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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.

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“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.

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.”

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.”

Expedition Planner

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Getting there: Take Route 1 (the Glenn Highway) east out of Anchorage 180 miles to Glennallen. To get to the northern part of the park, make a left to continue northeast on Route 1. At Slana, stop at the ranger station and fill out a backcountry itinerary. Then head southeast down Nabesna Road. The Tanada Lake trailhead is on the right at mile 24.

Trails: Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the world, but there are very few trails. Most backcountry travel involves making your own route. There are countless valleys that are equally as spectacular as the Grizzly Lake/Jacksina River valley. Contact the park for more ideas and information. If you choose Grizzly Lake, an old ATV trail leads you part of the way (up to Tanada Lake). From there, follow Goat Creek. Good route-finding skills are a must. The hike into Grizzly Lake will take about three days. We took a bush plane to get to the heart of the backcountry quickly.

Access: Contact the park service for a list of bush pilots. We flew with Alaska Airventures, located at mile 147 on the Glenn Highway. Owner/bush pilot Bart Bartley flew us into Grizzly Lake on his float plane for about $600 round trip per person. Bart and his wife Rosemary will put you up in a small, comfortable cabin at the beginning and end of your trip for free. Contact: Alaska Airventures, Snowshoe Lake, Mile 147.3, Glenn Highway, HC 1 Box 2510, Glennallen, AK 99588; (907) 822-3905.

Maps: USGS Nabesna A-5 covers most of the Jacksina Valley, but also take a larger scale map, like Trails Illustrated’s #249 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve ($8.99, 800-962-1643), so you can identify distant peaks.

Walk softly: Parts of the Alaskan tundra are quite delicate, so always camp and travel on the most durable surfaces available. Sand or stable rock (not scree) should be your number one choice. Grasses and sedges are next best, then leafy herbs. Avoid lichens, mosses, and other “pioneer plants,” those rugged little species first apt to colonize an area that has lost its vegetation due to some disruption (rockfall, fire, people, etc.). Also steer clear of wet ground and steep, soil-covered slopes habituated by low woody plants, since they are traumatized by just a few boot tracks.

Season: The hiking season extends from June through September. We avoided bugs by going in late August/early September. Be prepared for any weather. Hunting season is August 20 to September 20 and Grizzly Lake is a prime hunting destination, so wear bright colors and try not to look like a sheep.

Resources: Watercolors are tiny and virtually weightless, so they’re easy to pack. Windsor & Newton makes the Cotman Field Box ($43.95), the same kit we used on our trip. The company makes a number of different models ranging from $13 to $100, available at most art supply stores. If you’re interested in improving your own trip journals, check out Hannah Hinchman’s A Life In Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal ($17.95; Gibbs Smith Publishers, P.O. Box 667, Layton, UT, 84041; 800-748-5439; for inspiration and ideas.

Contact: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 439, Copper Center, AK 99573; (907) 822-5234.

-K. Hostetter

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