HANGING ART – Raven Shaw hangs up art at her booth for the Sitka Artisans Market this afternoon at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Her business, Raven's Random, sells original art stickers and prints. The market opens tonight and runs through Sunday. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Richard K. Nelson Dies; Led Life Full of Nature

Richard K. (Nels) Nelson

Richard K. (Nels) Nelson

Richard K. (Nels) Nelson died Nov. 4 at age 77 in a medical center in San Francisco, from complications of cancer. He was surrounded by a small band of loving friends.
As a child in Madison, Wisconsin, Nels prowled swamps and sloughs in search of snakes and turtles. Each captured creature propelled him to seek the next marvel and he began asking questions which would, for the rest of his life, step him into an ever-increasing intimacy with the natural world.
In college, his intended career in herpetology got sidelined by a growing interest in anthropology. In 1964, the United States Air Force commissioned a sea-ice survival manual to train pilots. An anthropology professor offered Nels the job and, months later, a small plane dropped him on the beach alongside the village of Wainwright on the Chukchi coast. Nels was 22-years-old. He apprenticed himself to Inupiaq hunters mushing dogs over the frozen sea. This experience formed a center of gravity for him.
His first winter in Alaska gave rise to a master’s degree and his first book, “Hunters of the Northern Ice.” As a PhD student, Nels spent a year living with Gwichin Athabaskans in the village of Chalkyitsik. He returned to Santa Barbara, wrote his thesis and his second book, “Hunters of the Northern Forest.”
He tried to be a professor, teaching in Honolulu and Newfoundland, but lecturing about Arctic living was no substitute for the life itself. In 1974, he returned to Alaska under contract with the National Park Service to help with the statewide effort to map patterns of subsistence use by First Nations people. He lived with Kobuk Eskimos in Ambler and Shungnak before mushing his dogs over Dalki Pass into the Koyukuk drainage. In Huslia, he savored the wisdom of village elders including Catherine and Steven Attla. The transformative teachings of Koyukon spirituality is chronicled in his book “Make Prayers to the Raven.” He went on to collaborate on a five-part PBS film series by the same name.
Settled into Sitka, Nels decided, in his own words, to “spend a year in the forest university, studying with as much discipline as I would on a campus bound by walls. I want to twist direct experience together with insights gained from indigenous teachers.” His year in the forest swelled to four. He emerged with hundreds of journal pages from which he crafted “The Island Within.”
He crisscrossed the country for his next book – a meditation on deer in North America. He finished “Heart and Blood,” swore off writing and re-invented himself as a radio guy. For the next decade, he immersed himself in wild country in Alaska and Australia as he wrote, narrated, and produced “Encounters,” a weekly half-hour radio exploration of the natural environment. From albatrosses to wood frogs with more than 100 topics in between, each episode has a sharp focus imbued with Nels’ unbridled enthusiasm.
Richard’s resume is rich with awards – Johns Burroughs Medal for Outstanding Natural History Writing, Lannan Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, Rasmuson Artist of the Year Award, Life Time Achievement Award from Alaska Conservation Foundation – but true wealth was found in the world’s natural beauty. “Closeness,” he wrote, “is the sacred power I seek. My amulet comes by moving within the touch of eyes, mingling scents, reaching out with my fingers toward feathers ruffled by the same wind gust that surrounds us both.”
Nels loved to hike, kayak, surf, fish, search for deer, pick berries, make jam, bake angel food cake and eat ice cream. Dinner without dessert was painful.
 His friends will miss his bright smile and infectious laugh. Even through the trails of cancer treatment, Nels made the nurses and doctors laugh.
From his childhood snooping through Madison swamps to his final days watching nuthatches at a San Francisco feeder, Nels has been carried by a strong current of curiosity. He moved through the last years of his life amplifying bird song and whale breath through a large parabolic dish. That giant plastic ear seems a fitting symbol for a life dedicated to listening. His exuberance touched everyone he met. He was kind and humble, joyful and irreverent. A mentor to many, attentive to all he met.
Nels took his last breath listening to a raven’s call.
Nels was preceded in death by his parents, Florence and Robert Nelson. He is survived by brother Dave Nelson, partner Debbie Miller and dear friends in Alaska, Australia and across America.
A celebration of life will be held in Sitka April 25 and 26.
Anyone wishing to make a gift in honor of Nels’ life and legacy can donate to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Fund.  As Nels said when he helped set up that fund, “I have found the most beautiful, most enriching, most exhilarating experiences of my life in the wild country of Southeast Alaska.  For this I feel immensely privileged. The Living Wilderness Fund is my investment in a dream: that children born a century from now will have the same privilege to experience these places, surrounded by the same silence, and blessed by the same abiding peace.”







 


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