Mostly it was Mardy Murie’s ability to motivate people and hold them accountable by her steadfast decency of spirit that set her apart. To know Mardy was to love her: she was deeply humble, with eyes sharp but innocent, always elevating others to conscientious endeavor, never worried over whether she got her due credit. As a girl, Murie fell in love with Arctic Alaska’s remoteness. She was intoxicated by the tearing wind. The wildlife and the desolation made her heart stand still. Though she received various honorary doctorates later in life for her pioneering work as a naturalist, she never grew smug or overbearing. Anybody who wrote to Mardy received the courtesy of a quick, handwritten reply. Affectionately known as the “mother of the American conservation movement,” Mardy, who lived to be 101 years old, was a true activist, opening people’s consciousness to the fragile beauty north of the Arctic Circle. In her old age, when her gray hair was braided into a bun and crows’ feet framed her hazel eyes, three U.S. presidents—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—honored Mardy at White House ceremonies as nothing less than a national treasure, an embodiment of wild Alaska. Her kindness was intrinsic, but for all her gentleness of spirit, she smoldered like a fuse when oil and gas interests dared despoil her homeland in the far north. “Thanks in part to her work,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in the New York Times, “great swaths of land were set aside with a single presidential pen stroke.”1
Margaret “Mardy” Thomas was born on August 18, 1902, in Seattle, and she would always maintain a strong identification with the Puget Sound area. She rented her first apartment near Pioneer Square, where lumberjacks skidded logs down Yesler Way into the bay, and would always remember the thunderous rumble. When Mardy was still a baby, however, her family moved to Juneau, Alaska: a community crowded on a slender strip of land between Douglas Sound and mountains that seemed to rise straight out of downtown. No roads connected the city to the world at large—visitors sailed or steamed into the harbor. Many of Mardy’s earliest memories were of the gorgeous, thickly forested Juneau mountainsides, which catapulted up from the dark blue waters of the Gastineau Channel. Atop these sheer mountains was the famous Juneau ice field, an immense frozen ice mass from which dozens of bluish glaciers flowed, so that this spirited, prosperous seaport village was never drought-stricken. The Victorian mansions on Seventh Street attested to the fortunes made in Juneau during the gold boom.
Juneau was also the major fishing center of the Panhandle. Salmon and halibut were thick in the waters surrounding the city. Close by, bald eagles built stick nests in the spruce and circled overhead in their continual hunt for prey. All told, Juneau was a fine place to grow up in at the turn of the twentieth century, the foremost city of Alaska. “Juneau, on the mainland opposite the Douglas Island mills, is quite a village, well supplied with stores, churches, etc.,” Muir wrote in Travels in Alaska in 1915. “A dance-house in which Indians are supposed to show native dances of all sorts is perhaps the best-patronized of all the places of amusement.” However, Muir went on to note that the forests on Douglas Island were being “rapidly nibbled away” by “a large mill of 240 stamps.”2
An eloquent photograph of Mardy at age four and a half, with a bright white bow in her curly brown hair, posed leaning on her right hand, shows the sparkle she would never lose. Just a month after this studio photo was taken, Mardy’s parents divorced. Bruised by the savage quarrels and by her husband’s betrayal, Mardy’s mother, Minnie, left Alaska and went back to Seattle, taking Mardy with her. It seemed that Alaska would no longer be a factor in Mardy’s life.
But then Minnie married a well-known, well-paid attorney named Louis B. Gillette, who in 1911 was assigned by a federal court to be assistant U.S. attorney in the Fairbanks office. Congress had finally given Alaska its own civil and criminal codes, just as President Theodore Roosevelt had urged. A reform-minded conservationist, Gillette was responsible for bringing the rule of law to the last frontier, imposing federal standards regarding land claims, big-game poaching, and so on. Fairbanks was a rough-and-tumble outpost when Mardy’s family arrived—they had left civilization behind in Seattle. The imposing Masonic Temple in Fairbanks couldn’t disguise the essential character of the town. Every muddy lane reminded visitors that there was little indoor plumbing. Townspeople relied on well water, and mail arrived—if it arrived—by boat and dogsled. Thomas Edison’s inventions had barely penetrated Fairbanks, although one three-story skyscraper had been wired for electricity. The local hero was Walter Harper, a Native sled driver, who climbed 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in 1913: he was the first to reach the summit.3
To get from Seattle to coastal Skagway, Alaska, and then to Fairbanks was a three-week ordeal involving five different modes of transportation. Because Alaska was practically roadless, river travel was the only reliable transport. More than 4,000 miles of Alaska’s waterways were navigable by steamers. Mardy remembered a huge crowd gathered at the Seattle wharf to see her steamer, Jefferson, set off for Alaska. In Skagway the family boarded the Sarah, a stern-wheeler, which, with its huge green-plush saloon and its salon for ladies’ needlework, filled Mardy with glee. Mardy had expected to see stately mountains, but she was surprised by the wildflowers: whole gorges were filled with royal purple blooms. “For a nine-year-old girl, it was a time to watch the landscape unfold, to adjust to new ways of daily living, and to take her own measure of the frontier,” her biographers Charles Craighead and Bonnie Kreps wrote in Arctic Dance. “Mardy’s vivid childhood memories of the epic journey seemed to set the stage for her somewhat nomadic lifestyle; long before Alaska became a state, she would travel up and down the length of Alaska’s southeast coast seven times and journey thousands of miles crisscrossing the Territory.”4
Fairbanks—founded in 1901, when E. T. Barnette established a trading post at Tanacross on the upper Tanana River—was all about gold (although Native peoples had lived in the general area for thousands of years). The new town was named for Charles Warren Fairbanks—the U.S. senator from Indiana who successfully negotiated an Alaskan boundary dispute with Great Britain at the 1898 Quebec Conference. The ever-popular Fairbanks was elected vice president on the ticket with Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.5 Judge James Wickersham, the most powerful politician in the territory, successfully promoted the new Chena River settlement he named “Fairbanks” after his own political mentor.6 Somehow the settlement survived food shortages in 1903, a flood in 1905, and a fire that wiped out the downtown in 1906. (The fire burned fifteen blocks of buildings. Until the 1930s the entire town was built solely of timber logs with sawdust insulation.) The rumors of gold always came back. . . . Another strike . . . just one creek down . . . on a free claim . . . the mightiest vein of all. . . . Until they didn’t.
