In Alaska, Slowing Down to Take Things In
With rain hitting the roof, the temperature outside hovering in the low 50s and a cast iron stove keeping things warm inside the cabin that, on this July weekend, is serving as an art studio and classroom, I feel a nap coming on. Summer days in Alaska. They are not always the bluebird skies promised in travel ads.
But there’s no time for napping on this trip to McCarthy, a bustling summer community of artists, writers, seasonal workers and visitors that sits 60 miles down a gravel road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
I’m here to expand the techniques I use to observe and record the natural world, to gain a deeper understanding of the animals, plants and geology of the state I’ve called home for eight years. Over the next two days I’ll attend a field-sketching workshop taught by the science illustrator and natural history artist Kristin Link through the Wrangell Mountains Center.
A practice that’s equal parts art and science, field sketching is used by researchers and artists to record their observations of nature, from waterways to winged creatures, mosses to mountaintops. Field sketching pairs illustrations with notes about weather, location, animal behavior and even the journal keeper’s mood that day, offering more context than a stand-alone photo. It’s also a powerful tool for travel, one that forces you to slow down, to take things in, to simply look.
I’m excited about the class but there’s just one problem: I can’t draw.
Ms. Link, who lives in McCarthy year-round, discovered field sketching in art school. “It’s like you’re more present and because you’re kind of quiet, you can hear people’s conversations and engage with place in a different way,” she said.
The town of McCarthy got its start as a turnaround station for the railroad and became the bawdy neighbor — with liquor, gambling and prostitution — to the more serious mine and mill town of Kennecott, five miles up the road, near where copper was discovered in 1900.
McCarthy’s population has been slowly growing over the last decade. In 2010 the town had just 28 residents. In 2020 that number rose to 107, now with about 300 in summer, still a far cry from the 1,000 or so people who lived between McCarthy and Kennecott in the early 1900s when the mill and mines were running at full tilt.
Now McCarthy is forever in a state of being built up and falling apart. Stacks of fresh lumber sit steps away from wooden buildings being overtaken by nature, sedges and wildflowers poking out between splintered planks. There’s a new side staircase being added to the general store, where you can buy scoops of made-in-Alaska ice cream or some duct tape to fix many of the challenges Alaska throws at travelers.
The town is also an unofficial museum of dead trucks. Some have moss growing on their fenders.
But it’s McCarthy’s dogs, off leash and on their own agenda, that shape the town’s character. From short-legged mutts to sizable malamutes, all play roles in town, from unofficial mayor to greeters and village clowns.
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Hercules, a 12-week-old puppy, spent most of his time snoozing on the porch of Ma Johnson’s Hotel, my accommodations for the weekend. The pale yellow two-story building is one of many in town that date back to the mining and mill days. The former general store, which now houses the Wrangell Mountains Center, is also a McCarthy original. Though the wooden buildings sat quiet for 60 years after the mining company pulled out of Kennecott and people deserted both towns, several have been restored and repurposed for modern-day visitors, without too much updating.
After Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve was established in 1980, the area began to draw tourists. Long before any of this, the land was home to the Ahtna Athabascan people, who still practice traditional subsistence hunting and fishing in the area. The Ahtna Alaska Native corporation currently owns 622,000 acres within the park and preserve.
If the computer behind the check-in desk and the guest iPhones charging in the lobby disappeared, Ma Johnson’s would likely resemble the boardinghouse it was 80 years ago. The walls and floor are layered with art, velvet chairs and thick carpets.
My room is one flight up. There isn’t much room to walk around the bed but I’m already tired after the seven-hour drive from my home in Anchorage. After some wine and dinner across the street at the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, the Salmon & Bear, the plush bed will be my only concern. At the restaurant, foraged mushrooms, sautéed and served atop a searing-hot stone, surprise me by stealing my attention from the buttery flesh of a dish of black cod. It’s easily my favorite meal in recent memory.
The next morning, the 13 members of the field-sketching class gather at the old general store building for breakfast, a meal of warm oatmeal that will help stave off the chill in the air.
Some easy chatter starts up. A woman who lives up a nearby mountain details her muddy drive down to McCarthy by four-wheeler. Others, Ms. Link included, talk about the Facebook nature journaling group they joined during lockdown. There’s talk of where we’re each staying. Some at Ma Johnson’s, others camping in tents or, tired of the nonstop rain, in their cars in a nearby campground. One woman is a seasonal guide living in Kennecott. A Seattle woman is staying nearby in a friend’s yurt. After two-and-a-half pandemic years without meeting many new people, it feels good to expand the circle of creative people in my world.
