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Inspired and exhilarated by Denali National Park

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 26, 2015

Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Denali National Park

By Kim Heacox; Lyons Press; 2015; 304 pages; $25.95

Twenty-five years ago I began my Alaska life in Denali National Park and Preserve. I arrived in my mid-20s as a seasonal worker with a largely urban outlook and after five summers and a winter spent in a primal landscape unlike any other I've ever encountered, left at age 30 an Alaskan resident firmly committed to keeping America's remaining wildernesses untouched so that future generations can experience what I did.

Some two decades after decamping to Fairbanks -- a town I very much appreciate -- Denali remains my soul's home and the place that most significantly affected who I am today.

Perhaps this is why a mere three or four pages into "Rhythm of the Wild," Kim Heacox's book about how the author's own adventures in Denali formed him, I thought, "This is what I've felt about that place for a quarter-century, even if I never managed to articulate it so well."

"Rhythm of the Wild" is a wide-ranging book that's equal parts personal memoir, political polemic, wilderness observations and plea for environmental stewardship. It follows a trajectory I saw in myself and many of the people I worked with in the park: an absorption in and obsession with a singular place so fragile that in getting to know it one can't help becoming alarmed about the rest of the world. It's about the outward landscape of Denali and how it inescapably rearranges the inner landscape of those who come to love it.

Awestruck at first

The book is broken into four sections that coincide with four different periods -- each with roughly a decade between them -- when Heacox devoted a good deal of time to Denali.

Heacox's initial encounter came in 1981 when he arrived as a seasonal ranger on the cusp of 30. A child of 1960s, he was still carrying his rebellious spirit into the staunchly conformist Reagan era. He struggled with the regimented ways of the National Park Service while being awestruck by what surrounded him. An all-night bike ride on the Park Road shortly after his arrival opened his eyes and mind to the true meaning of wilderness, but difficulties in the job coupled with opportunity elsewhere prompted him to leave before the season ended.

In the early 1990s, by then married and a full-time Alaskan, he returned to the park for his longest stay. It was during this time that Christopher McCandless was found dead in the now-infamous abandoned bus out on the Stampede Trail. For Heacox, a man then in his 40s and coming to terms with the impetuousness of his younger self, McCandless' death was a reminder that he too could have slipped up, died by misadventure and been labeled a fool. Heacox wisely avoids taking sides in the bitter dispute over this event, which has become such a flashpoint in Denali lore, offering the doomed adventurer understanding without expressing the adulation of his admirers or the scorn of his critics. It's a welcome change.

Heacox once again found himself in Denali during the Iraq War, and in this third section his political knives come out. As he watched his country head off to a preventable battle on the opposite side of the globe, Heacox pondered the ravages of modern civilization, wondering what it will take to slow the wheels of industry and economics and bring about a wilderness ethic such as that inspired by living in Denali.

Loving Denali to death

The fourth section plays out in 2012, when Heacox was writer in residence at the park, staying in the cabin from which Adolph Murie conducted his famous wolf studies during the Depression. By this point the impact of the outside world on Denali was undeniable. Climate change had altered the landscape and wildlife. Ambient mercury from coal burning worldwide was showing up in the ecosystem and climbing the food chain. Perhaps worst of all, industrial tourism was bringing an endless onslaught of buses and airplanes carrying visitors who are loving Denali to death. It's now all but impossible to go a day anywhere in Denali and not hear an internal combustion engine.

Yet still, there are those moments of magic. Porcupines keep gnawing on Park Service buildings, wildflowers spring from the most impossible places, sunsets over the Alaska Range remain unmatched anywhere on Earth. Heacox finds hope there.

The book offers much more. Heacox reminisces on his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and recalls time on the road as a hippie in the early 1970s. He draws heavily from the writings of Edward Abbey, whose words resonate so strongly in Alaska's battles between development and preservation. He describes wildlife encounters, including a near-miss with a grizzly. He explores philosophy, politics and the true meaning of freedom. He quotes writers and musicians who have inspired him. He also obsesses -- a bit too much probably -- on the Beatles.

Through it all Heacox keeps spinning back to that enormous park in the heart of Alaska because, he writes: "Denali matters. It teaches and inspires; it slows me down. It opens my lungs. I love the intimate distance, the raw existence, the unexpected avens, the furtive lynx, the stoic moose, the resilient birch, the poetry of water over stones; I love pulling my sleeping bag up to my chin and wondering: How far away is the nearest bear? The farthest star? I love sunrises and sunsets, the only gold rush I care to be a part of. I love the survival amid hardship, the warm embrace of indifferent mountains, the simple but profound freedoms; I love the dream-tossed nights when, according to comedian George Carlin, 'the wolves are silent and the moon howls.' "

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

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