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Southeast writer-photographer Kim Heacox collects thoughts on people and place in new memoir

Story by DEBRA McKINNEY Photos by ANNE RAUP
Anchorage Daily News
Published: July 3, 2005
Last Modified: July 3, 2005 at 05:13 AM

GUSTAVUS — Alaska author and photographer Kim Heacox may have set the course of his life early on, the day his father pulled off a Washington back road, pointed up Mount Rainier and showed him his first glacier.
“I want to live there,” Heacox said as a boy.
Maybe being drawn to ice makes perfect sense for someone who nearly died of burns as a toddler.
Never one for convention, not even at age 2, he was walking backward pulling a toy on a string when he flipped into a laundry tub and was scalded so severely doctors urged his parents to call a priest. He lived one day, then another. It wasn’t until well into the second week that the doctor in charge would say it looked as if he’d make it.
As Heacox writes in his new memoir, “The Only Kayak,” he never walked backward after that.

Kim HeacoxThat’s kind of what this book is about: learning to walk with purpose. It’s about a lot of things, actually — love, community, heartbreak, hope for people and place. It’s about how living an unexamined life is far riskier than sleeping on a beach with bears. And, as John Muir put it, how we must risk our lives in order to save them.
Heacox first came to Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in 1979 to spend a summer as a park naturalist. He had to see this bay he’d heard of in college, a place that only 200 years ago was in its own little ice age, buried under an immense glacier ranging from hundreds to thousands of feet thick. With the weight of that ice now lifted, the whole Glacier Bay-Icy Strait region is rebounding, rising about an inch a year. It blew Heacox’s mind to think time travel was possible, that there was a place one could see landscape being born.
With time to kill before the start of the season, he and another new hire, Richard Steele, headed out to explore Glacier Bay, and they didn’t come back the same. They got dropped off in a double kayak at Reid Inlet, 50 miles from park headquarters, in temperatures flirting with freezing. Rangers let them know they were the only paddlers out there that time of year.

The only kayak.

And a duct-taped one at that.
To say they were naive would have been putting it politely, Heacox admits. On top of that, Steele was a bit of a madman, a kind of John Muir-Jack Kerouac merger with confused hair, a misbuttoned raincoat and the ability to subsist on popcorn, beans and beer. He was also a deep thinker who spoke fluent French and had a passion for wild places — enough passion to keep Heacox wondering if the two of them would make it back alive.
They spent that week alternately bumbling and being blown away by what they saw. They paddled, drifted, discovered, absorbed, absolved, looked inward, looked outward, mooned a cruise ship and talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
So this is where the book begins, in this kayak, with the two of them alone in 3.3 million acres of glacier, rock, river, sea, moose, bear and mountain goat, two Alaska neophytes cold and soggy, protected as they slept from 800-pound carnivores by tent walls not much thicker than Kleenex.
This is where Heacox first said out loud his greatest dream was to be a writer.
“It just came out,” he says in his book. “Riding the swell of the sea, pushed along by winds and tides, you say things you would never say under the common pull of gravity.”
Now, 25 years later, settled in the little town of Gustavus next door to the park, Heacox reflects on the influence Glacier Bay has had on his life. This is a place reborn. He is too.
“You practice resurrection because the land and sea show you that anything is possible.”
Of all the books Heacox has written — and there’s a stack of them: coffee-table books, four for National Geographic, a political novel called “Caribou Crossing” set in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — this is the one he most needed to write.

“I think it’s Kim’s best,” said Greg Streveler, naturalist, friend and longtime resident of Gustavus. “He’s been searching for years for a vehicle for his deepest thoughts on his relationship to this landscape. … To me, that’s the basic message of the book, that having a sense of place is a beautiful and important thing.
“Kim is at his best, no matter what, whether it’s at a card game or at a turkey get-together at Thanksgiving — he’s at his best when he talks about what he believes.”

TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL

Gustavus, 50 air miles west of Juneau, isn’t easy to get to. Boat or plane, that’s your choice.
It’s a recently incorporated second-class city of 400 without a single stoplight. Without a single streetlight, for that matter. And not all that many streets.
This is an expensive place to live. And it rains cats and dogs. You can buy rubber boots in this town, but not a new pair of shoes. Or even underwear. But it’s the kind of place where guitars and bicycles practically outnumber cars, where everybody waves and pretty much nobody locks doors.
Times when a bike won’t do, Heacox drives an aging Subaru the color of freezer-burned salmon with an “I brake for penguins” sticker on the bumper. This old car hasn’t gone over 35 mph in years — not because it can’t but because there’s no need to.
Heacox, who just turned 54, loves this place and the community he has found here. He loves it so much he doesn’t write about it. Except he kind of had to in “The Only Kayak.” Still, he doesn’t mention Gustavus by name until Page 123, and then just as “the little town next to Glacier Bay.” He does say more as the pages move on. Because in a book where he’s basically unbuttoning his chest and exposing his heart, keeping where he lives a mystery didn’t seem right.
That is the dilemma among writers who fall in love with a place and don’t want to do it harm by telling the world about it. Heacox has done a lot of soul-searching on that topic, alone and with other writers, like his close friend and neighbor Hank Lentfer, who right now has a manuscript on a publisher’s desk with a fictional name for their town. And Richard Nelson, who wrote “The Island Within” about a place he loved so much he refused to name it.
Heacox works to keep his town simple and quiet by taking on the bigger picture in his writing. How more is not better, bigger is not wiser, how people have an accountability to the land. He’s also does it as a member of the Gustavus City Council, where he cautions against what others see as progress.
“He keeps reminding us that we’re damn happy now,” Greg Streveler says. “And damn lucky. Be grateful for what we have, protect it and go from there.”

MAGICAL SPOT IN THE WOODS

There are places where it’s a lot easier to make a living than in Gustavus. As those who live there would say, oh well.
When he isn’t doing carpentry projects, kayaking, playing music or teaching kids guitar, Heacox cranks out books and articles for magazines like Orion, Geo, National Geographic Traveler and Audubon in an alarmingly tidy office in a handcrafted home tucked in the woods. No wads of discarded notes lying next to his wastebasket. No neurotic assemblage of drained coffee cups loitering about his desk. Even the various-colored sticky notes are lined up in a neat little row.
He writes with his closest companion in his lap. Actually, his closest companion would be his wife, Melanie. His second-closest companion then — his guitar. He writes a little, strums a little, writes some more. He’s a musician and a fixture at local jam sessions, held about anywhere more than one instrument is in the same place at the same time.
Once he focuses in on a project, Heacox is not easily distracted. He even managed to finish one book for National Geographic and start another as the house was being built around him.

He and Melanie, a naturalist who rose to a supervisory position with the National Park Service before bailing from bureaucracy, met and married in Glacier Bay. After several years of taking jobs all over the state, including Katmai, Anchorage and Denali, they returned to Glacier Bay in 1996 to build a home in Gustavus.
The eight acres they live on has special meaning beyond what you’d expect. This land once belonged to one of Heacox’s soul-mate friends and mentors, world-renowned Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino.
Hoshino loved Gustavus too. He’d fallen for this hideaway among Sitka spruce and western hemlock and had planned to build a place someday.
Heacox talks about Hoshino a lot in his book, about their friendship, his talent, integrity and backcountry ethics. Heacox fell into a darkness he’d never known when he learned, in 1996, that Hoshino had been killed by a bear in Kamchatka.

The Heacoxes already had land they’d planned to build on. But being in a spot Hoshino had chosen made his spirit feel closer. So they bought it, and there they are.
Not too many people build a house with the intention of giving it away.
Sometime in the next three to five years, they’d like to launch what they’ll call the Glacier Bay Institute out of their house, offering retreats and seminars aimed at repairing the rift between humankind and the natural world. Heacox also sees the institute bringing together people of disparate views, getting them talking and listening to one another.

Next would come cabins for institute guests. And then artist- and writer-in-residence programs. And then he and Melanie would like to move into one of those cabins themselves and turn the house over to the higher purpose.
“It’s only the two of us,” Heacox says. “All we need is a loft with a bed. Maybe not even a loft, because as we get older, you know, our knees.
“So eventually we’d relinquish all this. We thought about leaving it to the Wilderness Society. Or the Nature Conservancy. We don’t know yet.”
There’s still lot to figure out, a lot of planning and consulting to do. One thing they know for certain is they’ll be naming the artist-in-residence program in Hoshino’s honor.

ESCAPE FROM ORDINARY

Sometimes Heacox can’t believe this life he’s living. To think it could have been so ordinary.

He grew up in a ranch house in a middle-class neighborhood in Spokane, Wash. His two brothers were 10 and 14 years older, so he never knew them all that well. His mother had a travel agency, and his father sold sporting goods in the basement of Montgomery Ward.
“He stood on a hard concrete floor for 30 years wearing wing-tipped shoes selling basketballs and baseballs,” Heacox said.
He never wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps, and none did. Mick, now retired, became a lieutenant colonel in the Army and Bill a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Hilo.
Even though Heacox’s mother called him her “miracle boy,” not only for surviving being burned but emerging without scars, Heacox thinks of his early self as fairly unremarkable.
“First of all, I did not excel at conventional life,” he said. “I was not good at sports. I was not good at academics, I loved to go skiing with my buddies, but I was not the best skier. I was Mr. Mediocrity. So there was nothing I could identify myself with — ‘I am good at this,’ ‘I am good at that.’
“But I made friends easily. I was authentic. I think I can say that about myself.”
One of his brothers had been a smokejumper, so after high school Heacox applied for and got a Forest Service job. He reported to the Coeur d’Alene National Forest as soon as he turned 18 to begin work on a slash crew.
“I had no opinions about the world I was working in, about clear-cuts good or bad, about logging, road building. I had no ecological conscience,” Heacox said.

