Copper Center, Alaska
Notes from the journal of artist Gail Niebrugge
August 30 – September 16, 1976
My husband Bob, son Ron, and daughter Tawny have always known that finding subjects to paint is more important to me than shopping, cooking, or making money. As a mom, I spent more hours in the field photographing and sketching than I did homemaking. As a wife, I know that my passion for painting often puts my husband’s needs in second place. Instead of complaining about how different I am, or how I might neglect them, my family has always supported my passion.
In San Diego County, I would often pack up my canvas, easel, and paint and spend all day painting on location, or plein air as the French say. The mild and consistent weather made it a joy to paint on the spot. When I arrived in Copper Center, while on vacation in Alaska in 1976, I was armed and ready with all of my outdoor painting gear.
I would set up early in the morning in a beautiful location. Within minutes I was swarmed with mosquitoes. Mosquitoes were a minor distraction compared to the regular and predictable afternoon wind. No matter how many bungee cords were tied to my easel and anchored to rocks, the wind managed to catch the canvas and send it sailing. Then there was the matter of twenty hours of sunlight. For me, a good painting is two-thirds light and one-third subject. The low, shadow-casting light of early morning or late evening is the best, which meant I either had to set up and start painting by three o’clock in the morning, or stay out until eleven o’clock at night. I will spare you the details about the rain, but suffice it to say that it managed to rain just a little bit every single day.
Late August our summer vacation was coming to an end, we needed to be driving the Alaska Highway home in time for school. Reluctant to leave, our family made an unusual decision. Stay for a winter in Copper Center to see what life is like in the wilderness, and return home the following year. The goal was to allow me to devote myself to painting, grant Bob a break from our hectic city life, and provide the children a new experience. Camping in our bubble top van was fine for the summer, but with winter approaching we needed better shelter. Late August we rented temporary quarters, a rustic two room log hut next to the Klutina River, displaying a sign “Caribou Cabin’. The name, no doubt, was derived from the fact that the cabin is decorated inside and out with caribou antlers.
This is the beginning of an intensive, serious period for me to do nothing but paint. The cabin is
private enough to work, and has the added bonus of a yard full of interesting relics as subjects to paint. First, a few items need tending before I can begin. Back to school clothing prices here are ridiculous, so I placed an order with Sears Catalogue. Planning ahead is an important part of surviving in the bush, and I had a lot to learn.
The cabin is heated by a free standing iron wood stove called an “airtight.” Last night the temperatures dropped to 28 degrees, with a little paper and kindling I figured out how to build a fire in the airtight. In the morning I set up my easel outdoors and, with the sun warming my back, began a large acrylic painting of the log bunkhouse next door near the river. Because of its size, this painting will take several days to complete, meanwhile the sky began to fill with ominous looking clouds. A seasoned outdoor painter by now, I kept painting through gentle showers. Just as suddenly as the rain began, it stopped and the sun appeared. Painting outdoors had become quite manageable, the mosquitoes disappeared in July and the days were growing shorter. Weather was still the determining factor.
Later I did a little bookkeeping, and calculated the impact of the costs of living here. Our two room cabin cost us as much per month as our 1600 square foot house on one acre in Lakeside, California. Grocery prices are twice as much! We will have to do some adjusting in order to make this adventure work. My husband agreed to take a job at the local store, quite a change for an Aerospace Engineer, but an opportunity none the less. With 14 hours of daylight, loosing 6.5 minutes of light each day, everything is changing faster than we imagined. A little shiver of apprehension ran up my spine, and I wondered for a moment, if we were doing something we would regret. I put that thought out of my mind.
Soon I settled into a routine. While the children are occupied with adventures in the yard, I paint most of each day. Some days are interrupted by intermittent rain, but as soon as the sun shines it is beautiful! With cooling weather, the distant Wrangell Mountains become clearer and clearer. Atmospheric haze created by the summer heat is nearly gone. This is a gorgeous time of the year in Alaska. I enjoy painting outside, my bunkhouse piece is nearly finished, and I begin plans to embark on pen and ink sketches. Some afternoons the smell of a pot of stew or chili simmering on the stove, drifting from the cabin to my easel in the yard, gives me incredible feelings of pleasure and contentment.
Twenty rolls of slide film taken earlier in the summer arrived in the mail today. Without the aid of my light table and file cabinets back home, it is a chore to label and sort all of the photos. One at a time each slide is carefully inserted into a small portable viewer and held by hand up to a light to see. I’m beginning to miss my projector and screen. Hand cutting ink board with a case cutter is easier now that I’ve borrowed a straight edge from my landlord. Excited to try pen and ink on location, I began a drawing of the bunkhouse window.
