A cast-iron stove is keeping things toasty inside the cabin that, on this July weekend, is functioning as an art studio and school. The rain is striking the roof, the temperature is hanging in the low 50s outside, and the cabin is serving as an art studio and classroom. I feel a sleep coming on. Summer days in Alaska. There is no guarantee that the sky will be clear blue as shown in travel advertisements.
On the other hand, there won’t be any time for a sleep on this excursion to McCarthy, which is a thriving summer village in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve that is located sixty miles down a dirt road. McCarthy is home to artists, authors, seasonal labourers, and tourists.
Because I’ve lived in this state for the last eight years, I’m interested in expanding the methods I use to observe and document the natural world and gaining a greater knowledge of the fauna, flora, and geology of the area. That’s why I’m here. The Wrangell Mountains Center is hosting a field-sketching course that I will participate in over the next two days. The session will be led by scientific illustrator and natural history artist Kristin Link.
Field sketching is a process that is utilised by researchers as well as artists to record their observations of natural phenomena, such as streams, flying animals, mosses, and mountaintops. Field sketching is a discipline that is equal parts art and science. Field sketching combines images with comments on the weather, location, animal activity, and even the attitude of the journal keeper on that particular day, providing more context than a photograph taken in isolation would. It is also a strong tool for travel, one that compels you to slow down, take things in, and just gaze at what is around you.
I’m looking forward to the course, but there’s only one catch: I have terrible drawing skills.
The town of McCarthy began as a railroad turnaround station and eventually became known as the rowdy neighbour of the more serious mine and mill town of Kennecott, which was located five miles up the road and close to the location where copper was discovered in 1900. McCarthy was known for its gambling, prostitution, and liquor establishments.
The number of people living in McCarthy has been steadily increasing over the last decade. In 2010, there were just 28 people living in the town. In the year 2020, that number increased to 107, and there are now approximately 300 people living there during the summer; however, this is still a far cry from the approximately 1,000 people who lived between McCarthy and Kennecott in the early 1900s when the mill and mines were operating at full tilt.
Now, McCarthy is always in a situation in which she is both putting herself together and coming apart. Stacks of new timber may be seen only a few feet away from wooden structures that have been taken over by nature, with grasses and flowers growing through the cracks in the boards. A new stairway on the side of the general store is now being constructed. Inside, customers will be able to purchase locally produced ice cream as well as supplies like duct tape to help them overcome many of the obstacles that Alaska presents to tourists.
In addition, the village serves as an unofficial automobile graveyard and museum. On the fenders of several of them is a thick growth of moss.
However, it is McCarthy’s dogs, who run free and pursue their own goals, that are responsible for the distinctive personality of the town. Everyone’s dog, from the smallest mutt to the largest malamute, has a job to do throughout town, from acting as the unofficial mayor to acting as greeters and village clowns.