The Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility, Point Nemo, or the Spacecraft Cemetery is the most-remote point in the Pacific Ocean. It’s where satellites are sent to die. Disintegrated orbiters, titanium flak and aluminum dust, fall from the sky and sink to the ocean floor—dark depths to dark depths.

At one time, fescue grasslands covered the entire eastern edge of the Rockies—from the bottom corner of Texas, north. Less than three percent of that prairie remains. The most complete piece lies inside Waterton Lakes National Park, near Canada’s southern border. This morsel is only eight square kilometers, but 12,000 years ago it was buried under a mile-high sheet of ice. Melt water carved channels in the land, and these grooves and swales, called eskers, now form a landscape of frozen waves, a petrified soil sea that blocks all sound except grasshoppers and the rustle of the breeze.

Driving there, up through Montana, I was stopped at the Canadian border. First, by a herd of angus cattle loitering on Chief Mountain Highway, and again at the port of entry by a Canadian Border Services Officer. She took my passport into a building with mirrored windows and stayed there for a while.

I had packed my creaking Toyota and departed the soybean fields of Iowa a week before. It was a twenty-two-hour drive in all, up through the Black Hills of South Dakota and along miles of Wyoming fence line. Beyond Billings, I traced the lengths of a dozen lonely highways listening to whatever I found scanning FM stations. For a few hours, classical overtures. Once, Rush Limbaugh, but only before I turned off the radio for the less grating sound of Jake-braking semis. Finally, the mountains of Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks materialized from the ether.

While other “wild” landscapes have atrophied under resource extraction and carnivore persecution, the Crown of the Continent has largely retained its pre-European-contact diversity. It’s considered the most intact ecosystem in North America. I was there to help the researchers who study its biotic community.

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg, eminent authority on apex predators and ecosystem interactions, leads the team. Herself a Native American, she was invited by the Blood Tribe, or Kainai, one of the First Nations of Canada, to collaborate on ecosystem research on their land in southern Alberta. By the time I arrived she’d been studying the place and its animal inhabitants for twelve years.


In 2017, lightning sparked flames on this land. Fierce winds whipped the fire into an inferno. Tanker planes and bucket copters couldn’t suppress the blaze—the third-driest summer in park history had sucked the land of its moisture. A 600-foot-tall wall of flames reached the park unimpeded, dropping firebrands and embers like rain.

When the blaze hit the fescue grassland, what the researchers call the Eskerine Complex, it torched the aspen stands and incinerated the grasses and shrubs. By the time early-season snow snuffed the fire out, most of the 505-square-kilometer park had burned. Nearly all that remained was charred stumps and heaps of drifting ash. It would come to be known as the Kenow megafire.

Now, one year later, we hiked into the Eskerine Complex, Cristina and me and her primary lieutenants: Elliot Fox, his son Dustin, and Justin Bruised Head, ecologists and First Nations citizens, members of the tribe that originally inhabited the Crown and areas beyond, and Chris Anderson, a graduate student from Michigan.

As we hiked into the grassland, fireweed poured across the eskers as the primal glacial rivers might have, flowing over hills and puddling in vast purple pools. Wild rose was in full bloom too, speckling the land with hues of pink, pale blush and fluorescent magenta. Native grasses poked up from root collars that bulged from the seared earth like thick, frayed ropes. It was a place remade, gone from blank and blistered to almost lush.

The road long vanished behind us, we reached a refrigerator-size boulder. “It’s a glacial erratic,” Cristina said. “When the ice receded maybe 10,000 years ago it dropped these all across the grassland.”

I leaned my hip into the rock and drew my thumbs up under the shoulder straps of my pack. When some people see mountains and stars, they see proof of God, but when I feel granite against my palms or smell spruce on the breeze or taste the scum from the surface of the only puddle for forty miles, I see the erratic of the universe, the collision of water, sun, and air and the beautiful coincidence that, through millennia of miniscule adjustments, let us crawl and walk and run and marvel at our emergence from the muddy depths of this planet.

That haphazard stone, dropped from the bowels of a billion tons of ice, may have sheltered the first seeds to take root in the grassland that once stretched over 2,500 miles. And, like those ancient seeds that might have sprouted in the rock’s shallow lee, Cristina, Elliot, Justin, Chris, Dustin, and I stepped away from its hulk and strode into the big wide open of burgeoning bunchgrass.

A pole of inaccessibility, or pole of remoteness, is the point on any given body that is the most difficult to reach—topography aside. That’s why the Eurasian pole of inaccessibility is in northwest China and not on the summit of Annapurna, a peak in Nepal that kills a third of the people who try to climb it. A pole is the center of the largest circle you can draw on a map without overlapping a border. It’s the core of a place, the heart.

