HATS OFF TO KIM HEACOX: WRITER, PHOTOGRAPHER, MUSICIAN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST
If you could rub Aladdin’s lamp, what would you wish for? There is a man in Gustavus who might wish for an avalanche of understanding that would end our destructive ways and uncover the knowledge we need to protect and preserve our natural world. His name is Kim Heacox.
Kim is a man whose loves are deep and lasting: His wife, Melanie; his close friends; his celebration of nature, and his passion for Glacier Bay. He asks that we be hyper aware, and that we do our best to protect our planet whenever possible. Kim’s motto in all his writing is “Change Everything Now.” He feels we’d best change things for the better and wake up while we still can, because, given the grave issues facing us, such as climate change and its evil cousin, ocean acidification, “we are sleepwalking into the future.”
Kim told me a story about a trip he made in 1979, after his first year as an interpretive ranger/naturalist in Glacier Bay. At the end of his summer season, he had saved about $5,000. He took a Greyhound across America, visited friends in Florida, and flew to Europe. He first visited Spain, where he volunteered for the World Wildlife Fund at Coto de Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most important wetland preserves. A major site for migrating birds, the park is home to five threatened bird species. Kim worked on habitat restoration.
In November of 1979, he went to Istanbul. He was scheduled to go to the Soviet Union, and had all his tickets; however, on Christmas day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and all U.S. tours were cancelled. So, in early 1980 he went to Bulgaria. There he met a dissident who had been thrown into a Siberian gulag for three years of hard labor because he’d distributed dissident pamphlets. When Kim said, “Really?”, the dissident took off his shirt and showed the scars on his back from being whipped.
Kim took a train north through Romania all the way to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. The Soviet officials let him in, and told him he was the only American tourist there. He wanted to see what a totalitarian regime looked like and felt like; get a feeling for a dystopian world without a free press, all the better to help inform his future writings. While he traveled, he had a guide and a KGB officer with him at all times. Only 28 at the time, Kim was told, “no one will touch you because you are an American. However, they will try to get ‘dirt’ on you. Women will try to pick you up. Hidden cameras will be nearby.” The “dirt” collected might be useful to the Soviets later, especially if Kim were to rise to a place of importance in American business or politics.
Kim was warned, “If the Soviets find an excuse they will fine you and take all your money. Don’t get into any political or idealistic arguments. Look around your room for surveillance equipment, but look without being obvious as to what you are doing.”
Kim had to stay in first-class accommodations because he was an American, and all Americans were assumed to have lots of money. He would take a hotel elevator to the room floor. When he stepped out, he’d see a desk with a person seated at it. Kim would give his room number, and the person would “check him in,” saying, “Thank you, Mr. Heacox. Have a good evening.”
After a half-hour or so – this happened several times — there would be a knock on the door. As the doors had no peepholes, Kim couldn’t see who was out there. When he opened the door, he’d find a woman standing there, who’d say, “Did you ring? Is there anything you need? Anything I can get for you?” It felt like a James Bond movie. When Kim had no requests, she finally left.
Kim’s Intourist guide represented the visible face of the Soviet Union, while the KGB remained invisible. In Kiev, his guide wanted to show Kim where Golda Meier (former president of Israel) had lived as a child. The guide suggested they stop for an ice cream cone. Kim told him that they were being followed by a KBG officer. The guide said, “Oh, that’s Yuri – I know him – let’s get him some ice cream too.”
After a week in Moscow, in April of 1980, Kim rode the Trans-Siberian Railway 6,000 miles east to Nakhodka, getting off for three or four days here and there; first, in Novosibirsk, an industrial city in the middle of Russia, then again in Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal. While he traveled on the train, Kim met a French businessman, Jean Bigot, who predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse in 10 years. Bigot argued constantly with the Intourist guide and other Soviet citizens.
For a while, Kim’s traveling companion was a retired general with the Soviet Red Army. When Kim admired the neat homes in lovely rural settings, the general would say, “Youstupid Americans, in love with the beauty of pastoral country scenery, with no idea how hard the life is.” The general would point to oil refineries that off-gassed methane, the flames licking the sky, and say, “Now, that’s something beautiful, nyet? That’s progress, Lenin’s Electrification Program making people’s lives better.”
