Alaskan pioneer

Author: Linda Spice '89

Published Date: 6/1/2016

Categories: Alumni F1RST Magazine F1RST Summer 2016


Courting Alaska

Jack Miller's pioneer journey took him to the edge of civilization

Jack Miller '73 pored over legal documents for clients in the oil and gas industry one recent morning in Anchorage, Alaska in an area of law that launched his legal career when he moved to this remote place nearly four decades ago. His career was just 11 solid months at its start and has been a little more sporadic since. He loves law. He just never liked being a lawyer. These days, his lawyering occupies a total of three weeks that are spread out over the course of a year. It is just enough to support what he really loves: Living life as a modern day Pioneer.

Away from Anchorage stands a stretch of long-extinct coastal volcanoes, the Talkeetna Mountains, which connect the Chugach Mountains to the Alaska range. This is where Miller has sustained and survived much of his life, inside a 20-foot-by-16-foot cabin that he and his wife, Jo Ann, built together. There is no plumbing. There is no electricity except for a small generator he purchased after his oldest son was born. It is home.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides and a valley on the fourth that runs down to the Talkeetna River, the cabin is only accessible by small plane. The nearest road is 50 miles away. The closest neighbor? Forty-two miles away.

Living without what most of us would consider basic household amenities, though, means enjoying the richness of a wilderness filled with sheep, goats and caribou. Brown bears. Black bears. Trout and salmon fill the nearby water.

“It is a glorious, glorious place,” Miller said. “Everybody has their own center...I’ve been privileged enough to have lived a life where I think I have found out what is my center and I get to live a life that’s consistent with that.”

Transplants from Bay View, Wis., Miller and his wife, Jo Ann, both grew up in the small neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side and dated at Bay View High School—he a football player, she the captain of the cheerleaders. They split ways briefly during college, with Miller getting his taste of Pioneer spirit at Carroll. He followed his older brother, Mark Miller ’72, who had already enrolled at the college.

Carroll gave Miller a greater sense of self-discovery, he said. He discovered he didn’t want a regular job nor did he want to have “a regular life.” He studied psychology and sociology. When he wasn’t playing football, he’d hop into his beat-up old Chevy and spend long weekends camping and hiking in northern Wisconsin.

“I don’t think I would have ever done what I did (in life) if I hadn’t...gained the self-awareness I did while I was at Carroll,” he said.

After graduating from Carroll in 1973, Miller hitchhiked across the United States and Mexico. He returned to Waukesha, worked a bit, and earned enough money to continue his travels, this time in the Middle East and Europe. On this trip, he pondered the possibilities of law school. He returned home, enrolled at Marquette Law School, reconnected with Jo Ann and married her.

Shortly after marriage, they spent a few weeks canoeing in Ontario and then traveled all of the national parks in Western Canada. They were gone just short of three months. When they returned home, they set their sights on a life in Alaska. They agreed it was the only place that he would apply for work.

“It seemed like the most unsettled place we could find,” Miller said.

Soon, he was hired, taking a job in November 1978 with a firm in Anchorage during his last year of law school. That stint lasted 11 months. The wilderness was calling.

Jack Miller's cabin

The Miller’s cabin measures only 20'x16'. It is surrounded on three sides by extinct volcanoes and the Talkeetna River.

Jack Miller

A passion for the outdoors pushed Jack Miller to embrace work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Caribou in Alaska

Caribou stroll past on the Miller property. Sheep, goats and bears are common sights.

He and Jo Ann embraced life in Alaska. Miller guided hunters all over the state and fished commercially off of Kodiak Island, Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. They both worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in extremely remote areas of Alaska doing fish counts, working test fisheries, identifying salmon spawning streams/rivers and “loads of other things,” Miller said.

While his focus has been on the wilderness and how to live within it, he did get back into the legal arena full time—from March 24, 1989 to the end of 1992—when he was tapped to help handle environmental and commercial issues during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He worked for VECO Inc. and EXXON Shipping and was in charge of 23 attorneys and about 10 paralegals assisting him with the work.

He doesn’t see himself any differently nor does he act differently whether he is in a courtroom or working a trap line, he said. In the wilderness, though, “You are always in the moment.”

“When I’m involved in a large deal like the Exxon Valdez spill, you lose that luxury. You’re kind of taken out of the moment.” Miller said.

Even then, he took time out to commercial fish—to position himself back in the moment. These days, he finds himself living more in the moment and when law does call to him, it is usually with a desire to give back to the community. He has always done pro bono work but has focused much more heavily for the last six or so years on those clients who otherwise cannot afford a lawyer. He looks back to his Carroll roots—where he participated in the Big Brother program—with helping to instill in him a sense of service.

“People need so much help that somebody has to do it,” he said. “Carroll really encouraged community outreach and gave you a sense that you did have an obligation to your community.”

When Miller returns to Wisconsin, it is to visit with family, as he did last October. Friends insisted that he visit Carroll during the 2015 Homecoming & Reunion Weekend.

The years have been long, and the miles longer, but the relationship between Miller and his Carroll football buddies remained strong. Last October he stood under a Homecoming tent laughing with friends, including Dave Anschuetz ‘73, Jeff Cummisford ‘73, Jim DeJong ‘73, Jim Schneider ‘74 and Bob Helf ‘75. Some he had not seen since his wedding to Jo Ann in 1977. “It was like we never missed a day,” he said. “In college you make the best friends you are ever going to make,” he added.

After Homecoming, it was back to Alaska. These days, Jo Ann and their grown sons—Zach and Luke—live less off the grid. Jo Ann is more likely to be found at the couple’s home in Anchorage, where Jack lives as well, but he still devotes time to cabin adventures. Hunting. Fishing. Walkabouts in the mountains. This is where his Pioneer journey took him.

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