Several days have passed since we lost a dear friend, mother, and eco-warrior to one of her greatest joys – rock climbing. Kayah Gaydish was a remarkable young woman, and I was fortunate to call her my friend. Much of our time together was spent exploring the wilds of Western North Carolina while working for a regional non-profit conservation organization called Wild South. Wild South was just one of several conservation organizations Kayah devoted her time towards, and it was lucky to have her as its full-time North Carolina Conservation Coordinator over the past several months.
In the days that followed Kayah’s passing, someone asked if it would be hard for me to return to the trails and wild places where we had shared our time and made our memories. “Of course not”, I said. I will cherish and celebrate these places because I experienced them with her. I cannot think of a better way to honor Kayah than to revisit the landscapes into which she poured her heart and soul to protect.
One such landscape is the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and every time I visit the Gorge I will think of her. Kayah spent countless hours there and gave her all to protect this special place. When I say gave it her all I mean it; blood, sweat, tears, and at least one Subaru suspension. Kayah was Wild South’s Wilderness Ranger for a couple of years and was entrusted with leading volunteer expeditions to eradicate exotic and highly invasive plants. These plants, such as the princess tree, threaten the native plants of the area, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
This was an important project and Kayah took it seriously. She introduced people to the fragile and challenging landscape of the Linville Gorge and motivated them to steward it. She did this in her own unique way, with a smile, an air of confidence, and peaceful reassurance that built trust and enthusiasm. It was magical to see how easy Kayah could lead people, and I always marveled at what she and her merry band of volunteers where able to accomplish.
When we speak of wilderness we speak of self-willed landscapes that stand as a testament to freedom and represent nature’s intrinsic qualities that command our respect. Like the Wilderness, Kayah was a free spirit with a strong will. Through her words and actions, she passionately and reverently advocated for this place and earned the respect of everyone who knew her. She honored and valued wilderness and it was a part of who she was.
Linville Gorge Wilderness is also a landscape full of challenges with rugged terrain, strenuous trails, and harsh weather. Like the Wilderness, Kayah’s own life was full of challenges, obstacles and rough spots. She was a single mother working to provide for her family while following her passions and serving her community. She approached these challenges much as she approached the Gorge — with grace, optimism, and regard for the beauty in all things.
Linville Gorge Wilderness is a uniquely beautiful place that inspires all who experience it. Like the Wilderness, Kayah was a beautiful person who inspired many. With her infectious smile, loving attitude, and patience it was easy to admire her. She had a genuine warmth and her presence always gave people comfort and cheer.
Linville Gorge Wilderness is also a place that heals the soul and gives many benefits to our community. Like the Wilderness, Kayah was a healer and a giver. As her friends know, she never asked for anything and yet would be the first to give or lend a hand. She worked as a Doula and was an herbalist. She celebrated a life of service and brought this to the places she loved. Her work in the Wilderness significantly reduced the populations of invasive plants and has allowed the land to heal in remarkable ways.
Kayah’s legacy of healing and hard work in the Linville Gorge Wilderness will continue to require vigilance to maintain its resilience. Yet Kayah’s most resilient and treasured legacy is her two children. They are admired and loved for many of the same reasons as their mother. She did an amazing job raising and supporting them and she was very proud of the wonderful people they turned out to be.
All of us who cared for Kayah honor and celebrate her life, for it was a life of service, sacrifice, joy, laughter, and strength. It was a life to admire, to remember, and to appreciate. We love you Kayah.
I ask that those who are reading this tribute consider making a contribution to her memorial fund which will be used to support her children into the future. To do so click here.