Chapter One - Odyssey of the Snowy Owl


Young Theodore Roosevelt could barely believe his good fortune. Taking a long break from studying for his Harvard University entrance exams in Manhattan, he headed to Long Island for an outdoor ramble in the calming woods. A dedicated birder, the seventeen-year-old Roosevelt was hoping to add a couple of new species to his growing North American list. Suddenly, Roosevelt heard a faint barking hoot and looked up. Blessed with a marvelous aural ability, as if in compensation for poor eyesight, Roosevelt stopped dead in his tracks. There in front of him in the sylvan stillness was an inscrutable migrant from somewhere around the Arctic Circle, the imaginary line that runs around the globe at a latitude 66° 33' 43" north.1 It was a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Bright white in plumage, with velvety, fine-textured downy feathers, this huge owl had a flat humanlike face with piercing yellow eyes that glowed like railroad lanterns. The bird’s insulating white plumage protected it from ambient temperatures of minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. The protective coloration of the snowy owl, much like that of the polar bear, arctic fox, or Dall sheep, was a marvel: evolutionary adaptation principles on gallant display. To Roosevelt’s amazement this circumpolar Odyssean from the dim blue north was overwintering in—of all places!—Oyster Bay, New York. Instead of preying on lemmings or voles around Arctic Alaska, it was gulping down small rodents in the frozen fields of Nassau County.2

One by one, and with an ornithologist’s care, Roosevelt checked off the owl’s otherwordly anatomical features, marveling at its biological ingenuity. He was awed by the purity of its evolutionary composition. Even the owl’s talons were camouflaged with white feathers and had extra-thick pads designed to endure subzero weather. They were strong enough to carry off an arctic vole or medium-size goose. Although freeze-tolerant snowy owls had reportedly been encountered as far south as the Rio Grande valley of Texas, it was a genuine aberration for Roosevelt to stumble randomly upon one in Greater New York City. For a few moments Roosevelt must have held his breath, determined not to break the tranquillity, mesmerized by this living testimony of migration. Then, without further hesitation, he raised his shotgun and killed the snowy owl. Proudly carrying the carcass back to his parents’ house in Manhattan, the future president of the United States performed taxidermy on the adult male bird, using arsenic to preserve the skin, as was typical during the Victorian era.

The snowy owl—the official bird of Quebec—is still among the most coveted, by bird lovers, photographers, ornithologist-collectors, of the world’s 200 owl species. It is often regarded as a talisman from the aquamarine ice lands of the North Country—along with the white morph gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) and ivory gulls (Pagophila eburnea). Human fascination with snowy owls is as old as recorded history. Paleolithic hieroglyphics of these owls were etched on stone walls in ancient France. In recent years the author J. K. Rowling used the snowy owl as a symbol of eternal wisdom in her Harry Potter books. When Roosevelt entered Harvard in September 1876, his stuffed owl was a prized possession in his apartment on Winthrop Street in Cambridge, encased by a bell jar on the mantel. Oddly, the bird’s plumage became whiter as it aged.

After his encounter with the snowy owl, Roosevelt maintained a deep-seated fascination with all Arctic Circle creatures—even the Alaskan beetle (Upis ceramboides), which can live at temperatures as low as minus ninety degrees Fahrenheit; and the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), which hibernates beneath the snow and is protected by a concentration of glucose in its cells and bloodstream.

A voracious reader of literature about the Arctic Circle (or the region above the tree line), Roosevelt particularly treasured the eyewitness reports of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in William Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (1820) and James Lamont’s Yachting in the Arctic Seas (1876). Stories about the Hudson Bay bears also interested him. Roosevelt, however, was skeptical of Scandinavian and Dutch reports from the Arctic seas that polar bears regarded humans as merely “an erect variety of seal.” Polar bears, he correctly believed, were generally aloof and skittish, instinctively scattering when people appeared. “A number of my sporting friends have killed white bears,” Roosevelt wrote, “and none of them were ever charged.”3*

