I met the lovely Kayce James a couple of years ago when she plopped down in a bench at the Smoke Shack in Seward where my friends and I were having breakfast. They knew her, and introduced me, but I didn't get the connection until later when I later saw Mr. December (my friend Ian Ryerson) in the 2016 Mountain Men of Alaska calendar, a collection of scantily clad, homegrown hunks. I instantly loved the idea, and so does most everyone else I've learned, because she's now sold several thousand calendars that have ended up as far away as New Zealand and Sweden. Her photos are creative and funny; featuring badass Alaskan men of all shapes and sizes engaged in activities that range from gold-panning, dog-sledding, ice-skating, mountain-running, beach-frolicking and horseback riding to piloting and everything in between.
On top of that, her caption and quote choices really make the whole calendar. They're all funny or poignant, but my favorite photo/caption combination goes to a burly Alaskan gentleman standing confidently tall in front of his airplane, with hands loosely holding his brown leather jacket open to his bare chest as though he were Clark Kent about to expose Superman. That's really the most substantial piece of clothing he's got on. Otherwise, he's wearing old fashioned pilot goggles and leather helmet, a white silk scarf and boxer briefs. The quote Kayce added is by Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams: "Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
Kayce 31, was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but she'd been to Alaska with her family as a kid, and later with her college cross-country ski team, so she wasn't quite a stranger when she and some of her housemates in South Carolina decided to come to Alaska for the summer a few years back. She applied for a job guiding horseback tours, and-like it has for so many of us-Alaska got right into her skin and here she remains. Her day job now is as a special education aide at a middle school in Seward. During the summer she is the owner/operator of Kenai Riverdog, a float trip service out of Cooper Landing. In the past, she also worked a few winters teaching outdoor, hands-on classes about coastal ecosystems to school groups in South Carolina and Georgia. But, of all the job duties Kayce has had in her life, my favorite by far is that during an internship in Florida, one of her jobs was to scrub manatees with a giant squeegee.
The thing about Kayce is that she never personally told me any of this stuff. With every right in the world to brag about her laundry list of adventures and accomplishments, I still found out about most of it from other people. Bragging isn't her style. She is sweet and considerate, a little shy, endlessly creative and accidentally funny. If I said any of that to her face, she'd probably turn pink and humble her way right out from under the compliments. I'd have liked her regardless, but as fate would have it, we ended up sharing a tragedy that changed our friendship.
Kayce and Ian Ryerson became friends two years ago after he'd agreed to be one of her calendar models, though he'd previously only met her in passing. Like most of her models in the early stages, Kayce and Ian had a mutual friend who suggested he'd fit the bill and talked him into it. Now, she gets messages from women all over the state asking how they can get the man in their lives into her calendar, but in the beginning it was mostly friends of friends. She shows up with a loose idea of what she's looking for, then she and her model get playful. Often, they surprise her. The colorful onesy and floaty adorning Mr. August on the beach, for example? He just showed up like that.
Ian and his wife, Kari, took a trip down to Seward in March of 2015 to visit Kayce where she dressed him up (or down, as it were) in his boxer shorts, some suspenders, Xtra Tuffs and a santa hat. For good measure, they added an empty Jagermeister bottle (because why not) and snagged one of the unused fish carts from the docks. The previous night, Kayce had run into another generously bearded fellow in Seward working on the icebreaker/science research vessel Sikuliaq that was set to leave port in a few days. She asked him if he might want to do a little modeling himself. He not only agreed, but recruited a third, equally bearded co-worker to join. The next day, after Kayce and Kari had posed Ian in all manner of silly setups in that fish cart and on the dock with his great dane, she added in the two Sikuliaq crew members. Their beards, while impressive by normal standards, didn't hold a candle to Ian's. She posed the three of them in similar garb (very little), with the new gentlemen staring in puzzlement at Ian standing across from them. She called that one, "Beard Envy." It's one of my favorite photos of our friend.
Last December, only a month after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when it was already becoming apparent that time was short, Kayce came to visit Ian and Kari and took a photo of six-foot-four Ian and their little eight pound chihuahua, Big Carl, in front of their Christmas tree. Kayce dedicated her Mr. December slot in the 2017 calendar to Ian, using that photo. He's the only person who's ever been featured in her calendar twice. The calendar went to print after he passed in May. Ian was a man who truly lived his life to an extent most people never will. Kayce captioned December 2017 with, "You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.-H.L. Mencken." Yet again, she nailed it.
