I grew up in Jackson Hole in the shadow of the Tetons, and spent vast stretches of my childhood wandering the wapiti wilderness. I waded through Ditch Creek, explored the caves and crags on Blacktail Butte, and rode my little horse for miles across sagebrush flats. Lucky for me, my neighborhood north of town was also home to some of the most famous naturalists and anthropologists of the time: the Craigheads, whose decade-long study of Grizzlies in Yellowstone pioneered advances in wildlife ecology and conservation; the Laubins, who studied the lifeways of the Plains Indians and wrote several famous books about tipis, dances and archery; and Mardy Murie, considered by many to be the founder of the modern conservation movement; all lived within a couple of miles of my house, and were as much a part of my childhood landscape as the mountains themselves.
I knew Mardy well, not as a renowned author and wilderness advocate, but as a wise and grandmotherly neighbor. And though I always cherished my copy of Wapiti Wilderness – it has traveled with me to a dozen homes in Wyoming and Montana, and through decades spent sometimes wisely and sometimes less so – I had never actually read it until this winter. Why not? I can only guess that I had been told to read it many times by my elders and betters – resulting in a predictable “I’ll get to it.” And for most of my life, Mardy was always just down the road from me, and always up for an afternoon chat. Now that she’s gone – as are so many of the other characters I grew up among – reading Wapiti Wilderness feels like spending time with an old friend.
Written by Mardy and her husband Olaus, Wapiti Wilderness chronicles the couple’s experiences in Jackson Hole while Olaus was conducting his ground-breaking study of the American elk. The book contains numerous stories and anecdotes that bring those old days of Jackson back to life. Some of the stories I had heard from my father – he told them slightly differently, with a booming baritone and a rich laugh – and many memories came flooding back to me as I read. The book reconnected me with my father, who passed away in 2012, and lit up the wonderful web of personal connections that fans out in all directions from that special and singular neighborhood where I grew up.
Reading Wapiti Wilderness also reminded me that many of the most powerful connections in my life are those I’ve made in nature. In one passage, Olaus describes the experience of observing mouse prints in the snow as a “simpler kind of joy.” That sums up so much of what this valley has given to all of us who have spent time here, and the good news is that we can experience this simple joy wherever we are, just by slowing down and stepping outside. And if you’re in Jackson Hole this summer, plan a visit to the Murie Ranch. It’s just a few steps away from the GTNP visitor center, where our Barker-Ewing Float Trips meet, and well worth a visit.