Arctic Alaska’s signature species, the polar bear, is Earth’s largest terrestrial carnivore. Polar bears, like the snowy owl, were isolated in the north on an ice sheet during glaciation; in the course of adaptation to this extreme environment, their coat became entirely white. A male polar bear measures eight to nine feet long and weighs up to 1,500 pounds. Females are typically around six to seven feet long and weigh around 600 pounds. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas make up America’s Arctic Ocean. (Most Americans don’t realize that Alaska has roughly 50 percent of the contiguous U.S. coastline.) Blanketed primarily by sea ice, this shore habitat along the Beaufort and Chukchi is considered one of the finest polar bear denning areas in North America; the Harriman Expedition, however, wasn’t able to find a single one on its Alaskan voyage in 1899.4 Every December through January a mother polar bear will give birth to one to three cubs along these Arctic seas. The cubs accompany their mother for two years before striking out on their own. There are also polar bears along the Chukchi Sea between Point Hope and Point Barrow in Arctic Alaska. Of the eight bear species currently studied, only the polar variety are exclusively carnivores. Their diet consists of one thing: meat. Unlike brown bears, which have round faces, polar bears have a more slender head with a pointy nose: an excellent snout for sniffing out elusive seals burrowed in snow or ice (seals are their primary food source).5

Enraptured by forbidding Arctic tales, Roosevelt affectionately called polar bears the “northern cousin” of grizzlies.6 Reading about polar bears by lamplight amid the comforts of Manhattan or Cambridge, however, was not comparable to exploring Arctic Circle landscapes himself. He dreamed of someday kayaking down wild Arctic rivers where the sun didn’t set from May to August. Imagining himself an outback citizen in Nome, Nunivak Island, or Kotzebue—where simply to inhale fresh air in winter was to frost one’s lungs—Roosevelt dreamed of someday hunting a polar bear in the unforgiving Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas.7

In the late nineteenth century, Alaska—from southeastern rain forests to Aleutian volcanoes to barrier islands along the Arctic coast to the ice glaciers of the Inside Passage—was a never-never land of unnamed mountains, unnamed rivers, and unnamed species. For sheer spatial perception, Alaska’s 591,004 square miles dwarfed the Mojave Desert, the Rocky Mountains, or the Appalachian chain. Stand on any mountain in the Brooks Range or Alaska Range, peer out over the gray granite upthrusts, and you were bound to see a hawk pass a raven in the strongest headwinds known to mankind outside Patagonia and Antarctica. How to describe Alaska’s prodigious natural world in mere words, art, or photography is daunting. As Muir understood, a single Aleut word—Alaska—encompassed so much dramatic geographic beauty, intricately laced mountains, glaciers, valleys, and coastline that it seemed surreal; the territory encompassed four different time zones. Whether you lived in Homer, Fort Wrangell, Fairbanks, or Point Barrow, scenic wonders worthy of a national park abounded. Alaskan place-names themselves, as provocative as Ed Ruscha’s minimalist word paintings, are far more evocative of Alaska’s wild austerity than even the National Geographic’s best photos. The North Slope. Wrangells. Beaufort Lagoon. Mount McKinley. Tongass. Chugach. Kenai Peninsula. The Yukon and Tanana rivers. Mendenhall Glacier. Gates of the Arctic. Plover Glacier. Bristol Bay. Lake Clark. Nunivak Island. Izembek. The Alexander Archipelago. There was wildlife in abundance in all these varied Alaskan places—bears, caribou, wolves, whales, otters, moose, sea lions, and seals. There were Alaska’s Native peoples—among them Tlingit, Haida, Athabascan, Eyak, Yupik, Inupiat, Tsimshian, and Aleut tribes. There were two major “Eskimo” peoples: the Yupik (of western Alaska from the Kuskokwim Bay area to Unalakleet northeast of the Yukon River mouth) and the Inupiat (from that point northward and eastward to Barter Island and beyond to the Beaufort Sea). There was the new breed of far north wanderers—lumberjacks, whalers, salmon merchants, hikers, oil sniffers, dogsledders, fishermen, seal hunters, missionaries, sourdoughs, prospectors, and the occasional John Muir—the wanderer in nature. All these colorful charactertypes shared one undeniable reaction: amazement at the bounty of wild Alaska.

