Max Brewer

  • "Max was an icon of the North - it was my privilege to work..."
    - Darwin Braden
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    - Stephen Gryc
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With only two words, spoken quietly, yet firmly, Max Clifton Brewer once saved his own life and the lives of ten other men.

It was November 15, 1961, on a return flight to Barrow from an ice island adrift in the Arctic Ocean. Just 20 minutes into the flight, the plane's left engine began sputtering, and then died. The pilot and copilot decided to continue heading for land. But in the cockpit, through the darkness, Max could see the edge of the ice pack, and he knew hundreds of miles of open water lay ahead. "Turn around," he told them. The plane banked north, just minutes before the right engine began to fail and the pilots were forced to make a crash landing onto the ice. The uninjured men were rescued two days later; Max had saved them from frigid waters and certain death.

An Arctic pioneer, an adventurous spirit and a beloved man, Max died at his home in Anchorage on September 21 at the age of 88.

Max was born in his family's farmhouse in Blackfalds, Alberta, on May 7, 1924, to American parents Roy Clifton and Maude (Harrah) Brewer. His family moved to Stirling, Alberta, when Max was seven, and then to Spokane, Washington, several years later. After serving with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, he live-trapped martens-members of the weasel family-in the wilds of British Columbia before earning a bachelor's degree in geological engineering from Washington University. Both postwar experiences afforded invaluable preparation for his later role as a developer of Arctic research operations.

Max first visited Alaska in 1948, when he spent the summer in Fairbanks conducting field research into the electrical resistivity of permafrost. Two years later he moved to Barrow to lead geothermal studies for the U.S. Geological Survey. It was there that he met and married Marylou Cunningham, a nurse in the village hospital.

In 1956, Max became the youngest-and ultimately, the longest-serving-director of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, an internationally recognized center for Arctic science in Barrow. During his 15 years as director, Max pioneered the use of light aircraft for ice island research and helped establish seven ice research stations, most notably Charlie and ARLIS I and II. He also oversaw the reestablishment of Fletcher's Ice Island, T-3, and the building of a state-of-the-art Arctic research facility.

Concurrently a professor of ice physics at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Max also broadened the lab's primarily biological research focus to include the physical sciences, oceanography, atmospheric studies, and the social sciences. Among his proudest accomplishments at NARL, however, were his integration of Inupiaq naturalists into the scientific program and his success in helping to train a new generation of Inupiaq scientists. He often credited a number of Inupiat-including Kenneth Toovak, Peter Sovalik, and Harry Brower, Sr.-as his greatest teachers.

Many of Max's own insights and innovations not only proved critical to the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the buildings and runways of Distant Early Warning Line sites across Alaska, but also helped provide the underpinnings of today's Arctic research programs. The finger-numbing temperature measurements he logged in the 1950s, for example, are now being used to understand climate change in Arctic Alaska.

Also while director, Max expanded the lab's animal facility, where he tenderly watched over orphaned animals and even fed polar bear cubs from baby bottles. His devotion to Arctic animals extended to his own living room, where, with the help of his wife and five children, he raised two wolverines and a wolf pup, and he delighted in taking the animals for walks on leashes through the research camp.

In 1963, Max oversaw the evacuation of the camp during the greatest storm in Barrow's recorded history, when hurricane-force winds drove the Arctic seas to flood the land and sent a bridge-the only escape route to the south-cartwheeling across the tundra.

Working closely with Max during most of his tenure at NARL was the lab's assistant director, John Schindler, who not only succeeded Max as director, but also remained his closest friend for more than 50 years.

In 1971, Governor William Egan appointed Max the state of Alaska's first commissioner of environmental conservation, a role that gained him recognition for easing strains between environmentalists and industrialists. Later he rejoined the U.S. Geological Survey, first as chief scientist and environmental engineer and then as chief of operations for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. In 1994, when he retired from the survey as a staff geologist and geophysicist, he was granted emeritus status.

But retirement never quite took. In his later decades, Max contributed his permafrost expertise to a Chinese Academy of Sciences institute in Lanzhou, where he formed close friendships with many scientific collaborators, most notably Huijun Jin. Max spent a total of 18 months in China over the course of eight visits. He also traveled to Tibet five times, making the trek even in his 80s. He was still actively publishing in scientific journals at the time of his death.

Max received many honors and awards, including an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Alaska; the U.S. Navy's highest civilian honor, a Distinguished Public Service Award; the U.S. Department of the Interior's highest honor, a Distinguished Service Award; a Linnaean Medal from Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm; and the Explorers Club's Edward C. Sweeney Memorial Medal.

Max is survived by his wife of nearly 58 years; son and daughter-in-law William and Tracy of Blowing Rock, North Carolina; daughter Linda of Houston; daughter Karen of Anchorage; daughter and son-in-law Paula and Edward Byron of Salem, Virginia; and son and daughter-in-law John Gregory and Kelly of Anchorage. Max also leaves 11 grandchildren, Katherine Brewer Ball, Meaghan, Kirsten, Zachary Brewer Ball, Rori, Aidan, Kaitlyn, Courtney, John Clifton, Jeffrey Byron and Andrew Byron; his great-granddaughter, Charlotte; numerous nieces and nephews; and many devoted friends. He was preceded in death by his brothers, Donald and Orvin James; his sister, Jean Leoni; and a nephew, Michael Leoni.

Max will always be remembered for the remarkable wisdom he gained through close observation of both nature and people, his willingness to take risks, his storytelling charm, his impish wit, and his warm and loving spirit.

On Wednesday, October 3, on the anniversary of the area's historic storm, Max will be laid to rest in the Arctic he loved, in the Barrow community he cherished, and in the permafrost he devoted his scientific career to understanding.

In lieu of flowers, and in recognition of Max's generous nature, please consider making a donation to in his memory.

Published in Anchorage Daily News from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, 2012
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