Ian wasn't the only friend Kayce has made as a result of her endeavor to document Alaska's toughest and goofiest men. She's ended up on a multitude of fun trips and a few misadventures with some of our state's most interesting guys. All good sports so far, her models have stripped down in the coldest of conditions, sat in frothy washtubs of freezing water, been mauled by mosquitos, and waded in glacier fed rivers. A couple of months back, wanting to know more of these stories and "learning experiences" in Kayce's blossoming career as our state's premier photographer of badass dudes, I packed up my dog, Rusty, and drove down to her house in Seward (appropriately called the "Burly Man Bunkhouse") to spend the night with her and her dog, Porter.
I dropped my stuff off at her house and we drove out to the Lowell Point trailhead; one of her favorite little hikes and one that I,-despite my 20 years residing in this state-had somehow never experienced. We spent the next several hours walking out to the beach, playing on the colossal tree stumps at the water's edge and watching Rusty and Porter become new friends while Kayce experimented with some cool new camera tricks she'd learned.
I mentioned another friend of mine who does really fantastic boudoir photography; which is kind of the opposite-sex version of Kayce's project, only without all the goofy. A large part of her job revolves around making her subjects feel loose and comfortable so she can capture them at their most magnetic. I asked Kayce which of her models so far had needed a little help to get comfortable,-since most of them are naked or quite close-and how she'd managed to facilitate that for them. She pursed her lips together for a moment, thinking, then told me, "You know, I haven't really had to do that with any of them. They mostly just well " she made a motion with both hands as if she was throwing a pair of pants up over her head. Men are from Mars, after all.
After our walk we popped into Chinook's for dinner and drinks, and then moved on to another bar in town. To me, it looked like Kayce knows everyone in Seward, and most of them seemed to be aware of her unique little project. Not everyone, apparently. She told me she does try her best to keep the calendar out of conversation until she knows if it's going to be well-received. I was astonished that she'd worry anyone could possibly look at such a wonderful, hilarious and good-natured project as Mountain Men of Alaska and consider it "seedy," but, as it turns out, I was vastly overestimating the humor of prudes. Just recently, she received a phone call from a very flustered lady who explained, basically, that she is a Christian and was deeply offended by all the butts.
Luckily, most people she encounters have more of a sense of humor. One night in Seward, deep in the wee hours, Kayce grabbed her friend Andy after his band had wrapped up a show at a local bar and they drove down Lowell Point Road in search of a good viewing spot for an unexpectedly bright show of the northern lights. He stripped down and stood tall in the middle of the road with his bare backside toward Kayce, flexing his arms and facing Seward, the snow-covered mountains and a thick, bright stripe of green aurora before him. As he was waiting for her to get the perfect shot, a car came around the bend into view and Andy bolted for cover. They thought they were in the clear and that no one had seen Andy's naked behind escaping into darkness, but she soon found out they were wrong. When she posted that photo online a couple of days later, a comment appeared beneath it saying, "So that's what was going on down Lowell Point Road at 2 a.m. the other night!" At least the people in that car could lay to rest any concerns they'd been harboring that Seward might have an exhibitionist on the loose.
Another time, in the late spring of 2015, as the deadline was fast approaching to submit her 2016 calendar for print, she was still missing a Mountain Man to fill her last open month. She'd already done a shoot with a musher, but he backed out at the last minute and left her with little time to find a replacement. Lacking any other short term options, and nearing creative panic, she set up a short notice flight with Seward Helicopter Tours to fly up to Godwin Glacier. She'd resolved to more or less fall at the mercy of the mushers who live up there during tourist season to guide dogsled tours on the glacier. Their residential conditions are quite austere; they stay in canvas tents and have only satellite phone, so there was no way to let them know in advance that Kayce was coming, or to ask if any of them would be willing to pose for her calendar, but she hopped in the helicopter anyway.
When she arrived and tracked down the guides, she discovered that she needn't have ever worried. There, she met Wyatt, who was on board with little to no persuasion. Kayce bundled herself up as best she could as the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains and the temperature was dropping fast. She loaded up onto the back of a snow machine driven by another guide, feeling both extraordinarily relieved that the universe had granted her a willing model on short notice and a bluebird day on the glacier to boot, and also feeling cold just looking at Wyatt who rid himself of all bodily coverings except those on his feet, hopped on a sled and took off with the dog team toward a snowy mountain ridge.
