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Know the West

Ruth Kirk, pioneering guidebook author

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


"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."