Alaska

A scattering of AK mementos, with drawing of Mt Alice across Resurrection Bay

Flying into Anchorage, I gazed down over the vast tidal flats and mountains stretching row upon row into the distance.

I was returning to Alaska for a second summer, days after receiving my degree from Boston University. 

An odd choice for an art graduate, no doubt.

Yes, there was a man - but also a place. After five years amidst the concrete and billboards of Boston, I craved nature and adventure in a big way.

I was infatuated with those mountains, with the way the alders smelled in spring, with walking the railroad tracks in "the back 40" behind the cannery; with the characters and the crazy social dynamic - lesbians ignoring you and straight girls abhorring you; with the boats in the harbor, with the one road into and out of town, with the town of Seward itself, perched at the foot of Mount Marathon's cartoon shape.

Most inexplicably, I went back for the bizarre magnetism of a clanging, 7-day a week, 16-hour a day job involving fish guts, yellow rain gear, earplugs, grueling physical challenge and hand-numbing repetitive motion.

The job ended predictably in a meltdown one day as a I realized no amount of peer pressure, cortisone shots, money, or camaraderie was enough to justify the insanity.

I lived on a sailboat, a 26-foot Coronado that had sailed up from Hawaii, with the man. That winter, we took jobs as National Park Service volunteers out at Exit Glacier, a park ten miles from the main road just outside of town.

The cabin, perched on the glacial plain, was free of plumbing or electricity. Tasks included counting the mountain goats on a nearby slope, taking daily weather readings, measuring snowfall and how far the glacier crept forward in the winter.

For one month, I lived there alone when he went back to town for work. It was the most terrifying, exilhirating month of my life.

I sketched and painted, using an easel cobbled together with scrap wood, nails and rubber bands, and art supplies I had won in a Liquitex competition. Art-wise I was gingerly feeling my way.

Mostly I was concerned with daily life.

Every day filled my eyes with black, white, and blue. Every day had me on the edge of myself, learning how to snowshoe in deep snow, cross-country ski, shoot a pistol, light an oil lamp, chop wood, identify animal tracks, make a fire in snowy woods, stay sane with no-one but a cat to talk to.

The road is paved now, giant potholes smoothed over and filled in. The Glacier is still there, though much dwindled. Winter rangers at the cabin no longer measure six feet of accumulated snow, or temps of -20ºF.

Every now and then I stumble across the copy I made of the cabin log we were required to keep.

"If you just snowmobile out here for 1/2 an hour you will never know what silence you are breaking," reads one of my entries.

With the exception of one painting I made in college after my first Alaska summer, I have never used the place or the imagery as a subject.

Yet my time up there - a book's worth of stories - is now as much a part of me as the place of my birth, or where I spent my teen years, or where I went to college.

NYT Article by Gina Kolata on cold-weather exercising that references my glacier stay

NYT Article on the rapidly melting Exit Glacier