Unplanned as the event was, Wyatt's photo ended up gracing the cover of the 2016 calendar. Wyatt's mom bought a bunch of them, proving that good sport must run in the family, and now sends Kayce Christmas cards every year. Wyatt's family flew up to Alaska last summer to spend a day rafting with Kayce, and he went from stranger to fond friend, all because Kayce took some pictures of his bare buns on a dogsled.
My favorite photo from her 2016 calendar is of a guy called Popcorn. He's a rafting guide on Six Mile river, and, as Kayce explained to me, 'popcorning' is when you fly up out of your seat while rafting, hence, she guesses, his nickname. He'd just gotten off work one day in the summer of 2015 and headed to the Russian River to do some fishing. Kayce was fishing down there as well and ran into Popcorn and some of their other mutual friends. She brought up the calendar and asked this long-haired, bearded, hearty Alaskan man if he'd mind posing while fishing in his half-peeled-off dry suit in one of our region's most loved fishing spots. He didn't hesitate at all; instead he went into full ham mode. At one point, Kayce pointed at an already filleted fish carcass on the rocks and rather vaguely said, "Do you think you could, you know pick that thing up and hold it or something?" To which Popcorn responded, "I can do you one better," and put that dead fish right in his mouth in a half bite, half devious grin that-despite being a little disgusting-still manages to be sexy and hilarious at the same time.?
To Kayce though, perhaps the pinnacle of the encounters that she's had as a result of her art project thus far, was with David Norris, the winner of the 2016 Mount Marathon race that takes place amidst Alaska's largest Independence Day celebration. He set the course's all-time record this past summer at 41 minutes, 26 seconds.
She scheduled a time with him in late August this year to do a photoshoot atop the mountain he'd conquered just a few weeks before. Kayce is an outdoorsy woman and no slouch, but she knew that if she was going to meet David at the top, she'd need to get a real head start on him; in case you've never attempted to climb Mount Marathon before, it is absolutely, deliriously brutal. She began making her way up the 3,022 foot mountain about an hour-and-a-half before David even arrived in town thinking this would get her to the top with enough time to rest and recover before he appeared for their photo shoot. She decided to take the runners trail and not the hikers trail, as the former is shorter overall and she thought could be done more quickly. Turns out, she had way overestimated her abilities, and way underestimated the temperature in late August and the amount of water she was going to need in order to stay cool while hiking with a backpack full of camera gear. Shortly into the hike she was already thirsty, sweating hard and, as she puts it, "making huffing sounds that would scare off bears in a five-mile radius." Half an hour in, she fell down to rest and texted David to say that she was going to take longer than she'd expected, and also asking if he might be so kind as to pack some extra water for her on his way up. She was already battling extreme embarrassment, and might have turned back except that she'd made an appointment and would not stand up a model she'd been so looking forward to photographing. She eventually emerged from the treeline and came to a fork in the trail. Choosing the path to the right, thinking that it looked less steep and foreboding (which turned out to be the opposite of the truth), she plodded on, attempting to make it at least 20 steps at a time before having to rest. Finally, she sat down, feeling exhausted and humiliated, and sent another text to David saying, "I am defeated." He replied with, "I'll find you."
He appeared shortly thereafter from the trail she'd forgone thinking that it would have been harder, running like he was on flat grass and not a precarious slope of scree and dust, and handed Kayce a bottle of water. From there, he lead her up the easier path and finally they emerged together at the top of Mount Marathon.
He spent a little shy of half an hour running and leaping around the peak of the mountain, flying through the air with an American flag held high in both hands. He was behaving for all the world like a mountain goat just risen from a good, hard nap, and not a human being with only two legs who'd just run the mountain 1.5 times, factoring in his side track to find our dear protagonist. After she'd taken enough photos to call it good, David apologized for having to ditch her, as he had to make it back to Anchorage for a mountain racing award ceremony (of course he did), and bolted off toward sea level.
When Kayce got to the bottom of the mountain more than an hour later, there was a text waiting for her from David that said, "You're a badass! Let me know you made it home." Since then, Kayce's made a concerted effort to run and hike every day, and told me one of the last times we spoke that her goal was to sign up for the Mount Marathon race this summer. One never knows when an absurdly hard hike and a half naked guy might turn out to be a new friend and a transformational experience.
If, like me, you'd like to see Kayce keep Alaska's unique and fantastic brand of man on display for years to come, go check out her website or find her calendars on her Etsy store. Knock out all your Christmas shopping for those lady friends who need to know what a real man looks like while doing a naked headstand in the wilderness.