Contest Guest-Post Winner: Bob Marshall’s ALASKA WILDERNESS as remembered by Bill Sherwonit

Thanks to everyone who entered the latest contest: I’ll be running several more entries, including a runner-up and a youth entry, over the next few weeks. This week, I want to thank Bill Sherwonit for sharing this personal reaction to an Alaska book that shaped his life.

By Bill Sherwonit

My choice for an inspiring book: Robert Marshall’s ALASKA WILDERNESS.

Here’s my story: I came north to Alaska in 1974, fresh out of graduate school with a masters in geology, and spent most of that summer exploring a place that has become my favorite wilderness, the Central Brooks Range.

For all of the range’s allure, by the end of the summer it had become apparent that my attitudes toward geology – and mineral exploration in particular – were considerably different than those of my friends and co-workers. For one thing, I clearly lacked their passion for the job. The ridges and valleys I traversed were often stunning in their beauty and wildlife sometimes spiced up my days, but the fieldwork itself generally bored me.

But something else gnawed at me. My buddies and bosses had nothing good to say about environmental groups. The depth of their anger shocked me. I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist and then knew little about the emotionally charged battle over Alaska’s wildlands, a battle that many of my peers considered a threat to their livelihoods. But I couldn’t see what was so awful about groups like the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society. It seemed to me that they were trying to do some good. I was naive and uninformed enough that I didn’t realize many environmentalists would feel the same sort of disgust toward me, simply because I worked on a field crew seeking metal deposits in the Arctic wilderness.
At 24, my green ethic was still largely unformed. But I did know this: Sierra Clubbers were not my enemies. Still, it wasn’t a perspective I could openly share with my geologist buddies, so I hid my misgivings and questions. Yet little by little, my discomfort built.

Perhaps my uneasiness was nudged along by the spirit of wilderness advocate Robert Marshall. Or at least his book. Alaska Wilderness had somehow made its way into our crew’s library, along with assorted novels and other Alaska-adventure books. On one hand, its presence in camp made good sense; Marshall’s was a popular book about the mountains we were exploring. Caught up in the wild allure of the place, several of us – especially those new to Alaska – yearned to know more about the Brooks Range. And here was a story by the guy who’d explored and named many of the rivers and valleys and peaks we worked among. In a way, Marshall could be imagined as a kindred soul, someone who loved the mountains and paid close attention to their form, their geology.

Marshall’s insight that “only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness” may help to explain why exploration geologists could identify with his writing. Though their work might ultimately lead to mines and roads and toxic wastes, my co-workers loved being “in the field.” And the farther afield the better. That, in large measure, is why many had come to Alaska. They, like Marshall, delighted in long rambling hikes. But their jaws must have dropped, their tempers flared, when reading Marshall’s call to preserve Arctic Alaska: “In the name of a balanced use of American resources, let’s keep northern Alaska largely a wilderness!”

Marshall made no attempt to hide his biases. If you gave Alaska Wilderness (or even the book’s jacket) more than a cursory read, it quickly became clear that he sought – and found – far different riches than what we pursued. He reveled in the landscape’s primeval nature even as he relished the solitude, sense of well being, and spiritual refreshment to be found in this Arctic wilderness. In its advocacy of wilderness protection, Marshall’s book was a subversive presence in camp.

It’s a crazy thing, when you think about it. Here was a pro-wilderness treatise (wrapped inside an adventure tale) by a founding member of The Wilderness Society, being passed among people who, by and large, abhorred anti-mining, tree-hugging environmentalists. Yet no one seemed to notice the irony. I didn’t, certainly.

Once I gave him a try, Marshall quickly pulled me into his tales of adventure and discovery. Sitting in the cook tent before breakfast or wrapped in my sleeping bag at night, I eagerly followed him and his buddies up the North Fork of the Koyukuk toward the Arctic Divide; past Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, his literal – and now legendary – Gates of the Arctic; and to the flanks of darkly ominous Mount Doonerak. Marshall’s excitement became my own as he arrived “at the very headwaters of one of the mightiest rivers of the north, with dozens of never-visited valleys and hundreds of unscaled summits still as virgin as during their Paleozoic creation.”

The book didn’t make me question what I was doing, at least not consciously. But I’m sure that Marshall’s passion for wilderness touched mine. In doing so, his writings must have reignited long-dormant embers by reconfirming the importance of wildness in my own life. Here was a man who loved the mountain landscape and its wild inhabitants for what they are, not for what they might become when utilized by humans. Instead of seeing the Brooks Range as a warehouse of raw materials, Marshall understood its inherent value in a wild, natural state. And he joyously celebrated that wildness in ecstatic prose:

“Three miles up the plunging creek we suddenly came upon a gorgeous lake, a mile and a half long and fresh as creation. Great mountains rose directly from its shores and disappeared about 3,000 feet above the water into low-lying clouds. . . . seeing the sweep of mountains end in oblivion gave an impression of infinite heights above the experience of man.”

Marshall’s wild desires, combined with his lushly dramatic descriptions of the Arctic landscape and the ecstasy he felt there, have prompted some critics to label him a romantic, an escapist. But I sensed the importance of what he sought, found, and then shared through his writings. More than any geologist, he would become a role model and inspiration.
Note: the book cover image above is from an antique book dealer that carries an old edition of the Bob Marshall book.
Scroll to Top