inverted. Being there in the moment in the mountains with the wolves, I realized we actually hadnt gotten away from it all, we gotten right into the middle of it. The office and the asphalt are what felt strange now. We had hiked ourselves back in time into an environment that was once common and now barely exists, a place I had imagined to be silent and austere but was in truth songful and profoundly complex.

And is this not the very point of a national park? To reveal a world in which humans are just another species in a beautifully intricate ecosystem.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/25/yellowstone-national-park-wyoming-bears-wolves-remote