With nearly 20 years of controversy over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge about to come to a head, there's good reason to welcome...

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“Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”
by Jonathan Waterman
Norton, 280 pp., $24.95

With nearly 20 years of controversy over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge about to come to a head, there’s good reason to welcome “Where Mountains Are Nameless,” a new book that takes an intimate look at this remote corner of northeast Alaska and at the legendary couple who first brought it to the world’s attention.

Colorado-based writer Jonathan Waterman is an explorer, photographer, wilderness guide and author of several books on northern landscapes. For the past 20 years, he has returned to the glaciated mountains, braided rivers and undulating coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge almost yearly.

Traveling by kayak and on foot, sometimes with companions and sometimes alone, he has explored a fair portion of the 19 million-acre refuge, including the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain proposed for industrial-oil development.

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Waterman evokes a timeless landscape “sequestered in summer lushness, and inhabited by millions of migratory animals — poised to flee at the initial chill of winter or the first tendrils of human industry.” His natural-history writing is clear and compelling, particularly as he describes encounters with beluga whales, tundra swans, polar and grizzly bears and musk oxen.

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Jonathan Waterman


The author reads from “Where Mountains Are Nameless,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

He sketches a picture of thousands of migratory caribou flowing over the land like a river and millions of migratory birds flocking to the coastal plain for the brief Arctic summer.

The portrait that emerges is a land as fresh, wondrous and rich in wildlife as the Northwest first encountered by Lewis and Clark. Like that earlier territory, the Arctic is also an inhabited landscape.

The Iñupiat people hunt whales and seals from their coastal village of Kaktovic on the Beaufort Sea. The Gwich’in, 150 miles south in Arctic Village, still depend on the great caribou migrations for food, clothing and culture. Waterman spends time among both native groups, and their perspectives enliven and inform his narrative.

But his true teachers are the distinguished literary naturalists who preceded him in the Arctic, Olaus and Margaret (“Mardy”) Murie.

Olaus Murie, a scientist with the U.S. Biological Survey, began his groundbreaking study of northern caribou in 1920. Traveling by dogsled through severe Alaskan winters and gaining a comprehensive understanding of northern ecosystems, he distinguished himself as the foremost field biologist of his time.

In 1924, Olaus and Mardy were married and spent their honeymoon conducting research on the Arctic slope. The couple began a long and passionate involvement with the land that more than a quarter century later would become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Waterman opens each chapter with a personal essay of his own Arctic encounters followed by a historical sketch of the Muries. The latter stories, drawn from the couple’s many books, letters and scientific reports, are inspiring. This approach underscores the fact that the refuge remains as wild, unpredictable and biologically rich today as when first encountered by science.

After he retired, Olaus Murie became director of the Wilderness Society and worked tirelessly for protection of his beloved refuge. It came in 1960, a year after Alaska’s statehood and just three years before his death. But nearly a half-century later, the fate of “Area 1002,” the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, still hangs unresolved.

Waterman contrasts the natural wonders of the refuge with the developed oil fields of Prudhoe Bay 60 miles to the west. There an industrial complex of gravel pads, drilling rigs, squat buildings, airstrips and pipelines sprawls over hundreds of square miles of Arctic tundra.

The contrast is stark and unsettling. The author’s loyalty is clearly and eloquently with the last great wilderness at the continent’s northern edge. Like the Muries before him, he offers an informed and heartfelt plea for its preservation.