Scraping out a living became a permanent condition in Fairbanks. During the winter, miners worked away relatively warm, compared with the surface temperature of forty to fifty below zero. Gold production rose dramatically, from $40,000 in 1903 to $9.6 million in 1909. In 1915 it became a permanent hub, when, after a lot of false starts, the construction of the 470-mile Alaska Railroad commenced. By 1920, however, with the gold rush fading, only 1,100 residents remained. Isolated from the Lower Forty-Eight, and from modernity, they resorted to gossip to keep themselves amused. Notably bad company could be found in the town’s twenty-three saloons. The same could be said of its five clapboard churches. Booze ran freely—both in the red-light district and outside it. During the winters, the miners, pioneers, saloon keepers, preachers, and prostitutes all knew that the only way to endure until spring was to embrace the darkness. But come Independence Day, when Cushman Street was bedecked with the Stars and Stripes, Fairbanks seemed like a prosperous town in the Midwest, glad to be alive.
Fairbanks was, however, a close-knit community, brought together by the surrounding wilderness and by the unrelenting forces of nature. Snow was measured in feet, not inches. People shared yarns of encountering brown bears digging in their trash barrels and of caribou “turning blue” from the cold. Taxidermy allowed men to flaunt their hunting prowess. There was hardly a building in Fairbanks in 1912 that didn’t have a moose or elk head on one of its walls. Bear rugs were mandatory in homes. Regularly in the spring, residents would go on hunting trips up the Chena River. There were no bag limits, and wild game was served in most restaurants. Nobody had yet divided the Arctic caribou into three distinct herds—the “Porcupine,” “Central,” and “Imperial”; sourdoughs saw all caribou as the same.
Everybody in Fairbanks—Native Alaskans and newcomers alike—also shared an intense reverence for the northern lights. The earliest descriptions involved lonely spirits and supernatural battles in the skies. Not until 1905, when a British physicist made the connection between the sun and the aurora borealis, was the phenomenon understood as something natural.7 Some auroras gave off so much light that people could hunt by it. But mainly the aurora borealis was spoken about in hushed terms; only a few scientists analyzed the ionospheric gases being drawn in by the gravitational pull of the earth, causing a wavelike electrical discharge. In any case, as Mardy was growing up, on clear nights she looked skyward hoping to see the shimmering green aurora dominating the sky. An old piece of folk wisdom around Fairbanks was that the aurora borealis was as alive as a person; it whistled and cracked and seemingly came to scrutinize you up close.8
Mardy Thomas (she kept her real father’s name) was by all accounts a little hoot, entertaining as well as being entertained when trappers regaled her with stories about the Arctic wind or timber wolves attacking frightened horses along the Yukon River. Much like Jack London, she began to romanticize Arctic wanderers: they might look shabby, but they had hearts of gold. Most of these prospectors were, in fact, drifters of ill repute, ne’er-do-well misanthropes unable to make an honest living in the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else. But their hobo tales were what mattered most to young Mardy. While other girls were enthralled by Little Women, Mardy was memorizing the poems of Robert W. Service and pondering survivalist tactics for blizzards. She craved adventure. At school she raised her hand so many times to ask questions that her teachers felt like muzzling her.
In Fairbanks circa 1912, self-reliance wasn’t merely an idealistic principle in a dog-eared volume of Emerson’s Essays. The residents relied exclusively on cordwood for heating; the forest belts were clear-cut. Logging, catching northern pike and whitefish through the ice, and building fires were necessary skills in a land where below-zero temperatures were routine. Sometimes even inside the best houses on First Avenue, the hearth wasn’t warm enough to melt the outdoor snow from a guest’s boots. Sometimes in Fairbanks it would be fifty or sixty degrees below zero for weeks at a time, causing the rubber tires on Model T’s to shatter. Sleet blew sideways. Icicles were thicker than logs. There were no modern goose-down and nylon parkas; Alaskans swaddled themselves in wool and thick wolf fur. Both inside and outdoors, keeping warm was a full-time preoccupation. For children frostbite or hypothermia was nearly as common as a runny nose in the Lower Forty-Eight. Wood shacks often collapsed under the weight of snow. The cold forced everybody to eat more, because constant shivering burned a lot of calories. But Mardy never complained. Fairbanks had cast a spell on her. It was her home. The people needed large amounts of timber for buildings and water flumes—and for stern-wheeler riverboats until coal-fired boats arrived in 1925. Wood was harvested recklessly. As a result, the country for miles around Fairbanks was stripped of trees. Even the N.C. Company’s power plant downtown was fueled by wood. Almost 19,000 cords of wood were burned annually for heat.