At the end of the line in Nakhodka (near Vladivostok), Kim was processed through customs, with no problem. Jean Bigot followed him. The Soviets found many ways to fine Bigot; they took all his money and most of his possessions. They were courteous; they didn’t touch him, but they retaliated because Bigot had gleefully criticised the Soviet system during the entire trip.
After his time in the Soviet Union, Kim became a writer, and slowly, over the years, an activist writer. He’s written 15 books, five of them for National Geographic. He’s also written opinion-editorials for The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and the Anchorage Daily News, and many feature magazine stories.
He mentions Neil Postman’s book, “ Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which explores our nation’s addiction to shallow entertainment, from sitcoms to sports, and how we forget – or never learn – to live deep and meaningful lives.
Kim says, “We are on a steady course to plunder our planet, having fallen under a medieval, anti-science ethos, especially in a right-wing America that embraces con-man authoritarianism and racist religiosity.” His “Change Everything now” motto imbues all his writing.
Kim was born in 1951 in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho, to Virginia and Bill Heacox. He was named Kim after the street urchin in a Kipling story. He had two brothers: Bill, 10 years older, and Mick, 14 years older.
At age two, as he walked backwards, pulling a toy train on a string, he tripped and fell into a large laundry tub filled with scalding water. When his mother lifted him out and peeled off his clothes, most of his skin came with them. Kim screamed and passed out. He was rushed to a hospital burn unit in Northern Idaho and treated by a team of burn specialists. They told his parents to call a priest.
He lived, wrapped in sterile gauze, and fed through an intravenous line in his ankle, the only place on his body not burned. After ten days the chief doctor said, “It looks like he is going to make it, but prepare yourself – he’ll be badly scarred.” When they unwrapped the gauze, they discovered his skin was fine. His mother cried with relief. Kim says, “I never walked backwards after that. If I were going to fall, I’d fall forward.”
The family moved to Spokane, Washington. Kim never cared much for the heat of the sun. He preferred winter. He loved skiing and splitting wood at ten below. He says he did poorly in school, and often skipped classes, riding his bicycle along Hangman Creek. When he was captured and returned, he would sit in the back of the classroom, rubbing his ankle, where the IV line had been attached. His grades sank.
Then, when he was 10, he met one of two teachers who turned his life around. As she wrote arithmetic problems on the board, Kim’s eyes would drift away and land on a large nature mural on the opposite wall. It showed a landscape of mountains reaching to the sea, with a one-word label written in bold, black type above each geographical feature. The mural showed no sign of humankind. That lack must have appealed to Kim, who felt the sensation of flying over it and falling into the landscape. He imagined himself a type of Robinson Crusoe, alone yet not lonely in that vast expanse. Day after day he stared at it, and found it staring back at him.
One day, as he looked at the mural and daydreamed, he was startled when the teacher suddenly appeared beside his desk.
“You like that mural, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, startled.
“You know why I put it there?”
He shook his head.
“I put it there for you.”
“For me?” Kim couldn’t believe it. He searched the teacher’s eyes for honesty. To this day he can’t remember her face or name, but he remembers the mural and its effect on him.
Ten years later, he met a second teacher who changed his life in unexpected ways. He signed up for a college course in geomorphology, the study of landforms. His professor was Dr. Michael Folsom, a dynamic teacher who taught earth sciences as if the planet were an unfinished symphony. Dr. Folsom explained that to understand geomorphology, one needed to see the earth as clay in a potter’s hands, wet, formative, and spinning. He explained that erosion and deposition weren’t just processes, but ceaseless crusades in which water sought to smooth the surfaces of the earth, while tectonics and volcanoes attempted to wrinkle it. He opened Kim’s eyes to a new awareness. Kim realized he had never seen the world as anything but fixed, unchanging, unchangeable.
Dr. Folsom spoke wistfully of the loss of open space, the reign of the automobile, the fear of crime. He said we belonged to a country that systematizes everything, leaving nothing spontaneous in our lives. When Kim told him about the mural in fourth grade, Dr. Folsom said, “Think about it. All the high-elevation features – peak, ridge, and so on – are erosional. They remain after the surrounding material has been carried away by water and ice. The low-elevation features, such as valley, marsh, and beach, are composed of the materials taken from above: rocks plucked off mountains and pounded into gravel, sand, and silt.”
Dr. Folsom often used the verb “composed” when speaking of landforms. To him the earth was a symphony, something spherical and divine. All the better that it was an unfinished symphony, a work in progress. All you had to do was go out there and see it.
