The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska
By Kim Heacox. Lyons Press, 2020. (reprint of 2005 edition, with a new afterword by the author). 230 pages. $19.95.
It’s “a story that begins in a little boat.”
In May 1979, as a brand-new ranger hire at Glacier Bay National Park, Kim Heacox accepted the invitation of his new roommate, “a boatman of mysterious pedigree and questionable nautical skill,” to explore the bay before their jobs began. In a double kayak, in near-constant rain, the two paddled and camped for a week as “the only kayak in 3.3 million acres of wilderness.”
Thus begins the author’s “unbroken double-song of love and lamentation”— a phrase he attributes to writer Wallace Stegner. Four decades later, as a well-known author, photographer, defender of the natural world and climate activist, Heacox lives in Gustavus, still within the Glacier Bay community. “I came here for the place but stayed for the people,” he writes in his prologue.
After enticing readers into his fateful first kayak trip, in which the two innocents are “dimly aware that this prism called Glacier Bay is about to bend every beam of light within us,” Heacox recounts early parts of his life story, based in Idaho and eastern Washington. He credits two individuals with profound influence on him — a teacher who tacked up a landscape mural, specifically for him, when he was 10 and a professor of geomorphology when he was 20. No better case could be made for the significant roles educators can have in our lives. “They showed me the way to Glacier Bay and taught me to see as I never had before.”
As a prodigious reader, Heacox also learned from writers who preceded him, especially John Muir. Another Heacox book, “John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire,” is devoted to Muir and his influence on America’s conservation movement. Heacox’s own descriptive, lyrical and playful writing in “The Only Kayak” often calls up echoes of Muir.
“Day four and we’ve had rain from everywhere and nowhere; a maelstrom and a mist; a reign of rain and a find-every-leak-in-the-tent rain; rain as a renaissance and rainessence to texture a leaf and make a flower nod, to make a glacier grow, to make rainbows and rainarrows that shoot through the sky and back again; rain on the rocks, a rain of tears for the lost and wounded beneath a clamshell sky, the water cycle forever giving, taking, eroding, depositing, anointing us within and without.”
On that early trip, the two kayakers explored the “old Ibach cabin,” the remains of a homestead near the face of the Reid Glacier. The author’s reaction to it as “graffiti” in the natural landscape is something he returns to repeatedly in later years, questioning himself about the interplay of people and place, history and the erasure of history, enlarging his own vision of what was, is and might become.
As “the only kayak” approached park headquarters at the end of their transformative week, the two young men spotted another kayak, with a single paddler. Later they learned that the kayaker was the Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino. These two people — kayak partner Richard Steele and Hoshino, along with the author’s wife, Melanie, and another close conservationist friend, Hank Lentfer — become central to the rest of Heacox’s story. They make up what he calls his braided river, “flowing through the rapids and calm waters of their love of wild Alaska and their fear, like my own, that it could slip away.” Hoshino’s tragic death deepens Heacox’s inquiries into risk-taking and life purposes.
Among the responsibilities of rangers in Glacier Bay is boarding cruise ships to talk to their passengers about what they’re seeing. One chapter here, “Planet Princess,” centers on that experience. “I like these people,” Heacox writes. “How easy it is to make fun of them, and wrong.” Nonetheless, his discomfort with “industrial tourism” and the corporate and consumer aspects of modern life is plain to see. While he admired Melanie’s ability to take advantage of the “interpretive moment” to perhaps influence how others see the world and themselves in it, that wasn’t something he could sustain. He left the Park Service’s employ to be a writer and photographer and to take on conservation causes with organizations like Friends of Glacier Bay.
Late in the book, Heacox discusses changes in the bay and the wider world. On a solo kayak trip with “no illusions about being the only kayak,” he nearly gets run down by a giant cruise ship. (A humpback whale known as Snow is less lucky, ending up ashore with a fractured head and neck vertebrae.) He revisits the Ibach cabin with a new perspective, then returns home to engage in debate about commercial fishing in the bay, then to photograph clearcuts of the Tongass Forest. Then, to publicize a photo book, Heacox boards a cruise ship, where the cruise director misreads his biographical identity of “conservationist” and introduces him as the ship’s “conversationalist.”
Despite his lamentations, the author finds hope, at least in the long view of deep time. He imagines Glacier Bay two centuries ago, when it was “all glacier and no bay.” He notes that we have “gone from slaughtering whales to celebrating them, from fearing wilderness to cherishing it.” He asks, “If the land can heal and begin anew, can we too?”
In his new afterword, Heacox asks again, “Am I hopeful?” While reiterating his warnings, he also mentions his young climate activist neighbor and the opportunity for crisis to inspire creativity and action. He advises that we celebrate every piece of good news and that we find joy “wherever the waters sing and rocks listen and ancient trees hold wise counsel,” in laughing with friends, and in telling stories. Kayaks, he reminds us, point fore and aft, allowing us to move on while also looking back.