Citizens of Fairbanks adopted some customs of the Midwest—quick coffee, saving pennies, school spelling bees, bake sales, trick or treat at Halloween—but it all seemed staged. Individualism was the core value here—the kind of libertarianism that Ayn Rand would celebrate in Atlas Shrugged(only they were pro-God). Still, ironically, the isolation and the rigor of the climate fostered deep codependency here. Virtually all the children—including Mardy—had a Siberian husky as a pet. Without dogsleds nobody could traverse the snowbound country. The unity between man and dog belied the go-it-alone posturing. Sled dogs loved to be harnessed, and Mardy was accomplished at harnessing them. “When the trail was good at all, I’d stand on the handlebars; otherwise, I’d have to run,” she recalled. “And those Alaska dogs were so eager to get into harness and go that you could hardly restrain them in the morning.”9
Dogsledding was a part of Native life in Alaska long before the gold rushes of 1897 to 1898. Around Fairbanks when the Muries got married, parts of dogsleds were found in Athabascan archaeological digs on the outskirts of towns. During the gold rushes, however, outfitters shipped dogs by the thousands—German shepherds, Saint Bernards, samoyeds, and enormous mongrels—to work in Alaska. A mixed dog with no real pedigree was called a husky (and sold as a “thoroughbred mongrel”). These huskies weren’t just for endurance mushing across rivers and gale-force blizzards. Copper miners used these hardy dogs as pack animals; they could easily pull five times their body weight. Others hitched them to wagons, buggies, and even boats. A common sight in Fairbanks while Mardy was growing up was dogsleds hauling firewood. The U.S. mail service gave yearly honors for the best dog mushing. The Nome Kennel Club organized the first Alaskan sled-dog races in 1908; it predated the Iditarod by sixty-five years.10
Perhaps because her stepfather was a stylish upper-crust lawyer, book learning came easily to Mardy. She was also blessed with social intelligence, and could make friends with nearly anyone—and especially with the restless seekers and backcountry idlers. Early on she decided that nomadic life was a virtue. Few people actually stayed in Fairbanks. Everybody, it seemed, was “striking out for the creeks” (a popular expression of prospectors and hunters). Along the mountain switchbacks were promyshlenniki (Russian traders looking for furs), stampeders from the Lower Forty-Eight intent on gold strikes, and Seattle businessmen seeking coal and copper.11
When Mardy turned fourteen, her father, Ashton Thomas, reentered her life. Like a “Wayfaring Stranger” in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, one day he showed up at her door, wearing a brand-new suit, asking to be forgiven. At first Mardy didn’t recognize him. Like some other Alaskans who had given up on gold, Thomas owned a salmon cannery; his was in Port Ashton, a handsome village of a few hundred people along Prince William Sound. Remarried, he wanted Mardy in his life. Seeing a chance for adventure, Mardy packed her suitcase and headed south to work in the cannery, with her mother’s grudging permission.
It was 375 miles by dogsled or horse carriage from Fairbanks to Port Ashton. Open sleds made it an arduous journey; the wind would rip at the travelers. There were, at least, plenty of roadhouses along the route. Many inns sold vegetables and refreshments at stands. What was amazing to Mardy was the engineering involved in constructing a road through a deep wilderness. She couldn’t believe men had been able to cut a five-foot trail in a cliff 1,000 feet above a raging stream. When the trail was misty with rain, plunging into the Copper River was a very distinct possibility. But Mardy relished every harrowing moment. Suddenly she understood that Alaska was far more than muddy little Fairbanks. Peak upon peak loomed over miles of wet, timber-rich mountains, purple immensities in the Pacific gloom that stretched all the way across the Aleutians to Japan. Mount McKinley’s south summit had been climbed in 1913, and mountaineers from the Lower Forty-Eight were coming to the area, looking for the right pass or ravine to test their mettle.
That summer of 1918, with America at war in Europe, Mardy became a young adult. The hamlets along the Valdez Trail (now the Richardson Highway)—Salcha, Sullivan’s Rapids, Big Delta—were sites of outdoors excitement. (This sled trail provided the only winter access to the Tanana Valley during the early decades of the twentieth century.) There was no end to the outdoors drama of the Valdez Trail, where a few hardy souls were even bicycling through the sixty-degree switchbacks and oxbows. Those on horseback spent every few minutes tightening the cinch for fear of falling down the mountainside. Mardy loved everything on the trail, from the trading stores’ imitation totem poles to Mount McKinley’s frozen grace. Spellbound, she vowed to climb McKinley someday. Many of Alaska’s 3 million lakes were in the area where she traveled. Caribou herds dotted the swampy peat bogs and blue-green pasturelands. Animal tracks were studied on “bathroom” breaks in berry thickets. Kingfishers dived into waterways. Alaska wasn’t just an icebox but also a green paradise teeming with wildlife. In Cordova, which was abuzz with the politics of coal, she boarded a Gulf of Alaska steamer and headed out into Prince William Sound to the offshore island of Port Ashton, officially part of Chugach National Forest.