Fall is about a week away, colors are changing rapidly. At night the temperature is reaching 24 degrees. A lot of my time is spent heating water on the wood stove, and keeping the cabin tidy. In the beginning it was an adventure to live without running water, but for an extended period it is getting tough. We do laundry and take showers at a friends house. In Copper Center many families have lived this way for years, and know no other way of life. We limit ourselves to a shower once a week, spit baths serve in between, and 2-3 loads of laundry a week compared to the 7-10 I used to do back home. So far we are managing fairly well. Soon we will have to gather fire wood with the chain saw. The large, neatly stacked pile of wood provided with the cabin is nearly gone. Last night the temperature dipped to 19 degrees, and I’m using more and more logs each morning and evening to keep warm. The ink drawing of the bunkhouse window is complete and I am quite pleased. I enjoyed detailing the rhythm and flow of the bark in the logs by combining the techniques of crosshatch, dots, and short strokes.
Today I woke up feeling lousy, my head and my body ached. I stumbled around the cabin not even wanting coffee until mid morning. I tried to make the best of my situation by staying indoors. Before long a pen and ink drawing of the airtight stove and wood box was complete. It came out nice. I began to feel better by afternoon, and in the mood to broach a painting of a place I saw in Chitina. Floating in the middle of a pond is a red outhouse. Bob, who rarely makes a comment while I’m working, questioned my choice of subject matter. Using my slide as reference, it is difficult to see the tiny image in the viewer and hard to work in the darkness of the cabin. The painting is coming along well even with the obstacles.
After school we washed hair and I gave haircuts. It took all day to heat a huge kettle of water on the airtight. Being by myself every day in the cabin is a new experience. I often think of how lonely it could be for an elderly person, alone in the darkness of winter when the temperature drops to 40 below zero. Planing ahead, I rationalize that I could manage fine if I had a few more conveniences such as good lighting, a slide enlarger and a drafting table. Currently I’m working under extremely makeshift conditions.
Four of us living in a two room cabin is interesting at best. This place seems like a mansion after camping in our van all summer, but compared to our home in California, it is cramped. We have relaxed our standards quite a bit. Bathing once a week is getting to be a habit, we have almost forgotten the ritual of daily hot showers. It almost seems a waste of water. In order to keep laundry to a few loads each week, we wear the same jeans 3-4 days, and change shirts every 2-3 days. I would have been disgusted by this a year ago, now I’m beginning to feel like the clean clothes syndrome of the city is another questionable habit. The extra time and energy washing and folding can now be devoted to other things. We are thoroughly enjoying the simplicity of this life, perhaps because we know it is temporary. Would I enjoy this if it were all I had? It is too soon to know, we haven’t been through a winter yet.
The last two days have been wonderful! My lifestyle has changed so dramatically. I can choose to do exactly what I want each day, I look forward to tomorrow, and that is a glorious feeling. Cool temperatures and rain kept me inside today, I worked on the floating outhouse painting. I tackled mastering the airtight. By adding small logs to the fire every few hours, I kept the temperature indoors near a perfect 72 degrees all day! The floating outhouse piece still needs work, but is coming along, using a slide as reference seems to limit my use of color. It is time to put the slide away and allow creativity to reign.
My California eyes are overwhelmed by the intensity of fall. Over a slow leisurely breakfast we sat looking out the window at the colors of the world. As we watched, the clouds broke up and the sun came out, like a smile. I decided to take my camera and drive the back roads letting the brilliant tints and hues fill my senses. Later, I was offered a short flight over Mt. Drum to see the freshly fallen snow. In the week since I have flown, dramatic changes appeared in the landscape. Before, the land below was endless green, miles of viridian hued trees and emerald tundra. Now the landscape is splattered with every color known, like a quilt. Deciduous trees are yellow and orange with touches of chartreuse. Interspersed, are dark green spruce, creating random patterns. Blue, green and brown lakes are bordered by yellow and white grass, brilliant magenta and fluorescent orange carpet the sloping ground just below snow covered peaks. When lit by the sun, entire land is nearly blinding.
