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February 1999

The Colors Of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias

Wrangell-St. Elias National park is known for its jaw-dropping scenery, but there's just as much beauty at your feet.

“I never get to do this on backpacking trips,” said Annie as she swirled her tiny brush on the palette, turning yellow and red into a rusty orange. We were sitting in the grass atop a huge rocky promontory that, a few days ago from far below, we’d dubbed “The Fin.” The sun had burned through the clouds giving way to a flawless autumn day, and the whole Jacksina River valley spread out before us like a mural. “My mom bought me this miniature watercolor set about five years ago. I take it on lots of trips but rarely find the time to break it out.”

Finding time to tie my shoelaces, never mind sitting still long enough to paint, is tough for me on backpacking trips because I’m a Type H (for hyper), activity-driven person. Relaxing has never been one of my fortes. Annie is better than I am at it, even though in her every day life, she too, is highly goal-oriented. We both make to-do lists, meet deadlines, return movies on time, and pay bills early. When we head into the boonies, we pick places on maps, then bust our butts to get there and see every inch of the land.

But not this time. We went to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the country, without a shred of an agenda. Too many people plan their Alaska trips to death, trying to cram as much as they can into a 10-day or two-week, once-in-a-lifetime trip. We, on the other hand, had one goal, and it had nothing to do with climbing a peak or traversing a range: To relax and absorb the landscape. It was our first trip to Alaska and we wanted an intimate look. No wrestling with monstrous packs. No stress over 15-mile days. No 4 a.m. “alpine starts.” We would just play the whole trip by ear and let our days unfold like the autumn colors around us.

I looked over Annie’s shoulder at the color-filled page in her journal. Perfect penmanship, tiny line drawings of bears and pepper spray guns, and now, a sweeping, watery image that mirrored our view. “I’m jealous,” I confessed. “I’m a lousy artist, and I haven’t water-colored since grade school.” I held up my own spiral-bound journal. The straight-ruled lines on the page were like prison bars and my scrawled black words droned on and on. “Look at how boring my journal is.”

“So, make a painting,” said Annie. “Don’t be a chicken. Besides, you’ve already taken a thousand photos of this view. Try to capture it another way.”

“Maybe later. For now I’m content to watch you,” I said, realizing that in our quest to relax, she was already way down the road ahead of me.

Annie Getchell is a writer and cohost of Backpacker’s television show, Anyplace Wild. She refuses to call herself an artist, but to me she is exactly that. A week ago she had decorated our bear canisters in pink nail polish. She makes homemade birthday cards and stationery. Her garden is like a Monet canvas. Her office in Maine is pleasantly cluttered with collages and cartoons and sketches. Making things is so ingrained in her, she doesn’t even see it as art.

Using a brush dipped in muted gray, she drew the outline of an unnamed peak across the valley. “When I’m doing a landscape, I try not to get too caught up in the details. It’s the shapes and colors that intrigue me. Later on, when I look at this page, I’ll remember the distinctive silhouette of that mountain and the burnt red color of the tundra. Even if I don’t do it justice with my brush, this picture will help me remember it.”

By the time we left The Fin, the sun had moved clear across the sky. Annie had three fresh watercolors in her journal, and even though I didn’t paint it, that view was permanently captured on the canvas of my brain. We agreed that it had been the most relaxing day in recent memory.

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