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Range rogues keep filling in the blanks

Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone, Gary Ferguson, National Geographic Adventure Press: 220 pp., $15 paper

June 18, 2003|Frank Clifford | Times Staff Writer

Hawks Rest is the kind of place naturalist Aldo Leopold had in mind 50 years ago when he wondered "what avail is forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map." Hawks Rest is the capital of blank spaces. A two-room cabin, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, overlooking the Yellowstone River -- just outside the national park -- in the wilds of northwest Wyoming, it is as far from a road as you can get in the lower 48 states.

A former forest ranger himself, Gary Ferguson and a friend spend a summer there "to get a sense of how some of the creatures are doing," in particular the grizzly bears and wolves that have fewer and fewer blank spots to call their own. He was also seeking the sublime dislocation that wilderness offers -- "the sense of being suspended, of swimming outside the normal passing of hours."

Ferguson had work to do clearing trails, rebuilding fences and making the cabin safe from the pack rats, field mice and hordes of mosquitoes that greeted him upon his arrival. But outdoor writing is a loafer's art, and Ferguson is in his element sitting on a stump, taking in the music of a summer storm, "the growl of the reverberations ... drifting out mile after mile, one chorus barely fading before the next begins," or listening to the chortle of a sandhill crane, "a primal sound that seems firmly tethered to a dark and distant past."

Ferguson's tone changes as he visits overgrazed campsites strewn with human waste, and as he comes upon the teeming, makeshift stage set of a TV travel show broadcasting live from the wilds. Ferguson quickly finds himself on the well-worn path to the paradox of American wilderness. "Beautiful as it may be, this most remote region in the lower 48 is by far the busiest slice of back country either of us has ever seen. Most days it feels as though we have stumbled on a colossal family reunion: short on kids -- long on lunatic relatives."

A good book about wilderness is like an Irish wake; it fortifies you against the loss. Mournful and defiant as a wolf howl, "Hawks Rest" is an eloquent tribute to a threatened place and its lone protectors, people like Lone Eagle Woman in her "two-dollar knockabout shoes" and 80-pound backpack, keeping a record of the wolves, bears, moose, elk and beaver she has seen in 20 years wandering the countryside; and Bob "Action" Jackson, an implacable ranger who has spent his career tracking down rogue hunting guides who flout game laws and divide up the federal wilderness as if they owned it. Ferguson comes upon one of them "wearing a cowboy hat and a .44 on his hip" just after the fellow had abandoned an injured hunting client whose horse had fallen on him.

In the movies, Jackson would rout the rascals. Not here, not now. The guides have friends in high places. The brother of one served in the first Bush administration. Jackson is given the choice of resigning or accepting another assignment, most likely greeting tourists at a park entrance gate.

As moral landscapes go, Hawks Rest may not be as remote as it seems. Rid of its meddlesome ranger, it offers an object lesson in the consequences of deregulation. "This is a lawless place," Ferguson writes. "With testosterone enough to light the woods on fire." It's only a matter of time before nature succumbs to human pressures. "Even a sprawl of wilderness as grand and unfettered as this one cannot survive forever a culture increasingly hard bitten and self-absorbed."

At one point, he stops at the hunting camp of an outfitter who earlier in the summer squired First Lady Laura Bush on a sightseeing tour of Yellowstone Park. One of the outfitter's employees has recently opened fire on a female grizzly bear that innocently appropriated an elk carcass left unguarded in the woods. It gets Ferguson to wondering whatever happened to the wilderness ethic embodied by the most avid hunter ever to inhabit the White House.

"The hunter, as Theodore Roosevelt described him, a man who fights both for the integrity of his prey and the land that sustains it, is being too often overwhelmed by men concerned mainly with playing dress up and shooting guns."

More disturbing, Ferguson says, is that such behavior "is so often wrapped up in the flag. Thereby reducing one of the great bedrocks of patriotism -- the celebration of unfettered land, so common in early America -- to a profane demand for the right to despoil it."

But Ferguson's indignation comes and goes as quickly as a summer storm, and he and we are inevitably consoled by the incantations of his Hawks Rest neighbors. "Whether in chorus or alone, wolf howling brings to mind something sad but rich, the blues of the world, as if some ancient pain was being exorcised through their upturned muzzles."

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