Chapter Twenty-One - Sea Otter Jones and Musk-Ox Matthiessen


If contestants on a quiz show were asked to identify the most valuable market fur in the world, “sea otter” would be the right answer. Sea otters have a close-packed dark coat with silvery streaks. It’s lush to touch and gorgeous to look at. By the time the team of Theodore Roosevelt and William Temple Hornaday came to the rescue of sea otters in 1911, a single pelt was worth about 2,000 pounds in London. In documentaries, Walt Disney portrayed the species as cuddly and doglike, but in truth sea otters aren’t to be messed with: they are on average four to six feet long, weigh ninety pounds or so, and have razor-sharp teeth that can rip into flesh. In Alaska, they have long been pursued for their fur by Native tribes, and in the early nineteenth century these otters could be seen floating on their backs eating shellfish, and frolicking in kelp beds and around offshore rocks. “A sea breaks, the gull lifts, and the otters slide beneath the surface,” Peter Matthiessen wrote in Wildlife in America, “to rise again like black shadows in the semitransparent water beyond the foam.”1

Banning the sale of sea otter fur helped the species survive in the Aleutian Islands. But during World War II, troops stationed in Alaska often shot at them recklessly, forcing them to the brink of extinction. At last, however, the species found a steadfast ally in an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was known in the Alaska circuit as Sea Otter Jones. He was the happiest in the spring, when floods of migratory birds returned to the Aleutians, following the primordial “river in the sky”—flyways that lured birds to Alaska from five continents.

Bob “Sea Otter” Jones, who worked for U.S. Fish and Wildlife from 1947 to 1980, was born on August 3, 1916, in Millbank, South Dakota, a farm town of 2,500 people along the South Fork of the Whetstone River. Jones was an animal lover from a very early age. By the time he was ten, he wanted to be a field biologist. A beneficiary of a conventional midwestern upbringing, Jones excelled in high school. His father, an attorney, encouraged him to learn how to operate a ham radio. Skilled in electronics, Jones graduated from South Dakota State College in Brookings.2 “After college all he wanted to do was go to Alaska,” his wife, Dorothy, recalled. “People think he was an outdoorsman wearing a flannel shirt, but he liked ruffled shirts and opera.”3

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941, the twenty-five-year-old Jones enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. He became a licensed radio operator. Although the army initially assigned him to New Jersey, he had a persistent vision of himself working in Alaska. The colossal territory appealed to his intense interest in wildlife resource management and in long-distance radio. “I had conceived a desire to come to Alaska,” Jones recalled, “so I made that known. There were no assignments in Alaska at the time, so I was sent to Fort Lawton in Seattle, that was the nearest opening.”4

Ruggedly handsome, with sandy hair and aristocratic features, Jones—a welterweight—wasn’t tall. But his personality was so huge that he seemed as big as a linebacker. Fascinated by meteorology, Jones dreamed of someday living in the Aleutian chain, considered the stormiest area in North America. In August 1942 he got his wish. He was assigned to Adak Island (part of an island arc between Alaska and Asia), to radio-monitor Japanese air traffic and use high-powered telescopes to watch for Yokohama’s naval fleet. Even for a Dakota boy, used to blue winters, Adak took some getting used to. The winter months on the forlorn island were unbearable. Living in a tent, First Lieutenant Jones and his colleagues cobbled together a diesel-burning stove to stay warm. The wind came at them like needles; its baritone howl was deafening. South Dakota seemed like a tropical rain forest by comparison. Jones developed a new appreciation for Aleuts who had made clothing from bird skin to stay warm. “It isn’t an extremely wet climate but it’s damp all the time and a little moisture in a 40 to 50 knot wind is enough to go a long ways,” Jones recalled. “Some of the guys couldn’t hack it and they’d lose their marbles. Well, sometimes in the middle of the night the tent would collapse, a pole would break, or the whole damn thing would blow away. And this didn’t happen just now and then, it was a routine sort of business.”5

Wearing blue jeans, three layers of long underwear, a wool hat, Canadian work boots, and a bulky green parka, Jones learned the art of survival in the Aleutians. He felt like a marooned pilot shot down over enemy lines in Amchitka and Adak, monitoring Japanese aircraft. He was responsible for installing radar on Adak (the frequency was about 100 kilocycles). “There were seven or eight of us, a small detachment,” he recalled. “We were sent out with portable radar, the first portable radar the U.S. Army ever put in the field. We went to Bird Cape, at the west end of Amchitka, where we could look into Kiska Harbor (fifty miles away).”