On a field trip to Montana, Dr. Folsom pointed out landforms. He would say, “See that over there? That’s a young mountain composed of old rocks.” Pointing the other direction, he’d say, “And see that? That’s an old mountain composed of young rocks.” He spoke of how water and glaciers changed the land. He quoted his fellow Scot, John Muir, who said, “I only went for a short walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Kim, 20 years old at the time, had never heard of John Muir. He says he was too busy playing guitar and chasing girls. Around a campfire, Folsom’s stories spiraled onto glaciers. He talked of how they had sculpted the land. He gave them character, as if they were no less alive than ravens. When a fellow student lamented that it was too bad none of these icy processes existed on a human scale today, Folsom said, “There is such a place. It’s a bay in Alaska near Juneau, reborn from the passage of a great glacier that buried it just 200 years ago. When the ice retreated, a new home for wolves and whales was created; a world in transition from bare rock to bears; a magical place, a miracle place, if you believe in miracles.”
In 1977, Kim travelled in Guatemala and Mexico, and was ready to spend the winter there. Then he phoned home and learned that his mother had died in an auto accident. His two older brothers had careers that took them afar, so Kim moved back home to be with his grieving father. Kim already had a degree in physical geography, so he went back to school for another degree, this one in the life sciences; population biology. While with his dad, living in the basement, he wrote his first magazine piece, a story on tidewater glaciers, for Oceans magazine. He then wrote another on Glacier Bay for Pacific Discovery.
During the summers of 1977 and 1978, Kim worked for the National Park Service at Lake Roosevelt, in central Washington. In the fall of 1978, he worked in Death Valley, California, staying through the winter of that year. In 1979, he came to Glacier Bay.
Kim spent that summer as a park naturalist in a place reborn from the Little Ice Age (1350-1850 AD), when Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay. Before the work season began, he and another new hire, Richard Steele, took a kayak trip to Reid Inlet. They were the only kayak in the bay (which Kim writes about in his memoir, “The Only Kayak”). They had no way of communicating with the outside world, and when they reached their campsite, Kim realized their supplies did not include their tent. Richard, whom Kim describes as “crazy like John Muir, rapturous, pulled to the glacier like a moth to a flame,” had hiked off to explore an ice cave in Reid Glacier. When he returned, and Kim told him about the missing tent, Richard said, “We’ll sleep in the kayak. We’ll turn it over and crawl inside just like Aleut otter hunters. We’ll be fine.” Kim thought they were going to die. An hour later the National Park Service patrol boat returned, bringing their tent, which they had left onboard.
Kim said Richard was the right kayaking and camping partner for several reasons: He never complained; he found humor everywhere and told stories at his own expense. He spoke fluent French. As the rain fell and he became wetter and wetter, he behaved as though it were no more serious than a gentle April shower.
Over a bag of popcorn and a bottle of whiskey from Richard’s “floating pantry,” they philosophized and bonded. Kim said that his greatest dream was to be a writer. Of that trip, Kim writes, (We were) “left to wonder how long it could last, this wildness and grace. Not forever. But at that moment it was the most beautiful place on Earth. The ice, the sea, the rain. In that transitory, enchanted moment, it was perfect.”
The following summer, while working as a ranger/naturalist on a cruise ship in Glacier Bay, Kim met another new hire, Melanie Neuman. She had never been on a cruise ship and she marveled at everything. Kim says, “…and I marveled at her.” He decided she would need two fellow rangers – Richard and him — for an escort, to “instruct her on the wilds of Alaska, the rigors of cruise ship etiquette, and the art of not taking yourself too seriously.”
Several years later, Kim was in Denali National Park, taking wildlife photographs, when he discovered another photographer close by, shooting pictures of the same ptarmigan. When it flew away, the two men met and talked. Kim recognized the Japanese man from an earlier meeting five years before, in Glacier Bay.
“You’re Michio,” Kim said.
“Yes, I am Michio Hoshino.”
Kim reminded him of their first meeting. When Kim and Richard were ending their kayak trip, they had seen Michio paddling the other direction. Many days later when Michio returned to Bartlett Cove, half-starved, wet, and cold, Richard found him cooking a rationed meal in the campground. He took Michio to the trailer where he and Kim lived in Bartlett Cove, and gave him all the supper he could eat.
