Remembrances of Ken Miyata

July 15, 2021 • 9:15 am
Ken Miyata (photo by B. Wu)

Ken Miyata was an ecologist and herpetologist who was my best friend in graduate school. He was a student of Ernest Williams (Greg Mayer was also Willams’s student for much of his time at Harvard), and we spent tons of time together, including a month-long trip to Ecuador where I helped him collect frogs (that’s where I collected the type specimen that Ken later named Atelopus coynei). Greg and I both knew Ken very well; besides being a keen naturalist and herpetologist, Ken was one of America’s best fly fishermen as well as a fantastic photographer and a crack writer (he was co-author with Adrian Forsyth of the great popular book Tropical Nature), and he had a penchant for the bizarre and unusual aspects of life. The result was that he was a lot of fun to be with. Greg and I have written about him from time to time on this site (see posts here).

After I did my postdoc and moved to the University of Maryland, I still saw Ken from time to time, and we kept in pretty constant touch. It was thus with a sinking feeling in my stomach that I was called in 1983 and told that Ken’s car had been found, empty and parked by the Big Horn River in Montana, where he went to fish. There was no sign of Ken. He had gone out West as a sort of farewell fishing trip, for he’d just had two big advances in life: a job at The Nature Conservancy, which was his dream job, and a great girlfriend with whom he’d live in Washington, D.C., so he would have been physically close to me. He wanted a big dose of fishing (he said he wanted to fish 200 days a year) before he entered the real world.

He never completed that Big Fishing Trip. I waited for several days after that first phone call, and finally heard that they’d found Ken’s body downstream. He apparently slipped in a fast-flowing bit of water, his waders filled up with water (he was too cheap to buy new ones), and he drowned. His body was completely entangled in his fishing line. He was only 32 years old.

We had a memorial service, we all spoke, and Ken’s parents, who were still alive, told his friends to go to his apartment and take whatever possessions of his that we wanted. I took his beaten-up Levi jacket, which he wore constantly. I still have it.

Here are two memorial pieces about Ken that I’ll highlight. The first appeared in Harvard Magazine in 2000. (Click on the screenshot to read).

The second piece appeared as a supplement to a paper by Ken on Ecuadorian Anolis lizards in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; it comprises some remembrances of Ken written by B. Wu, Eric Larson, Ray Huey, Chuck Crumley, Greg Mayer, and me. Click on the screenshot to read:

Imagine my surprise, then, when Greg told me yesterday that he found a website, kenmiyata.com, which contains scans of many of Ken’s Kodachromes. Neither Greg nor I have any idea who put up the site, which contains hundreds of the many thousands of photographs that Ken took with his Nikon. The photos on the site are from the 1970’s. (Greg adds that “Ken’s more technical wildlife photographs are in the Smithsonian’s slide collection.”)

I’ll put up a few of the photo from that site, which include a couple of me when I was at Harvard. They sure make those memories come flooding back!

Ken in a Guatemalan shirt:

Nature photos (some of these were probably taken at a zoo):

Ken’s photographic and collecting equipment:

At work in the field:

There aren’t many photos of Ken fishing on the site, as he took most of the photos. I have a bunch in my own slides, but haven’t scanned them.

He tied all his own flies, often on the spot to “match (or mismatch) the hatch”:

Ken’s dictum was always to catch and release them, though occasionally he’d eat a few for dinner if he was camped by a stream.

 

Ken’s advisor Ernest Williams (on the left), with his Harvard colleagues Bryan Patterson, whom Chris Janis identified in the comments as “one of the all-time great paleomammalogists.”

Ken mugging:

 

I believe this is Otavalo, Ecuador:

And finally some self-aggrandizing shots on the album (Greg found these in book 4). It’s me in grad school.

Me with B. Wu, a best friend of Ken and me in grad school (she wrote part of one of the memorials above):

It was Ken who got me into photography. His best advice to me: “Look through the viewfinder!”. That meant that what you see with your eyes, however impressive, isn’t what’s captured on the slide. What’s captured is what you see in the viewfinder.

Turid Holldobler and I at a party at Burt and Turid’s house (he was a Harvard prof and buddy of Ed Wilson, she was a terrific artist who illustrated many of Ed’s books and did natural history art). Sadly, Turid is no longer alive.

God, life would have been much more fun had Ken stayed with us!

32 thoughts on “Remembrances of Ken Miyata

  1. Wow, what a guy! Thanks for this remembrance! I really love these kind of stories: About the people you know, places you’ve been, memories. There’s a best-selling memoir in there Jerry! 🙂

  2. Hey, Jerry, I remember Ken well too. One small issue, could you label Ernest Williams’ companion, Bryan Patterson, one of the all-time great paleomammalogists? (He and Ernest were best friends, they’d go to lunch together most days.)

    1. Oh, great. I’ll fix that right away. I remember Ernest had a couple of drinks with lunch every day and went to the same place (do you remember the place and what he drank?). We got invited a couple of times and considered it a great honor.

      1. No, I don’t know where they went. But I do remember that Pat made the best G&Ts in town. (I bet he’d love all the craft gins available today). I took Ernest’s herpetology course in my first term at Harvard, and it was a really excellent learning experience (actually about how to think about science, which I remember, than about herps, which I’ve probably mostly forgotten).