Mardy’s new family greeted her heartily. Exhilarated and feeling grown up, Mardy spent the next three months learning the Alaska fisheries business, and also learning to row and use a compass as she explored the sound’s bays in a little boat with an outboard engine. The shoreline of the nearby Kenai Peninsula, where seine boats were working, was amazing; the mountains were vast and silent. “That first summer gave me a picture of that part of Alaska, a knowledge of camping stalls, and a respect for tide and storm,” she recalled. “We went through all the islands and their enticing coves. We hiked to the upper reaches of many of the islands. We watched a fight between a large whale and a killer whale.”12
After that summer, Mardy returned to Fairbanks full of Alaskan lore. Suddenly, learning the territory’s history and geography seemed important. Mardy wore boys’ lumberjack shirts and wanted to understand the mentality of stampeders who drifted into Fairbanks from Dawson. She wanted to know why the Tanana Valley, of all places, was the “garden spot” of Alaska. She took notice of pine grosbeaks feasting on frozen buds and berries in the upland spruce forests and woodpeckers scouring for hibernating insects under dark trees. She wondered about the smell of ozone after a big storm, and about the propagation of moss. Wild Alaska was a unique mystery to her. “Curiosity,” her stepfather said matter-of-factly, “that divine thing, curiosity. It will carry you when all else fails.”13 His words stayed with Mardy for the rest of her life.
Graduating from high school in 1919, the year Theodore Roosevelt died, Mardy enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Down the 375-mile Valdez Trail she trekked again, arriving in Port Ashton a few weeks later. From there she caught a steamship to Seattle and then the train to Portland. Feeling carefree, Mardy explored the Cascades and the Columbia River and studied hard at Reed College. During the summer months she returned to Port Ashton to work as a cannery storekeeper, watching birds forage for fish whenever she had a free moment. Ashton Thomas’s cannery business was doing extremely well. In his derby hat and three-piece suit, and with his pocket watch, he epitomized the successful Alaskan businessman. When Thomas decided to move to Boston for a year to develop better contacts in the seafood distribution industry, Mardy seized the opportunity to go with him, to experience the glamour of New York City and Boston. After two successful years at Reed, she transferred to Simmons College in Boston for her junior year.
Gathering her belongings in Fairbanks before heading east, Mardy was introduced to a handsome wildlife biologist, Olaus Murie. She was saucer-eyed at her first sight of him. Intense, steely, and bursting with talent, Olaus was in Fairbanks to be outfitted for an arduous trek into the Brooks Range by dogsled to study the habits of caribou in winter. On chaperoned dates Olaus told Mardy about his life as a wildlife biologist, camping under the spruce boughs and constellations. A pursuer of silence, he unfeignedly liked the privations of traveling where there were no roads but plenty of portages. Homelessness was his home. His precious dogs were all he usually had for companionship. Born in 1889—he was thirteen years older than Mardy—Olaus was blond and blue-eyed. Like so many great naturalists, he had been a bird lover since childhood. He was of Norwegian descent; his hometown was Moorhead, Minnesota; and his outdoors sanctuary was the Red River valley. “There were woods, birds, mammals,” he recalled of his happy youth in Minnesota. “It was living close to the earth—you know what that does for you. Gee, it was wonderful.”14 Flushing out grouse from the prairie grasses was a favorite outing of his; he knew how to put meat on the dinner table. Olaus had attended Fargo College in North Dakota, but wanting to get out of the flatlands, he transferred to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. After graduating in 1912, he stayed in Oregon for two more years. He was employed as a field naturalist for William L. Finley (a state game warden and perhaps the best photographer in America affiliated with the Audubon Society).
Much like Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie took trees seriously and considered deforestation a curse. Determined to make his mark as a scientist in the Arctic, he headed to Labrador and Hudson’s Bay on a paid assignment for the Carnegie Museum in 1914. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Canadian explorer and anthropologist, was starting to present Arctic habitats in a series of papers (in 1921 he would write The Friendly Arctic, a distillation of everything he had learned in below-zero temperatures, hoping to entice settlers to the north pole); but Murie was really the first serious biologist after Peary to adopt the Arctic as a laboratory. The Arctic, Murie believed, was very important to the new field of ecology. “Will we have the patience to understand what the northern part of the Earth has to offer?” Mardy Murie asked after traveling in the uncorrupted Arctic with Olaus. “Wherever we went in this country, there was something to see and wonder about. There were so many little things.”15
During World War I, Murie served with the Army Air Corps balloon troops based in Fort Omaha, Nebraska; he was therefore something of an expert regarding the impact of wind on high-altitude vegetation. Murie believed that scientists needed empirical data about the varied wildlife in the Arctic biosphere. He was displeased that no teams of biological experts had been dispatched to either pole. Looking around the saloons of Fairbanks he saw sea otters and polar bears stuffed and mounted. For a moment, a hatred seemed to clog his blood. It was one thing, he believed, to kill a moose for a steak or stew. It was quite another to use the antlers as a hat rack in a tavern or bar. His feelings ran particularly strong when he considered the free-roaming caribou—called the Fortymile Caribou Herd—that lived southeast of Fairbanks.16
In 1920 Olaus got his big break. Hired by the U.S. Biological Survey, he was tasked with studying the migration routes of Alaskan caribou. Olaus’s official title was assistant biologist and federal fur warden. He purchased a hooded oilskin poncho, thick wool socks, and the best snowshoes available from the mail-order catalogs. And romance was in the air. Before meeting Olaus Murie, Mardy Thomas had only a superficial appreciation of Alaska’s great caribou herds. She knew that the Gwich’in (“people of the caribou”) in the Brooks Range had prayed to the roving herds for 20,000 years. On dates with Olaus, Mardy now learned how caribou served this northernmost people’s utilitarian needs. The reverence that the Gwich’in (or Kutchin) felt toward the caribou was like the Plains Indians’ veneration of bison. Mardy had eaten caribou steak. She had worn caribou-skin boots. She had watched a hungry herd browsing on lichen in the tundra. She had heard caribou huff and hiss while being chased. When shot, caribou uttered a cry so anguished, so pleading, so terrified and mournful that Mardy winced with sympathy. In northern Alaska, caribou were as common as red squirrels. Mardy knew about caribou. But now she learned about their biological traits as if she were taking a college course. What Mardy liked most about caribou was that their fatness meant that at long last summer had arrived in frigid Alaska.