The Aleutians were a huge bow-shaped chain of seventy islands extending for 1,000 miles from the Alaska Peninsula to Kamchatka. These treeless islands had survived the upsurge of mountains and their erosion through the ascent and descent of ocean waters. Amchitka was therefore a tectonically dangerous place for Army Air Corps troops to be stationed. If the freezing temperatures didn’t get them, hot lava could. Since 1832 no Aleuts had lived on the island. But rafts of sea otters populated isolated coves and bays; this kelp-rich ecosystem was their last stand. The army used the southernmost of the Rat Islands group as an airstrip throughout World War II. Planes regularly flew in and out. Huge maneuvers were sometimes held as a decoy to distract the Japanese. The U.S. government ordered forced evacuations of Aleut villages—an unfair imposition on blameless citizens. The waters around Amchitka were extremely rough; the destroyer Warden (DD-352), for example, was grounded and sank in 1943, drowning fourteen men. But for a South Dakotan outdoorsman like Jones, Amchitka was a wild and wonderful place. He kept regular field diaries of the spectacular waters teeming with exotic waterfowl. “I was especially interested in the emperor goose,” he recalled. “I had never seen that goose before, coming from the Great Plains.”

At Amchitka, Jones started studying sea otters in earnest, learning how to skin-dive in the coldest waters in the world. He criticized army troops who used the sea otters, a fairly depleted species in 1943, for target practice, as if otters were filthy vermin. Incensed, Jones later reminded his trigger-happy colleagues that part of the U.S. mission was to protect the wildlife in the Aleutian chain—not devastate a charming endangered species. The legend of Sea Otter Jones was born. “We knew the presence of sea otters there was important,” Jones recalled. “The military command was aware of that and wanted to protect them to the degree possible, so that those of us who were interested found our way into that extra activity.”

Whereas other servicemen in the Aleutians couldn’t wait to get back to Nebraska or New York, Jones wanted to be a wildlife biologist there. Bouncing around Amchitka, Adak, Ogliuga, and Little Sitkin islands, he marveled at the high density of wildlife. Sweeping in a curve more than 1,000 miles long from the end of the Alaska Peninsula toward Kamchatka, the Aleutians connected North America with Japan, China, Korea, and all the Asian nations of the far east. “To the traveler from the south, approaching any portion of the chain during the winter or spring months, the view presented is exceedingly desolate and forbidding,” Muir had written in The Cruise of the Corwin about the Aleutians. “The snow comes down to the water’s edge, the solid winter-white being interrupted only by black outstanding bluffs with faces too steep for snow to lie upon, and by the backs of clustering rocks and long rugged reefs beaten and overswept by heavy breakers rolling in from the Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea, while for ten or eleven months in the year all the mountains are wrapped in gloomy, ragged storm clouds.”6

When World War II ended, Jones decided to live in Alaska permanently, and his dream was to make a career as the biologist of the Aleutians. He was one of the rare breed who enjoy calamitous weather. Generous homesteading provisions were offered to veterans like Jones by the U.S. government. Adding to the appeal of Alaska were enhanced communication systems, highways, and a road connection to the Lower Forty-Eight. As a first step Jones moved to Kodiak Island, bought a skiff so that he could go shopping, and started studying sea otters on his own. Working on the salmon boats for day wages—a truly hard way to earn a dollar—Jones decided that he preferred roadless areas to roads. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but his experiences studying otters continued. If Jones could have promoted himself as well as Crisler, Hollywood might have made a movie about his life.

No single person did more than Jones to help sea otters become a protected species on the remote Aleutian island communities between the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. The Aleutian fishermen despised otters because they raided oyster beds, but Jones educated the geographically scattered people on Akutan, on Unalaska, and at the port of Dutch Harbor to leave the sea otters alone. His own headquarters and home were at Cold Bay, a main commercial center on the Alaska Peninsula. His combined base of operations there was a tiny structure in which he kept his few belongings: binoculars, framed pictures, a shaving mug, and shotguns. On his iron bed was a quilt from South Dakota. And on his record player, often at odd hours, there was typically something by Mozart or Bach.

In 1948 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired Jones to oversee the entire Aleutian chain for the Department of the Interior. Paid meager wages, Jones at least was his own boss for about 340 days a year; his immediate supervisors didn’t like flying much farther south than Homer. Although Theodore Roosevelt had started protecting Aleutian mammals in 1908, Jones was the first college-trained warden-manager appointed.* The gateway town to the Aleutians’ East Borough, Cold Bay, was only a block long. The deprivations there were considerable. Fewer than 100 people lived in the town. Every week, it seemed, the land trembled with an earthquake.

