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Miller revisits classic memoir of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2012 9:11 am

FAIRBANKS - Twenty years ago, noted Alaskan author Debbie S. Miller detailed the wonders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With a foreword written by noted conservationist Margaret Murie, it detailed that marvelous piece of land that has so often been caught between the forces of development and preservation. In part a personal chronicle, naturalist diary, and compendium of Native American culture, it is a “memoir of place.”

Based on more than 13 years of hiking, climbing and kayaking through the refuge, observing mountains, coastal plain and enormous areas of water and tundra, “(s)urely Debbie Miller is qualified to give us the story of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Murie writes in her foreword.

Murie, well known for her championing of Alaskan nature, gives a peek into Miller’s motive for the book when she writes, “There, in those arctic valleys, there is room for pure, unadulterated adventure and learning … That is one reason for protecting the refuge. But more important … would be our having courage enough, in the face of all challenges, to protect this region for the sake of the land itself, and the wildlife it supports.”

Miller certainly has the credentials to champion natural Alaska: following her move here in 1975 with her husband Dennis, the couple moved to remote Arctic Village as school teachers. The proximity to the refuge allowed them the opportunity to explore the 19million-acre ANWR. She writes in the introduction: “During our many arctic journeys within the refuge, we rarely came into contact with other human travelers, or even old footprints; yet, over time, we have witnessed tens of thousands of caribou walking by our tent; seen scores of Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and the occasional passing wolf; and watched many of the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds hatch their young.”

Her love for, and awe of, the refuge and all it encompasses is obvious with every word, every phrase, every breath. And her reason for the book becomes very clear in the following paragraph: “In recent years, the coastal plain of the refuge has been threatened with the increasing possibility of oil exploration and development.”

The book is intended to explain why such industrialization should be unconscionable to any thinking being.

The book takes the form of a journey through the refuge, detailing areas and sections as one would follow the unseen trails through the refuge. Miller is quite good at naturalist writing — she brings the reader right into the hike with her: “On the coastal plain there is an overwhelming sense that we have been thrown back to a more primitive age: to an age when man roamed the earth in small numbers, faced other predators, and survived in a land where nature was the governing force; an age when man represented only a small fraction of global life.

Here, man has neither multiplied, conquered, nor consumed this most northern terrestrial ecosystem. Here, other animal species outnumber man, from the migrating caribou to the ubiquitous mosquito.”

Between the magnificent peaks of the Brooks Range, rising almost 9,000 feet to the sky, and “the shimmering endless pack ice, curving toward the North Pole, some fourteen hundred miles away …” is a land just unlocked from frigid ice, where migrating birds blanket the skies and land, and plants explode to take advantage of the too-few hours of sunshine before winter grabs hold again.

Through her eyes, we see the refuge for its beauty, its diversity, and it vastness. It’s a world that just invites hyperbole, drama, and breathless exclamations of wonder and awe.

But it is here the book loses me. Because interspersed between these marvelous phrases that capture so much of what is wonderful about the refuge are overly dramatic, hyperbolic to the extreme exhortations that All! Will! Be!

Lost! If! They! Drill! For! Oil!


In her afterword, new for this edition, Miller writes of the changes since the first edition: climate change is causing far more stress to the land than expected, polar bears are hanging on by a thread, and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year begs the question: Is responsible oil development even possible, or is it an oxymoron?

Her point — that we must keep some places in the earth, the sacred places that remind us from whence we sprung, pristine and clean — is a good point. And it’s a point with which I don’t necessarily disagree. But overdramatization and hyperbole only resonate with those already converted.

Those who really need to hear the message and learn the lesson aren’t convinced by exclamation points; breathless pronouncements of doom will just make them turn off their hearing aids and dismiss all the arguments — valid or not — without listening to any of them.

I don’t want to shoot the messenger — it’s a debate that’s been going on in Alaska forever, and both sides have valid arguments and reasonings — there’s far more gray than black or white.

But smacking the unbelievers with exclamation points seems, to me anyways, a pointless endeavor that only tires your arm. Or your head.

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

by Debbie S. Miller

Braided River

Third Edition

2011, $18.95

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