It was Alaska’s abundant wildlife that first brought Asian hunters to cross the Bering Strait land bridge—which joined eastern Siberia with North America—more than 25,000 years ago. These nomads wandered from Asia, surrounded by the world’s northernmost ocean, chasing such grazing mammals as the woolly mammoth, camel, mastodon, antelope, ground sloth, and bison. Following the jagged berglike pressure ridges—today’s Seward Peninsula to Brooks Range to the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea—they trekked across the Bering Sea land bridge, hundreds of miles wide, with no intention of returning to Asia. Then a cataclysm occurred. At the close of the Pleistocene ice age, the Bering Strait land bridge was swallowed up by rising seas. Most of this land bridge today lies beneath the icy waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas. (The U.S. Interior Department now oversees the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, which contains heritage sites of prehistorical and geological interest.) Stuck along the Arctic rim, these nomadic hunters made the best of the new situation. They survived by harvesting whales, fish, caribou, and other game.8

Enter Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain, 10,000 years later. Commissioned by Peter the Great in the 1720s to determine if North America and Asia were linked by land, the brave explorer set sail from eastern Siberia in a square-rigged ship for Alaska on a couple of occasions. In 1741 Bering made landfall on Kayak Island (located off Cape Suckling on the southern coast of Prince William Sound). Russia wanted to exploit these Alaskan lands in search of furs, timber, and minerals. Survivors of Bering’s expedition brought back from Alaska all sorts of luxurious sealskins and sea otter pelts. Walrus were easily found in groups numbering ten to fifty. This, however, didn’t bode well for the future of these great rook- eries.

As a consequence of his voyage, Bering’s name became famous. Residents in twenty-first-century Alaska are regularly reminded of Vitus Bering because of the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, Bering Island, the Bering Glacier, and the Bering land bridge. Early Russian explorers, for their part, named other geographical features after people favored by the czar: Cape Tolstoy, Belkofski, Olga Rock, Poperechnoi Island, and Wosnesenski Island are just a few.9 In 1790 Lieutenant Salvador Fidalgo of Spain voyaged to Alaska in search of the Northwest Passage. The shortcut to Asia was never found, but the Spanish did find Prince William Sound, and named today’s Valdez, Port Fidalgo, Gravina, and Cordova.10

Germany’s most eminent naturalist-botanist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, a physician by training, was the first scientist to document the unique flora and fauna of wild Alaska. Vitus Bering, at the request of the Russian Academy of Science, had invited Steller to come along on the 1741 voyage to record wildlife sightings. Working quickly under severe time constraints, Steller took excellent notes on climate, soil, and resident flora and fauna. Allowed only ten hours on Kayak Island, principally to help collect freshwater, he nevertheless discovered Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), recognizing it as resembling the eastern American blue jay. “This bird,” Steller wrote, “proved to me that we were really in America.”11 The same afternoon he found Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri), Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus, now endangered), and Steller’s white raven (a mystery). He discovered all sorts of new fish. As the historian Corey Ford pointed out in Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, Steller never missed an opportunity to attach his name to an Alaskan discovery in need of instant classification. There were also Steller’s greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri), a colorful rock trout; Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a giant northern manatee; and Steller’s sea monkey (which was never formally identified). That was a lot of naming for a single working day.12

Steller also stumbled on a Native encampment, where the campfire coals were still warm but nobody was to be seen. Fearful that enemies were lurking around, Steller swiped a few Indian artifacts and fled back to the ship.13 Steller’s naturalist studies were sui generis in eighteenth-century Alaska. He was a man far ahead of his time. On the return voyage to Russia many of the sailors on the Bering Expedition were sick with scurvy. Serving as a herbalist, Steller administered antiscorbutic broths that were credited with saving lives. “He was brilliant; he was arrogant; he was gifted as are few men,” the former director of the Alaska Game Commission Frank Dufresne wrote of Steller. “Though he spent no more than ten hours on Alaskan soil, his accomplishments in that short day were such that his name will live on forever.”14

Alaska’s biological diversity seemed to explorers a strange remnant from the ice age. American geographers around the time of the Harriman Expedition divided the territory into five very distinct ecosystems: (1) the Arctic, (2) Western Alaska, (3) the Interior, (4) Southwestern Alaska, and (5) the Southeastern Panhandle (including the Inside Passage cities of Sitka, Skagway, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Haines, and Juneau). Depending on where you went, there were icy fjords, sedge meadows, glacial fields, volcanic ranges, and tundra regions. What the Mississippi River had been to Mark Twain’s imagination, the 1,980-mile Yukon River—whose watershed comprised nearly half of Alaska—was to the new generation of fortune seekers. For a natural scientist wanting to start a career, the banks of the Yukon River were (and still are) an all-you-can-gaze-at smorgasbord of wildlife. Despite the presence of scientists on the Elder, mysteries such as caribou migratory routes or wolf ecology were largely propagated by unreliable oral tradition. A university-trained biologist, one who wrote well, could make a distinguished reputation seemingly overnight by trekking north from the Lower Forty-Eight and investigating the biological face of roadless Alaska.15