      2. Ernest and Patterson (who I never met– he died shortly after I arrived at the MCZ) ate at a place that was at least at times referred to as “Chez…..” (something). There was a painting/sketch that Ernest had that depicted the place. After Patterson’s death, Ernest ate at newer places– Harvest and the Atrium being two that I recall. I think the usual place had closed, or perhaps he no longer wanted to go there. He was less fond of the newer places, once describing the menu of one place as “relentlessly avant garde”– novelty for novelty’s sake. Without Patterson, he sometimes ate alone, but would bring visitors, and students on special occasions. His drink was the whisky sour.

        GCM

        1. The restaurant name you have in mind may be Chez Jean, located on Mass Ave at Shepard St., so just a short walk from the MCZ. I remember it well, because I lived just around the corner as a graduate student and passed it every day. The food must have been very good because it always seemed filled, but pricey beyond a grad student’s stipend. Chez Jean is no longer, but I found this brief description on the Cambridge Historical Society’s website: https://historycambridge.org/culinary/chezhenri.html

  3. Ken’s photographic equipment:

    The cat being there to … re-smudge recently de-smudged lenses and filters?

  4. What a great surprise to find those old photos. Ken sounds like a great guy, and the world surely lost something when he died.

  5. Bittersweet.

    Wonderful to have found these old photos. I recently had about 900 old family slides from the 70s, that I got from mother a year or two ago, digitized. It was great going through after so long. I haven’t seen any of them since the early 80s. Though at times the nostalgia was so poignant it sort of hurt.

  6. Thank you for sharing your beautiful tribute! Has anyone told you that you looked like Cat Stevens?

      1. I always imagine you on a gleaming Harley-Davidson & scaring the hell out of me!

        Plus, so sorry to hear of your grief & loss, what a lovely friend.

  7. Now that was a real fisherman, an honest to A River Runs Through It-style fly fisherman. What a pity he died so young, and at such a promising point in his life.

  8. This is quite similar to one of my remembrances from 1973. Marlin D. Nofziger, one of my college and 1W roommates, disappeared while fishing near Crested Butte, CO. He was a senior in medical school and had gone stream fishing with a classmate. They split up for a while, and Marlin never returned to the meeting place. We searched for many days, to no avail. A couple of weeks later another fisherman found the body. He had likely slipped on the mossy river rocks, hit his head, waders filled up, and drowned. I have been intending to do a blog post about Marlin, and this post may be the prod to get going.

  9. Thanks for this remembrance. He sounds like a fun and interesting friend. What a loss. And to die while doing what you love just before entering into a professional career/dream job…what a sad irony.

  10. A very nice encomium.
    Ken edited (with A. Rhodin) a festschrift for Ernest Williams that had a lot of good papers in it.

  11. Lovely tribute to your friend, Jerry. How sad to die so young and so tragically. A former colleague’s friend drowned in a similar freak accident, on his annual fly-fishing trip in the U.S. The boat or dinghy flipped, his waders filled up with water, and he couldn’t get out.

    1. Everyone who reads this site should own Forsyth and Miyata’s “Tropical Nature”. It is a great read.

      And wow, May I say what a beautiful man he was. The second photo, black & white, with him smiling in that, well, I don’t know what kind of shirt it is, a hippie shirt, wonderful, but the pensive fireside photo is my favorite. It truly is a shame that someone so talented, intelligent, and with his whole successful life open before him to be lost…

      A wonderful post for a wonderful man. Thank you for sharing.

    2. Always sad to hear about talented and lively people dying so young.

      The story, and these anecdotes in the comments bring home how important it is to wear a belt as a safety measure when fishing in waders.

      There’s nothing like learning from experience. In my early days of fly-fishing I didn’t bother with a belt, until I lost my footing once in fast water. Luckily the water wasn’t too deep, and I stopped myself from being swept away by grabbing onto the rocks at the bottom. But facing into the current, my waders filled with water immediately, got very heavy and it was hard to move. I had to crawl out of the water, still clutching at the rocks.

      Disaster averted, but as it was the middle of winter I was then very very cold. Luckily the car wasn’t far away, so I could get back to my accommodation, lesson learned.

      1. I had never previously thought that fly fishing, especially compared to the regular fishing, was at all dangerous. No fast boats piloted by half in the bag hillbillies, and I assumed relatively shallow waters compared to lakes. I’ve considered trying to learn, not that I eat fish, or any meat anymore, nor do I have the money for it, but I know it’s semi-popular here in Missouri, at least on the Ozarks I think. I don’t have much interim catching non-native hatchery stock fish though. If I ever do take it up, I’ll think of Ken.

        1. Moving water is always a hazard. Many have died in very shallow (but fast-moving) water due to foot entrapments and the like.

          I used to be a semi-serious white-water kayaker. You learn the power of moving water very quickly.

          As you can tell from from the comments on this thread, having your waders fill is not as uncommon as most people think. It is a well-known hazard and fisher-folk take measures to prevent it. Losing your footing in a fast-flowing river is pretty much an expected result of wading into it.

  12. His best advice to me: “Look through the viewfinder!”. That meant that what you see with your eyes, however impressive, isn’t what’s captured on the slide. What’s captured is what you see in the viewfinder.

    Good advice. Photographers (and painters) use various tricks to force themselves into viewing the world from the standpoint of the medium.

    I think of my process of photography as a process of editing. I cut down the scene before me to the essence I want to portray.

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