During World War II, Fort Randall was created as a base camp for the 11th Air Force at Cold Bay. Quonset huts housing nearly 20,000 U.S. troops were built near the shore. Japanese bombs fell on the nearby village of Unalaska in 1942, but Cold Bay was unscathed. After the war the soldiers left the aptly named Cold Bay. But Jones stayed, living with a couple of weather-service specialists, a few fishermen, and occasionally some stopover wildlife tourists—Audubon Society types—who lodged at the wind-chafed World Famous Weathered Inn. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hoped Jones could help create the 300,000-acre Izembek NWR, a rocky outcropping for 130,000 Pacific black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans), 62,000 emperor geese (Chen canagica), 50,000 Taverner’s Canada geese (Branta canadensis taverni), 300,000 ducks, and 80,000 shorebirds. During the windy months, the Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri)—one of the most beautiful birds in the world—wintered along the thirty-mile Izembek Lagoon, which had the world’s largest eel grass beds. No wetlands in all of America held an abundance of wildlife that could rival the Izembek. Its panorama of a U-shaped valley, ancient glaciers, and hot springs made it the best-kept secret in America. “In my opinion, it was the finest assignment the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service had,” Jones said of Cold Bay. “I wanted to be where there were animals and not many people, and it fulfilled both categories.”7

In 1953 Jones married Dorothy, a native of California. What made Dorothy unique as a bride was that she tolerated Bob’s pet sea otter, Harriet. Dorothy quickly learned that the future of sea otters was bleak, and that conservation biologists had to come to their rescue—fast. What most worried her husband was the scarcity of sea otters in the Aleutians. The Aleutians, in fact, were long the home of the greatest concentration of sea otters in the world.8 Every day he dutifully studied their goings-on. The 1911 Hornaday-Roosevelt Treaty had temporarily saved the sea otters from extinction. But the illegal black-market slaughter of sea mammals by Japanese and Russian pirates continued. Jones was determined to bring the otters back to their full glory. In California, a historic home of sea otters, only a small band of 638 were alive.9

As Jones worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, dividing his residency between Anchorage and Cold Bay, he was intrigued by the thickness of the sea otters’ fur—the thickest mammal fur in the world. Pushing a finger through the dense fur was futile; you couldn’t get to the skin. Children, in particular, adored the sea otter because it seemed so frisky and joyful, showing off in the kelp, lying on its back eating oysters and clams. Most otters slept on their backs in the water, usually amid the tangled kelp and seaweed. At the Cold Bay station Jones had another pet otter, named Hortiser. Nothing seemed to exhaust this pet. What Jones learned about sea otters (as a species) from the ones he befriended on the Aleutians was their apparent joie de vivre. As in a scene from Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, these otters would dive 300 feet down, then would surface, seemingly full of glee and laughing among themselves about their underwater antics.

Frolicking with the sea otters around Cold Bay and counting the birds that congregated around the Izembek Lagoon constituted the entertaining part of Jones’s U.S. government job. Far more menacing was taking his dory out in rough Bering Sea weather to patrol the other islands in the chain. The giant surf on Buldir Island was particularly rough for landing a small boat with a small outboard motor. Rain . . . hail . . . sleet . . . snow . . . storm . . . surf. No matter what the weather was like, Jones would make the rounds along the rugged islands of today’s Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years he had a lot of colorful names for his boats: Water Ouzel, Phalarope, Dipper, and Wandering Tattler. Daily he took field notes about seabirds, invertebrates, transplant geese, and foxes in need of removal. “On bright clear days the approach of the dory by a cascade of cormorants and puffins from the cliffs and then we traveled under a veritable canopy of wings,” Jones jotted in a notebook in 1959. “When a sea fog lay close and we ran on compass courses, quite out of sight on land though we knew it to be near, the smell of whitewashed cliffs was a beacon guiding us and a sudden avalanche of birds, bursting out of the murk, pinpointed our location.”10

Safeguarding the Aleutians brought Jones a lot of satisfaction. The biologist Olaus Murie, always circulating around Alaska, shared with Jones much of his research pertaining to birdlife in the Aleutians. Murie was overseeing a project to rid the islands of the foxes introduced in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s: these foxes were leading to the demise of the Aleutian Canada goose. Wanting to experience the underwater life of sea otters, Jones got a wet suit and started scuba diving in the kelp beds, nearly living with the otters (an unheard-of practice before Jones). Conditioning allowed his body to become almost immune to the powerful numbing effect of the water. “It became apparent that if we were to get information about what happened below the water surface,” he said, “we’d better go down to take a look.”11

Jones was perplexed about why the sea otters were dying off in record numbers during the winter months. His scuba dives off fogbound Amchitka and Adak produced an answer: the otters’ food source was depleted. Rock oysters weren’t alive on the bottom; the shells were without much muscle. Every time the otters seemed to be feasting, cracking open shells, they weren’t getting much meat. “The otters kept on eating sea urchins, but they weren’t getting any nutritional value,” Jones recorded, “and downhill they went.”