Alaska belonged to the Native tribes and wildlife while Roosevelt was growing up in New York City following the Civil War. Muir in The Cruise of the Corwin had deemed the Indians “the wildest animals of all.”16 Alaska was far removed even from the slow crop-growing pulse of rural American life. Farmers had yet to settle there. A few rogue gold miners made their way from British Columbia hoping to strike a vein. But wandering fur hunters from the Rockies and whalers from Russia, Great Britain, and Canada were the most prevalent new arrivals. During the summer months, whales swam the coastal waters in pods; their sheer numbers would have baffled and delighted a New Englander. Musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus) roamed wild, shaggy relics of the ice age. But Danish, Norwegian, and American hunters were quickly driving them toward extinction. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)—evolved from eared seals more than 20 million years ago—lived in and bred on remote Alaskan islands in the Bering and Chukchi seas; these pinnipeds would hook their two tusks on ice floes to help haul themselves out of the water. Dall sheep (Ovis dalli), native to Alaska-Yukon, climbed snowcapped peaks; their curled keratin horns were coveted by trophy hunters. There were more brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) on Alaska’s Admiralty Island alone than in all other U.S. states and territories combined. John Muir, as perspicacious as ever, wrote that in Alaska grizzlies wandered “as if the country had belonged to them always.”17 Today there are 31,000 brown bears in Alaska, while their populations have been drastically reduced in the Lower Forty-Eight.18

The Native totem poles (“story poles”) of Alaska celebrated ravens, bald eagles, and halibut as the holy spirit of life incarnate.19 Discovering these tall carved monuments, central icons of the northwestern coast region, became a rage at New York’s American Museum of National History during the “gilded age.” Roosevelt himself was fascinated by Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, and Nootka craftspersons who honored animal life in Alaska. The totems weren’t inspired by religion or sorcery. Rather, totem poles matter-of-factly told the life stories of Indian tribes. The wooden poles, sometimes fifty feet high, were, in a sense, a substitute for books. And every totem pole was different. A hawk, whale, or bear often crowned the log-post top. Feuds sometimes broke out between villages over who had the highest pole. Tribal elders perceived the totem pole as a monument to nature and to village life, an emblem of human strength and the bounty of the land and sea. To New Yorkers the poles were Indian art and were coveted for museum collections. A movement was started to help preserve them from weather, rot, and vandalism. “The carved totem-pole monuments are the most striking of the objects displayed here,” Muir reported in 1879. “The simplest of them consisted of a smooth, round post fifteen or twenty feet high and about eighteen inches in diameter, with the figure of some animal on top: a bear, porpoise, eagle, or raven, about life-size or larger.”20

The scientists of the Harriman Expedition liked Native Alaskan artifacts too much. The photographer Edward S. Curtis told how the steamer George W. Elder came upon a deserted Tlingit village; everybody was probably out hunting or fishing. Hurrying to shore, the Harriman crew stole everything from children’s clothing to pottery to bring back to New York as museum-worthy artifacts. Muir, who refused to participate, described the incident as “robbery” in his journal. Curtis didn’t record whether he participated in the raid, but he later openly criticized three scientists who stole “a ton of human bones” from a Native cemetery.21

Whereas American settlers saw the wilderness as an adversary, an obstacle to overcome, Alaskan Natives saw nature as something they belonged to; the totem pole was a symbol of oneness between people and animals. The heyday of Alaskan totem poles occurred between 1820 and 1890. (In 1893 twelve totem poles were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair, to great acclaim.) Carvers were ordered by tribal chiefs—who preferred using red cedar—to honor wildlife in wood effigies. The storytelling aspect of the totem pole was prioritized over its external appearance. Still, to decorate the poles, carvers made glowing paints from animal oil and blood, charcoal, salmon eggs, ocher, wildflowers, and moss. The Bella Bellas of the Kwakiutl nation of British Columbia learned astonishingly innovative ways to mix colors. Some moonlighting carvers also chiseled wooden boats to resemble killer whales. But mainly the totem poles paid respect to favored species such as the halibut, frog, and beaver.22


