Committing to a place

Posted: Monday, May 16, 2005

In the wintertime, Gustavus writer Kim Heacox and his wife, Melanie, travel to Antarctica, where it's summer and they can find some semblance of sunlight.

Over the last eight years, they've made 28 trips from Tierra del Fuego, the tip of Argentina, across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula and back. They work on tourist ships. Melanie is a naturalist, while Kim is a historian.

"Antarctica really makes me think about what Alaska might have been like 20,000 years ago, when Lynn Canal was filled with ice," Heacox said. "Alaska right now is a landscape dominated by mountains, where glaciers fit in between here and there. Antarctica is a lanscape filled in by ice, where every so often the mountains are able to poke on through."

Heacox has done a lot of thinking about Alaska, its place in the world and its outlook for the future, in the 25 years since he moved to Glacier Bay as a park ranger. His new book, "The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska," started out as a series of essays and morphed into a memoir about his time in the area."The book is really about committing yourself to a place and intending to die here," Heacox said. "It sounds so dramatic, but I feel a strong connection here."

"Over the last several years, I've been thinking about moving through life filled with gratitude rather than pride," he said. "When you operate with a sense of gratitude, you appreciate things the way they are. I've just been thinking that pride is a high horse to fall from. I really enjoy exploring more and more a sense of gratitude for the natural beauty we have around us."

"The Only Kayak" is a look at a landscape that's changing, despite its status as a national park. It questions our means of preservation and wonders whether any place can truly be exempt from human influence.

In the last 10 years, sea otter and Steller sea lion populations have exploded. Salmon and moose are becoming more prevalent. Brown bears are vanishing, but black bears are becoming more common as the lower bay develops into a forest.

"I'm going to show the beauty and the adventure that awaits somebody in Glacier Bay, especially if they go there in a very intimate way, sleeping on the ground," Heacox said. "I like to think that Glacier Bay is here to overwhelm us, not for us to overwhelm it. And that overwelming takes place in small increments and the tragedy comes about through people that mean well.

"I guess what I want to show is people kayaking, people hiking and camping, pictures of people on cruise ships and tour boats. and just ask what can we do to hold on to our national parks," he said. "Will people 100 years from now be able to come into Glacier Bay and wake up in the morning and be able to hear a seal harbor breathing across the water?"

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