Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Reading List

To prepare for my Hulahula River rafting trip, I wanted to read some books that would preview this foreign environment and give me a general orientation. However, I was surprised by the dearth of helpful reading lists about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trying to develop a reading list on my own wasn’t easy either. There are many books about the Arctic generally, but I was interested in books that focused specifically on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so that I could learn more about my exact destination. I found at least a dozen books about the Refuge and ended up reading these books:

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Debbie S. Miller, 1990 (republished 2000)

Debbie Miller moved from California to become a schoolteacher in Arctic Village. From there, she took numerous treks into the Refuge. This book captures her experiences and impressions.

Debbie is a graceful writer who weaves a story well. Occasionally she gets a little preachy about the need to protect the Refuge from development, but for the most part her writing is informative, entertaining and entirely readable. I found the last chapter absolutely gripping as she describes taking her toddler to camp in the Refuge. As a parent of young kids, I cannot possibly imagine this–it’s hard enough to travel there as an adult without kids, but bringing a kid just seems overwhelming. But her stories, especially the interaction between her daughter and a wolf, were moving and emotional.

The book did a great job giving me a preview of life as a visitor to the Refuge. This is the seminal book about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, written before the Refuge was “cool,” and it is the template for all of the books that follow it. If you’re going to read only one book before going to the Refuge, this is the one. Strongly recommended.

Under the Arctic Sun: Gwich’in, Caribou & the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Ken Madsen, 2002

I look at Madsen’s book as a complement to Miller’s book. Like Miller, Madsen writes a travelogue about his trips in the Refuge and beyond. He also describes his Caribou Commons project and his relationship with the Gwich’in people.

If this was the only book about the Refuge on the market, I would encourage you to read it. But in light of Debbie Miller’s book, this book is unnecessarily redundant. Madsen’s writing is overdone and filled with groan-inducing metaphors; he recounts his stories with a hint of ego and self-importance entirely absent in Miller’s book; Madsen recaps dialogue that he thinks is funnier that it actually is; and the book was in desperate need of more aggressive editing. Reading this book was tiresome and unenlightening, and I struggled to finish it. Not recommended.

Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Jonathan Waterman, 2005

This book is very similar to the Madsen book in a number of ways. Like the Madsen book, it is a travelogue of Waterman’s experiences in the refuge. Waterman’s unique angle is that he weaves in a biography of ANWR pioneers Olaus and Mardy Murie into his own stories, putatively showing how his experiences are similar to those of the Murie’s.

Unfortunately, like the Madsen book, this book is deeply flawed. The entire book is wrapped up with an air of self-importance, the stories’ drama seemed intended more to impress us about Waterman’s courage than to enlighten us, the book was massively overwritten and desperately needed heavy editing, and the putative linkages between Waterman’s experiences and the Muries are frequently incomprehensible.

I actually enjoyed reading about the Muries, and Waterman does a decent job telling their story. It made me wonder if a good biography about the Muries is available. That would be worth reading. However, this book is not an adequate substitute for a legitimate biography of them. Because it cuts between Waterman and the Muries constantly, the book is choppy and, frankly, the parts about Waterman just aren’t that interesting.

Thus, like the Madsen book, I don’t recommend this book. It only reinforces that Miller’s book is so much better than the subsequent copycat books. Get Miller’s book instead.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, Subhankar Banerjee, 2003

The Last Wilderness: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kennan Ward, 2001

These two books are both photoessays of the Refuge, and in that sense they compete with each other. Both of them are filled with awe-inspiring, “how did they get that?” photographs that provide a nice visual preview of the Refuge. Banerjee is a bit of a johnny-come-lately to the Refuge; only a few years before publishing the book, he ditched life as a professional in Seattle to become a Refuge bum, and he is neither a trained wilderness expert nor an expert photographer. In comparison, Ward is a longtime Refuge denizen. While Banerjee does a fine job, not surprisingly I think Ward’s photography is a little better. Even so, the overall compilation of materials in Banerjee’s book, including essays and other textual material as well as the photographs, is a more enlightening package. Both books are meritorious, but if you’re only going to buy one photoessay book, I recommend the Banerjee book.

Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, compiled by Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid, 2001

This book is a collection of short essays written by a wide variety of folks in response to the threat of oil development in the Refuge. The idea was to package up a bunch of statements against drilling or in praise of the wilderness value of the Refuge and present the collection to Congress. Perhaps this collection of essays has some historical value, but it has not aged well. Instead, I mostly found it worthless. A number of essays were written by people who have never been to the Refuge, and most of them are filled with redundant preachiness and philosophizing. Don’t waste your time with this book. Not recommended.

Conclusion: If you’re going to buy only one book, get Miller’s Midnight Wilderness. If you’re only going to buy two books, get the Miller and Banerjee book. Happy reading!

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