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Walking away from grief

When Gary Ferguson closed his eyes, he could still hear the roar of the river and see the torrent of water as it crashed through boulders and fallen trees. Jane was in the bow, he was in the stern, and the rapids surrounded them.

“Paddle hard!” he remembered yelling, as if paddling might have helped.


FOR THE RECORD:
Grief journey: In a Nov. 14 article in Section A about writer Gary Ferguson’s hike to spread the ashes of his wife in the wilderness, a caption under a photograph of a campfire scene identified the man on the left as Steve Muth. He is Rand Herzberg. —


They slammed into a rock; the canoe capsized, and on that late spring morning in 2005, Jane Ferguson disappeared.

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Gary tried to ease the images from his mind. He got counseling, read self-help books and Eastern philosophy and threw himself into work.

But he couldn’t shake his grief. He had lost not only Jane — their love and marriage of 25 years — but also part of himself. He was a respected nature writer and essayist, and believed that in the wilderness there were lessons for guiding and renewing one’s life, but he was unable to draw upon them anymore.

To Gary, Jane’s death on the river — on a day that began with a sense of wonder and gratitude — was a betrayal, both cruel and existential, of all that he had championed. He tried to keep the pain to himself. Some days were better than others.

One afternoon, early last year, he decided to go cross-country skiing by himself. He lived in Red Lodge, Mont., on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, and his favorite path was a short drive down the highway.

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Hours later, heading home, he noticed the sunlight hitting the slopes of Mt. Maurice, a familiar peak south of town. It was a beautiful, even nostalgic sight, for at its base was the trail into the Beartooth wilderness. He hadn’t been on it in years. He had been too bereft to consider the possibility.

But today was different. He felt happy and confident, and he thought about the promise he had made to Jane. She had once told him that she wanted her ashes scattered throughout the West. She had five locations in mind.

He tried to respect her wishes. Soon after her death, he stood alone on the shores of Alpine Lake with Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains rising above him. The chill of autumn was in the air, and when he opened the jar that held her ashes, he collapsed. In saying goodbye, he was losing himself.

He had tried again at the Wood River in Wyoming and at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, but then stopped. He had underestimated his sorrow.

The final destinations — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park — would have to wait.

Now, after seeing Mt. Maurice in the late afternoon light, he decided it was time. He was ready emotionally, and that evening he studied a map. He could backpack the route from his home in Red Lodge west into the Beartooths and along the Montana-Wyoming border into Yellowstone, a journey of 100 miles.

Along the way, he would stop at two spots in this broad sweep of land that best contained their memories. He was both excited and sad at the prospect.

On a table in his bedroom, he kept Jane’s ashes in a wooden box a neighbor had made. Next to it, he had placed their wedding rings, prayer beads, the memorial program and her picture. Jane was smiling in the shot, her wavy brown hair framing her blue eyes just as he remembered her.

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After Jane’s death, writing became Gary’s therapy, and his journal an incantation of their life, that day on the river and the tumultuous aftermath.

They had met as seniors at Indiana University. It was 1979, and that summer they escaped the Midwest for Idaho, where he worked as a seasonal ranger; they spent every free hour on the trails, in the hot springs or floating the Salmon River.

One year later, they stood beneath the Sawtooths and exchanged vows. They drank snowmelt from a myrtle-wood cup, and in the years that followed created a life intent upon exploring the West, eventually settling in Red Lodge.

Childless by choice, they devoted themselves to their community and work. Jane had left her jobs as a ranger at Yellowstone and an instructor with Outward Bound to start a cafe and hone her skills with the search and rescue team, and after positive reviews of his books, Gary was contributing more to anthologies and magazines, speaking to the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy and teaching.

In May 2005, they were returning from a canoeing school in Canada. It was a long-overdue vacation, a celebration of their anniversary and Jane’s 50th birthday, and three days from home, they wanted to get out on the water again.

The Kopka River, north of Lake Superior in central Canada, sounded ideal: two passages through boreal forest, a lake between them and a lake at the end. They had been told about the rapids and planned to carry their canoe around the rough patch, but brush and fallen trees blocked the trail. They pulled ashore, and from a small rise saw another place they could land, about 20 yards from the rapids.

They started out, and two loons broke the surface of the lake beside them. Jane laid her paddle on her lap and turned her face to the sky.

“Thank you, universe,” she shouted.

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The river was calm and dark, reflecting the morning sky. Its banks bristled with fallen trees; one jutted into the water, and Gary steered around it. As they neared the shore, the current picked up speed, and they weren’t able to land.

“Let’s straighten up,” Gary said, thinking they could pull out ahead.

But more fallen trees blocked the shore. They tried to slow down; the river was too high and too fast. Then it turned, and the rapids opened before them, a flood of water dropping down a craggy chute, 75 feet wide, half a mile long.

They plunged forward. Waves dashed against them. Gary took frantic cues from Jane — J-stroke, J-stroke, cross-draw — trying to keep from hitting any snags.

“Paddle hard!” he yelled. If they had any hope of maneuvering, they needed speed.