Maps of the greater Waterton area hung on the living room walls of the house where we all lived. A few shed elk antlers were piled in the corner. Tubs of notebooks, clipboards, laser range finders, transect tapes, binoculars, compasses, bear spray, and GPS locators were stacked near a coffee table cluttered with Ziploc-ed bear skulls, deer mandibles, and blades of grass.

The windows on the south wall looked across the street onto the herd of RVs reposed on the lawn of the Waterton Lakes Campground. Chocked, blocked, hosed, and hooked, this flock of gargantuan carhomes rested like a pod of perverse, beached whales. They had names like Adventurer, Prowler, and Conquest. Sides extended to make room for kitchen tables, leather sofas, and king-size mahogany bedframes, the lethargic behemoths pointed satellite dishes skyward, grasping tenuous signals from beneath peaks the motor home inhabitants would never climb.

I slept in the basement where large, black spiders crept out from the faux-wood paneling to hunt ghost-white crickets and subterranean centipedes. In the evenings I studied notes by lamp light: the coordinates of the North American Pole of Inaccessibility and scant details about its location in South Dakota. I’d find it, I told myself, at the end of the summer on my drive back home.


Field days started early, being up, fed, and outfitted by 6:30 am. Once at the Eskerine, we strapped ourselves into backpacks, pocketed compasses, and secured bear spray to our hips like Colt and Weston revolvers. We tugged down the brims of our hats, smeared sunscreen across our cheeks, and powered-on radios in a chorus of bleep-bloops that hung in the air like a statement to the rolling grassland: civilization, coming in. Then we headed out in a procession of pink-flagging-tape streamers and knee-high gaiters.

The work we did was hard, often under direct sunlight in ninety-five-degree heat for ten or eleven hours. And the tasks were tedious. Although the mature aspens were standing dead, the roots were sending up shoots. Elliot showed us the heart-shaped leaves to hunt for in the grass and we circled vast stands of cracked, blackened aspen, searching the outer reaches of the clonal colonies to find and map the perimeter of their sprouts. We marked each we found with bright pin flags, playing connect the dots and shouting “got one” to Chris who followed behind with a handheld GPS to build a digital picture of the stand’s probing edge.

Other times we orienteered across kilometers of grassland to locate randomized plots. There, we staked out four-meter circles, calculating the percent covered in forbs, shrubs, bare mineral soil, and native and invasive grasses. We knelt at the outskirts of the circle, squinting at blades of grass, teasing apart tiny attributes, searching for hairy or naked ligules, keeled or unkeeled blades, discrepancies in venation, slight variations in the color of the roots or nodes or sheaths, and differing orientations of panicles. Regularly it took long minutes or even hours of poring over field guides to discern between species, the sun beating down.

Standing, stretching, we oriented ourselves to the cardinal directions, took a bearing, struck out cross country, compass and coordinates in hand, searching for a plot of fescue among a billion plots of fescue. The little red needle quivered, leading on like an anxious dog, and I could imagine without any trouble that I was more than a few kilometers from the bustling park gate, that I could follow the compass right back in time to a place without asphalt and walk until I was on top of the Earth where my compass would twirl in a circle with nowhere else to go.

By mapping the size of the aspen plots and assessing the type and quantity of groundcover, we could see how the landscape was altering over time. We could also begin to answer questions about how aspens respond to fire and elk browsing and how we might best preserve the fescue. The world is changing under the burdens of mankind, eliciting ecosystem responses no one has ever seen. This data is how we understand the new world being birthed before us.

Polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was the first to dream up the Pole of Inaccessibility concept. With the North Pole nabbed, he sought something even more remote. Stefansson bounded his circle with arctic ice cover, but his point now is more permanently constrained by Henrietta and Ellesmere Islands and the Severanaya Zemlya archipelago.

The native fescue grassland that once spanned the length of the continent evolved through the collaboration of bison, elk, fire, and wolves. The elk browsed the aspen sprouts that encroached on the grass, and the bison grazed the fescue and furrowed the land with their horns. Bison urine fixed nitrogen in the soil, which made the land more fertile for plants, the plants more nutritious for animals. Fire raced through at least every decade, and wolves harried the elk and bison, stirring the ingredients so that the work was expansive and thorough.

When humans arrived, becoming the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, they exploited this cycle, lighting prescribed fires to lure herbivores into the eskers, hazing them into stampedes which ended over the banks of nearby gullies. A successful jump played on the animals’ instinct to run recklessly from danger and could net hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat.

But by the 1750s smallpox had spread west of the Great Lakes and decimated the Sioux, Anishinaabe, and Cree. Even though Europeans hadn’t yet made contact with the indigenous people of Southern Alberta, introduced illnesses conveyed through traded goods had already swept through the tribes. Native communities suffered mortality rates as high as ninety-nine percent. More death followed—wars and persecution, a holocaust on indigenous people and their land. Settlement encroached and the civilization most congruous with the landscape was forcibly replaced. Europeans set loose sluggish bovines and planted crops that usurped the shortgrass fescue. A population of 60 million buffalo was brought to the precipice of extinction, and wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions were hunted into the meanest existence. The dismantling only continued from there.

