In general, my summer months are very focused. This is typical for most of the plein air painters I know. We have a hundred days of summer, more or less, to produce and sell our plein air work, and we don’t waste it.
Not that many of us complain about it. We feel blessed to make a living painting, we love being outside, and we feel called to celebrate nature. But it’s been years since my husband and I have taken a real vacation in the summer, one that was totally unrelated to work.
This year, we had a kid to drive to Alaska, and it cut my painting season short. She has now been successfully dropped off at school, so we can spend a few days looking at things. Sure, I have my watercolors with me, but this trip is less about painting than about exploring.
Our first stop was Denali State Park. Much smaller than the National Park of the same name, it has spectacular views of the Alaska Range, camping, and wilderness hiking. Although Mt. McKinley is visible only about 30% of the time, we chose the right day, and the view from the state park were absolutely clear.
In addition to the Alaska Range, you can see the terminus of Ruth Glacier. Above the canyon on both sides of the glacier are 5,000-foot cliffs. The complete depth exceeds that of the Grand Canyon but about 3,800 feet of ice fills the bottom of its channel.
An older Alaskan native perched on the fence next to me, looking at the mountain range before us.
“There’s a lot of disagreement about what to call that mountain,” he told me. “But McKinley was a president, right? I figure he should have something named after him.” Since William McKinley died in my birthplace of Buffalo, NY, I figure that old Alaskan was right.
Mount McKinley is a gigantic volcanic rock formed underground, known as a pluton. It was lifted above the surface by the collision between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates—sort of like a blackhead on the skin of Mother Earth.
We looped around the National Park and stayed in Healy, Alaska. This is where Christopher McCandless started his trek into the bush that cost him his life (made famous by Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.)
McCandless died about this time of year, when the low bushes are covered with berries and the large animals are still gorging against winter. But I look at this landscape and think, “I don’t know where I would start.” None of the edible wild plants I know from the eastern woods grow here; what low berries there are don’t look familiar to me. Most streams and rivers carry glacial silt, meaning they’re not good fishing streams.
I would be absolutely terrified to bushwhack in this country.