Olaus Murie soon taught Mardy more about the behavior of Alaskan-Yukon caribou. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had experimental stations at Sitka, Kodiak, and Rampart, aimed at trying to figure out how to grow vegetables in inhospitable terrain. However, no biologist was stationed in the Arctic. Murie volunteered for that duty. Charles Sheldon had an easy job in the Denali wilderness circa 1906, compared with Murie’s work at subzero Arctic temperatures where woolly mammoths once lived. Olaus’s brother was going to join him for his Arctic studies in 1922 but died of tuberculosis. Instead, his younger half brother, Adolph, joined him in Fairbanks to start a comprehensive study of the Alaskan-Yukon caribou. Working for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the brothers collected data on caribou in the noble tradition of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, head of the Biological Survey, a noble man who relished discovering new subspecies of North American mammals.
Olaus and Mardy fell in love. For Mardy, being the wife of a U.S. government caribou specialist from 1920 to 1945 meant that if their marriage was to work, a genuinely cooperative relationship would have to be formed. Olaus advised Mardy to take a series of business classes at Simmons College, on the theory that somebody would have to be the bookkeeper. While she was working to complete her degree at Simmons, Ashton Thomas suddenly died. Mardy was popular at Simmons, but there had always been some ridicule of the girl from Alaska who didn’t curtsey. Now, lonely and lost, the nineteen-year-old Mardy was homesick for the dogsled trails and country waltzes of Fairbanks, for the lullaby of the wind and sleet that swept down from the Brooks Range. Her approach to God was based on communion with nature.
Returning home, Mardy started working as a clerk for the U.S. attorney. She lived with her mother, who was employed by the Bureau of Mines. On Sundays she sang “Rock of Ages” at church, almost on pitch. Olaus was in town getting dog teams ready for a run to the Koyukuk country. As an octogenarian, Mardy would reminisce about how, in this idyllic summer of 1922, she taught Olaus ballroom dancing and the standard hymns. But as winter began, he vanished like the sun, going off to inspect herds, rookeries, or dens.
Knowing his north country itinerary, Mardy would mail letters—filled with empty pleasantries—to the forlorn Yukon Territory towns where Olaus planned to stay overnight. Fort Yukon was essentially Murie’s Biological Survey headquarters; it was about 110 miles south of Arctic Village. Mail was delivered by dogsled so infrequently that Mardy often got her beloved’s letters in batches of four or five at once. Olaus had brought along an art kit (a souvenir from the infantry), and he drew wonderful ink illustrations of all the mice and birds he encountered for Mardy. “How I wish you were with me right now,” he wrote in December 1922 from the Koyukuk Trail. “We are up on a summit, the night is silver clear, with twinkling stars and a pure crescent moon. I was out a moment ago to look at it and think of you at the same time.”17
By the summer of 1923 it was clear that Olaus and Mardy were meant to be together. An overjoyed Mardy joined Olaus at Mount McKinley National Park, as his assistant on a caribou count for the Department of the Interior. Olaus had established a base camp on the upper Savage River, where at night they whittled sticks and told stories. Mardy thought of marriage as the art of two being one—they might as well get started in the Denali wilderness. But how to achieve marital harmony when the spouse’s job is to disappear into the most remote reaches of North America on behalf of the Biological Survey? Before they could marry, both Mardy and Olaus decided it was essential to be better organized. Olaus would go to Washington, D.C., to officially submit his reports on the Yukon-Alaskan caribou. Mardy, who hadn’t graduated from Simmons College, would enroll in the one-year-old School of Mines at Alaskan Agricultural College, soon to become the University of Alaska. In 1924 Mardy became the university’s first female graduate.
Following her graduation in June 1924, Mardy prepared for an Arctic honeymoon. She would travel more than 800 miles down the Yukon River—which flows almost 2,000 miles from northern Canada to the Bering Sea—to the riverside hamlet of Anvik, where she would rendezvous with Olaus. They were to be married in a log chapel at three o’clock in the morning, under the midnight sun, on August 19. She had marked the all-important date with a star on her calendar. Mardy’s trousseau was winter wear: fur parkas, wool mittens, and snowshoes. The couple’s most essential equipment on the three-month trek into the Upper Koyukuk River terrain included a weatherproof tent and a portable Yukon stove. Accompanied by her mother and bridesmaids, Mardy left Fairbanks on the stern-wheeler General J.W. Jacobs. Their complicated rendezvous was successful, and Mardy and Olaus were married.