Owing to the sea otter rehabilitation project undertaken by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the Aleutians, a recovery took place. Under Jones’s leadership, sea otters were reintroduced to Attu in the mid-1950s. Starting in 1954, the otter population increased at a healthy rate of at least 5 percent annually. A comeback was happening, one oyster bed at a time. “The number of animals we released at Attu was well below the level where the population could sustain itself,” Jones wrote. “I concluded it was for the better to expand the necessary protection to otters and let them expand than to try to introduce them. When a sea otter population really begins to grow, it will swamp the survival of any artificial introduc- tion.”

Another of Jones’s jobs was to make sure that people in boats or other trespassers didn’t hunt sea otters, which were like sitting ducks. Sometimes he would trap otters by using tranquilizer guns. “Unlike a seal that often sinks,” Jones explained in an official oral history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “sea otters float.” From 1958 to 1959 he introduced caribou to Adak Island. On Amchitka, working with the newest science, Jones helped reestablish the Canada goose by trying to get rid of island rats. Agattu, in particular, was plagued by these rodents. Sometimes Jones would use a slide-action 12-gauge Winchester Model 12 to shoot them. “All we had access to was poison and that was not good enough,” Jones reflected, “and besides, you have to watch where the poison goes. You don’t want it to go into the eagle population.”12

Although Jones felt good about his work for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, including the introduction of caribou on Adak Island, he was apprehensive when he heard rumors that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) wanted to conduct a series of underground nuclear explosions on Amchitka Island. Ironically, the Aleutians’ greatest strength as a wildlife incubator—their remoteness—was now their most dangerous liability. To Jones, it was strange to think that the U.S. government wanted to detonate an atomic bomb in the “ring of fire,” also called the “volcano belt”). “He blasted the AEC,” his wife recalled in an interview in 2010. “He went to Fairbanks to protest. His outspokenness came from a disbelief that a U.S. government agency could be so reckless.”13

Within an afternoon’s motorboat ride from Homer on the Kenai Peninsula were four major volcanoes: Redoubt, Douglas, Iliamna, and Augustine. Sometimes they looked like picture-postcard peaks, particularly when blanketed in snow. But eruptions were—from a geologic time perspective—commonplace. Mount Douglas, which guarded the entrance to Cook Inlet just north of the Shelikof Strait, had a highly acidic crater about 525 feet wide. To set off an atom bomb on an Aleutian island could very easily trigger earthquakes, causing smoke plumes to rise 50,000 feet in the sky. Then again, the Soviet Union had conducted more than 2,000 nuclear tests on the island of Novaya Zemlya (including a fifty-eight megaton, which is considered the biggest explosion in world history) and nobody at the United Nations was chastising the Kremlin.14 Why couldn’t Americans understand that wildlife and nuclear explosions didn’t mix?

When the AEC did detonate nuclear bombs on Adak in 1961, all Jones could do was weep. As a government employee, he felt trapped in a corridor with no exit, or a tunnel with no opening. If he quit U.S. Fish and Wildlife because of the detonation on Adak, who would look after the sea otters and emperor geese? The U.S. government also detonated nuclear bombs on Amchitka Island in 1965, 1969, and 1971.15 All Sea Otter Jones could do was try to protect the wildlife in the Aleutian chain—and outfit his home for solar energy, a small first step in the green movement. To reassure himself that humans weren’t invariably monsters, he’d play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor over and over again on the turntable.


Coinciding with Jones’s work in the Aleutians during the 1950s was Peter Matthiessen, a New York–based writer determined to document American wildlife in peril. Born on May 22, 1927, in a Manhattan hospital, Matthiessen was raised in Connecticut near Bedford Village, New York. The Matthiessen family was full of nature lovers. Peter’s father, Erard Adolph Matthiessen, became a spokesman for the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy; a hunter, he had nevertheless been inculcated with ecology by his two boys, Peter and George. The Matthiessens loved Connecticut, where they collected reptiles, bird-watched, and hunted. They lived in Long Ridge, an idyllic rural Connecticut town northwest of Stamford. “My brother and I were always finding animals,” Peter Matthiessen recalled. “We played near the Mianus River. One afternoon we found a copperhead den on our property. We took seven as pets. Mother made us get rid of them.”16

