There is a valley in the Teton Wilderness off Yellowstone National Park’s southeast corner called the Thorofare. It is so named because it’s a wide, easily traveled route through the rugged Absarokas, the trail along the upper Yellowstone River first used by Indians and early white trappers.
The Thorofare is a mere seventy miles from my Cody home, yet I have never been there. As wilderness it is roadless. It is approximately forty miles southwest from the end of the South Fork Road via the Deer Creek Trail ( I have been a few miles up Deer Creek). Or by the Thorofare Trail it is thirty miles south of Highway 14-20 in the Park as the road approaches Yellowstone Lake from the east.
Today the Thorofare is one of the truly remote areas found in the lower 48 states, a haven for hunters and backpackers, and rich in wildlife such as elk, moose, wolves and grizzlies. This wild west border “no man’s land” is a place where federal and state authority overlaps, and is sometimes in conflict. It is the subject of Gary Ferguson’s Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone (National Geographic Adventure Press, 214 pages, $15). Ferguson is the author of a dozen books on natural history, and is an ex-U.S. Forest Service employee and enthusiastic hiker. He’s 47 and lives in Red Lodge, Montana.
To call the author a “hiker” is an understatement. Following trails south across the Beartooth Mountains and down through Yellowstone, Ferguson backpacked 140 miles to the Thorofare from his Red Lodge home. He was accompanied on this trek by a full-bearded Utahan named LaVoy Tolbert, a spry, 68-year-old friend.
Awaiting them at the end of the trail was a prearranged summer job working as “cabin tenders,” a simple phrase describing a multitude of tasks including dispensing information to backpackers, looking out for forest fires, doing some maintenance on a cabin and outbuildings, and recording observations of wildlife for federal and state wildlife biologists. The cabin — called “Hawks Rest” — featured the bare necessities (water piped in from a spring; a privy out back) and before cleaning was “a festival of rodents.” Though in the end it was a great hook for a book.
Though its surroundings are what we’re here for. In page after page of metaphorically vivid prose, Ferguson describes their wanderings in the Thorofare. It is a place where a violent thunderstorm gives the volcanic brown Absarokas the appearance of “the summer quarters of Darth Vader.” From afar the writer admires the “green tundra draped across the cone-shaped flanks of Younts Peak.” A “ribbon” of lupine along the river is “a lazy smear of blue the color of autumn sky.”
Despite its remote, Edenic beauty, the Thorofare is a busy place. Through a short eleven-week summer, Ferguson and Tolbert would see their share of outfitters leading pack trips, backpackers, Forest Service trail crews, and Yellowstone rangers — some 600 in all (not to mention three times as many horses and mules).
One of these visitors was the infamous Bob “Action” Jackson, a thirty-year Park Service veteran residing nearby at the Thorofare Ranger Station, just inside Yellowstone. A long record of policing the Thorofare in hunting season has left him unpopular with outfitters known for keeping slovenly, dirty camps and for breaking strict backcountry rules. Jackson has an extensive three-decade record of busting poachers, including a few among those outfitters who pretty much hate him.
In the last couple of years Jackson has caused a local media stir by blowing the whistle on some Park Service superiors, U.S. Forest Service and Wyoming Game and Fish personnel for turning a blind eye to some outfitters’ illegal practice of “salting,” that is, planting salt licks for elk just outside the Park’s boundaries.
For years, Wyoming outfitters have left salt licks to lure elk out of the Park, thus hoping for a good percentage of trophy bulls for their clients. In 1991 the U.S. Forest Service outlawed the practice, though it has continued on a smaller scale for a decade to the official consternation of the Park Service and Forest Service. The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association has always been a powerful lobbying force in state government, and many times a phone call to Washington is enough to get a guilty outfitter off the hook, and help him beat a fine and keep his license. While on a one-man crusade to enforce the salting law, Bob Jackson has stepped on so many toes that Yellowstone Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis recently announced the 2003 season would be Jackson’s last assigned to the Thorofare. (This seemingly minor bit of Park Service personnel reshuffling was front-page news in the Northern Rockies.) Before that, he was forbidden to talk to the media after reporters from the L.A. Times and regional papers interviewed him about the seemingly unenforceable salting law.
Oddly enough, Jackson’s troubles started not with elk, but with grizzlies. In 1998, he submitted a report to his Park Service superiors entitled “Grizzly Mortality in the Thorofare.” In it he tied higher bear mortality rates in the area to salting and other dubious hunter-outfitter practices that result in more frequent human-bear conflicts. He was officially lauded for this well-researched document, but it seems to have been the beginning of his undoing.
Grizzlies haunt the Thorofare, especially in the fall, due to an abundance of gut piles left behind after successful elk hunts, offal that helps to satisfy their seasonal hyperphagia (the pre-hibernation food lust to put on layers of fat). And Wyoming hunters both resident and nonresident alike are allowed to “quick quarter” elk in grizzly country to more quickly remove it. Moreover, quick quartering can leave behind fifty or sixty pounds of loose scrap meat on the ground, as much a bear lure as the gut pile. Some grizzly experts entertain the notion that the Thorofare population has become conditioned to the sound of a rifle shot as an ursine dinner bell. More than one hunter after a long distance scope shot has arrived on the scene to discover a defiant grizzly standing with two front paws on his trophy bull elk.
These encounters many times end badly for the bears. It also makes for crazy bears. The outfitter camps are under siege at night, making for clients who can’t sleep, and corrals full of very neurotic horses. I remember reading of one Thorofare incident a few years ago where a pack train entering the area was literally attacked by a sow and her three large sub-adult cubs. After a few minutes of chaos and horse-neighing terror (imagine being a tourist-client on that trip) the guides and wranglers present legally shot dead all four bears. Oh, well, Bob Jackson told you so.
Gary Ferguson definitely falls into the category of “liberal environmentalist,” and his descriptions of “the warlord mentality” of the Thorofare, where there’s “enough testosterone to light the woods on fire” seems a bit over the top. Ferguson makes clear where his sympathies lie. But his account of the Bob Jackson story (which occupies a major portion of the book) is first rate, and is — to my knowledge — the first time that important story has appeared between the covers of a book.
Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get into the Thorofare someday. Until then, I’ll have to settle for Gary Ferguson’s vividly rendered Hawks Rest. It’s all there. Read it.