They dodged one boulder and slammed into another. The current spun them around, and their canoe flipped over. Gary was underwater. He broke for the surface, gasping for air, then smashed into a rock. It felt as if someone had clobbered him with a bat.

He tried to protect himself, but the current was too strong. He plunged over more rocks, was sucked under, spit out, thrown sideways and headlong.

As he flew over one cascade, his right foot jammed into a crevice. He toppled over, and the ankle snapped, freeing him, and he landed in a pond. He looked around and saw their empty canoe.

He grabbed the gunwale. Through the pain, he could feel the bones in his foot rubbing against each other. He looked upstream, waiting and hoping that Jane would make it through.

“Jane!” he screamed above the roar of the river. “Jane!”

Nothing.

He limped up the bank to an overlook to try to find her. He fell, nearly tumbling back into the rapids, and after an hour climbing along the cliff, he decided he had to get help. He was exhausted, and even in a wet suit, feared hypothermia. He splinted his leg with a tree limb, and using a paddle as a crutch, started downstream.

Then he heard something behind him.

Whe-ooo quee. Hoooo-lii.

Loons.

But never this loud. Something had caught their attention. Perhaps she had made it. He hurried back to the pond, and in the water were two birds. They were beautiful, he thought, and then he had a premonition: Jane was dead.

He wanted to run but couldn’t.

He had to swim across the river where it emptied into the next lake, and the current swept him far from shore. He didn’t know if he could continue. Then two more loons bobbed to the surface. They startled him, and the surge of adrenaline carried him to the bank. The highway was about three miles away. He saw a boat of fishermen. They circled and pulled him aboard.

That afternoon Ontario Provincial Police dispatched a helicopter, and Gary was flown to a hospital in Thunder Bay, where he gave a statement to a detective and answered questions about Jane’s disappearance.

“Any disputes or arguments at all on this trip?”

“No,” Gary said. “It has been a great trip.”

Around 2 a.m., the detective drove him to a motel.

Gary hobbled into his room on crutches. He didn’t want to call anyone and alarm them. He held out hope that Jane would be found alive. He lay down on the bed, tried to watch TV and slept.

One hundred and forty miles north, an officer sat vigil in a police car on an empty bridge over the Kopka, siren wailing and lights striping the forest, a beacon for Jane to find her way.

Three days later, her body was recovered.

On a Friday morning in August 2009, Gary, then 53, put months of planning to rest and stepped out of the house he and Jane had built. He passed the canoe she called Juniper. Retrieved from the Kopka, it lay half buried by the grass.

He turned left on the highway and walked south into the mountains. By evening he had climbed Mt. Maurice and made camp at 9,500 feet on the shoulders of the Line Creek Plateau, panoramas sweeping south into Wyoming and west to the 12,000-foot peaks of the Beartooth wilderness. He placed a jar that contained Jane’s ashes in front of his tent, thinking she might like the view.

She had given up so much for him, quitting jobs to follow his ambitions, tending to their marriage and friendships in ways he often overlooked. He doubted he had been as supportive of her. He wanted to say he was sorry and tell her he appreciated all of it. He hoped this journey could be his amends.

He had given himself 11 days to hike this route, mostly off trail, through grizzly country and some of the wildest terrain in the Lower 48. He would be guided by a map and compass.

He planned the first scattering for Becker Lake, one of nearly 100 small alpine lakes dotting this plateau in southwestern Montana. He and Jane had camped at the lake, and she had assisted in a number of rescues in the region. Friends were to meet him there; it was an easy day hike.

Three days later, after a night of rain, he hit the final ridge overlooking the familiar blue water and granite cliffs, and saw their multicolored tents.

More than 700 people had attended Jane’s memorial in Red Lodge in 2005. Afterward, a few close friends offered to join him for the first scatterings, but he turned them down. He wasn’t ready to expose them to his grief. Now he wanted them to hear his words, and he wanted to listen to theirs.

After lunch, Gary was ready. He and Martha Young sat in sunlight filtering through the branches of a spruce. Martha was one of Jane’s closest friends. When she heard about the accident, she flew to Canada to be with Gary, and after the body was recovered, she drove him home with Jane’s ashes between them.

Gary placed the earthen jar, a silver spoon and the myrtle cup on a flat stone in front of them.

“This is going to be hard, but I’m glad you guys are here,” he said.

Everyone pulled near: Janet Gale and her husband, Rand Herzberg, who had made the wooden box for Jane’s ashes; Martha’s brother and his wife, Kent and Diane Young, and their dog, Buckley; and Steve Muth, who occasionally played music with Gary.

“I think of scattering ashes as this final release, but I think it really isn’t the end at all. There are beginnings and endings, and they’re matched.”

He had prepared for this moment, reading psychologist James Hillman, Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and Joseph Campbell, who most inspired him. People don’t seek the meaning of life, the mythologist said, as much as they seek “the experience of being alive.”

Gary reached for the cup and explained its role in their wedding. Today he had filled it with water filtered from Becker Lake. He took a sip and passed it to the others, inviting them to share their memories.