The Muries then began their honeymoon, dogsledding 550 miles into the central Brooks Range, far away from prying eyes. They went north up the Koyukuk River to the area from Allakaket to Bettles and beyond. Rain was frequent: a thin, chilly spitting that came with squalls of wind. Canada geese graced the sky. Clouds of mosquitoes orchestrated a faint hum, which marred the romanticism. Mardy created comfort in their outback camps. Up the A-frame canvas tent would go; at night it was closed tight except for a peephole for air. Morning was always the most magical time; just being alive was lusty. They breakfasted like cowboys on coffee and oatmeal. During the day Mardy chopped wood, smoked salmon, concocted caribou stew, and made a large sleeping bag bed for her and her new husband to share. Fish—pike, grayling, or lake trout—was often their favorite course at dinner. When the sled dogs got dirty, she brushed them. She had mastered the primitive arts of survival. Dutifully she kept a diary recording times, places, and temperatures. “I remember once saying to Olaus on our dogsled honeymoon, ‘Whatever made you think I could do all this?’ ” Mardy recalled. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, I knew you could.’ ”18
Olaus was honeymooning, but he was also intensely studying the habits of North Slope wildlife from red-throated loons to moose browsing on buggy patches of tundra. For all his scientific expertise Murie had an old-school, almost primitive way of looking at wild things. Field naturalists of that time were encouraged to submit ink drawings with their official reports. Besides shouldering a rifle, Olaus carried with him an art kit that had a porcelain slide to mix the watercolor paint. A fine taxidermist, unhurried and precise, he also set small traps to catch and analyze subspecies of mice. While grizzlies eluded them, he carefully monitored Arctic birds such as tundra swans or ravens. Most important, he observed the great barrenland caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) herds amid the mountains. All the way to the Beaufort Sea, the herds of caribou browsed on the tundra. Caribou in Alaska were distributed into about thirty herds; the Muries hoped to document a fair number of them.
Before the Muries, nobody had done proper reconnaissance on caribou for the Biological Survey in Arctic Alaska. By 1922 the domesticated reindeer industry in Alaska was booming, producing a bigger net profit annually than copper, gold, and silver mining combined. The hope in Alaska was that reindeer meat would become competitive with beef as a source of protein. The Biological Survey published articles such as “Reindeer in Alaska” (1922) and “Progress of Reindeer Grazing Investigation in Alaska” (1926). The Muries thought that this kind of analysis of reindeer farming was the job of the Bureau of Animal Industry; after all, reindeer were domesticated animals. The Muries saw reindeer as a threat to the indigenous caribou herd. Interbreeding caribou with reindeer was, to their minds, biologically unsound.19 All of the Native Americans had their own reverent names for caribou; reindeer had been lumped together by early French voyageurs under the term la foule. Each Athabascan group had a loving name: udzih (Ahtha),bidziyh (Koyukon), vadzaith (Gwich’in), and tutu (Eskimos).20
On afternoons in the far north, while Olaus was out collecting, Mardy would wander around the banks of the Porcupine River, staring into the crystalline, sparkling water, amazed at the varied colors of smooth rocks. She’d comb through gravel bars, looking for animal skeletons to bring back to camp, daydreaming about writing an as-yet-untitled book about Alaskan Native tribes. Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), a rather rare raptor, sometimes circled overhead. The river water was about sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for a swim. Also, if she stripped naked, the mosquitoes would torment her. So Mardy contented herself with just hiking and pondering, thinking about ancient cave dwellers, caribou herds, and what bird might be magically flushed out of the low-lying bush, startled by her meandering. “Gravel bars are havens in the North Country,” Murie wrote in Two in the Far North, “providing some refuge from the scourge of Alaska.”21
Roughing it in the utterly wild Arctic had tribulations and frustrations. But both Olaus and Mardy considered the honeymoon a success, especially when they stared at the night stars together. North of the Arctic Circle you could dip your cup in a stream and drink the cleanest water on the planet. Bears, foxes, grouse, and other animals were fattening on the blueberries of summer. Because neither of the Muries had been overly concerned about physical comfort, everything that happened to them in the Koyukuk was fun and scientifically useful. There was enough wild land in the Arctic so that they never felt claustrophobic or hemmed in. The Muries had, they believed, been in harmony with the will of God. Now, returning to Fairbanks, they agreed that preserving the biological integrity of Arctic Alaska would be the duty of their lives. Spending time in the deep Arctic made them see every experience from birth to death with new eyes. When they built a log home in Moose, Wyoming, they carved over the upright piano the “Mardy and Olaus Murie Life Philosophy,” developed during their honeymoon: “The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.”22
The Muries were in high spirits after their Arctic honeymoon. As the temperature plummeted and the winter days turned short, they talked about the awesome Brooks Range to anybody who would listen. Back in Fairbanks, exhausted, they indulged in a week of well-earned sleep. They then headed to Washington, D.C., for the rest of the winter. Olaus wrote up the official report of the honeymoon expedition to be submitted to Dr. E. W. Nelson of the Biological Survey. The Department of Agriculture liked typed reports and Olaus, a dedicated bureaucrat as well as an intrepid biologist, handed in a batch of them. Mardy had gotten pregnant on the Arctic trek and was happy at the prospect of becoming a mother. That spring Olaus was dispatched to the Alaska Peninsula to conduct field research on brown bears. Unable to come with him because of the pregnancy, Mardy stayed with her mother in Twisp, Washington, where the Gillettes had relocated along the Methow River, unable to endure another bleak winter in Fairbanks. That summer the Muries brought a boy, Martin, into the world.
With Martin, the Muries returned to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1925. Olaus had become celebrated as perhaps America’s leading Alaska wildlife biologist—an honor that had previously gone to William Healey Dall, who died in 1927. Murie met regularly with fellow biologists at the Cosmos Club to compare notes about bears—and discuss the prospects for preservation in Alaska. Geologists were concluding that because of the shallowness of the Beaufort Sea, combined with ice-clogged harbors, drilling for oil in Alaska’s North Slope wasn’t economically feasible yet. Transporting petroleum from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas was deemed dangerous, unrealistic, and even foolhardy. Also, demand wasn’t high. There was still plenty of oil left in the fields of Texas and Oklahoma.
