Skip to main Content

A tribute to Michio, who revealed the magic of Alaska

  • Author: Kim Heacox
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published August 8, 2008

We were in the forest, taking photographs. Michio went one way and I went the other. I didn't get a single good shot that day. The trees were too tall. The green was too deep; the forest too big and complex. I found Michio later, at the base of a magnificent western hemlock, hovering over his tripod, his camera focused artfully on the white skull of a Sitka black-tailed deer. Embraced by the roots of the hemlock, the skull lay in a bed of moss, framed by ferns and dwarf dogwood.

"This is the whole forest, right here," Michio said in his soft English. A smile opened across his broad, Japanese face. Such a gentle manner, a peaceful soul, he practically bowed before clicking the shutter.

Sometime later I saw the photo. He was right. It was the whole forest. Life, death, regeneration.

Michio Hoshino didn't capture nature with his photos. He set it free. He gave us an Alaska that played on our dreams and imaginations. An Alaska that made us feel blessed. He went out in all weather, for weeks at a time, slept on the ground, drank cold coffee, and watched, and waited. And when the land and light and animals converged, Michio was there to make magic.

He's gone now. Twelve years ago today it ended when a brown bear dragged him from his tent in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. He was 43. The news stunned thousands from the busy streets of Tokyo, to village Alaska, to the halls of National Geographic Magazine in Washington, D.C.

Eulogies poured in from Sherry Simpson, Barry Lopez, Celia Hunter and others. Nick Jans wrote, "I forgive the bear that took Michio from us. He must not have known who Michio was." In his new book, Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska, Seth Kantner wrote, "His photographs were vast valleys, shoulders of mountains, stringy rivers cradling a lone animal in the land's arms. He made millions long to touch the face of wild land ... I miss you, my friend, and will for a long time. I miss you like I would miss a season. And I know this land does not miss anyone, but if it did, you would be one."

How to honor such a man, such a vision? For the past several months Tlingit Master Carver Tommy Joseph has been carving a commemorative red cedar totem pole that will be raised today at Halibut Point State Recreation Area, just north of Sitka. The figure at the bottom is Michio, his open, friendly face, his hands holding a camera lens. Above him are the animals he loved to photograph: raven, caribou, humpback whale. And at the top, out of reach, is the animal he always wanted to see and never did: the blue (glacier) bear.

It's a welcome refrain, amid so much political scandal and unabashed corporate profiteering, that we today can turn to a guileless man from Japan who made his home in Alaska, who befriended our state, who won hearts everywhere and reminded us that we all live amid great beauty and bounty.

If only we could see as Michio did.

Maybe we can.

Years ago in Denali National Park I watched a woman approach him, shake his hand and say, "Your new book, Grizzly. I love it." Michio bowed slightly and thanked her, and asked about her. In the next 10 minutes he didn't tell his story. She told hers. She told about how she loved the wildness, the openness, the freedom and friendships. I stood there, amazed. That was Michio. He brought out the best in us, the best of Alaska.

Part of him lives in Sitka now, carved into red cedar. Life, death, regeneration. I'll go see him when I can, in gratitude and tears.

Kim Heacox is an author and photographer who lives in Gustavus. His most recent book, "The Only Kayak," chronicles his friendship with Michio Hoshino.