In Denali, the two shared snacks and talked. Michio had spent the last five years in Tokyo and in Fairbanks, where he studied wildlife management at the University of Alaska. Though they hardly knew each other, they rarely ran out of things to say. That meeting was the start of a close and lasting friendship.
In the summer of 1984, Kim proposed to Melanie. They decided they would each be the guardian of the other’s freedom. When an autumn winter kayak trip nearly ended in disaster, they decided to relinquish travel plans and spend the winter in Gustavus. In 1986, they married.
That same year, a package arrived from Michio – a copy of his book, “Grizzly.” The work was incredible. Kim thought, “Michio doesn’t take pictures – he makes them.” The book would win the prestigious Anima Award, and contributed to Michio’s being named Japan’s Photographer of the Year. Ten years later, at age 43, Michio was killed by a coastal brown bear in Kamchatka, creating a black hole of loss for Kim and many others.
By the time Kim and Melanie moved back to Gustavus, Kim was a free-lance writer and photographer. He said, “I spend 80% of my time writing and 20% doing photography. But I make 80% of my income off photography and 20% off writing.”
Kim learned that Michio had purchased eight acres in Gustavus. He called Naoko, Michio’s wife, and asked if she would be interested in selling it. She agreed, and Kim and Melanie made building plans, hoping to create something that Michio would have wanted., a school of sorts, or an institute. Today, Kim and Melanie have 18 acres and intend to make it into the John Muir Alaska Leadership School, with curricula aimed at repairing the rift between humankind and the natural world. Kim also sees the school as a place to bring together people with differing world views, to help teach them how to listen.
Kim is an excellent guitar player, as well as a keyboard master. He has delighted Gustavus audiences, especially at Lou Cacioppo’s “Outpost” with his musical renditions. He loves the Beatles, and sings and plays many of their songs. He has taught music at the school and has taken part in — or helped with — many local musical endeavors. He has a pleasant, rather gravelly voice – perhaps he has swallowed too much glacial silt during his kayak trips. He sings from the heart.
Kim’s books all point out that more is not better, that bigger is not wiser, that people have an accountability to the land, and the sea. He has won several awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Nature Book Award and the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Writing twice. In 2015, his novel Jimmy Bluefeather won the National Outdoor Book Award for literary fiction. Other book titles include Rhythm of the Wild, John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire, Caribou Crossing, and The Only Kayak. This is a partial list.
Kim’s writing weaves nature, history and humor, and sometimes laments the loss of wild places, and gives us a road map toward making things better. He urges us to remember that we need wildness, as a canvas upon which to paint our imagination. He is a true wordsmith, painting a vibrant picture of his world. His website, www.kimheacox.com, has a category labeled “Kimisms,” that lists many wise and colorful quotes from his books. Here are a few:
“In the city we listen to respond; in the wilderness we listen to understand.” RHYTHM OF THE WILD
“Wilderness is on the map, but wildness resides in that most wondrous and mysterious chamber, the human heart. You can’t measure it any more than you can measure the music in a mountain stream, or the thunder of running caribou.” THE ONLY KAYAK
“Protect the wild bear and the wilderness where it lives, and ask your children to do the same. Because if we lose the wilderness and the bear, a spirit will die, and a part of us will die with it.” IN DENALI
“More and more, though, men died in the wreckage of their own lives, shadowed by false prophets, lost in the thumping, grinding world those same men created for reasons that didn’t seem so reasonable anymore.” JIMMY BLUEFEATHER
“It isn’t what we own that makes us rich, it’s what we give away.” JOHN MUIR AND THE ICE THAT STARTED A FIRE
“A man can get more easily drunk on freedom than he can get sober on restraint.” ALASKA LIGHT
“And what do we gain if we reach Heaven and leave behind a spoiled Earth?” RHYTHM OF THE WILD
Look at Kim’s website, and read the rest of them. There are true and beautiful things on that list of Kimisms. Think about them, and heed Kim’s message; pay attention to how you treat the earth. Will you leave it a better place for your passing, or will you leave a path of destruction? Be responsible; be caring; keep our earth alive and healthy.
Below is a video of Kim giving the graduation address to the class of 2016 at North Yarmouth Academy, Yarmouth, Maine.
Thank you, Kim, for your message, and thank you for showing us why we should care.