Yellowstone Bookshelf

The wild heart of the Rockies

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I have been making semiannual pilgrimages to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) for two decades, drawn 1,000 miles east in all seasons to explore one of the wildest landscapes left in North America. Yellowstone National Park protects the heart of the ecosystem, serving as an imperfect refugia for the many different species of wildlife that roam the Rockies.

Deep in the park’s embrace, far away from the crowds, I have canoed lakes and rivers, scrambled up peaks, soaked in hot springs, hiked through meadows and across fire-kissed ridges and, more often than not, found places that called out for simply sitting still and watching. Grizzly bear tracks, beaver lodges, wolf howls, flocks of pelicans, herds of bison, the call of sandhill cranes—wild company is always near.

Three recent titles illuminate what’s going on behind-the-scenes in America’s first national park.

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Crown), by Nate Blakeslee, is the biography of one wolf: O-Six, a charismatic alpha female wolf of the Lamer Canyon pack. Combining scientific research, thousands of pages of notes from dedicated wolf-watchers and novelistic writing techniques, Blakeslee recreates her life with specificity and drama. His book reads at times like a hold-your-breath thriller as O-Six struggles for survival.

In addition to a great wealth of natural history on canis lupus, human characters play a big part in Blakeslee’s saga—from environmentalists to ranchers, citizen scientists, hunters and guides, park rangers and others. One can’t write about Yellowstone’s wolves without addressing the deep cultural and political divides that accompanied their reintroduction, and American Wolf sides with the wild.

“For many people, wolves are iconic,” he explains, “symbols of what was lost when the West was tamed, and harbingers of a hoped-for restoration of one of the world’s last great wildernesses.”

Joe Riis’ Yellowstone Migrations (Braided River) pulls back to take in a larger perspective: the seasonal movements across the ecosystem of six wild, native ungulate species—pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, bison, moose and bighorn sheep. His groundbreaking work utilizes motion-activated cameras placed along game trails and migration “pinch points,” GPS tracking technology and lots of time spent in the backcountry. The results are intimate photos placing the viewer close to the drama at river crossings and mountain passes as they follow primordial paths.

“I want to let people see what it’s like to be an animal,” the photographer explains, “to spend four months of one’s life on the move.”

Riis’ work asks us to re-envision how humans can make room in our settlements, roadways and industry for these ancient journeys to continue—“a dynamic co-residency where boundaries are erased,” as Gretel Ehrlich describes it in the introduction.

Finally, in A Week In Yellowstone’s Thorofare: A Journey Through the Remotest Place (Oregon State University Press), Michael J. Yochim takes the reader on a journey through the most far-flung corner of the ecosystem, the Thorofare in the southeast corner of the park, surrounded by Yellowstone Lake, the Absaroka mountains, and unpeopled wilderness.

Yochim’s love and knowledge for this wild country was fostered by two decades working for Yellowstone National Park, and his book recounts a 10-day canoe expedition with three friends, planned and undertaken soon after the author was diagnosed with ALS.

A blend of firsthand experience with historical accounts and scientific studies brings this terra incognito to life, and is a prayer to place from a GYE pilgrim who, in the book’s final pages, sees “no realistic hope of ever getting there again.”

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