Skip to main Content
Arts and Entertainment

Bard of Denali: Author Kim Heacox revisits the national park that shaped his destiny

  • Author: Amanda Compton
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 7, 2015

GUSTAVUS -- Expect a smoothie if you walk in on Kim Heacox. He's that kind of guy. He uses the phrase "rock on," heats water on a 1922 wood-burning, cast-iron stove, notes that he's "really turned on by the pope these days," and he gets so excited when he talks, his hand gestures can't keep up.

It's a big year for the 63-year-old Gustavus author. He has three books due out this year: "The Rhythm of the Wild," a memoir; "Jimmy Bluefeather," a novel; and a National Geographic Society book celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service. His book "John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire," published last year, broke a nine-year literary drought. After "The Only Kayak" was released in 2005, Heacox worked on a memoir for five years. He burned it.

The manuscript was called "Fixing a Hole in the Ocean," after the John Lennon song "Glass Onion."

It is hard to get through a minute of listening to Heacox without a reference to musicians, authors and influential people who have shaped his literary career.

"It's a metaphorical ocean," Heacox said. "How can we work things out together? The hole is the hole that's in each of us."

Heacox took the best 15 percent of his scorched manuscript and incorporated it into a narrative of his 35-year relationship with Denali National Park and Preserve. That memoir, "The Rhythm of the Wild," was released in early May to acclaim. "Jimmy Bluefeather" is due out in September, and the National Park Service commemoration follows a month later.

'Heart of the state'

Heacox's relationship with Denali began in 1981, when he worked as an interpretive naturalist ranger.

"It's a great job," Heacox said. "You get to live and work in the national parks, and I love the natural world. I think the natural world gave me a sanctuary from the madness that we call modern civilization. I think the National Park Service in a way saved me; it allowed me to figure out who I am."

Little surprise that he views Denali as symbolic.

"I call it 'the heart of the state and the state of the heart,' and it's right in the middle of the state."

Heacox turned 30 during his summer as a ranger. The first portion of his book, "The First Summer," is based on that time.

"Crazy things happened to me," Heacox said. "They're great stories. And that's what I sold the book on; I sold the book on those first 70 pages."

Initially, Heacox worked as a photographer to support his writing.

"I love the specificity of writing. I just look at the power and influence of books over the years: 'Huckleberry Finn,' 'The Grapes of Wrath,' 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett. These books are extremely powerful. Photography's a very powerful medium, too, but my deepest love is words. I think words are magic."

It took some perseverance before Heacox was able to make that magic pay off. After his summer in Denali he traveled across the country in a Volkswagen hatchback, adorned with handmade floral curtains. For months, it was home for Heacox and Melanie, who's now his wife. All the while, he contacted editors across the country to whom he had sent writing samples.

"Nobody offered me any work," Heacox said, laughing. "No one said, 'You're awesome, I want you to write the cover story.' But six, eight months later, little things started to happen. Bit by bit, because of that trip, I got little offerings that grew into assignments."

His next stint in Denali was when Melanie, whom Heacox met earlier while working in Glacier Bay, ran the Eielson Visitor Center for three years in the early 1990s. And so, keeping with his blunt memoir section titles, the second fourth of "The Rhythm of the Wild" is called "Ten years later, Toklat River."

The couple lived in Healy where, Heacox said, many of his neighbors worked at the Usibelli Coal Mine northeast of the park. At that time, the Kantishna gold mining district was in operation at the west end of the park, north of Wonder Lake.

"The park was framed by these extraction industries," Heacox said, revving up for an excited explanation punctuated by flying spittle. "I use that tension in the book. Here's this other community dedicated to conservation. It's a very economically viable and robust little community, all built around conservation, framed by these extraction industries. I love this dilemma that we're facing. What are we going to do? There's a revolution coming."

And here we get into what fuels the Heacox engine.

Long-distance relationship

Heacox worked for what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve during the summers of 1979 and 1980 (it became a national park in December 1980), and met his wife there; she still works there seasonally. The couple lives in Gustavus, the gateway town to Glacier Bay, consisting of just a few hundred residents. The strong sense of community appeals to him.

"We live in Gustavus for the friendships, the sense of community. In 'The Only Kayak' I write: 'We came here for the place (Glacier Bay) and stayed for the people (Gustavus).'

"When I first flew out to Gustavus in May 1979 with three other new rangers, and we landed in a dreary rain, the pilot said, 'Welcome to Gustavus, you can turn your watches back 100 years.' The town had 80 people then, no paved roads and no central utility (everybody used generators).

