Bob Marshall’s year in Wiseman yielded a best seller and a conservation ethic grounded in wilderness preservation.

[by Doug Scott]

While Bob Marshall was in Alaska, every day led to new adventure, in “scaling the summits of unknown mountains, in camping more than a hundred miles from the closest neighbours, in discovering scenes of natural beauty as splendid as the world-famous Yosemite or Glacier Park.” Further, he wrote that Alaska’s official motto, North to the Future, “is a reminder that beyond the horizon of urban clutter there is a Great Land beneath our flag that can provide a new tomorrow for this century’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

His time in the north resulted in the book, Arctic Village, which detailed his time in Wiseman and captured a wonderful portrait of 1930s Alaska. After the book had been published, he sent a copy and an $18 check—a 50:50 split of the royalties—to each resident of Wiseman.

Marshall was drawn to this tiny village as much by the people—127 in the entire Koyukuk drainage—as by its vast wilderness. He found a remarkably unified community comprised of Eskimo, Indian, and white—a collection of women, men and children who created “the happiest civilization of which I have knowledge” and “who measured up to the harsh environment two hundred miles from the nearest paved road or electric light.”

Bob Marshall and Wiseman resident Jesse Allen preparing for a hunt, ca. 1931. (photo courtesy of Harry Leonard and George Lounsbury)

The Eskimos affectionately called Marshall Oomik, meaning the Bearded One. They found him a deeply respectful man, utterly different from other whites, mostly prospectors, they’d known. One remembered that Marshall was “crazy in love with the country. He kept talking about keeping it the way it is . . . without roads or buildings . . . so it would always be like nobody had been there before.”

For his year-long sojourn in Wiseman, Marshall brought along forestry books and notebooks for research, records and a few other books, such as the complete works of Shakespeare, Spengler’s Decline of the West, and Plato’s Republic. During the winter he worked on his notes and wilderness writing in the mornings, took walks in the afternoons, then had dinners at the roadhouse, where a Victrola was occasionally wound for long nights of dancing with the Eskimo girls, a delight for this lifelong bachelor.

“The drums are the rivers rumbling invariably and the rest of the orchestra is the wind howling, the ice cracking, snowslides coming down the mountains, rocks tumbling over one another, the wild animals howling.”

These long dances inspired Marshall to continue a habit he’d maintained since boyhood: compiling obscure data. During his time in Wiseman, he recorded 11 major dances that lasted the whole night through and more. By his computations, the dances lasted an average of 10 hours and 55 minutes.

“There was something pleasantly exotic,” he wrote, “in watching the dancers glide across the smooth, spruce floor with their whole preoccupation being on having an exuberant time.”

Christmas in Wiseman, 1930, taken by Bob Marshall. (photo courtesy of Bob Marshall/ Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Other times, friends dropped by for conversation. A Native friend stopped in one evening, and when Marshall played Boléro on his record player, the friend became wildly excited by the syncopated beat. This puzzled Marshall at first, but he came to understand that “the Boléro is the perfect counterpart to the music they have heard from earliest childhood out in the wilderness of the north. The drums are the rivers rumbling invariably and the rest of the orchestra is the wind howling, the ice cracking, snowslides coming down the mountains, rocks tumbling over one another, the wild animals howling. It represents to the natives all the chaotic music of nature in its wildest moments.”

He was impressed not only by the charm of the locals, but also their intelligence. In the general joy at the return of the sun after a long, dark winter, one friend happily quoted an apt bit from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”:

Oh, thou that, with surpassing glory crowned,

Look’st upon thy whole dominion like the god

Of this new World—at whose sight all the stars

Hide their diminished heads—to thee I call.”

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