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Mapping Alaska: an explorer's journey

by Daniela Galloro on June 5, 2012 Library

There was no path to guide field mapper Mary Albanese through the Alaskan wilderness. Only brush, trees, and rocks – an unchartered, seemingly endless stretch of rocks.Her memoir Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon: Mapping the Wild Heart of Alaska is the story of Albanese’s life and journey as an arctic geological explorer.

Following her graduation from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1977, Albanese moved to Fairbanks and received her M.S. in Geoscience from the University of Alaska in 1980. She worked as a geological explorer for the state of Alaska until she left the state in 1987.

From 1977 to 1987, it was Albanese’s job to fill in the huge unexplained gaps that riddled Alaskan maps in those days. Hours of her day were spent on foot. The terrain was at times perilously steep, and under the hot Alaskan sun Albanese fainted from heat stroke on more than one occasion. At every outcrop she would identify the rocks, measure the angles, collect samples, and take endless notes. The pack she carried on her back would weigh almost 100lbs by days-end. Knowing they would never have the opportunity to return to the scene, no stone could be left unturned when collecting the field data.

Her journey is a testament to her personal philosophy: if at first you don't succeed, try something that's harder. When she failed to find a field job in the summer of 1978, Albanese decided to run her own field operation: “This meant I had to teach myself everything I would need to know in order to run my own program, before I had even experienced work on anyone else's crew,” says Albanese. “That was considerably harder, but sometimes the only one you can really count on is yourself.”

The book chronicles her survival against the Alaskan elements and the extreme conditions of a remote explorer. A strong undercurrent is Albanese’s connection with rocks, and passion for the region’s rock formations. “Rock units are the building blocks of the earth's crust, intricately merged together to provide the solidity in our world,” says Albanese. “Most people don't ever think of it that way, but it's true. I like rocks for their strength as well as their secrets and their truth. The rocks never lie.”

Deciphering the geological history of Sugar Loaf Mountain, Jumbo Dome, and the Buzzard Creek Maars for her master thesis remains one of her proudest accomplishments. “I just went back to the geology department at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to see how it has changed and was told that my geochronology and tectonic assessment of those rocks still stands up, and that all the research in that region in the past 30 years has only re-confirmed my analyses. That was a pretty good feeling.”

Find MIDNIGHT SUN, ARCTIC MOON on Visit Albanese’s website for more information.