Two in the Far North: A Conservation Champion’s Story of Life, Love, and Adventure in the Wilderness
By Margaret E. Murie. Alaska Northwest Books (West Margin Press), 2020 reprint with new foreword by Frances Beinecke
Originally published in 1962, “Two in the Far North” is Mardy Murie’s memoir of her early Alaska life, her years exploring the Arctic with her biologist-husband Olaus Murie, and the subsequent years advocating for the Wilderness Act and conservation of Alaska lands. Murie died in 2003, at the age of 101.
The two Muries were instrumental in establishing the 8.9-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range by President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1960 executive order. The nation’s first ecosystem-scale conservation unit, the range was established for its “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” With the passage of the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act (ANILCA) in 1980, it was expanded into today’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But that came later. Murie’s book begins with her own Alaska start when, at the age of 9, in 1911, she moved with her mother and stepfather, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, from Seattle to Fairbanks. The details of that three-week journey — by ship to Skagway, train into Canada and then downriver by river steamer and a final short trip by rail — place the reader in that period of lingering gold fever, frontier living and slow travel. The Fairbanks Murie discovered “had both the easygoing, grabby, lusty, frontier philosophy and the striving for some order, for personal recognition perhaps, for justification of the accepted Outside kind of culture.” At the end of the book’s first section, 15-year-old Murie makes a long reverse journey, by horse-drawn and dog sleds, to Cordova and south to college.
In the book’s second section, Murie returns to Alaska, where she meets the young Olaus, who was studying caribou for what was then the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service). She finished her schooling at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska) as its second graduate. In 1924 she and Olaus were wed in the tiny village of Anvik and immediately set out on a “honeymoon” trek, to continue Olaus’s caribou study as well as recording and collecting flora and fauna more generally. Murie quickly learned to be a field assistant and went on to tough out storms, river overflows, and dogfights.
The great pleasure of this portion of the book — of all of it, really — is Murie’s recordings of daily life in that time and place, as their team of huskies took them on wild rides and as they were welcomed into the homes of both settlers and Native peoples. The two Muries thrived in the wild country they explored while also deeply appreciating the hospitality of those they met and the cultures they learned from, all along the Koyukuk River and in the northern mountains.
The third section, “The Old Crow River,” takes place two years later, when Olaus was assigned to band geese on their breeding grounds along the Old Crow, a long river distance from Fairbanks, up the Yukon and then the Porcupine River and the Old Crow. This time the Muries had along their 10-month-old son and a partner in charge of the boat. When the motorized boat broke down still far from the nesting grounds, the three adults pulled and poled their canoe and scow the rest of the way. They met no other people in the territory and learned that Native people had the good sense to avoid it entirely in summer, when the mosquitoes were voracious.
Parents who wonder about the wisdom of taking small children into the wilds will be cautioned — and perhaps heartened — by Murie’s account. After a farewell dinner, at the start of what would be their four-month expedition, Murie writes, “All our friends, except Jess and Clara, thought we were crazy, if not criminal, to take the baby along into the Arctic.” (Little Martin survived quite well, entertained under mosquito netting by toys and bird calls.)
Part four skips ahead to 1956, when the older Muries accompanied three young scientists (including the later-famed ornithologist Brina Kessel, representing the University of Alaska) north again, into the valley of the Sheenjek River. Olaus had left government service to head up the new Wilderness Society, dedicated to preserving what remained of America’s wilderness lands. This section documents not only the various explorations and studies of the valley and its exceptional life forms, geology and beauty, but also the hard-working and joyful lives of field scientists. Their studies laid the groundwork for the area’s inclusion in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a few years later.
The final pages of the book address, in short order, the creation of the Arctic Range, a celebratory return visit to the Sheenjek valley, and Murie’s continuing involvement with Alaska as a spokesperson for wilderness. She was not too pure, though, to ignore the needs of those who live on the land. Her time among Alaska’s Native people had taught her that people could live in harmony with the land, as stewards, and that there should be room to continue traditional lives as well as scientific study and recreation by visitors. What she feared was “the great doom-thought: when all of Alaska’s nonrenewable resources are dug out, piped away, cut down, what lifestyle then?”
“Two in the Far North” is a rightful classic both of Alaska literature and environmental history, and this reprint edition gives it even greater context with a new foreword by Frances Beinecke, the former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Beinecke lauds Murie for her truth telling and encourages her environmental descendants to find inspiration in her spirit and lifelong activism.
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