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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.

It took some time for me to start really seeing the landscape. When the bush plane dropped us off on Grizzly Lake at the northern end of the Jacksina River valley, my first reaction was one of surprise at how barren and bleak and enormous it all was. I saw a vast brown valley, dust-hued plateaus, a flat gray sky, and cold, snow-covered peaks. It was downright monotone. “Just keep looking,” Annie told me. “The colors will come.”

That first day we set up camp on a cushiony bed of tundra, then clawed our way up a steep, scrubby slope above the lake. We wanted a panoramic view of the valley we would explore for the next 10 days. As we fought our way through the alder and up onto the open cliffside, each foothold and handhold unearthed the sweet, herblike smell of Labrador tea. We stopped to breathe it in and pick some of the blueberries that choked the hillside.

Back at camp, we had a proper first-night feast, then sat on the beach sipping hot chocolate and waiting for darkness. “Check out that promontory,” said Annie, pointing. I looked up from the map I was studying.

“It looks like a dorsal fin,” I said. “Let’s go there tomorrow. It’s only about 2 miles from here, and we can camp at this tiny lake behind the saddle.”

When I emerged from the blue world of the tent the next morning, I was surprised at how golden everything was. A bank of high clouds masked the sun, but the tundra grass shimmered as if lit from within. We made blueberry and wild rice pancakes, then loaded up our overnight gear, cached the rest, and struck off to the west.

“It’s like a ghost town,” I said, as we stood at the shore of the small, desolate tarn. An enormous, cone-shaped beaver lodge dominated one end of the lake. The water level had dropped about 10 feet, exposing a band of bleached gray beaver sticks-chewed to perfect points-around the shore like a bathtub ring. I wondered aloud what happened to the beavers who were no longer here and obviously hadn’t been for some time. “This is the Lake of the Yodeling Beavers,” Annie announced, then proceeded to spin a spontaneous fairy tale about a young beaver named Benji and his life-long search for the sacred lake where a band of singing beavers lived. Even the Brothers Grimm would have applauded.

I walked along the gray sand looking uphill for a good kitchen area. Old moose tracks and droppings dotted the shore. When the beach ended and I stepped back onto the tundra, it was if my eyes had just been opened; before me was the fiery red of bearberry leaves, the soft green of reindeer moss, the golden hue of tundra grasses. I looked up at the neighboring hillside, and that’s when it hit me. When you take in a huge swath of tundra, the colors cancel each other out and blend into what amounts to a muted brown, sort of like old leather. But down at my feet were thousands of shades of red and green and gold. I dropped to my knees to study the colorful, tiny plants. The moss was as intricate and spiky as coral, the grasses moved in the breeze like kelp. The shapes were like plants on the ocean bottom, the colors like Christmas.

I remembered Annie’s admonition: “Just keep looking. The colors will come.”

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