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Sitting on a talus slope above a small unnamed lake, Gary Ferguson pauses en route to Becker Lake, the site for the first scattering of Jane's ashes on this trip. It had rained the night before, and he had overshot the trail. Tired and disappointed to have missed an evening with his friends, he woke up early and made the final trek to the alpine lake under clearing skies.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

For Jane Ferguson's 49th birthday in May 2004, she and Gary went canoeing on the Smith River in Montana. A sudden blizzard took them off the river and into the shelter of the forest, where they built a fire and waited for the storm to pass.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gary Ferguson

Gary and Jane Ferguson had been married for almost 25 years, and they had been canoeing together for nearly 17. In August 2000, they went on a trip with friends down the Hood River in Canada. Five years later they took a vacation that included a course in swift-water canoeing techniques in Ottawa. While driving home to Red Lodge, Mont., Gary and Jane took a brief detour to paddle the Kopka River, 140 miles north of Lake Superior.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Family photo

Gary Ferguson kneels in the 17-foot canoe that he and Jane took down the Kopka River in central Canada. A few weeks after the accident, the canoe was retrieved by another paddler from the river and brought back to Red Lodge, where it sits in Gary's front yard.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gary Ferguson greets friends at the entrance of the Cafe Regis in Red Lodge, Mont. Jane Ferguson and two partners opened the restaurant in 2002 which is housed in a historic grocery store just west of the town's main street.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Sitting at a window table with Martha Young at the Cafe Regis, Gary Ferguson is overcome while talking about Jane. Martha and Jane were best friends. When Martha heard that there had been an accident on the Kopka River, she immediately flew to Canada to be with Gary.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

At the end of the day, Gary Ferguson trades his hiking boots for sandals and starts to cross Sierra Creek just above Green Lake, located in the heart of Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. His camp that night was in a small meadow beside the lake.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gary Ferguson planned his journey weeks in advance, organizing meals that would be easy to carry and prepare. Dinner often meant boiling water to prepare dehydrated food. In the absence of any place to sit, the ground was enough to rest upon after a long day on the trail.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gary Ferguson scouts a tree to hang his food out of reach of bears. His route from Red Lodge, Mont., to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone crossed some of the wildest and most remote country in the Lower 48.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Steve Muth tends a small campfire on the rocks above Becker Lake while Martha Young and her brother, Kent, huddle as night begins to fall. Temperatures dropped into the 20s, and the friends woke the next day to find their campsite covered in frost.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

At Becker Lake, Gary Ferguson gathered his friends under a spruce in a ceremony to honor Jane before scattering her ashes. Martha Young, who had hiked to the lake that morning, sits beside him. "This is going to be hard," Gary said, "but I'm glad you guys are here."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Using his mother's silver spoon, Gary Ferguson scatters Jane's ashes in the northern edge of the Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park. He chose this site because it was near the park's historic buffalo ranch, where Jane spent eight years teaching schoolchildren about the local ecology.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gary Ferguson stops on a ridge during his hike from Red Lodge, Mont., to the Lamar Valley. He backpacked the 100 miles mostly cross-country, navigating with a compass and map, only occasionally following established trails.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Near the end of the trek, Gary Ferguson relaxes before fixing supper. "I'm not the same as I was when I left," Gary said at the last scattering in the Lamar Valley, "but maybe I'm more of who I was four-and-a-half years ago before Jane died, and it's been a real feeling of coming home."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

After scattering Jane's ashes at Becker Lake, Gary Ferguson's friends, Rand Herzberg and Janet Gale, stayed with him. One afternoon, Janet slipped down a steep slope above Otter Lake and broke her ankle. Because of their remote location in the wilderness, Gary needed to hike out to Cooke City, Mont. to get help. He gives her a goodbye hug as she soaks the injured foot in a stream next to the spot where she and her husband Rand would camp that night.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

After restless night in Cooke City, Gary Ferguson was eager to get back into the wilderness. He was driven to a trail head by an acquaintance and put in an easy day before making camp above Wolverine Creek. Once he set up his tent, there was time to take a dip in the water and relax in the sun.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gary Ferguson and his friends set up their stoves and start fixing dinner on a rocky ledge beside Becker Lake. That afternoon they had caught 16 trout for Jane's favorite camp meal: grits, scrambled eggs and fried fish.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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When Gary Ferguson lost his wife, Jane, in a canoeing accident in 2005, he struggled to keep his promise: to scatter her ashes in five locations in the West, each special to their life together. He traveled to Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, but his sorrow only deepened. He had to wait.

Finally, in August 2009, he decided to try again, and over 11 days, he walked 100 miles from his home in Red Lodge, Mont., through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness into Yellowstone National Park, some of the wildest, most remote country in the Lower 48.

Times photographer Brian van der Brug and staff writer Thomas Curwen joined Ferguson and chronicled his journey.


  1. November 13, 2010, 12:00 pm

    beautiful shots brian wish we could see more! hope you are well

    By: janet gale
  2. November 13, 2010, 6:06 pm

    I know how you feel, Gary, because we have been thru once.

    When my dad died unexpectedly in a car accident, it took my mom 6+ years to be decently normal. My uncle died 6 months later due to illness, but it seemed no effect to my aunt. So one person suffered after a love died, another one did not suffered after the partner died. which one would you choose.

    I wish things will go well to you, Gary.

  3. November 13, 2010, 7:33 pm

    Gary is a wonderful, insightful person, and a fantastictic author, teacher and friend.
    Both he and Jane are threads in the beautiful fabric that is the Yellowstone ecosystem, and their work in and for this part of the American West will not be forgotten.

    Thank you LAT for a moving piece.

    W. Rideg
    Msla, MT

  4. November 14, 2010, 2:30 am

    […] staff writer Thomas Curwen joined Ferguson on the last trip. View the audio slide show above and more photos by van der Brug and read Curwen’s full story “Walking away from […]

  5. November 14, 2010, 3:17 pm

    Thank You Thomas and Gary,

    My best friend Mike of 18 years died as a result of a car/bicycle accident. We met riding road bikes in college. Mike Maki was also my "outdoor" buddy as he was a Math teacher at Westlake HS (Westlake Village, CA) and able to plan trips with me during summer months since my career is project based (Film & TV). We shared many summers exploring the Eastern Sierra, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes on foot and bicycle.

    I recently spent two months living and working in Yellowstone National Park this past Fall and that experience seemed to help me come out of the darkness I was experiencing in my grieving process. This article resonates with me as Gary's experience was different than my own yet the closest thing i've related to over the past two years.

    I reposted this via Facebook:

    This article and the experience of Gary Ferguson and his loss speak to me more than anything i've read the last two years. It may help my friends and family to understand why i've been called to the mountains. I still haven't ridden my road bike for two years (besides a quick ride to work in Yellowstone), but I think that will change soon, or right after winter. If anything, reading this gives me a feeling of gratitude and hopefulness as I walk away from my own grief and back towards my life and celebrating the life of Michael J. Maki, one of my best friends.

    Thank You Thomas Curwen and especially, Gary Ferguson.

    Thank You LA Times.

    Sam K. Nainoa III

    By: snsndn
  6. December 2, 2010, 5:36 am

    Having just read Louv's "Last Child in the Woods," about the lack of experience with nature in the lives of children, Curwen's feature brought home how vital the outdoors is to our spiritual well-being. I am thankful to Curwen for his authorship and to Ferguson for being willing to share his personal journey with us. LA Times, keep up your stream of such essays – they keep me on board as a long-time subscriber.

    Celia Carroll
    Santa Monica CA

    By: Celia Carroll

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