Ever since I spent several weeks in the East Fork Cabin in Denali National Park in the summer of 2002, serving as the Park's first Artist-in-Residence, I've wanted to spend some time there in winter. The Park administration has been very supportive of the idea from the start, and for three years I tried to organize a trip out in March, only to be thwarted each time by either trail conditions or logistics. This year I was determined to make the trip, so moved the date for it from March to February, thinking that even though it might be a little colder, and the days definitely shorter, surely in February the trails would be in good condition.
My friend Frank Soos at the Park Kennels, as we were about to head out for our trip. My homemade pulk, with its handles folded back and the belt which goes around my waist for pulling it attached, is loaded in the foreground, and his is awaiting filling behind.
Missy wouldn't let me go by myself, and my writer friend Frank Soos eagerly agreed to join me on the 85 mile round trip, skiing in and out. With the luxury of Denali Park dogteam support for carrying some of our gear and supplies, and the ability to stay in Park cabins each night along the way, we had a mostly comfortable, easy trip, despite trail conditions that turned out to be horrendous. This was one of the lowest snowfall years ever in Interior Alaska. Trail conditions ranged from a very few stretches of fairly deep, either wind-protected or drifted snow requiring us to break trail with our skis or use snowshoes, to a few miles with just the right amount of snow, fine for skiing on the Park Road or dogteam trails, to bare, rocky trail and windblown, absolutely bare road, to glare ice and overflow.
We had metal-edged skis, snowshoes with crampons, and bunny boots with ice creepers--gear for any trail condition--so there was really no problem, even on the short winter days, making it to the next cabin for the night. The three intrepid young women running the Park dog teams along mostly the same route were terrific, though the trail conditions proved even more challenging for them than for us--with a lot of overturning of sleds, breaking of stanchions and repairs, a brief dog fight that necessitated their making a quick dash back to the Park entrance to take one of the dogs into Fairbanks for emergency mouth surgery, and more.
On the afternoon of the first day we were out, they even tried to give us a ride on their sleds for a few miles, when the stretch of the Park Road on which we started out skiing thinned and thinned until it became completely bare of snow, but the trail turned out to be virtually the same, only rocky, uneven, and occasionally filled with long stretches of frozen, or sometimes liquid, overflow.
It was a prolonged comedy, with both of us falling off the dogsleds, the sleds overturning, the one I was on crashing to a sudden stop against a shelf of broken ice, to find myself standing in icy water almost to my knees. We got off repeatedly to walk through bad stretches of overflow or steep uphill sections where our additional weight would have been tough for the dogs, sometimes on bare ground and other times floundering through drifts without our snowshoes. One of my ski poles fell off the sled and was bent like a bow, and the belt attachments for the handles of Frank's pulk were broken off in one of the crashes of the sled it was loaded on for that stretch. We walked the last mile into the first night's cabin on bare Park Road, the longest day of the adventure, and didn't try riding with the dogteams again.
The ski up Sable Pass wasn't nearly the ordeal we anticipated. We found ourselves at the top sooner than we expected, and had much more trouble crossing some half-frozen overflow across the road on the way down, and the lake of it surrounding the East Fork Cabin when we arrived.
We spent two nights on the way in, at the Sanctuary and Igloo Creek Cabins, and arrived at the East Fork Cabin on the afternoon of the third day to find it surrounded by a lake of thick, frozen overflow ice from nearby Coal Creek. The weather was good for our entire trip, never colder than 23 below zero, one morning on the East Fork, and sunny and warm in the afternoons much of the time. Being in that spot, in the cabin on the East Fork of the Toklat River where I've spent time almost every year since 2002, using it as a base from which to explore the Park and make so many paintings and drawings, was all I had hoped for and more. It was eerily quiet, still, utterly serene. Great sundogs--optical effects with ice crystals in the air projecting false suns around the real sun--of the sort we see often in winter in Interior Alaska, and one clear, cold night something I'd never seen before, a moondog--the same optical phenomenon around the full moon.
East Fork Winter is the painting I'll give Denali Park, by way of thanks for allowing me to do this first winter Artist-in-Residence stint, but it's just the first of many paintings I will eventually make about that trip, as the experience continues to settle deeply enough into my memory and consciousness that I think I have something personal to say about it. It's a great privilege to get to spend time in Denali Park, to work with Paul Anderson, the Superintendent, and Ingrid Nixon, the Chief of Interpretation, who have been so supportive of me and of the Artist-in-Residence program since their tenure with the Park began.
The Park Kennels' support for our trip was extraordinary. Carmen Adamyk helped us, when we went down for a day's ski on the trail a month before, to figure out exactly what we'd need in the way of gear, and the three young women mushers--Jessica O'Connor, Emily Iacobucci, and Anna McCarthy--who carried some of our supplies and spent some of the nights in the cabins with us, feeding and caring for their beloved two dozen dogs, were not only good support, but great company.
This is me, happy on a windy, above-freezing sunny afternoon to have reached the Savage Cabin, our last stop on the way back. The hardest stretch of travel we had on the entire trip was pulling our loaded pulks up the couple of miles' long grade from the Savage River to this cabin, on absolutely bare pavement.
My friend Frank, as always, was a terrific companion, making our way on the trail, exploring the East Fork on our skis, and talking as we always do about books, politics, ideas, and everything under the sun. I'm a lucky man, to get to do these things, to get to work and play with so many fine people, and then to get to make art about it.