Legacy of the Muries, Part 1

In my first blog post last March, I wrote about Mardy Murie, who is known as the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement, quoting her as follows:

“I don’t think once having had a great experience in wilderness you could ever abandon wilderness in your thoughts.  And at every opportunity that came your way to preserve wilderness you would be there fighting for it, no matter what your other occupations might be.  And in that way you’d be achieving real citizenship in this country.  That’s what my hope for tomorrow is.” 

One of the overall themes of this blog has been to explore environmental patriotism, including how the emotional attachment and “real citizenship” that Mardy described can arise from experience in the wild.  In the next few posts, I want to talk specifically about the Muries – about Margaret (Mardy) and Olaus, Adolph and Louise, in particular – and their contribution and contemporary relevance to the conservation movement in this country.

I first became aware of the Murie legacy when I started reading books about natural history and wilderness adventure in Alaska about twenty years ago.  A classic of the genre is Mardy’s memoir, Two in the Far North, which recounts her early childhood in Fairbanks, her marriage to Olaus Murie in the winter of 1924, and their subsequent life together in field research and environmental leadership.  It is clear that Olaus and Mardy were meant for each other, and who can resist the story of their honeymoon, which they spent traveling through the upper Koyukuk region of arctic Alaska by boat and dogsled, so Olaus could conduct his caribou research?

I also knew that Olaus’s half-brother, Adolph Murie, was as famous in carnivore biology as Olaus was for his studies of caribou and elk herds.  Adolph carried out pioneering field studies of coyotes in Yellowstone and wolves in Denali Park; the cabin where he lived in Denali is still in use by researchers today.  Like his older sibling Olaus, Adolph adopted what was then an innovative practice of observing the animals he studied in their natural habitats.  One of the more endearing stories about the Muries is that Adolph was for a time essentially an apprentice to Olaus, through whom he met, and then married, Mardy’s half-sister, Louise.

What I did not appreciate until much later is that the Muries lived most of their lives outside of Alaska.  They are so closely associated with the final frontier that it is almost impossible to imagine this, but Olaus honed his observational and wilderness skills in Canada, as he relates in Journeys in the Far North, and after he had made his name with caribou research he was hired by the National Elk Commission to determine the cause of the elk winterkill problem in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Thereafter, he and Mardy, and Adolph and Louise, made their home at a Wyoming ranch that the family purchased in 1945 within the boundaries of what is now Grand Teton National Park.

Alaska was never far from their thoughts.  Olaus became President of The Wilderness Society and, with Mardy at his side and continuing in her own right after his untimely death, he fought tirelessly for the protection of wilderness -- especially for the passage of The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the designation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  In 1956, the Muries made a famous return to Alaska’s wilderness, traveling extensively in the Sheenjek River Valley, in the heart of what did in fact become the Arctic Refuge.  It was in this expansive valley that I traveled with friends in the summer of 2012, as recounted in a previous post, In the Footsteps of the Muries

The ranch where the Muries lived in Jackson Hole is maintained and operated today by the Murie Center, a not-for-profit organization that operates in cooperation with the National Park Service.  I had the good fortune to spend a couple of weeks at the ranch late this summer as a Pattie Layser writer-in-residence.  I will have more to say about that experience and the legacy of the Muries in the next several posts.