Historical Badass: Margaret “Mardy” Murie

Got kids and going on an expedition? Why wouldn’t you bring them along, she said.


Margaret “Mardy” Murie is regarded as the grandmother of the conservation movement, a nod to her immense influence on passing some of the most important environmental protection acts in U.S. history.

Murie was born on August 18, 1902, and spent her first five years in Seattle before her family moved on to the last frontier, staking their home in Fairbanks, Alaska. This rugged upbringing in a rural Alaskan cabin had a profound effect on her. She wrote fondly of the experience, from its community and wonder to its challenges and lonesomeness, in her memoir, Two in the Far North. At 14, she watched through the winter night as her father and other local men burned the town’s bacon supply to fuel a steam-powered water pump when a fire had broken out in Fairbanks. In her adolescence, she dogsledded across frozen rivers, finding her way in the vast wilderness around her.

As she moved into adulthood, Murie’s pioneer spirit followed her to college, where she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska. Later that year, she married Olaus Murie, a renowned biologist and kindred spirit to her appreciation of the earth’s wilderness. Their relationship, from the moment they wed at a 3 a.m. sunrise ceremony in the village of Anvik on the Yukon River, stood as testament to the power of shared adventure. For their honeymoon, they traveled over 500 miles around the upper Koyukuk region by boat and dogsled conducting caribou research.

After starting a family, the couple continued their expeditions, introducing their three children to backcountry adventure even while they were still nursing. On a river journey, their infant son, Martin, was strapped to their boat for the ride. In the foreword to Two in the Wild, Terry Tempest Williams recalls asking Murie about her adventurous life with her children in tow, and Murie shared how life didn’t really change, that the children just lived by their side in the wilderness. She explains that the key was having a solid basecamp, and how she’d create a kitchen, complete with tables, stools, and benches, by lashing together found tree limbs.

In 1927, the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, assigned Olaus to study elk herds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While the family never lived in Alaska again, they returned, always in partnership, for further explorations and investigations of the wilderness there, including a 1956 trip to the upper Sheenjek River in the Brooks Range. This trip would become part of an effort that convinced President Eisenhower to set aside 8 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, later expanded to 19 million in 1980.

In Wyoming, Murie preferred life off the beaten path. She organized victory gardens, managed a dude ranch, and constantly explored the Teton wilderness. After Olaus passed in 1963, Mardy carried on their commitment to conservation. Her work would lead her to receive several awards and honors, including the Audubon Medal in 1980, the John Muir Award in 1983, the Robert Marshall Conservation Award in 1986, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. The National Park Service also named Murie an honorary park ranger.

In 1978, she wrote:

When I think about that return to the part of Alaska which has meant so much in my life, the overpowering and magnificent fact is that Lobo Lake is still there, untouched. Last Lake is still there, untouched. Although the instant you fly west of the Canning River man is evident in all the most blatant debris of his machine power, east of the Canning the tundra, the mountains, the unmarked space, the quiet, the land itself, are all still there.

Do I dare to believe that one of my great-grandchildren may someday journey to the Sheenjek and still find the gray wolf trotting across the ice of Lobo Lake?

Murie passed away on October 19, 2003, in her Moose, Wyoming, log cabin at 101. Her environmental and political accomplishments were unquestionably tied to her roots in wilderness adventure and how this grew in partnership with her husband and children. She took her love of the outdoors and channeled it into something greater than herself, into a legacy for us all, so that we, too, may continue our grand backcountry adventures.

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Comments
  • Michael Hubler
    Reply

    Good piece.

    I highly recommend the Charlie Craighead and Bonnie Kreps biography of Mardy Murie, “Arctic Dance.” The coffee-table-sized tome is a vivid depiction of her life, as is the DVD by the same name.

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