Erard Matthiessen joined the U.S. Navy during World War II to help design gunnery training devices. Young Peter followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the U.S. Navy during the Truman years. But his true love was bird-watching. The shifting patterns of nature fascinated him. As a student at Yale University, Matthiessen studied biology and ornithology. Nature writing became another of his passions, fanned by his reading of Thoreau and Muir. In his early short story “Sadie”—which won the Atlantic Prize—Matthiessen demonstrated a flair for descriptive writing. Upon graduating from Yale in 1950, he married Patricia Southgate. Bold, daring, filled with artistic inspiration, Matthiessen moved with his bride to Paris, where they took classes at the Sorbonne. To promote literature, Matthiessen cofounded the Paris Review in late 1951, along with Harold Humes and George Plimpton. By 1953, this handsome monthly English-language journal offered its first issue. (The same year, the Matthiessens had a son, Luke, and Peter finished his first novel, Race Rock.)

Matthiessen approved an American bald eagle donning a Phrygian cap for the journal’s logo. The Paris Review, based in New York City, ran a long interview with authors in every issue. With Jack Kerouac publishing “The Mexican Girl” and Samuel Beckett contributing a selection fromMolloy to the Paris Review in the 1950s, one could reasonably assume that the journal was simply an antiestablishment publication promoting avant-garde arts and letters. But as Matthiessen divulged in 1978 to the New York Times, he had “invented” the Paris Review as a cover for his spying for the CIA.17 “I was only in the Agency for two years—1951 to 1953,” Matthiessen recalled. “Trending left, I quit over a disagreement on my Paris assignment. Plimpton, who had been in Cambridge, took over the Review. My interest was in writing fiction. The Atlantic Monthly had published two of my pieces. But fiction paid poorly. So I started writing nonfiction essays for magazines to live.”18

Plimpton became the Paris Review editor in chief in 1953, in New York City. The journal had nothing to do with the CIA. Meanwhile, Matthiessen worked on both charter and commercial fishing boats (flatfish, blowfish, tarpon, and tuna) out of Montauk, Long Island, earning extra money from the blue-green depths of the Atlantic. He also captained various shark-watching excursions. “I’d see eighty or ninety sharks in a day as a boy,” he recalled. “Now they’re scarce everywhere.” Matthiessen was collecting good material on sharks, possibly to use in a book or article. Worried that huge corporations were destroying the planet, concerned that the U.S. government was doing too much nuclear testing, Matthiessen decided to become a generalist biologist in the Hornaday vein. During the cold war, the Bering Sea seemed like a moat protecting Alaska from invasion. But Matthiessen was concerned that the Aleutian chain and the Pribilofs—with their wildlife—were being killed by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Besides his rambles in Connecticut and his charter fishing off Montauk, another influence on Matthiessen, in biotic terms, was his brother, George, who studied marine biology at Princeton University and conducted research at Woods Hole Laboratory. While writing wildlife articles for Sports Illustrated, Matthiessen was accumulating reams of information about North American birds and animals. He had a brother who willingly served as a marine consultant. “I wasn’t planning on writing Wildlife in America,” Matthiessen remembered. “I didn’t want to write the book. But I had done all this research. Back then magazine editors tended to treat young writers very badly. I had all this material. So why not a book?” Nobody since Hornaday had written comprehensively about endangered species, wildlife in crisis. “So I went to discover wild America,” he recalled. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the 1950s was always very helpful. They had Rachel Carson, whom I unfortunately didn’t meet, writing enormously powerful pamphlets and papers, all quite lyrical and influential.”19

Matthiessen, by now separated from his wife, loaded his forest green Ford convertible with books by naturalists such as Spencer F. Baird, A. C. Bent, and Roger Tory Peterson; tossed in a .20-gauge shotgun and a down sleeping bag; and headed west. “The gun was for protection,” he recalls. “Perhaps I thought I might need to shoot a bird to eat in the Mojave or Sonora. But I never once used it.” What he did use was the booze bottles that were also among his essentials in lighting out for the territory. His mission “on the road” was to document the history of wildlife struggling to coexist with humankind during the atomic age.

