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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.

By the time I finally worked up the courage to try my rusty hand at watercoloring, it was day eight, and we’d completed a circle of the broad valley. We’d camped on every conceivable type of terrain (gravel bars, sandy beaches, and glacial rubble), splashed through icy creeks and hopped through fields of springy tussocks. We’d watched bands of dall sheep traverse scree slopes high above. We had seen the alpenglow rise and fade on distant peaks. We had examined old animal bones and clumps of porcupine quills. We’d engaged in numerous, loud conversations with the local grizzlies, some while barreling through the alder (“Nice place you’ve got here bears. Don’t mind us, we’re just passing through!”), and others while trying to keep them away from our camp (“Back off bears! We have pepper spray. And we’re not afraid to use it!”). Each night we played chess until we were groggy, then slept until we felt like getting up. Each morning during breakfast, we decided what to do that day.

During our hikes, we stopped at places that felt right: a verdant, mossy bend in a creek or a grassy shelf overlooking the roiling Jacksina, for instance. Each day, from different angles and elevations, in the ever-changing light, we took in the same mesas, mountains, rock spires, gravel bars, and tundra flats. The same Fin. And we talked a lot. About our parents and brothers. About marriage and children and dogs. About high school, our first car dates, and the first time we got caught drinking beer. I told stories about things I hadn’t thought about in 15 years.

At some point the valley became a familiar, comfortable, inviting place. With no schedule or mileage to worry about, I felt at ease and in tune to the land and its changing moods. Everywhere I looked, the intense fall colors leapt out at me. In terms of watercoloring, it was now or never.

It was the warmest, sunniest day yet. After hiking only an hour, we found a soft, dry, well-lit spot, took off boots and socks, and settled in to paint. Annie’s subject was a moose antler I found that morning. One side was bleached white by the sun; the other a ruddy mocha color. It felt as polished as a river stone and it must have weighed 10 or 15 pounds. It was absolutely perfect, and I desperately wanted to take it home as a souvenir, but I knew I couldn’t.

“We’ll paint it, then leave it here for someone else to find,” Annie suggested.

The antler’s scooped out, curvy shape was too intimidating for me to try to capture. Plus, it was mostly white and I wanted to make something colorful. I chose a 5-inch sprig of tundra brush. I didn’t know what type of plant it was, but it grew everywhere and I had been admiring it ever since the Lake of the Yodeling Beavers. With a pencil I sketched the bend in the stalk, then the round, serrated leaves sprouting in every direction. Each leaf was at a different stage in its autumnal life. Some were fresh green at the base, with gold tinged edges. Others were mostly yellow, with fine red veins leading to auburn bursts. Some combined all three colors, and these would be the most challenging.

With the brush in my hand, I looked at things differently. It took me five minutes just to mix the right shade of green. Once done, I finally began making tiny brushstrokes. I don’t know how much time went by, but we didn’t talk for a long while. Eventually, I put down the brush and let out a long sigh. “If I keep going, I know I’ll ruin it,” I said. Annie looked up and smiled. “It’s done, and it’s perfect!” she said.

I had to admit, I kind of liked the finished product. It wasn’t mechanically or electronically contrived, like a photograph. It was organic, and it made me feel intimate with the tundra plant that had taught me to see the colors.

Annie went back to her antler, patiently shadowing one of the points. “Remember,” she said, her head bent in concentration, “it’s not the paint on the paper that’s important, it’s the process. Every time you look at that watercolor, you’ll remember the way it felt to sit in this meadow next to this spruce tree with the sun in your hair.”

“So, do you still think this place is barren and monotone?” asked Annie, reminding me of my first impression.

I laughed. “I must have been blind.”

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