Aspen took root in the grassland. Conifers marched down from the mountains in the wake of their advancing cones. Foreign grasses sprouted beneath the hooves of wagon horses. The fur trade demanded mink and lynx, and fire, the greatest threat to the timber industry’s fat reserves, was tamped out completely.

After hundreds of years of conquest, disease, and discrimination, native tribes remain oppressed and impoverished today. As we hiked between study sites in the Eskerine, the air crackling with heat and insects, Dustin told us about the residential schools, which displaced communal knowledge, indoctrinated students with ideas of inferiority, and exposed them to sexual abuse. He told us of the treaties the tribes signed under duress, threatened with starvation. He told us about addiction, destitution, and illiteracy. He pulled blades of grass idly through his fingernails and played onion blossoms beneath his nose. He told us of prejudice and governmental gridlock. He told us of violent crime and murder. He told us how people call him prairie nigger in town.


One morning Dustin led me and the other volunteers onto tribal land looking for wolf tracks and scat. He pointed out buffalo berries as we walked and handed them to us to taste. The others were working elsewhere that day, and our radios intercepted their chatter as they searched for the wolf den nearby. The conversation that hissed over our handsets was ambiguous and guarded, protecting against others who might be listening. Some landowners had been known to poach wolves or otherwise lure them with carcasses onto private property where they could legally be shot. Not even we knew where Elliot, Justin, and Chris were looking.

We found signs of wolves ourselves: tracks over five-and-a-half inches long and several piles of scat. One particularly large pile was heaped neatly next to a Waterton Lakes National Park-Blood Timber Limit boundary marker as if the wolf too was laying claim—or shitting on the concept. At midday we sat in the warm gravel on the bank of the Belly River, and ate sandwiches while Dustin told the story of Si’k-okskitsis, who went on the run from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police along this very river in 1896. Dustin motioned across the Belly and the hills surrounding it. “This is where he hid out,” he said. “Stayed on the run for weeks and weeks. Nobody could catch him.” Until they did. He was hung at Fort MacLeod in 1897.

We hiked out to the car and drove back past the Eskerine Complex and the bison paddock, 600-acres of grassland bounded by a ten-foot-high fence—navigable by a loop road for the ease of the sightseeing public. The paddock was empty, the herd evacuated before the Kenow came through and not yet brought back. The whole herd except for one, a big bull who refused to be loaded into the cattle trailers. With the fire bearing down, he’d been left behind. When staff returned after the fire swept through, they were shocked to find the bull alive. He’d waded into a pond and endured the flames.

The Southern Pole of Inaccessibility is maybe the most famous. It was reached in 1958 by the Soviets who built a research station—and abandoned it two weeks later. Thirty-one countries occupy Antarctica today, and there are cruises too. The great white continent isn’t as isolated as it once was, but you might still find some privacy at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility—except for the company of Vladimir Lenin whose frozen bust is now all of the Soviet station that is visible above the snow.

Other volunteers came and went from the project each week. On the days between shifts I’d have the house to myself. Sometimes I’d turn on the park radio for company. Reports of bear encounters and contused hikers hissed over the handset as I clattered around the kitchen, cooking an omelet for one.

I spent the days reading, mostly, and heckling (and being heckled by) the magpies in the yard. I’d leave the front door open for a breeze and once woke up from a nap with a ground squirrel staring at me from the arm of the couch. When I wanted a break, to get away from the pestilence of the Townsite and the opinion that if it’s worth seeing, it’s worth being seen by anyone with a 300,000-dollar, forty-eight-foot, Fleetwood Discovery LXE class-A diesel-powered recreational vehicle with fireplace, porcelain-tile flooring, and El-Dorado paint job, I untacked a topographic map from the living room wall, dumped snacks and a few liters of water into my pack, and struck out into the grey pre-dawn.


I paused at Sofa Falls to soak my hat and shirt in a frigid pool and eat an apple and handful of nuts in the shade of a boulder. Snow banks clung to the north wall of Vimy Basin, and the smell of Christmas mixed with that of hot shale. Thirty minutes later, ankle-deep in talus, I scrambled to the summit of Vimy Peak. A predecessor had shaped the rocks at the top into a stone bowl the size of a jacuzzi. I stood in this and faced into the wind.

Far below, the Townsite sat in miniature. I glassed the village with my binoculars until I found the research house. Everywhere else: mountains. And to the south, the entire Eskerine study site ten kilometers away. Beyond that, tilled-under grasslands that went on so far they seemed to melt into the overexposed sky as a new atmospheric medium.