Earlier this week, Caribou Cabin became my subject. With a background of autumn color, I am working to show the beauty of the sixty year old logs. I painted outdoors all morning, before I could eat lunch I soaked my hands in warm water to get the circulation in my fingers moving again. Concentrating on my work, I didn’t realize I was so cold. Back at work in the afternoon I was so absorbed that I lost track of time, until I had to shut down from loss of light about 6:30PM. The stove had gone out, with a little rekindling I got the fire going, warmed myself and made dinner. Intense concentration all day in the cold air, sapped my energy. I fell into bed dead tired.
As closely as possible, I am trying to capture on canvas, the riot of color that fall brings to this land. Born and raised in a mild climate, this palette is new to me, and my limited knowledge of color mixing has inhibited me to match what I see. I am experimenting, trying anything, struggling to recreate what is before me. At first my paintings seem as brilliant as any of Van Gough’s, yet when compared to the actual landscape they fall flat. This is a challenge.
Wind, cold, clouds and wind. When the wind blows, it is cold. Small aircraft could not fly today. Along with the wind, it is snowing on Mt. Drum. Inside, the loosely chinked cabin logs allowed thin wisps of cold wind, like frigid spider webs, to flow around the room. Ashes puffed through the door of the airtight back into the cabin covering everything in a fine, gray film. Closing the chimney damper stopped the ashes, but also put out the fire. I quit battling the wind inside, and looked for a shelter to use to paint outside. Shielded from gusts by a semi van parked behind the store, I toiled on a canvas of fireweed surrounding decaying log dwellings. Sudden thermal blasts turned my stretched canvas into a kite. I painted as long as I could bear the weather, then came back to the dark cabin to finish. After being outdoors, it takes awhile for my eyes to adjust to the subdued light indoors. I moved the canvas outside to check values, inside to paint, back and forth like a ping pong ball. Stimulated by the weather, I tackled three paintings simultaneously all afternoon, and finished each. To bring out color and depth, each received a coat of Hygel gloss. I like the way palette knife paint looks when applied impasto, heavy and textured, and the gel gives the surface a rich gloss. Today, it became mandatory to solve the lighting problem in this cabin.
Working indoors, more than before, the radio is my company. Today I am feeling isolated, irritable, with no telephone, and no real close friends, and my radio company is terrible. No station choices, just the local christian station and I let it put me on edge. Sermons, true story confessions, and preaching. All day long. I believe in God, I pray, and consider myself a christian, but this is turning me off. In between these melodramas they play unknown hymns. I like hymns, but not these hymns. They seem to go out of their way to find unpopular music. The devil must make modern music, it must be the devil. I listen to the news, which is very out of date, and the “Caribou Clatters” a message time for those living without communication systems, and the “Bulletin Board” where items are for sale. Today the radio is unsettling, I shut it off and put a worn out tape in the deck.
Aggravated, I make some resolutions. If we decide to stay in Copper Center, I will resume my magazine subscriptions, get my books, and order a big city newspaper. I feel so completely out of touch. In many ways I like the isolation, but I need to know what is going on and to keep abreast of the world news. Television is very unpredictable, a weak signal can be received in some areas from a community tower, maintained by volunteers. I also resolve to take a trip or two every year to the “outside” to see what is happening in the art, fashion, movie, and theater worlds.
This morning I sit by the airtight stove listening to the wind howl outside. Every once in awhile I feel an icy draft across my legs, it is coming from the boarded up door of the old storm entry. As the weather grows colder, our landlord suggested that we drop the wool blanket that is nailed to one side of the doorway, across the old entry. He said that this blanket will keep a lot of cold from entering the cabin. I often wondered why that blanket was nailed there. If I had a wind chill chart I could determine the true temperature, the outside thermometer registers 45 degrees, but with 20 mph wind the chill factor enters into the calculation.
Fresh snow has fallen on all of the mountain ranges now and the radio just reported chains are required at Thompson Pass, the road to Valdez. Seven inches of snow is in the pass, and more is falling. Outside my window, autumn has peaked. Within a week, I think, the leaves will have fallen, but right now the world is still ablaze with color. Winter will soon be here, it is happening fast.
There are a few things I want to note inside the cabin, lest I forget if I ever get back to a prefab, cookie cutter, automatic type life in the city. First, the windows. They begin about two feet off the ground, to look out you must stoop over. Everything inside is on a small scale, like a playhouse. The bucket and dishpan sit on a counter top that is about mid-thigh in height, and is perfect for my ten year old daughter. The ceiling is about 6’6” and standard furniture looks awkward inside. In front of the window is the table, it hides the lower half of the glass, but is positioned perfectly to see out when you are sitting down.