As a scholar, Matthiessen knew the history of wildlife extinctions—such as the Carolina parakeet, Steller’s sea cow, and Merriam’s elk—and wrote high-minded eulogies, including his elegant lament for the Labrador duck. (One of the last of this species was shot off Martha’s Vineyard in 1872 by Daniel Webster for the Smithsonian Institution.) What made Matthiessen different from Hornaday in Our Vanishing Wild Life was his novelistic trick of imagining that someday flocks of Labrador ducks would be back in the marshlands of the Atlantic coast. “Today, off Long Island’s beaches, on a still day of winter the great rafts of black and white pied sea ducks are a fine sight,” Matthiessen wrote, “the trim old-squaw and neat bufflehead, the mergansers and goldeneye and dark, heavy-bodied scoters. The sharp air is clean, virtually odorless, and only the strange gabble of the old-squaws breaks the vague murmur of the tide along the shore. Alone on the beach, one can readily imagine that, momentarily, the loveliest pied duck of them all might surface, startled, near a sand spit, the white of it bright in the cold January sun, as it did winter after winter long ago.”20

From 1956 to 1958, Matthiessen was quite a sight driving around the United States in his beat-up convertible, visiting national wildlife refuges such as Aransas in Texas and the Lower Klamath in Oregon. Books were piled up on his backseat. While camping in the Great Plains, he became fond of George Catlin’s depictions of animals; he used them as endpapers for Wildlife in America. For the first time Matthiessen also discovered the narrative panache of Francis Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail. He was a sponge for information and found the species reports of Dr. C. Hart Merriam especially valuable. Circulating among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists of the upper Midwest, who were working on various federal refuges, Matthiessen started drafting chapters for his first nonfiction book, Wildlife in America. “Forests, soil, water, and wildlife are mutually interdependent,” Matthiessen wrote, “and the ruin of one element will mean, in the end, the ruin of them all.”21

Dutifully keeping journals, reading everything possible about the wildlife protection movement of Roosevelt, Grinnell, and Hornaday when he stayed at campgrounds, parking lots, and motels, Matthiessen, who in the late 1960s would convert to Zen Buddhism, eventually flew to Alaska in May 1958 for research. “I started off in the Kenai Peninsula and flew everywhere in Alaska,” he recalled. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife took me all around. There weren’t roads back then to get around. You had to fly. Every big gravel bar we saw had a wrecked plane. Pilots constantly crashed. They’d break a shoulder blade but walk off relatively unscathed. It was very foggy, I remember, and navigation was a worry.”22

Seeing the brown bears on Kodiak Island was a must for Matthiessen. But the far north was the magnet that tugged on his psyche. Roger Tory Peterson had written in 1955 that Arctic Alaska was, without question, the “wildest” remaining part of “wild North America.” Matthiessen heard that call. He also started observing the caribou and Dall sheep on the North Slope. And everything about Alaska’s bear population grabbed his attention. Matthiessen had read the reports of the Harriman Expedition about its successful hunt for Kodiak bears in 1899. Now, in the late 1950s, the Kodiaks, like the grizzlies, were becoming endangered race. Polar bears had become even more scarce. At the beginning of Wildlife in America—which Viking published in 1959—Matthiessen included a color plate of a polar bear drawn by John W. Audubon (son of the great ornithologist).

In a chapter titled “Land of the North Wind,” Matthiessen included black-ink drawings by the illustrator Bob Hines of a polar bear, Alaska worm salamander, Aleutian tern, whiskered auklet (Aethia pygmaea), northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), ribbon seal, Kodiak bear, barren-ground caribou, grayling, and woodland caribou, and a wolf pack. In 2010, in an interview, Matthiessen said he was pleased that Hines—his illustrator—also provided the drawings for Silent Spring. “In the state of Alaska,” Matthiessen wrote, “America has a splendid chance to demonstrate that the hard lessons of conservation have been learned, for the great part of it is still under federal jurisdiction and, protected from the excesses of private exploitation, remains unspoiled. The effects of statehood on this unique wilderness should not be the responsibility of its inhabitants alone, for the future of Alaska is crucial to the nation.”23

Matthiessen investigated the great fisheries throughout Alaska. With awe he visited Native villages, with salmon drying in rows. Point Barrow—Allen Ginsberg’s forlorn radar-station outpost in the summer of 1956—was to Matthiessen a magical place where the rose-tinted Ross’s gull (Rhodostethia rosea) sometimes appeared after wandering all the way from the Asian Arctic. His prose meditation on the scarcity of Ross’s gull predated The Snow Leopard (which won the National Book Award), about his search in the 1970s for these rare Central Asian cats, which adapted to cold mountainous environments. Matthiessen knew of Edward Curtis’s 1899 photographs of Inuit village life, which appeared in the report of the Harriman Expedition. How had life on the isolated North Slope changed in more than half a century? Not much, it turned out. What really surprised Matthiessen about Point Barrow was that he was the strange roadside attraction. “When we got out of the plane, Inuit people were snapping photos,” he said. “We were the odd visitors. But they had Kodaks”24

It becomes apparent in Wildlife in America that Matthiessen wanted to keep Alaska wild—free of fish propagation, fur farms, and reindeer ranges. On the eve of statehood all anybody would talk about was North Slope oil concessions. Saloons in Fairbanks were abuzz with stories of new fields. Just as Ansel Adams had visited Alaska’s national parks, the twenty-nine-year-old Matthiessen focused on the national wildlife refuges: the Pribilof Islands for seals; Kodiak Island for bears; and the Kenai Peninsula for moose. Matthiessen believed all three of these species would survive the onslaught of timber agents and oil geologists. And his bush pilot flew him in a Cessna over the National Petroleum Reserve near what was about to become the flagship Arctic NWR.