The Alaska Purchase by the Andrew Johnson administration had taken place on May 28, 1867, when Roosevelt was only eight years old and Muir had just recovered his eyesight. Through the bold initiatives of Secretary of State William Seward, the United States acquired more than 586,000 square miles of northern territory from Russia for a song—$7.2 million (less than 2 cents an acre).23 Seward defended the purchase as the final act of western expansionism, claiming that Alaska would provide salmon runs, mineral wealth, and forest resources. (Alaska was also where Seward planned on having lines laid for the international cable being promoted by the American Telegraph Company.) At the time, anti-expansionists called the purchase “Seward’s Folly,” considering the region a frozen wasteland not worth a trillionth of a dollar. But expansionists, including Theodore Roosevelt, later celebrated the Alaska Purchase as a trophy of great worth. Roosevelt described Alaska as glacier-streaked territory of “infinite possibilities” that the U.S. government had wisely purchased “despite bitter opposition” of many small-minded men.24 And Seward himself, who visited Sitka in 1869, understood that his purchase of Alaska would someday be seen as the high-water mark of his long, distinguished career in public service.25

For a few decades the Russians prized Kachemak Bay as a source of lignite coal. In 1855 alone the Russian-American Company, operating out of Port Graham, employed 131 men and produced 35 tons of coal daily. The coal was shipped to San Francisco, but sold at a loss, so the company abandoned the export trade. Russia, which never claimed more than 800 settlers in the colony, was beginning to see that, given the harsh weather and the vast export distances, mining Alaskan coalfields wasn’t particularly profitable. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, flourished in the Kenai Peninsula. The Old Believers split from the main church in 1666, refusing to implement reforms. In Alaska the Old Believers clung to Slavonic texts, used two fingers for the sign of the cross, and practiced triple-immersion baptism. They colonized little villages such as Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Razaldna, and Kachemak Selo. They resembled the Amish of Pennsylvania in some ways, such as their old-fashioned clothing—these Russian women wore head scarves—and they represented Russian Alaska well into the twenty-first century.

Starting in October 1867 U.S. troops relieved Russian soldiers at the colonial capital, Sitka; the American flag now flew over the District of Alaska.26 The USS Ossipee brought two government officials to the transfer ceremonies. The secretary of the navy publicly declared that a couple of ships were headed to Alaska to collect information on “harbors, production, fisheries, timber, and resources.”27 Rudyard Kipling once wrote discouragingly of Alaska, “Never a law of God or man/Runs north of Fifty-three.”28Contrary to Kipling, in coming decades, spiritual pilgrims, a cult of wilderness devotees like Muir and Young, found God in the blue-green ice of Glacier Bay, the upper reaches of the austere Brooks Range, and the caribou-thick coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea. Early dispatches out of frontier mining and timber towns, however, proved that Kipling’s assessment was spot-on. Alaska, in fact, was so underpopulated by U.S. citizens in the late nineteenth century that it had been administered in musical-chairs fashion by several government departments: Army, Treasury, Customs, and Navy.

Alaska’s first census came in 1880, while Muir was on his second voyage up the Inside Passage. Of the 33,426 people residing in the territory, fewer than 500 were non-Native. At the time of the Alaska Purchase, Seward had wisely refused to offer free land to attract homesteaders. The U.S. Mining Laws of 1824 had banned freelance prospecting. This bar was amended a decade later. Alaska belonged to the federal government, and various agencies dispatched wildlife biologists, cartographers, and forest experts to write reports on what exactly Seward had acquired.29Anthropologists started writing about how Native nomads had crossed from Siberia to Alaska over the Bering land bridge. Reports from the Corwin noted that the Inupiat and Yupik were dispersed throughout the northern and western regions of Alaska. Whalers knew for certain that the Aleuts were primarily based in the island chain named for their tribes: the Aleutians. Around the Alaskan interior—near present-day Fairbanks—were the Athabascan people. Then in southeastern Alaska there were the totem pole peoples—Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian—who lived in a green paradise: they had rich forestland, a mild climate, and fish and game galore.

