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  • Writer's pictureKirk McCann

Art As Adventure: Painting An Alaskan Glacier

My goal: Hike up to a viewpoint overlooking the Mendenhall Glacier and do a watercolor.

My strategy: Book an entire week in Juneau and hope to get good weather for one day.

How it went: Freaking awesome!

Put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination. N.Peart

I was tired of sitting at home watching videos of people living their dreams. I needed to walk in the Alaskan wilderness and just breathe it in. I needed to practice goal-setting and challenge myself to do something I didn't know if I could do or not. I wanted to create art that had a story, that lived up to my own expectations.

Juneau, April 1, 2019. The day had come. I flew in a couple days ago and found myself too tired to make the hike the day before. Today was the perfect day, blue skies, no clouds, calm winds. Slept deep and sound. I got up early and headed out to the trailhead. The parking lot had two vans and no one else. I walked across the dirt road out to the lakeshore to put my boots on. The sun had just come up over the ridge, casting a blinding white light across the icy lake. I looked up towards the glacier and put away a shudder of doubt and was my first hike in Alaska and I was alone.

I had all the gear I needed, probably too much. The air was cold and I stopped to put gloves on. I walked into the forest feeling wary for bears. I tooted on my whistle and clacked my trekking poles together every hundred yards or so. The morning could not have been more beautiful, with crisp rays of sun coming through the hemlocks and spruces and a white glow shining off the frozen lake below. I hiked for two hours slowly climbing to a glacier I could not see in the depths of the woods.

After two hours the trail started getting steep. In fact, large reaches of the trail were stairs. I climbed up and up, wondering if I was taking on too much. High up on the forested mountainside I finally met two hikers. They had skis on their backpacks and had been up there on the glacier for who knows how many nights adventuring. The trail began to open up and a grand panorama of the lake below and the islands and waterways of the Inside Passage came into view.

The trail finally broke out of the trees and became a rocky scramble up steep gulleys. Rock cairns marked the way as I struggled upwards through the scrubby willows still in winter's slumber. My legs were spent and my heart was beating out my chest. I can't do it I thought, I'm too old. I sat on a rock and ate a tortilla with peanut butter and dried apricots. Took a deep draw from my water bottle. I can't turn back now..keep going. Turns out I stopped about a hundred yards from the trail's end, a rock outcropping that jutted out like a fortress over the mighty Mendenhall Glacier, a mile and a half across, winding up ten miles around the Mendenhall Towers to the Juneau Icefield. I stood over this sea of ice in a world of total silence and felt a sense of happiness and exhilaration.

The moment you step into the sunshine alone and scared you will meet your angel.

Lost in my reverie, I had to remind myself I had come here to work. Yes, an outdoor studio without a bathroom, without running water, nowhere comfortable to sit, no hot coffee, no heat and frozen fingers to work with. But the view! I brought a folding camp chair but try as I might, there was no place level enough to set it up. The closest place to being level was perched on a vertical drop off and I wasn't about to sit there teetering on a cliff. I settled for sitting against a rock backrest and began getting out my paper and brushes.

Alas, I am ready to start my masterpiece! Only problem being I would need the side of a building to fit even a portion of the glacier into a composition. My paper was 10"x15" so I chose a far corner of the glacier and started trying to organize the dizzying array of crevasses and rock cliffs into some kind of picture. This was an exercise in the impossible!

As I was working away in this remotest of locations I saw a shape out of the corner of my eye. Oh god, a bear had found, it was a girl! A solo hiker like myself, wandering into the mountains to seek some alone time, some quietude. She skulked away around me, clambering down to find her own private perch to bask in the glacier's glory. I spied her down there reading a book.

After what must have been an hour I heard a small voice asking me if I had seen some people out on the glacier. She had reappeared. Turns out she was the Juneau librarian, and had moved out here from the Midwest never to return to the flatlands. Yes, I had seen a group out on the glacier, the people from the two vans in the parking lot I suspected. They were hard to see against the blinding white of the ice.

In this most surreal of locations the librarian and I chatted about Alaska and Juneau, about bears and long winters, each word shattering the enormous silence enveloping us. As she turned to make the trek back down to the real world I asked if she would take a photo of me painting and she indeed took several before disappearing as serendipitously as she appeared.

As for the painting I did up there...meh. But to be up there living my dream, even for a few hours, that was my real masterpiece.

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