The U.S. border was only four kilometers away, but other peaks and the searing afternoon sun hid it from view. I could see the fire though, or where it had been. The hundreds of square acres spilling out under the half-dome of deep cobalt were stubbly and charred. There alone on the summit of Vimy I was high on clean alpine air, drawn upward and eager to go on, ravenous for wilderness and peaks and boundless, expansive space. I was full of sympathy, but more for the flames than the trees.

Ames, where I attended graduate school, is in the middle of Iowa. As about smack-even as you can get. Iowa itself is roughly 1,300 miles from each coast, which is partly why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted Iowa State University to produce chemically-pure uranium for the Manhattan Project in 1942. By 1945, the Ames laboratory had produced over 2 million pounds of weapon-grade uranium, two tons of which went to Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor and artificial, self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction.

A padlocked gate barred the winding, scenic Red Rock Canyon Parkway to all unofficial motor vehicles. Towards the end of my time in the park Cristina got permission to drive us up the canyon, deep into the remains of the Kenow megafire, the land of fire-girdled trees and bare mineral soil.

When the road ended, we continued on foot. Nobody spoke. We listened instead to the groans and screeches of burned, limbless pines shifting in the breeze. Sixty-foot-tall spruce trees were burned trunk to tip like kindling.

We kicked up black soot that caught the shafts of oblique afternoon light and settled on our boots. A few blades of bear grass poked out of ruined tufts, but otherwise the ground was covered only by the crisscrossed remains of branchless trees. Those that still stood were decapitated and hollow, some split lengthwise, exposing the dry-white middle that would hold them upright only until the next strong wind. The roots snapped under our feet.

Another half mile farther on we reached what Cristina called the refugium, a quarter acre of untouched duff and underbrush in the shelter of a towering Douglas fir. The reason this place was spared is a mystery even to ecologists like Cristina. Wind. Air pressure. Topography. No one knows. It’s also unclear how many more refugia exist. What is clear is that they play an important part in the survival of local wildlife like the grizzly bears we found evidence of under the Douglas fir, a large sow and a cub or two who had bedded down in the soft vegetation and left large dumps under the green, spanning branches.

Folding the supple needles between my fingers, I marveled at this specimen of life. I wondered if, in a thousand years, the plants born on this landscape, bred from those that weathered the Kenow best, will find themselves able to withstand such a cataclysm in the future. I wondered if humans will even be around to see it or if the age of the great ape and all we reaped and sowed will pass and, a million years from now, the new normal we are hurtling towards will be just a blip on the radar, an adjustment that won’t even register in the lifespan of the planet.

The Holocene epoch began nearly 12,000 years ago with the decline of glaciers and the expansion of humans. Now, Earth may have entered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. Two of the proposed geological markers for the start of this epoch are the Orbis spike—the drop in atmospheric carbon that peaked around 1610 when Europeans had killed about 50 million indigenous Americans—and 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico. Radioactive isotopes distinct to these nuclear weapons are far flung and long lived, epitomizing our most miraculous and most devastating potentials. But the nuclear age also frames the Anthropocene in the Western myth of molecule-throwing, chest-thumping power—not in the messy realities of culture and behavior. In the original collision. In genocide.

I left the Crown at the beginning of August, watching the mountains diminish in my side mirror as I drove south through Browning. After a twelve-hour orange-barrel tour of Montana and South Dakota, tailing pilot cars through dusty, pitted construction sites for dozens of miles, waiting in queues of cars shimmering in the heat, I found a place to camp in Badlands National Park at the end of a meandering dirt road that followed alongside a field of drooping sunflowers. I pitched my little one-man kit in a crowd of colossal tents.

Coyotes howled in the hills. I laid awake thinking about the Crown and examining my coordinates to the North American Pole of Inaccessibility by headlamp. I could reach it the next day. But my mind was still in Alberta, stooped over a patch of grass, reciting the names of the native blades in Latin. I scooped up my sleeping bag and unzipped my tent. I tossed the coordinates and notes into the trashcan by the outhouse and walked to the top of a bluff where I sat and wrapped my down quilt around my shoulders and stared up at the stars. Something huge moved in the night. Six bison shambled by like a slow line of boxcars.

In the morning, I packed while it was still dark and retraced my route along the rutted washboard road, heading east to Highway 90 and Ames. Three pronghorn antelope trotted across the lane and broke into a gallop as my car jiggered towards them. They raced at the fence and then wheeled like a flock of birds. Hemmed in by the wire and flowers, the speed goats dashed through the grass in full flight as I drove alongside at forty-eight miles per hour. The road was empty, the sun just spilling over the world in gold light and long shadows, an orange orb exploding in a brilliant blaze as we cornered a hill. The pronghorns hugged the line of barbed wire, flashing dazzling white rumps as we charged together toward the burning globe blooming on the horizon.