The Alaska district, a colossal subcontinent, was a relatively new and unknown addition to the United States. The naturalist Steller’s old notes, in fact, were still relevant to zoologists. Another naturalist, William H. Dall—known to the scientific clique at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., as “the dean of Alaska experts”—had befriended various Native Alaskan tribes including the Aleuts and Tsimshian. Besides being amazed at their arts and crafts, he considered them all great fishermen. Dall was more worried about the American drifters headed into Alaska looking for quick fortunes in salmon fishing than about the Natives. Dall, America’s first serious “Alaska naturalist,” wrote that from 1867 to 1897 the district was marked by a surprising amount of lawlessness and the slaughter of seal herds for market.30 No citizen could make a legal will or own a homestead. Polygamy was widespread throughout the territory. Occasionally there was even a burning of accused witches. With no courts in the region itself, Alaskan land claims had to be defended in the courts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Dall, who had traveled in interior Alaska with mush dogs, began lobbying the U.S. government to regulate timber and mining claims, hoping that Alaska could be sensibly developed and eventually achieve statehood. Brimming with encyclopedic knowledge about the Alaska Range and the Kenai Peninsula, Dall insisted that the U.S. government had to regulate timber and mineral claims; it was a legal imperative. Dall saw Alaska as having ecological, moral, scientific, and spiritual values that would help preserve the frontier spirit if properly managed by the federal government. A Victorian-era classifier of animals, Dall had two Alaskan species named in his honor: Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) and the Dall sheep (Ovis dalli). He also called on the U.S. Navy to stop Japan and Russia from slaughtering the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) for pelage. The luxuriant dark coat of northern fur seals—males are a handsome brown and females gray-brown (dorsally) with a streak of chestnut-gray (ventrally)—was coveted by trappers for a global market. Only sea otters had a denser underfur than these seals—so dense that ocean water never touched their skin. A ringed seal pelt, with bold black stripes, as in a Franz Kline painting, was sought after by Paris and London merchants and furriers. Dall envisioned a time when the great northern fur seal herds of Alaska—like the animals of Charles Darwin’s Galápagos—would attract tourists from all over the world.31 Ignoring Dall’s call, the U.S. government decided to lease “killing privileges” on Alaska’s seal rookeries to private businesses, with royalties coming to the general treasury. There was a strong movement in Congress, in fact, to get back, by way of the skins of fur-bearing mammals, the $7.2 million that the Alaska Purchase had cost.32

Nobody captured the horror of the slaughter of Alaskan seals and otters quite like the novelist Rex Beach, of Michigan. Beach’s first novel was The Spoilers, a 1906 best seller about government officials stealing from gold prospectors in Nome, Alaska, but he later turned to the ruthless U.S. fur industry and wrote a blistering fictional exposé, considered by some scholars a pioneering environmental work. He had zero tolerance for seal blood in tidal pools of sea grasses and kelp. “Jonathan Clark, for one, considered the wholesale destruction of harmless and bewildered creatures as a thoroughly dirty and degrading business,” Beach wrote in The World in His Arms. “He was ready to wash his hands of it in more ways than one.” Clark, the novel’s hero, confronts the Alaskan territorial government in the 1870s about the need to ban the killing of marine mammals. “You probably won’t believe that a man of my sort can have a respect—a reverence, I may say—for the wonders of nature,” Beach wrote. “But a rogue can revere beauty or grandeur and resent their destruction. Those fur seals are miraculous; it’s a sacrilege to destroy them.”33

But as Beach made clear in The Winds of Change, first published in 1918, the Russian, Canadian, and Japanese pelagic hunters continued slaughtering Alaska’s northern fur seals indiscriminately. Seal fur brought money. And law enforcement, as represented by federal agents in Washington, D.C., was far, far away. To these market hunters, the Pribilofs—rocks with only clusters of creeping willows and a few shrubs bearing black currants and red salmonberries—were Fort Knox; actually, truly fine pelts were worth more than gold. Disdainful of federal seal protection laws, vessels from these countries would anchor just outside the three-mile U.S. limit and slaughter the great herds. Rudyard Kipling included in his second Jungle Book the short story “The White Seal,” a saga of the Bering Sea about nations slaughtering Pribilof fur seals and otters. Using high-powered rifles, hunters in the Aleutian Islands shot at the heads of seals and otters, hoping their bodies would wash ashore, where skinning could commence.