“When this accident first happened,” Gary said, “I couldn’t escape the feeling for a while that I’d been betrayed … that this nature had let me down, and I don’t feel that way now.”

He had come to realize that his feelings of betrayal — that nature turned on him when he and Jane paddled down the Kopka — arose from his grief, and that he was now ready to see this wilderness as they once had, with a sense of curiosity and wonder.

He rubbed his eyes and told a story, an Ojibwa legend, about two infants who were special to the animals of the forest. Wolf and deer gave them milk. Bear kept them warm. Birds sang to them, and dogs snapped away the flies.

But these children didn’t play like others. They didn’t explore their world. Then one day with encouragement from the gods, a swarm of butterflies flew near, and the children wanted to catch them. They started to crawl and stand and finally run.

“I hope all of you, as my final wish, will be so blessed that you’ll be open to that beauty,” Gary said, “and it will coax you and nudge you and entice you to be where you need to be … entice you to where you need to go.”

He walked over to a meadow by the lake and angled the spoon into the ash and swept it through a patch of wildflowers. The others took their turns.

That evening they fixed Jane’s favorite camp meal: fried trout, grits and scrambled eggs. They sipped bourbon and watched the stars emerge.

Gary woke to the cry of an osprey circling the mist-covered lake where he was camping. It had been two days since Becker Lake. Janet and Rand had stayed with him, and after breakfast they started out; he slowly moved ahead.

He was sore and the straps of his backpack cut into his shoulders, yet he savored the exertion. He cast his mind over the trip, remembering a cluster of blue alpine forget-me-nots, a white-tailed deer in a forest, trout rising on a windless lake, peaches Martha packed in, Orion before dawn.

He was surprised, not that these moments had occurred, but that he appreciated them. His thoughts were not caught in the emotions of the last few years. It was as if grieving had run its course, and in its place, he felt a sweet sadness that kept Jane close without extracting the pain.

Some indigenous people, he recalled, believe that the living are the eyes and ears of the dead, and for the last four years, he had not been a good witness for Jane. He owed her the beauty of these moments.

By midafternoon, Otter Lake stretched before them. They followed a path along the south shore, a granite ledge above the water, and as Gary and Rand pushed ahead, Janet started down a steep slope, slipped and slid a few feet into a patch of grass.

“Oh, no,” she said after landing. “I heard something crack.”

The ankle was broken, and the swelling came on slowly. As she iced her foot in the lake, Gary and Rand debated what to do. Janet was barely able to walk, and there was little chance they would run into anyone. Gary knew he had to get help.

“This is what Jane would do,” he said, thinking of the times she trekked in and out of this wilderness to help injured hikers.

As Rand set up camp, Gary gave Janet a hug and set out. He hiked until nightfall, sleeping just off the trail, and reached Cooke City the next morning. A 911 call led to a helicopter rescue.

As his friends drove to the hospital, Gary checked into a motel and arranged to be driven to a trail head the next day. That night he lay in bed disappointed to be sleeping indoors. The bed was too soft, and his dreams were too anxious.

He woke up at 3:30. With 40 miles to go in his journey, he felt wistful that the end was near. He turned on the light and opened Jane’s journal, where he found a passage from Wendell Berry.

" … we had around us the elemental world of water and light, and earth and air. We felt the presences of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.”

He was certain she had copied these words thinking about their marriage, but the passage also reminded him of everyone who helped after Jane’s death. His mind turned to Janet’s fall.

By going for help, he realized, he had been called on for the first time in four years to do something significant for someone else. He had always been hard on himself, which was why guilt — guilt for not being a better husband, for not saving Jane, for having survived — had dogged him for so long, and he wondered if in this act of generosity, he had found a way to forgive himself.

That morning he picked up the trail near the northeastern corner of Yellowstone, and two days later, he lay in his tent in a campground listening to the rain dappling the fly sheet.

He rose and taped a blister on his heel. He had five more miles to hike. Martha joined him, along with writer John Clayton and biologist Doug Smith.

They followed the road into the Lamar Valley, and at a scenic vista, scrambled down a sandy bank and walked toward the Lamar River, where they took off their boots and negotiated its current and slippery stones.

They stopped in a clearing. Sunlight broke through the clouds and brightened a stand of cottonwoods to the south. To the east, Gary could see the buildings of the historic buffalo ranch where Jane had spent eight years teaching schoolchildren about the park’s ecology.

He took off his day pack and set out the jar and the spoon.

“I’m not the same as I was when I left,” he said, “but maybe I’m more of who I was 4 1/2 years ago before Jane died, and it’s been a real feeling of coming home.”

He read a poem by Mary Oliver.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Once he lacked the strength to let Jane go and held on to her as best he could, but his life had come to a halt. Now it was time: He needed and wanted to be part of the world.

He picked up the jar, dipped the spoon into the opening seven times and made a circle of ash. He had kept his promise to Jane, and it became her greatest gift to him.

In the distance, coyotes began to howl.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com


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