From the bookshelf: Story highlights the value of priceless wealth

Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2005


  'The Only Kayak: A Journey Into the Heart of Alaska,' by Kim Heacox

'The Only Kayak: A Journey Into the Heart of Alaska,' by Kim Heacox

The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska

By Kim Heacox

Published by The Lyons Press

256 pages


$24.95 (hard cover)

Many a young wanderer has come to Alaska, inhaled deeply of the clean, bracing air, and felt transformed. Most then leave for domesticated lives in Anchorage or points south. But Kim Heacox could not tear himself away from his love affair with the Great Land.

Now based in Gustavus, Heacox has published portfolios of nature photography, travel books and a novel. In "The Only Kayak" he tells his own story of friends and wild places that drew him into Alaska a generation ago and have kept him here ever since.

He begins with his arrival in Glacier Bay in 1979 to work as a seasonal park ranger. Before settling into the job, he went out, despite grave misgivings, on a harebrained kayak trip with his future co-worker, Richard Steele. The duo got very wet, quoted philosophers, critiqued civilization, sipped whisky and mooned cruise ships.

A little of that youthful bravado goes a long way. But Heacox moves us through the decades to show how his viewpoint matured yet never lost its core of innocence and passion.

He later notes, with a touch of rue, "For many people who want to change the world, the idealism they chant for free in their twenties is too expensive in their forties."

Heacox remains a committed environmentalist, and his green views shine through everything in "The Only Kayak." He quotes writers such as John Muir, Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold. From his own experiences sleeping on the ground to confrontations with "big issues" such as a society obsessed with endless growth and entertainment, he gives eloquent testimony on the value of wilderness.

Some memoirs tend toward navel-gazing. But even at his most introspective and personal, Heacox is refreshingly modest. He casts himself not as the hero of his own life, but as its rapt observer, in turn delighted or dismayed by the surprises fate serves him.

Despite his love of unpeopled places, he is no misanthrope. He learns that some special individuals share his values, and they sustain him through life's greatest joys and trials.

Much of the book praises his best friends: Steele, Hank Lentfer, his wife, Melanie, and most poignantly legendary wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino.

The theme of the book is the value of things beyond price: friendship, true love, quiet, wild places, the clear eyes of beasts and the laughter of children.

Most of the book is set in and around Glacier Bay, with flashbacks to the characters' lives elsewhere and side trips to destinations such as Denali. When the author goes there to take pictures, he describes it as " that subarctic Serengeti with its caribou, moose, grizzlies and wolves, its misfit rivers and galloping glaciers, its oceans of land and gale-force mountains, its waves of peaks stacked together like a stormy sea turned to stone, and above it all an icy granite crown making the highest mountain in North America."

Heacox is deeply concerned about the fate of such wild places in a world where more and more is priced and sold as a commodity, where the endless appetites of the human race nibble at what Abbey called "the last pork chop." The author knows change is inevitable, and makes it his cause to deflect "gobble-gobble economics" from precious scraps of Alaska wilderness.

At the same time, he is only too aware of the human costs of such decisions. He writes with ambivalence about his experiences as a guest naturalist on cruise ships and with great sadness about alienating the fisher folk of Gustavus with his work to end commercial fishing within the park.

He is aware that his own publications lure more tourist traffic into the wilderness he cherishes, and it is a painful moment when he finds his own photographs on the Alaska version of the Monopoly board game.

"On the last wild shore, it's not the shadows of glaciers that worry me," he writes. "It's the darker shadow of something Alaska has never seen before."

Heacox asks plenty of probing questions about Alaska's future and the fate of humanity at large. He wonders if we have lost our sense of reverence, of sacredness.

"Everybody talked about the 'resource,' and I wondered: If Glacier Bay was the 'resource,' what's the 'source'? If we came here to 'recreate," where did we go to 'create'?" he ponders.

Sometimes Heacox's writing style, with its penchant for rhapsodies and puns, vacillates between catchy and cutesy. He can write in staccato phrases or in flowing prose poems. The cumulative impression is, at times, quite moving.

"The Only Kayak" combines aspects of outdoor writing, memoir, adventure, odyssey and environmental broadside. Written with rare sincerity and warmth, it is a heartfelt and exquisite tribute to friends and places beyond price.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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