One explored ocean floors, discovered a new species of whale and championed female-led science in Alaska. Another cataloged Juneau’s trails, rehabilitated birds and established a field-based education program that molded minds of decades of Juneau students.
Both Mary Lou King and late marine biologist Michelle Ridgway have a history of passionate conservationism, and both will be inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame this year as part of its 2018 class at a May 1 ceremony in Anchorage, it was announced this week.
The trail she’s on
In her work as an author and advocate for education, King helped shape Juneau’s relationship to the outdoors.
Her two most visible contributions to conservation and recreation — her book, “90 Plus Short Walks Around Juneau,” and the Seaweek Program — opened the natural world to generations of Juneauites and visitors alike. They both originated in 1987, when King helped found the Seaweek Program, a field trip curriculum for elementary students based in local intertidal zones.
The program started in Auke Bay Elementary School, and under King’s direction, expanded to every elementary school in Juneau. She hoped the chance to view the intricate web of life in Juneau’s tidepools would instill a sense of respect for the natural world.
“Most of them (the students) had never been to the beach at a minus tide. They had no clue you could see sea stars and all those things. I think if you see those kinds of things and appreciate them, you’ll be way more apt to, no matter what you do when, take care of the environment in all types of ways,” King said.
“90 plus short walks” grew out of the Seaweek effort. King was trying to find access to public beaches adequate enough for the throngs of Juneau students she hoped would participate. She didn’t want all of the students to go to the same beaches, stressing out starfish and sea anemones.
In researching all the beach accesses on Juneau’s road system, King had the makings of a trail guide. With the help of other local hikers, she published the first edition in 1987. Hearthside Books reports that they sell more copies of “90 Walks” every year than any other book.
During a Monday interview at her Juneau home, King told stories of a long life in conservation. Birds are a big passion. She’s raised ducks, geese and even eagles at her Sunny Point property since her and her husband Jim King bought it in 1964, as many as 40 birds at a time. (The eagles stayed with the Kings before the establishment of the Juneau Raptor Center. Jim King had a 30-year career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and would often take in wounded or struggling eagles.)
At 88, King is still sharp. She still keeps two mallards and a goose.
So, what’s King’s favorite trail?
“The one I’m on,” she said.
A rare species
Ridgway, who died in January from injuries sustained in a single car crash in Juneau, was known as an inveterate explorer and top-flight marine biologist as comfortable in a submersible hundreds of feet below the waves as she was in a boardroom, influencing environmental policy.
Navigating the depths of the ocean and bureaucracy was her unique gift, said Kate Troll, a colleague who crossed paths with Ridgway in local and state policy arenas.
“Michelle cut a figure that was at once memorable and impactful,” Troll wrote in her nomination form, adding she was a “larger than life figure in this state.”
Ridgway published numerous scientific papers on everything from microscopic zooplankton to whales. She gained statewide notoriety for deep-sea exploration of the unexplored Zhemchug Canyon, in the Bering Sea, and for being a part of a team that discovered a new species of beaked whale.
For as much as she was known for her work, she was equally well-respected as a mentor and a conservation advocate. It’s something Emma Good, a marine ecology student at Western Washington University, looked up to in her mentor.
Ridgway took Good under her wing and helped her get a foothold in a field where females are underrepresented.
“She kind of encapsulated what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Good said. “She did all this really cool, badass research and really spoke out for the ocean. And she taught a lot of kids while doing it. I was not the only person that she mentored.”
Read a longer biography of King and Ridgway at juneauempire.com.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.