That was the good news, from the Muries’ perspective. On the other hand, the airplane was starting to have a profound effect on Alaskan life. Long dogsled runs could be replaced by two- or four-hour flights. In 1923 commercial service was established from Fairbanks. Territorial cities were now linked by daily flights. Two or three dozen smaller planes were also in operation, connecting far-flung mining camps. There were no radios or weather reports as support systems, however. A breakdown above the Arctic Divide was almost certain to be fatal. Pilots were literally on their own. When Christian missionaries took to the skies to spread the gospel, it was dangerous work. On October 12, 1930, two Catholic priests were killed in a plane crash near the village of Kotzebue.23
Steamers were also beginning to move logs from the uppermost timberline. And by the end of the decade the two-lane Steese Highway linked Fairbanks to Circle City on the Yukon River.24
While Alaska still had thick migratory caribou herds, market hunters were starting to drive up to Circle City to blast away at them. The country was too vast for a single game warden to patrol. Effective law enforcement under such circumstances was impossible. The rogues ran Alaska, dismissing federal authority every step of the way.25
Working at a feverish pace, Olaus submitted his encyclopedic study of caribou to the Biological Survey. There was a lot for the public to learn about their migratory patterns. Most Americans failed to appreciate the wonder of the caribou—or even to comprehend that reindeer were nothing more than domesticated caribou, or that caribou traveled longer distances than any other terrestrial mammal—up to 3,100 miles a year. When Olaus was assigned to observe the waterfowl along the Old Crow River in northeastern Alaska, Mardy insisted on coming along. She would carry the baby, Martin, like a papoose, slung on her back so as not to slow the expedition down. The Muries poled a scow up 250 miles of that muddy river, collecting the best field observations to date on the white-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca), pintail (Anas acuta), and American wigeon (Anas americana) as John James Audubon might have done. Olaus could only wonder what Audubon would have thought of Alaska’s abundant birdlife.
Employees of the Biological Survey in Washington, D.C., considered it sheer lunacy to bring a baby along on such an arduous trek. Mardy, who managed to keep daily diaries of their adventure, retorted that the Inuit had been doing it for years. Mardy dutifully recorded everything from swarms of gnats to styles of moccasins. Her once soft skin became as hard as scar tissue. Whereas Mardy’s honeymoon diaries had the feel of an accountant’s ledger, her journals from the Old Crow had the feel of another Thoreau in the making. “The river was empty, the other shore just a thick green wall,” she wrote. “At my back, behind the little tent, stretched the limitless tundra, mile upon mile, clear to the Arctic. Somehow that day I was very conscious of that infinite, quiet space. . . . We could see, far out over miles of green tundra, blue hills in the distance, on the Arctic Coast no doubt. This was the high point; we had reached the headwaters of the Old Crow. After we had lived with it in all its moods, been down in the depths with it for weeks, it was good to know that the river began in beauty and flowed through miles of clear gravel and airy open space.”
What a combination! Mardy wrote prose poetry about Arctic Alaska. Olaus, sticking to empirical evidence, recorded all the facts about the fauna. Photographs were also taken and Olaus’s wildlife drawings continued. Once they had conquered the Old Crow, anything was possible. They felt empowered. Much like John Muir, the Muries had a childlike passion for the wonders of nature. “I think we should go beyond proving the rights of animals to live in utilitarian terms,” Olaus wrote. “Why don’t we just admit we like having them around? Isn’t that answer enough!”26
Another baby, a girl named Joanne, was born in 1927. The Muries decided to relocate outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the Grand Tetons as their backyard. Olaus had been tasked by the Biological Survey to make a complete study of the famous 20,000-head elk herd, which, in his words, “had fallen on evil times.”27 Having filled their library shelves with first editions of all the important Alaskan books and reports, they devoured knowledge about every facet of Arctic Alaska.
Scientific expertise had its social advantages: the Muries’ home soon became a virtual bed-and-breakfast for conservationists wanting to learn more about Alaska. Olaus continued his frequent business trips to Washington, D.C.; a third child (Donald) was born; and Bob Marshall’s new “wilderness philosophy” became their guidebook. Their love story was famous in the conservationist movement during the dark days of Herbert Hoover.