The highlight of Matthiessen’s travels for Wildlife in America was touring Arctic Alaska in May 1957. Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife pilots—Jim Branson and Ray Tremblay—took him around on an animal survey east and west of Point Barrow. Just to see all those caribou thronging across the tundra, and Arctic primroses popping up on the pebble-strewn beaches, was life-changing. They flew along the Arctic Ocean toward Canada, feeling minuscule. “From the sky I could see the National Petroleum Reserve, where wildlife was thick,” Matthiessen recalled. “And the caribou herd was unreal. I was determined to come back someday.”

But Arctic Alaska, the fragile tundra that the Muries had fought to protect, worried Matthiessen. A warning prayer from a Togiak elder stuck with him: “If we fail to save the land, God may forgive us, but our children won’t.”25 Much like Bob Marshall, Matthiessen used a book—in his caseWildlife in America—to promote the “sequestration of inviolate primeval wilderness for posterity” in the Arctic. To Matthiessen the Wilderness Bill—which was pending in Congress during the late 1950s—needed to be passed. It was senseless, he argued, for America to rethink land policy every four years to deal with special interests or political expedience. Matthiessen understood Alaskans’ need to timber, drill, and mine. His chief concern was that once a place earned the designation of a wildlife refuge, it should be left alone. Matthiessen believed that the Arctic land needed to be protected in perpetuity. Gold and oil might be found decades later, he argued, but this possibility didn’t mean that the Arctic Game Reserve should be reopened for oil derricks or mine shafts. Otherwise, Yellowstone or the Tetons could become a natural gas reserve. “Glimpsed from the air between banks of cold rolling fogs, the region is beautiful and forbidding,” Matthiessen wrote of the Arctic. “Its tundra is desert of a kind, but the great beauty of Alaska lies in its bleakest areas—tundra, ice pack, glacier, and bare mountain, with their unique and precious complement of life.”26


Wildlife in America was a nonfiction work set during the late Eisenhower era. Half of the book was a eulogy for extinct species. At times the prose read like a lyrical forensic report, a long-distance gaze backward in time to the sad legacy of mankind’s inhumanity toward animals. Matthiessen sadly documented how reckless Americans had been toward the bison, manatee, flamingo, and sea otter. The grimmest Greek tragedies were mild compared with stories of Alaskan wolf exterminators, trophy hunters who sought Dall sheep, and reckless fishermen who overfished and then blamed bald eagles for poor harvest seasons. Matthiessen didn’t report on American highway life like Kerouac in On the Road (or like John Steinbeck in his 1962 memoir Travels with Charley). There was no ego on display in Wildlife in America. Matthiessen wasn’t a preacher, a braggart, or a show-off about his Alaskan literary expeditions. But Matthiessen was prescient in warning about the toxicity of DDT, ammonium phosphate, and organophosphates and their effect on wildlife. His first book is both a throwback to the meticulous zoological research of Hornaday and an environmental manifesto giving—from the eastern establishment—credence to McClure’s bitter “For the Death of 100 Whales” and Snyder’s more hopeful “A Berry Feast.”

Although the Paris Review had no conservationist agenda, both Matthiessen and Plimpton were ardent Auduboners. Matthiessen took from his odyssey on the road a newfound sense of himself as a world traveler. Like the humpback whales, sea otters, and Canada geese he saw in Alaska, Matthiessen recognized himself as a migrant. So when he spied on a Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) along the Bering Sea he knew it would join its Siberian counterpart on a trek across Russia before heading south through Turkey and Syria into eastern Africa. The bird spends its winter in the sub-Saharan grasslands of Africa after traveling more than 7,000 miles from its breeding grounds. Traveling the world to find great white sharks, snow leopards, and caribou herds became his specialty. There was a lot of Roosevelt and Hornaday in Matthiessen’s approach. But there was also a spiritual awakening about protecting wild places that reflected the beat writers Snyder, Whalen, McClure, and Kerouac.

