Growing up my heroes were athletes. It made sense, as sports obsessed as I was and the best players on my favorite teams were nothing short of demi-gods. Kevin Garnett, Cris Carter, Joe Mauer, and countless others for their ability to play a game and get paid millions of dollars in the process. They seemed like nice enough people in my biased 12-year old eyes and that was more than enough for me to spend many hours on the couch watching them run, jump, and sprint. But as I grew up, my hero worship began to transition. Writer/biologist/conservationist Alexandra Morton became one when I was 18, her book “Listening to Whales” becoming something of my biological bible during my freshman year in college. Paul Spong of course, a scientist, pioneer, and now, for all intents and purposes, my boss as well as friend. And others, mostly in the whale/orca research community. People like John Ford, Mike Bigg, Jan Straley, and Dena Matkin, many of whom have been passionately following the whales of southeast Alaska and British Columbia for decades. Sometimes working on grants from the government or universities, other times dipping into their own pockets to fund the work that they just couldn’t stay away from. They’ve funded research programs and non profits, and some of them I’ve had the honor of interacting with. Some just a passing email, and a few I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with.
But while I went to school to be a “scientist” I have found another group of people that are just as passionate about the wild as those aforementioned. They to, are protecting the open places and quiet spaces, but in a completely different way, with the power of pen and paper. The inside passage is dotted with inspiring authors creating beautiful literal tapestries about the magic of the raincoast. Authors like Lynn Schooler of Juneau, and Alex Morton who can fall into this category as well. If they made trading cards of these people I would avidly collect them like I once hoarded baseball cards. But, looking back at the last seven years of my life, when I began to transition from athlete to whatever the heck it is I am now, one mans work has altered my life more than any other.
I bought the book for my Dad, I think it was for his birthday or something. I briefly skimmed the synopsis on the back. I’d plucked it from the “Alaska” section in a bookstore I can’t remember, ran my credit card, and walked out the door. The book was, “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox. I’d never heard of her in my life. Months passed and I transferred to UAS in Juneau. That winter I applied for a job studying marine mammals in Glacier Bay National Park with the National Park Service. Two months, a rigorous background check, and one fingerprint (?!?!?) test later, and I was approved. I skipped back home to Eagle River briefly before the start of my summer job and desperate for new literature, scanned my parents bookshelf. There was the book, I’m not sure if Dad had read it or not. But examining it more closely discovered that Kim Heacox was a man, and the book centered around Glacier Bay. I must confess I “borrowed” the copy and still have not returned it.
That night as I jetted toward Juneau, I opened, “The Only Kayak” for the first time. I didn’t stop reading until the Mendenhall Glacier and Fred Meyer rolled into view and the plane touched down. I was hooked, devouring page after page as Kim opened up his entire life, as well as the bay and people he loved so deeply. The book came across as positively genuine and intimate. It begins with Kim’s first journey to Glacier Bay, his first kayak trip, and his subsequent evolution through the years from seasonal ranger, to photographer and writer, with his heart focused on the protection of Glacier Bay and Southeast Alaska. I finished my first reading and began a second, and have paged through it countless times since.
That summer in Glacier Bay I met Kim at the semi weekly music, pizza, beer drinking social at a pizza place in Gustavus that tragically no longer exists. With the same nerves that I may have had walking up to Kevin Garnett 15 years ago, I introduced myself and told him, rather cornily I’m sure, how much I loved his writing. He looked so humbled, almost embarrassed by my praise, and struck up a conversation with me. He told me how glad he was that I had found this place, that he hoped I would be happy here, and to enjoy every inch of the precious bay.
I found myself drawn to Kim and his work, because I see so much of myself in his story (or perhaps I just chose to see it that way). His coming of age epiphany occurred when he was 25 when he arrived in Glacier Bay. My momentous decision to return to Hanson Island, to continue down the path of vegabond occurred at the same age. He met the love of his life, married her, and the two of them are inseparable. And at my age he longed to be a writer and photographer.
“Don’t write about this place [Glacier Bay],” his friend Richard advises him, “it’ll never be the same.”
“No one reads my writing,” Kim answers.
Last summer my parents had the privilege of meeting him at a book signing in Palmer for his latest book, “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire.” They walked away with the same impression; a gentle, passionate, genuine man who truly cares about people and the future of Alaska. My Dad (ironically after I stole his copy of Kim’s book) mentioned me and Brittney, how we’d both worked in Glacier Bay and loved it. Kim remembered me. Kim Heacox, remembered me! I had bumped into him once since that night in Gustavus when he’d walked into The Rookery.
“Guess who just walked into the Rookery.” I texted Brittney assuming I’d spark some jealousy.
“Kim.” She replies.
“How on earth did you know?”
“Who else would you get so excited about?”
Kim recalled our brief exchange of words that slow October afternoon and went a step further with my father, offering to help us settle and move to Gustavus if we ever so desired. This gracious offer has sat in the back of my mind ever since, and Kim, if you ever read this, we may just take you up on that offer someday.