"Today Gustavus has 450 people. Melanie's Aunt Bernice visited us many years later (from Los Angeles). When we asked her what she'd done that day … with her husband Bob, she said, 'Well, we didn't do anything, but we had a really nice time.' Bumper stickers in Gustavus say, 'What's your hurry? You're already here.'

"I'd rather live here than have a career."

‘There’s a better way’

Sitting erect in the bay window of his home, the author explained that Americans learned their sense of land stewardship from their conquistadors.

"We really hammered this continent," he said. "We've altered it greatly. How long can we continue to get away with that? I don't know, but I do think that there's a better way that we can conduct ourselves on this planet. I really do, and I like to explore this in my writing."

Heacox visited Denali many times in the decade following his wife's employment, but as a visitor. He calls it his second home, with many friends still residing in the area. The third fourth of his book is based on these visits.

In fall 2012, Heacox returned to the park as part of a 10-day artist-in-residence program. He stayed in the East Fork Cabin and grappled with the decision to abandon "Fixing a Hole in the Ocean." This visit is the foundation of the last fourth of "The Rhythm of the Wild."

The memoir also includes experiences like hosting a group of 12 high school students, whom he takes on a tour of the coal mine while addressing issues he finds curious, such as access versus excess.

Freedom of expression

Glitter Gulch is the name given to the dizzying spectacle of side-of-the-road food stops and tourist shops that mark the entrance to Denali. "It acts as a phenomenal contrast against the park itself," Heacox explained. "We're going to take some of the worst aspects of America commercialism and consumerism and we're going to put it right at the entrance to the park so you can really see the contrast. It's startling."

But it's the right kind of startling, Heacox said.

"Although unsightly in certain ways, part of it is probably necessary and it provides a phenomenal contrast between inside the park and outside the park."

Don't expect any "lyrical naval gazing" in "The Rhythm of the Wild," Heacox said, alluding to the writing style of many Alaskan authors.

"They talk about how spring is coming and how the birds are returning," Heacox mused. "And that's great. But how many voices are there in Alaska saying, 'Change everything now'? I believe we're rapidly facing a situation where we have to ask ourselves, 'Is this a morally bankrupt economy?' (We're) pulling out ancient carbon and burning it. The future is out there looking back at us. How are they going to regard us?"

Heacox said John Muir, whom he's studied extensively, would tell Alaskans to "start to accept that we can and must and we will prosper in making deep, fundamental change now."

If this sounds preachy, consider this: Both of Heacox's older brothers served in Vietnam, and he saw how it devastated his mother. During high school, he regularly watched a flag lowered to half-mast in honor of fallen former classmates. He traveled to the former USSR in 1979 at age 28. He crossed the 6,000-mile trans-Siberian railway and roomed with a retired Red Army general.

"I know what it's like to live and be in a culture where you do not have freedom of expression," Heacox explained. "You can't have a spontaneous conversation on the corner about who you're voting for or what you think about a certain issue."

Heacox was terrified ("It scared the hell outta me") during his time in Russia, a feeling he thinks is important to experience.

"Join an organization," Heacox urged. "Do a little bit of research; look around. Look critically at your own life today and ask yourself, 'What's going on, what's really going on? What needs to change?' And avail yourself of different sources of information. If you can, break away from your tribe a little bit. Mix it up."

Heacox believes "The Rhythm of the Wild" will receive some criticism, and one of the tools he uses to soften the blow is humor.

"It's the yogurt around the pill," he said.

"In every way, I matured late. I wasn't very good academically; I wasn't a sports guy. People liked me because I'm fun and I'm funny. I wasn't an ideas guy. I wasn't a philosopher at all. I wasn't a thinker at all. But I would make people laugh."

A writer could have worse traits. "Publishers are not keen on publishing climate-change polemics. They're tired of those. You have to tell a fun, good story to sell a book."

And Heacox says he's a good storyteller. More difficult for him is the challenge of crossing the line from writing about how things are to how things should be, in his view.

"That's a really daring line to cross," he said.

When asked if the memoir was, in part, a love story about Denali, Heacox responded, "Definitely."

"How can one place like this -- where people come and are so deeply and profoundly touched every day -- change (people) the rest of their lives?" he asks. "Imagine the influence that park has on people's lives. Lightly or profoundly. The decisions they make, the way they treat others. I think it's immeasurable."

Amanda Compton is a freelance writer and radio producer based in Juneau. She can be reached by visiting atkcompton.com.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments