Kimberley Ann Blackwell was born in North Bay, Ont., on Aug. 29, 1958, the third of five children, to James, a territory manager for Sealtest Dairy, and Veronica, a homemaker. Transferred to Sealtest’s Toronto offices, James moved the family to the suburb of Aurora, then Orillia, where Veronica’s suicide left him to raise the children alone. In a bid for stability, the Blackwells returned to North Bay, then to Sudbury and the nearby French River area, where Kim’s grandfather, a miner from Blackpool, England, had settled generations earlier. If Kim looked the angel in her communion dress, her tomboy childhood caring for cattle on a local farm and scrapping with her brother, Jim Jr., spoke of these pioneer roots. So did her restlessness. Around the time her younger sister Beverley died of lung cancer at 19—”Kimberley remained at her bedside until she died,” sister Karen says—Kim, still in her early 20s, went west, hitchhiking as far as Whitehorse. There, using money sent to her by her doting father, Kim bought a cabin on Squatters Row, a strip of bohemian dwellings.
With high cheekbones, an explosion of wiry black hair, and her elaborate clothing—velvet vests and embroidery—she grew a reputation: Kim was wild, loud, profane and tough, even by Yukon standards. “If a guy gave her s–t, she’d give it back,” says Barbara Chamberlin, a friend. With little kitchen experience she took work as a cook in remote mining and fishing camps, where she was often the only woman. “She was easily as tough as any of the men,” says friend Eric Epstein. “Yet she had this incredible delicacy about her.” The work paid for trips to Europe, where she worshipped with fellow travellers at Stonehenge and toiled briefly as a shepherd, and Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz. After fire razed her Yukon cabin, she erected a tent, equipped it with a wood-burning stove and lived in it for several winters while she rebuilt. At Blackwell family gatherings, she arrived in caribou hides and stored her mukluks in the freezer, a protection from rot. Such otherworldliness prompted descriptions of Kim as a “feral fairy—a fairy raised by wolves,” says Epstein. Indeed, the wild and its creatures were dear to her, worthy of as much respect, she felt, as any person. When she discovered a wolf carcass discarded by hunters she went to work on it with a knife, skinning it in the frigid cold. “I was so f–king mad they killed this sacred animal, I wouldn’t let anyone else do it,” she later wrote online. “Very important cutting around eyes, face and paws to not ruin the hide.”
In the early ’90s, Kim, weary of winter, discovered Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, a secluded arm of hilly rainforest and rutted cow trail just above Panama; once a pirate haunt, it now drew surfers and off-the-grid nonconformists. She sold her cabin and, in an old beater, drove from Whitehorse to Osa. At a yoga retreat, she tended the horses and slept in the loft above the stalls; later she managed cabanas at an austere surfing resort. When Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked nearby, she met Christopher Hoare, a blue-eyed Australian 10 years her junior who worked on the ship. Soon the couple had bought a plot of land with a panoramic view of the ocean and, alongside the citruses, planted heliconias and palms. When Kim uncovered a grove of wild cacao trees, she launched an organic handmade chocolate venture—a business she hoped would cure the locals of their passion for hunting on her land. Game there was plentiful: located next to a national park, Kim’s property was a jungle wonderland of monkeys, jaguars and pumas. “She made friends with lizards, frogs and birds,” says friend Tao Watts. “She’d prefer to relocate poisonous snakes rather than kill them.” She adopted a young orphaned sloth, raising it for a year; friends called her “Fairy Sloth Mother.”
Yet her love of wildlife continued to put her at odds with poachers, who used her land to hunt peccary—a sort of pygmy boar—and tepezcuintles, a large rodent prized for its flavour. “I used to be Woman Who Runs With Wolves,” she said, “now I’m Woman Who Runs With Tepezcuintles.” The conflict worried friends, particularly after Kim and Christopher split and she was alone. “She got into people’s faces,” Tao says. Some time ago, Kim found her dogs slain; more recently she shot a poacher with a BB gun. On Feb. 2, park rangers on a routine visit to her home found her dead—beaten and shot. The murder remains unsolved.