After breakfast we walk the short distance to the log cabin that will be our classroom and art studio for the next two days. The original plan was to hike, sketch and paint outdoors. But the rain has forced Ms. Link to rejigger the workshop.
We go around the room introducing ourselves. The group ranges from skilled artists to people who have barely picked up a paintbrush.
One woman, whose open journal makes clear that she is a talented watercolorist, has detoured by camper van into McCarthy during a move out of Alaska. She’s had enough of hikes that require looking out for bears and moose. She wants warm winters. But the workshop offers one last art adventure in Alaska. There are also art dabblers who work as scientists, while others, like me, just want to learn how to capture what we see around us.
Ms. Link sends us outside to gather wildflowers, leaves and anything else we can carry back. We return with handfuls of greenery highlighted by purple blooms and massive leaves still damp from the rain.
Our first task: blind contours. We pick an item to draw, put pen or pencil to paper and draw for five minutes, focusing only on the outline and shapes of the flora, without looking at our work. I’ve tried this before but, here with talented artists, I feel anxious.
When time is up, I look down. The image is recognizable.
We draw and learn for hours that day. I hear more easy laughter from each table as workshop friendships grow. I end up with a strange leaf watercolor and a landscape that doesn’t quite do the mountains justice. But they’re still better than anything I could have churned out the day before. The blind contour is my best work.
The next morning offers a break in the rain. We walk out toward the swimming hole, a half mile away, to do some sketching. On the way there I spot some fireweed growing alongside the dirt road; it’s a native wildflower that blooms from the bottom of its stalk-like flower to the top. Alaskan lore has it that when fireweed flowers bloom all the way to the top, leaving what looks like a puff of smoke, summer is at an end.
“Looks like the fireweed is about to burn out,” I said.
“There’s plenty of room left,” said Ms. Link. With winter’s endless white and gray ahead, she’s not ready to give up the colors of a McCarthy summer quite yet.
A few minutes later we arrive at the swimming hole. Alders and bushes peppered with clumps of bright red baneberries are thick around the shallow pool. A mix of speckled rocks are underfoot all around the water’s basin.
Ms. Link encourages us to spread out. I walk about 50 feet up a side trail and back out through a small clearing next to the swimming hole. Poking out of the greenery is a single massive stem of fireweed, its vibrant fuchsia petals barely halfway up to the top of the stem — another local backing up Ms. Link’s determination to hold winter off a bit longer.
I use Ms. Link’s suggestion of measuring far-off things with my pencil and then translating the length of those lines to paper to work. I draw slowly, looking from subject back to my paper again and again. After 10 minutes I give my work a good once-over. The scene of mountains behind the water and spruce trees is recognizable. More progress.
Within 20 minutes, a fat drop of water lands on my sketchbook page. I step back to get more tree cover and snap a few photos of the rocks underfoot and nearby foliage. I’ll use the photos as reference material to continue the quick sketches back at the cabin.
From behind me, a yell: “Dammit!”
I turn around to see one of my classmates trying to save her work from the weather. Rain is a cruel companion for a field sketcher working with watercolors.
I slip my sketchbook back into my bag and walk the half mile back to the cabin. Most of the class has already returned.
My sketch from the swimming hole, at just 2 by 4 inches, becomes my anchor. It gives me hope that maybe, just maybe I was onto something when I signed up for the workshop. Though it’s far from a great work of art, I know that the sketch and the notes with it will always put me right back atop those speckled rocks by the water, moments before a fat raindrop hit the page.
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If you go
Getting there: Most of the major rental car companies have a firm policy about many of Alaska’s gravel roads — they’re a no-go for their cars. If you want to make the drive yourself, make sure your rental agreement allows it. Three that do are: Midnight Sun Car Rental, GoNorth Alaska and Alaska 4×4 Rentals. If you would rather someone else do the driving, reserve a seat on the Kennicott Shuttle or, for an aerial view, fly Wrangell Mountain Air.
If you do drive, you’ll need to park at Basecamp Kennicott, which also offers camping. Visitors can’t drive into town. The dirt roads that run through McCarthy and Kennecott are for locals only. You can walk the half mile into McCarthy or take a $5 shuttle ride.
Where to stay: Along with Ma Johnson’s, which requires a two-night stay (from $279 per night), there are cabin rentals and B&Bs along the McCarthy Road, the 60-mile road from Chitina. The Wrangell Mountain Center also offers free camping.
Where to eat: McCarthy’s the Potato is the go-to spot for burgers, beers and curly fries that locals dream of during the long winter. But don’t skip dinner at the Salmon & Bear.
Where to learn: Sign up for field sketching ($350) or a writing workshop through the Wrangells Mountain Center.
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