Interior decoration is eccentric. On the inside walls, paraphernalia of a lifetime is hung museum style. Skins from hunts from long ago decorate the living room and caribou antlers hang over the bed in such a way that if you aren’t careful your skull could be fractured. Funny shaped rocks, glass bottles, glass floats, dried bird wings and weathered sticks are perched all over, on shelves, table tops, and tucked into nooks and crannies of the logs. The bookshelf is full of ancient National Geographic and Alaska magazines. All the same furniture and rugs were in the cabin when it flooded from the breakup of the Klutina River a few years ago, and their condition is greatly influenced by having been submerged in frozen mud. Things like this don’t seem to faze the locals, you just thaw things out, shake them off and put them back to be used again. We have contributed to the decor, a painting is propped against every available space, and before another month is over we won’t be able to walk without moving art equipment. We have far surpassed being able to bring everything back to California in our van.
Sometimes little things cause me to muse. Alaska doesn’t have bugs, spiders,and lizards as we know them in southern California. With the exception of the intensity of the summer flying insects, this place seems bug free. Back home, a cabin like this one would be full of black widow spiders, cockroaches, sow bugs and other creepy critters. You could never keep them out of this house of cracks. Our biggest problem here will be rats and squirrels. After rats plundered our garbage can outside one night, we placed rat poison around the exterior. I can hear them running over the top of the ceiling, so I know they lurk and wait to pounce on my big bag of puffed rice, or flour, but we haven’t seen any inside yet. Overall it isn’t as spooky or as distasteful as it might seem, on first glance.
The power was out for an hour and a half this morning. It didn’t affect me, as I was bundled up sitting outside sketching the front of the cabin. The wind was ferocious, I had to come inside every 20 minutes to thaw, but the ink drawing is coming along nicely. I’m going to start an ink drawing of some of the objects inside the cabin and wait for the weather to calm. The wind blew over 70 mph, all aircraft were tied down, and we heard reports of a small plane blowing over. All afternoon I kept at my work, I redid areas of the large fall landscape and puttered around all of my paintings like a gardener watering her plants. Late in the afternoon I put a stew on the stove, the aroma filled the cabin and made it quite pleasant inside. We are enjoying a quiet evening writing letters, writing in journals, and reading. The tooth fairy paid a visit to both of my children tonight. She even makes visits in Alaska!
The wind continued, it did many things to the fall landscape, it ripped the leaves swirling them in circles. Snow covered the red carpeted mountain slopes. The wind made it cold. Whenever I stepped outside, the chill factor froze me to the bone. Every crack in the cabin was exposed, and seemed to loom larger, and larger, creating a gaping hole. I pulled the wool blanket across the doorway, and it billowed into the room. It did keep the room warmer. Even the hanging glass balls inside the windows are in motion, from microscopic cracks in the sills. I kept the stove banked, and sat close by working on an ink drawing of the cabin with moose antlers. At lunch Bob brought home a clamp on light he found at the store, and clamped it to my easel. It gave very good light. I stayed comfortable, but felt the stiff coldness that comes with inactivity. After school, the children and I walked to the store and back in the brisk air, and upon return the cabin seemed way too hot! My inactivity that morning made me feel cold, even in a hot room. We opened a door to cool the place down, the wind was subsiding. During the evening, without any new wood, the stove went stone dead and we were very comfortable. The wind had stopped.
Today Mt. Drum is covered by clouds that form a soft curved cap over the top, a formation called a lenticular, indicating winds in excess of 100 mph. I find it interesting that something so beautiful can be so devastating. The cabin is situated below the landing pattern for the upper strip in Copper Center, and almost any time of day we can see private planes coming and going. But, for the last three days, nothing has happened at the airstrip but the wind.
Note: October 12, 1976. I’ve been sitting at the table beside the window all morning watching snow cover the ground, just as it did yesterday. The airtight is generating a warmth that makes these ancient logs feel safe and secure. Feelings of sadness sweep my thoughts as I reflect that this is my last day of living in the cabin, our first home in Alaska. It is a summer cabin, and we have stayed as late into the year as possible. It will no longer be able to protect us from the cold. Copper Center winters experience months of sub zero weather, and weeks of 40 below or more. As I carefully pack and make lists, I treated myself to a wonderful breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and orange juice. I savored every bite, and enjoyed the aroma while I let myself enjoy the peace and serenity of this special place. Tears stung my eyes as I said “good bye.” Caribou Cabin will remain in my heart and memories forever.