And then Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. Suddenly, the White House cared about what they thought—imagine that. Throughout the New Deal years, 1933 to 1940, in fact, the Muries joined Bob Marshall as the world experts on Arctic Alaskan wildlife. Olaus—who was called the “father of modern elk management”—shuttled between Fairbanks, Jackson Hole, and Washington, D.C. He adhered to Charles Darwin’s belief that “a man who dares waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”28Bringing the three children with them, the Muries also traveled in British Columbia and the volcanic Aleutians. Marshall came to stay with them in Wyoming to plot conservation strategy. Olaus’s brother Adolph, a wildlife biologist himself, continued assisting in their pioneering studies of the great Arctic caribou herds and Jackson Hole elk. In 1940 Adolph published his landmark Ecology of the Coyote in Yellowstone, the first serious predator study in the history of the National Park Service.29
Being an ardent preservationist also had social drawbacks. Very few people want to discuss moose dewlap or black spruce seedlings over supper. To many Alaskans, the Muries were a bore. Moreover, the Muries’ occupation didn’t bring in dollars. So it was a memorable occasion when Olaus and Mardy visited Washington, D.C., in the early 1930s to have dinner with Bob Marshall, cofounder of The Wilderness Society. He was “full of enthusiasm and eagerness,” as Mardy put it, to learn about grayling spawns, lagoon ice, gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) delivering calves, and marshy cotton grass. Experts like an audience, and Marshall was a fine audience for Olaus and Mardy Murie. What Bob gave to the Muries, and what initiated a lasting friendship, was the momentum needed to win the fight to keep Arctic Alaska roadless.30
The Muries and Marshall weren’t alone in their heartfelt concern for the fate of Alaskan wildlife. Aldo Leopold, for example, was sickened by the slaughter of bears. When the writer and photographer John M. Holzworth published an awe-inspiring book about the brown bears and bald eagles on Admiralty Island, Leopold entered the fray to save places rich in wildlife.31 Leopold, in fact, urged that Admiralty Island should become a national bear reserve. Leopold also wanted the Katmai National Monument to be enlarged to encompass a feeding area for brown bears. (The highest density of brown bears ever recorded was at what is today Katmai National Park: 551 bears per 1,000 square kilometers.32) When the Alaska Game Commission, bowing under political pressure, came up with the policy that the only good bear is a dead bear, Leopold led a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill, petitioning the special Senate Committee on Wildlife Resources to save Alaska’s bears. “I personally lack first-hand knowledge of Alaskan conditions but I strongly lean to the belief that where commercial interests conflict with bear conservation, the former have been given undue priority,” Leopold wrote to Senator Frederic Walcott of Connecticut. “I favor the sanctuary and will strongly support any policy when your committee of others may evolve to not merely perpetuate the species, but to assure such perpetuation on the largest range in the largest possible numbers.”33
All three Muries (along with Aldo Leopold and Marshall) became very active in The Wilderness Society when it was created in 1935. With a unified voice, they were determined to save Arctic Alaska for perpetuity by writing books and holding chautauquas. They had earned the right to preserve the unfathomable Arctic by loving it more than anybody else. When they spoke about Arctic sea ice being continually converted into fresh ice, they were believed because of their doctoral and master’s degrees. When Marshall suddenly died, while only in his thirties, Olaus and Mardy stepped in to fill the void. What Mardy had learned best from Marshall was to attack conservation issues with a “pixie sense of humor.” The fight to save natural resources in Arctic Alaska would be a long, hard struggle. But they were on the side of the angels. As Edward Abbey, author ofDesert Solitaire, later wrote, “the idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.”34 Important landscapes throughout America that were unprotected—such as Arizona’s Tumacacori Highlands, California’s Eastern Sierra, Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, Oregon’s Mount Hood, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest, and Washington’s Wild Sky—had grassroots defenders, locals ready to stand in front of a timber truck or fight in courts for injunctions. In Arctic Alaska the Muries had replaced Bob Marshall as the frontline defense for the Brooks Range on both the local and the national level.
Unbeknownst to the Muries, there was a U.S. Supreme Court justice—William O. Douglas, a legal prodigy from Yakima, Washington, just turning forty—who was ready and eager to push the agenda of The Wilderness Society forward in very dramatic ways. Even when the Supreme Court was in session, he would often wear western-style shirts and pants. History would soon know Douglas as “nature’s justice” for his relentless conservationist efforts to protect America’s wild places. “I hiked, rode horseback, and took canoe trips through all parts of the United States and often related my experiences in public,” Douglas wrote. “I became increasingly alarmed at the pollution of our rivers, at the darkening skies due to smog, at the silting of rivers due to overgrazing and reckless logging practices. I saw beaches despoiled by industry and Lake Erie turning into a cesspool. I saw highways destroying wilderness areas. I was shocked at the manner in which ‘development’ programs were ruining the wilderness recreational potential of the nation.”35
Almost miraculously, the Muries cast off their grief over Marshall’s death because Douglas was there to step into a new leadership role. A public intellectual, Douglas was always astutely political when it came to protecting wild America. Nobody before or after him championed the freedom to roam—the general public’s right of access to wilderness—more enthusiastically than Douglas. “Commercial interests unrestrained by biologists, botanists, ornithologists, artists and others, who see the spiritual values in the outdoors,” he wrote, “can in time convert every area of America into a money-making scheme.”36
The inherent difficulty of mining or drilling in Arctic Alaska became powerfully clear to Americans on August 15, 1935, when the beloved humorist Will Rogers and his friend Wiley Post, a renowned aviator, crashed near Point Barrow. Rogers had named the little Lockheed Orion planeAurora Borealis to honor the northern lights. After hunting and fishing near Fairbanks, they had decided to see the Arctic, which was just becoming popular in sportsmen’s periodicals. Their aircraft crashed into the water, and their widely reported deaths were a warning to other enthusiasts that the North Slope airspace was as unpredictable as the roughest seas and that nature was still decidedly in charge. “When Will Rogers died with Wiley Post in 1935 in an airplane crash in Alaska, an important influence went out of American life,” Douglas wrote in his memoir Go East, Young Man. “Apart from FDR, there have been no presidents in this century who could make America laugh. We need laughter for good health. I have left my saddle to the Will Rogers memorial in Oklahoma.”37
Starting in 1937, Olaus Murie occupied a seat on The Wilderness Society’s board. Like Douglas, he became known for his articulate dissent against proposals to build huge federal dams in Glacier National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, and against Rampart Dam on Alaska’s Yukon River. Throughout the late 1930s the Muries also turned their attention to the Aleutian Islands, leading a reconnaissance mission (similar to the Harriman Expedition) to study sea otters and birds. “What a rich prize and privilege the assignment was,” Victor B. Scheffer, who accompanied the Muries to the Aleutians, recalled. “Our chief mission was to make a ‘wildlife inventory’ of those treeless, nearly unpopulated islands that reach for 1,100 miles westward from the Alaska Peninsula.”38