One thing that differentiated Matthiessen from the “dharma writers” on the Pacific coast was his establishment credentials. The Paris Review’s contributors also wrote for the New Yorker and attended Warhol’s Factory happenings. They attended Truman Capote’s parties at the Waldorf-Astoria and befriended the Kennedys. More than anybody else in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Matthiessen was connecting the beat’s energy into the main consciousness of his time. Matthiessen regularly ingested LSD, getting it from a renegade Ivy League psychiatrist known as Dr. John the Night Tripper. Among the major writers of the era, perhaps only Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson dropped more acid than Matthiessen. But his reason—as with McClure and peyote—was a longing to feel man’s relationship with nature. “On acid I felt the unity of all nature,” he recalled. “It was thrilling to feel yourself as part of the whole planet. But I stopped that at some point. We learned that you can achieve the exact sensation through Zen. It’s slower, but purer and healthier all around.”27

Besides gravitating to psychedelics, Zen Buddhism, and remote wilderness areas (like the beats), Matthiessen also championed Native Americans’ rights. When the Sioux leader Leonard Peltier was arrested for the Wounded Knee massacre and convicted in 1977, Matthiessen defiantly stood up for his release from Lewisburg prison; it became a long crusade. At Point Barrow in 1961 the Inupiat protested against limits set by the International Treaty in favor of unlimited hunting and wanted no nuclear tests by the AEC; Matthiessen sided with them in both causes.

Another thing that differentiated Matthiessen from the beats was his embrace of Alaska as his special landscape. Nowhere else were the mirages so profuse: on clear summer days, the tundra shimmered like a dragonfly’s wings. And how could anyone not be impressed by 900,000 wild caribou? Owing to the success of Wildlife in America, he next decided to live on Nunivak Island and write Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea. Nunivak was the offshore part of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, which Theodore Roosevelt had created by an executive order in 1909. A volcanic island of Cretaceous sedimentary rock, Nunivak—with the Estolin Strait separating it from the mainland—had an end-of-the-Earth feel. It was the year-round home of Cup’ik-speaking Eskimos and the summer home of cliff-nesting seabirds such as puffins, murres, and kittiwakes. The only village on the island—which was sixty-five miles long and forty-five miles wide—was Mekoryuk, with a population of fewer than 200.

Because Nunivak wasn’t on the Alaskan mainland, it was extremely difficult to reach; also, it was protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thus a herd of shaggy, surreal musk oxen were released on Nunivak in an effort to restore the species to Alaska. To Matthiessen, the musk oxen were the “last of a great Ice Age family of goat-antelopes that includes the European chamois.”28 They had a wonderful aura about them. About 480 of the musk oxen were still alive on the island when Matthiessen started tracking them on the boggy tundra like a field biologist. All of these Greenland musk oxen were descended from a group of thirty-three calves, which had been imported to Fairbanks in 1930 as breeding stock to help restore the herds to their former range in Arctic Alaska. In 1935 and 1936 eighteen males and nineteen females from the University of Alaska Experiment Station in Fairbanks were taken to Nunivak Island and released. In the 1960s, working with researchers from the University of Alaska and the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research, Matthiessen helped relocate a herd of Nunivak musk oxen back to Fairbanks. Matthiessen brought out Oomingmak (Eskimo for musk ox), in 1967; an excerpt ran in the New Yorker. Two years later, Matthiessen was part of the team that relocated fifty-three musk oxen from Nunivak Island to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

A westerner who considered himself a kinsman of the far east, Matthiessen traveled to some of the most remote places on earth during his impressive literary career. Believing in the old maxim that the most dangerous thing to do with one’s life is to stand still, Matthiessen carefully studied wildlife in a dazzling array of remote habitats. The titles of his nonfiction books speak for themselves: The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes, Tigers in the Snow, The Tree Where Man Was Born (which was nominated for a National Book Award), and The Snow Leopard (which won that prestigious award). He also helped Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall write The Quiet Crisis—a landmark environmental manifesto—in 1963.29

Among all the places Matthiessen visited, however, Arctic Alaska remained foremost in his memory. Whenever the chance presented itself, Matthiessen would tour the region north of the Arctic Divide, meeting with Gwich’in people, observing the musk oxen, and studying the drift timbers at the eastern end of Icy Reef. As a correspondent for the New York Review of Books, he wrote marvelous essays on beluga whales and even a white wolf.30 Whenever he was asked by a conservation group, such as the Audubon Society or the Alaska Wilderness League, to help preserve the Arctic, Matthiessen obliged. His 2003 essay “In the Great Country” (published in the photographic book Seasons of Life and Land) remains the most poignant essay ever written about the Arctic NWR. “I am outraged,” he wrote, “that the last pristine places on our looted earth are being sullied without mercy, vision, or good sense by greedy people who are robbing their fellow citizens of the last natural bounty and profusion that Americans once took for granted.”31

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