Making a new start in Alaska's rough terrain
When author Mary Albanese abruptly left her home in upstate New York and set out for Alaska, it was with a teaching job in mind. A bump in the road led her to study geology instead, where her fine art and earth science skills served her well drawing maps. But drawing those maps required surveying alarmingly rough and remote terrain, while living on canned beans and rice and carrying a shotgun to ward off bears.
In Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon, Albanese tells the story of her time in Alaska, which reads like a love letter to some of the most unforgiving landscape on earth. BookPage had a few questions about the view from so far above the “lower 48.”
Alaska seems so extreme in every way, it's bound to have made deep impressions on you. What were your most and least favorite things about life there?
I loved the extreme seasons. It served to enhance the grandeur of the already magnificent landscape.
This might sound nuts but I didn’t have any least favorite thing. I loved the challenge of the cold, and of the heavy-duty work. I might not want to do that now, but back in my 20s, it was all a marvelous adventure.
You seemed so eager and ready to hit the tundra; was there anything you were sorry to leave behind in New York?
“If you HAVE to do it, nothing’s going to stop you. Be safe, be smart, work hard, and GO."
I was far from my family who were all very dear to me. But through my letters and phone calls, I made sure I vicariously gave them the best of my Alaska experiences.
It was surprising to read that your decision to study geology instead of education essentially turned on the regretful sigh of a professor who hadn't been able to experience Alaska's great wild spaces. Have you always had such a finely tuned decision meter?
Not at all. I had three majors in college because I couldn’t decide between them. It gave me such a headache debating what I would do with my life. But at that moment, something just seemed to finally fall into place and I went with it. Once I did, I didn’t look back.
The geology fieldwork you did was so tied to details and potential danger. How did you manage to appreciate the scenery while trying not to die every day?
There wasn’t a lot of time to enjoy the scenery but at the same time, you couldn’t be out there and NOT see it.
Author Mary Albanese at a high campsite with snow-capped Mount McKinley in the background.
One of the funniest parts of the book is also by far the saddest: a three-month period where you took on every single job or opportunity offered, including black-belt-level karate and conducting an orchestra, only to realize it was an attempt to deal with grief at the loss of your daughter. Do you think that “extreme-ness” is part of why you thrived in Alaska?
Absolutely. I will admit that I am an “experience” junkie. I think it’s why I am suited to be a writer, and it’s also why my writing varies so much. I like each project to be different from the last one.
On the flip side of that, you describe many people who seem to thrive in Alaska's remote environment, then fall apart on return to the lower 48. You've moved several times now and are clearly succeeding. How did you balance that?
After leaving Fairbanks, I had a pretty rough seven years living in Washington State. I felt that part of my soul was missing. Then we got to move back to Alaska. It was wonderful not only to be back, but to realize that Alaska was such a part of me that I carried it inside me. From then on, I knew wherever I was, I could bring my internal “Alaska” with me.
You initially tried to get hired as a teacher in Alaska, which was suffering a shortage, but couldn't land a job. Do you ever imagine what your life would have been like if that first choice had come through?
Before I got to Alaska, I had epic scenarios for my entire life all planned out. But once I made the move to geology, I never looked back. For one thing, I was so busy getting through it all that I didn’t have time to consider alternative lifestyles.
An antler-bedecked bus dubbed the Tundrasaurus carried Albanese and other geologists on an Arctic field trip.
My favorite story in the book is one where you're working with Dr. Thomas Smith in an area that has already been mapped. He disputes your charted finding of chert nodules in metamorphic terrain based on an older, partial map, until you pull one out of your vest and hand it to him, disproving the old map. This couldn't have been the only time something similar happened, and your grace and composure were admirable. Did you ever want to just conk someone with a rock hammer?
Grace and composure? I was terrified of Dr. Smith that first day and it was pure luck that I happened to have one of those chert nodules in my pocket. If I hadn’t, who knows? He might still think I was a dunce.
I really didn’t like it when some guy questioned my ability just because I was female. That really made me see red. I tried to handle the situation with tact and self-control but it didn’t always work.
It seems like among your siblings, the men stay closer to home while the women are rovers. Is that pattern playing out in each of your own families?
My goodness, now that you mention it, yes! My daughters are off in the world, while my nephews are home-bodies. Hmmmm.
Your story takes place in the 1970s and early '80s, and you've had the opportunity to teach geoscience since then. Do you think girls are joining the field more readily, or does more need to be done?
As long as women are more likely to be the primary care-tenders of their children, field jobs will be harder for women to pursue.
What advice would you give to a young person making a new start as bold as the one you did?
If you HAVE to do it, nothing’s going to stop you. Be safe, be smart, work hard, and GO.
Finally, it's always a pleasure for me to learn a new word, even if the meaning is appalling. So thank you, and eeeeew, for "horsicles."
We can all thank my dog-mushing pal Shirley for that one.