He was 20 before he heard of John Muir.

Michael Folsom, professor of geomorphology at Eastern Washington University, fixed that. The way Heacox describes him, Folsom was one of those tireless, charismatic teachers capable of curing the blind. He was so into his chosen field, he didn’t just inspect dirt to evaluate its composition, he’d roll it around in his mouth and taste it.
“A fine silt loam,” he’d say before spitting it out.
Folsom got Heacox to see the land in a way he never had, to see, as he writes, “the earth as clay in a potter’s hands, wet, formative, spinning.”
It was Folsom who pointed him toward Glacier Bay.
Another person who had a huge impact on Heacox’s life was his mother, whom he considered a best friend. He lost her in an instant. She was on her way to the airport on an icy December day, probably with a million things on her mind, when her car left the road and smashed into a wall of basalt.
He was 26 and traveling in Guatemala when he called home and learned she’d been dead 10 days.
Something about losing her so abruptly made Heacox determined not to get caught up in the blur Americans tend to make of their lives. He would live deliberately, follow his heart and be grateful for every day.
Unlike a lot of resolutions made under the influence of deep pain, these things he hasn’t forgotten.
But not to the point of selfishness. It doesn’t seem to be in his nature.
His mother’s death came only six months after his father retired. Heacox, by then a world traveler and summer park employee, came home, moved in with his dad and went back to school.
He already had a degree in physical geography but went for another in population biology.

“So I went back to pick up some chemistry but mostly to live at home,” he said. “With Dad — just to be there for him.”
One of those winters in Spokane, down in the basement on a Smith-Corona typewriter, Heacox cranked out his first magazine pieces: a story on tidewater glaciers for Oceans magazine and one on Glacier Bay for Pacific Discovery.
After that, he did a lot of things right for a guy wanting to be a writer. He married a woman who believed in him more than he did, who encouraged him to take the risk. And he left the Park Service before it was too late.
“Before I got too comfortable in a government job where they paid me too much money and I couldn’t step away from it” is how he thinks of it.
That has freed him up for so many other opportunities. Like now he and Melanie have this ongoing winter gig on small adventure-expedition ships traveling to Antarctica, she as a naturalist, he as a historian, most recently with Lindblad and National Geographic expeditions.

Next winter will be their eighth season.
So here’s a man who has figured it out, how to live in the place he loves, with the people he loves, make a living doing what he loves most, which is writing.
Only it’s not quite like that.
Heacox has won the Benjamin Franklin Nature Book Award as well as the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing twice. He has a whole pile of books with his name on them. But he still can’t make a living writing.
“I spend 80 percent of my business time writing and 20 percent doing photography,” he says. “But I make 80 percent of my income off photography and 20 percent of my income off writing.

“Photography pays the bills. Photography built this house — basically from stock photography and royalties. I call them freelancing mutual funds.”
Writing books for National Geographic was the exception. But as he puts it, “You can’t write humor, you can’t be self-deprecating, you can’t, you know …
“There are so many things that are deeply important to me about where the world’s going to today. I really would like to have my voice separate from them if I can.”
Hank Lentfer, confidant and music buddy, has seen Heacox’s hopes get dashed many times. An agent super-excited about his book, big-time New York publishers not. It was finally published by Lyons Press, a medium-sized publisher based in Connecticut.
“That’s got to be what shuts down a lot of great writers,” Lentfer said. “He puts on a pretty jolly public face and doesn’t tell people when his stomach hurts. He’s just incredibly resilient that way.
“He is collecting his rejection notices, and he’s hoping to wallpaper an outhouse with them someday.”

“I’ve got some beauties,” Heacox says.
His all-time favorite came from The New Yorker. It arrived on an 8-by-11 sheet of paper unfolded in a manila envelope.
“I slide it out thinking ‘Wow, this is something.’ I pull it out, and written in a really tight little neurotic hand is one sentence really small in the middle of the page.
” ‘Not for us, but thanks for sending!’

“Is that beautiful?”

This book didn’t get a prime-time New York publisher or much of an advance. If Heacox has any disappointment over that, you’d never know it.
Lentfer went to his first reading of “The Only Kayak” in Juneau at the beginning of Heacox’s book tour. What people heard really seemed to move them.
“His enthusiasm for this place, for his life, for his friends is real, and that’s what’s missing in so many people’s lives in this country,” Lentfer said.

“Kim’s love for this place, it’s palatable. You can taste it in his writing.”