Ruth Kirk, pioneering guidebook author

A natural and human histories expert of the West reflects on her work.

  • Guidebook author Ruth Kirk in 1980.

    Mary Randlett
  • Ruth Kirk with some of the many books she has authored.

    Kathy Sauber
 

"I'm intellectually greedy," Ruth Kirk once said during an interview, describing her insatiable curiosity about natural history, anthropology and archaeology. Kirk has spent a lifetime learning the language of Western wilderness and ancient cultures -- mapping their history and learning how to "idle back to nature's pace." Now, at age 88, she says she is "about to put the pencil down" for good. Yet even as Parkinson's disease increasingly compromises her motor skills, Kirk is pushing to complete one final project: Ozette: Excavating a Makah Whaling Village.

"I am well-equipped to write the book," she says. It's a beloved subject for her, the Ozette Archaeology Project on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Excavation at the site began in 1966, led by Richard Daugherty, archaeologist and now emeritus professor at Washington State University. Together, she and Daugherty wrote Hunters of the Whale, chronicling the first stages of the dig through 1974. A Makah Indian village buried by an ancient mudflow, the site was a "Pompeii in mud instead of volcanic ash," Kirk says, a phenomenon that permitted recovery of 55,000 intact wooden artifacts by the project's close in 1981. Six years ago, Kirk married Daugherty -- her friend of 40 years -- in a Makah longhouse at Neah Bay, Wash.

Kirk is a petite, soft-spoken woman, humble about her accomplishments. "When you have hair as gray as this, you've had time to do things," she says. Yet her age hasn't dulled the light in her eyes, or her zest for research and exploration.

She began writing at age 24, when she moved with her first husband, Louis Kirk, a park ranger, and their two sons to Death Valley National Park. There she noticed how visitors looked at the valley without really "seeing" it, "because they didn't know what they were looking at." With only two rangers covering the entire park, information was not easily disseminated. Kirk thought a "paper ranger, a book" might help. After a chance encounter, Ansel Adams asked Kirk to write a brief guide section for his photo book on the valley. That eventually led her to write her own book, Exploring Death Valley.

Later, as the family moved from park to park, she wrote guidebooks on Death Valley, Mount Rainier National Park, the Olympic Peninsula, Crater Lake and Yellowstone, along with other books on topics as varied as desert ecology, snow and Northwest Coast Indian culture. Her accolades include the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing, recognition by the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Library Association, and a National Book Award nomination.

I learned of Kirk two years ago, when I began writing a hiking guidebook for the Eastern Sierra, and a former neighbor told me, "You have to meet Ruth Kirk. She's an inspiration."

Recently, at Kirk's home in Lacey, Wash., we exchanged stories over cups of tea. Her house is filled with souvenirs from all the time she's spent immersed in Indian culture. She showed me two Hopi pots she bought in her childhood. She paid a dime for one and a nickel for the other -- her entire week's allowance.

As she talks, I notice parallels between our lives: Both of us were published authors by our mid-20s, both women entranced by the outdoors. The difference is she forged the path for my generation of female guidebook authors, logging miles with minimal navigation tools, fewer research resources, and much heavier equipment.

Kirk spent most of her career lugging three heavy film cameras slung from her neck and a "gosh-awful" Trapper Nelson pack on her back that she describes as "a couple wooden sticks on each side with a bag lashed onto it." She once hauled a pack of cement to the summit of Mount Rainier for a new survey marker.

When she wasn't on a trail filling journals with notes, Kirk could be found poring over Ph.D. dissertations, field reports and oral recordings. She believes in "researching deeply," a skill that has helped her to paint thoughtful portraits of the West with a style akin to Mary Austin's. While Kirk's subjects lend themselves to objective description -- geology, anthropology, archaeology -- her sense of wonder leaves its mark on every page. "If love could shine through ink, these pages would glow," she writes in Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park.

While Kirk doesn't travel much anymore, she feels at home wherever she is. "You look at Death Valley and you think, who wants a Douglas fir anyway? Then you hike through the Hoh Rain Forest here and think, who needs a saguaro cactus? I'm fickle. Whatever place I'm in, that's the place I love."

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.