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A wilderness love story

Three months ago, I moved to Alaska with my partner. We had imagined a warm cabin from which we would occasionally sally, leaning horizontally into arctic blasts. We brought the classic book “Two in the Far North” by Mardy Murie to read through the long winter.

Today was almost 50 degrees, though, so I finished it on the porch in a T-shirt. Alaska Schmalaksa. But the mountains are still out there, and I can see some of the “primitive, unspoiled land” that inspired Mardy as a child growing up in Fairbanks. Her stories take us from her early childhood to grandparenthood.

When the book came out in 1957, Mardy and her husband, Olaus, were leaders in the wilderness movement. They worked with Aldo Leopold and others to define wilderness for Americans. By 1964, when Congress signed the Wilderness Act, “Two in the Far North” was in its second printing, and Mardy, born in 1902, was being called the “grandmother of the conservation movement.”

Kari and I feel like we’re less “far north” than Saranac Lake this season, but we’re still two, and Mardy’s book is the best wilderness love story I’ve read.

The heart of “Two in the Far North” lies in the early 1920’s, when she fell in love with a young naturalist studying caribou in the Arctic. The text from those days is dreamy: “We walked up the bank under the glow of lights strung miraculously from ship to shore, in those few minutes of landing, by that same teasing engineer and his crew, and we came to the little log church.” Mardy and Olaus were married in that log church on the Koyukuk, at 3 a.m. under a midnight sun.

For their honeymoon, the couple chased the Porcupine caribou herd. Mardy brings a new perspective to a land that had only known male voices. Her tone is softer and less victorious than her predecessors who chronicled prospecting and trapping days. She notes the color of the tundra instead of miles traveled; the taste of rabbit, not the number they killed. She’s not shy -?journal entries from this period show occasional tears and joy over new friends, new country and discovering a new life with Olaus.

“From the day of our moving in, we lived in our cabin in Bettles as though we were to live there always,” Mardy said, and I envy her certainty. She didn’t know when she married a scientist that it would involve living in a wall tent draped with raw caribou skins, but she adapted. She hung curtains and ran a snareline.

Kari and I are adapting more slowly to the semi-tropical rainforest of Haines. Our windows remain curtainless, and while we fully intend to eat rabbit, so far we’ve seen only tracks. We eat a lot of oatmeal.

On their honeymoon and a following expedition with their infant son, the Muries lived as naturalists of the old school. Olaus shot caribou and wolves to send as specimens back to museums. They ate substantially off the land, and welcomed meetings with other people of the bush.

The final section in the book, longer than the others, shows an evolution in the Murie’s approach. Now grandparents, they spend a summer in the Sheenjek valley, an area that would later become part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On this trip they shot photos, not guns. They cherish the silence and gripe at visits from the plane with its loud motor.

“A plane came clattering in,” Mardy says of visitors, “We discussed this problem many times at our campfire (a campfire, by the way, which burned only dry dead trees and branches, never a standing tree) This attitude of consideration and reverence is an integral part of life, toward the unspoiled, still evocative places on our planet. If man does not destroy himself through his idolatry of the machine, he may learn one day to step gently on his earth.” Their conservationism had caught up with the times.

This story is told honestly and earnestly by a woman who lived her gospel. While Mardy barely mentions the federal land protection campaigns, her passion for place demonstrates why she was such a successful advocate. This book carries the reader from old-time Fairbanks to the vibrant push of our country’s leading conservationists. For a great love story and a window into the old Alaska, pick up a tattered library copy of “Two in the Far North” this winter.

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