By the time Roosevelt graduated from Harvard in 1880 he had become envious of naturalists like Dall—a latter-day American version of Steller—who roamed the strange and forbidding Alaskan tundra with mush dogs, sledding past grizzly bears. The ribbon seal (Phoco fascita) in the Bering Sea, the giant tusked walrus, ice cascades, fierce gales, alpine tundra, root-digging grizzlies, unspoiled conifer forests, ripping tidal currents to match those of New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy—all of Alaska’s extraordinary ensemble of natural wonders tugged on his psyche. Such wild grandeur was incomprehensible on the East Coast. Excitedly, Roosevelt devoured everything published about the Alaskan frontier. But the real excitement in Alaska from 1870 to 1914 was gold. From the early prospectors of the 1870s to the crazed strikes of the late 1890s in the Klondike and the stampedes in Nome to the El Dorado gold fever triggered by discoveries in Tanana, Ruby, Iditarod, and Livengood, gold ruled Alaska. Only the discoveries of oil fields in Alaska, first up the Cook Inlet and then along the Arctic Ocean coastal plains in the middle to late twentieth century, equaled the wild-eyed hunger for gold.34

The part of the permafrost Arctic expanse owned by the United States—northern Alaska above the Arctic Circle—was home to millions of birds from all over the world. In the air—arriving in swirls from Antarctica, Australia, Asia, South America, northern Canada, and the Lower Forty-Eight—were migratory birds that had flown thousands of miles. Every spring geese, ducks, swans, and sandhill cranes were the first to arrive, even before the ice melted and the rivers were free. Native Alaskan tribes, Roosevelt learned, had flourished for thousands of years, living hand-to-mouth off the frozen land and rough sea. According to the U.S. Geographical Survey in 1877, most of Alaska was an open book for any faunal naturalist willing to collect quantitative data. After reading Henry Wood Elliot’s A Report upon the Condition of Affairs in the Territory of Alaska, Roosevelt craved the rock, snow, and ice of the territory even more. Russia had made one of the worst blunders of the nineteenth century in selling more than 586,000 square miles so cheaply. Alaska sprawled over 21 degrees of latitude and 43 degrees of longitude. As the explorer Alfred Hulse Brooks—who gave his name to the Brooks Range—noted, Alaska was truly a place of “continental magnitude.”35

Alaska was one-fifth the size of the continental United States, larger than California, Texas, and Montana combined. If superimposed onto a U.S. map, the state would stretch all the way from California to Florida. Alaska had an astounding 33,000 miles of coastline; seventeen of America’s twenty highest peaks were in the territory. There were more active volcanoes there than in Hawaii and the Lower Forty-Eight combined. This was the land of 100 Yosemites. Texans could brag all they wanted to about open space, but Alaska was well over twice as large as the Lone Star State. “In Alaska,” the conservationist Paul Brooks wrote in The Pursuit of Wilderness, “everything from the price of eggs to the antlers of moose is more than life size.”36

Of all the major U.S. politicians following Seward’s Alaska Purchase of 1867, it was Roosevelt who had fought hardest to give Alaska’s citizens—largely Aleut, Inupiat, Tlingit, and other Native tribes—constitutional rights. A fist-pounding Roosevelt had urged Congress in 1906 to “give Alaska some person whose business it shall be to speak with authority on her behalf to Congress.”37 Roosevelt saw Alaska as a primitive wilderness, full of game, its waters teeming with fish without end, serving as a long-term salve to the inherent rottenness of industrialization. There was no dollar value to put on magnificent places like the Alaska Range, Alexander Archipelago, or Aleutian chain. To Roosevelt, all of Alaska could become a vast federal district whose natural resources would be tightly controlled from Washington, D.C. By the late nineteenth century wilderness preservation societies were sprouting up across the Lower Forty-Eight: the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876); the Sierra Club (1892); the Mazamas of Portland, Oregon (1894); and the Camp Fire Club of America (1897), to name just a few.38 To members of these nonprofit organizations, Alaska was a great cathedral, the last place to worship the most spectacular, untrammeled wilderness in North America.

When Roosevelt left the White House in March 1909, after serving as America’s twenty-sixth president, he donated his handsome snowy owl mount to Frank M. Chapman (head of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and an early proponent of federal bird reservations). A grateful Chapman gladly accepted the specimen, tagging it as accession No. 15600. He then proudly put the owl on public display. Instantly, it became the most popular artifact of Roosevelt in the museum’s natural history collection, housed in the appropriately named Roosevelt Memorial Hall.39 Everybody wanted to see the snowy owl. The bird was like a messenger from the far north, possibly from Alaska, that had winged its way thousands of miles from the quiet world to crowded New York. The snowy owl proved to Roosevelt and others that the Arctic was real—not remote or otherworldly. Although Roosevelt never visited Alaska, his conservation policies, specifically his bedrock belief that the federal government had to save Alaskan wilderness tracts en masse from despoilers, profoundly influenced how future generations thought of the district turned territory turned state.

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