The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was established in 1980 while we were living in the region. It is the nation’s largest park covering over 13 million acres, most of it is wilderness. The park is accessible only by two rough gravel roads, most areas are reached by small aircraft that can land on gravel, or by helicopter. I was pleased and proud to be appointed the first Artist-in-Residence in 1989, and began a series of adventures exploring the park, keeping journals, sketching, and taking photographs. My tenure gave me access to park service transportation on a space available basis, I kept a back pack ready and often traveled on a moments notice. Sometimes I was dropped off in a location not knowing when I would return. This was one of the most important times in my life for the development of my career as an artist and molded me into the painter of wilderness Alaska that I am today.
I was called and instructed to meet at Gulkana airport at 8:30AM on June 22, 1989, to fly in the park service Cessna 180 to the national park wilderness headquarters at May Creek. Crews were stationed there staying in tent cabins, the main house served as an office and kitchen. The maintenance department was flying out to check a communication station that wasn’t operating, and I could tag along and stay in one of the tents if I wanted. There was a strong possibility that I could find space on the helicopter assigned to move crews in and out of May Creek to different locations each day. Some were working on an old mine site east of the Kennicott Copper mine called the Green Butte, and others were on Bonanza Ridge. I leaped at the opportunity.
It was a rainy, drizzly day and I was deeply disappointed that most of the Wrangell mountain range was obscured by low clouds. As the airplane set up to land on the long gravel airstrip the cluster of white tent cabins and the main house at May Creek stood out in a sea of green vegetation.
The airplane was met by a park ranger riding an ATV towing a small trailer, we loaded our gear and climbed in the trailer for the bumpy mile ride to the headquarters. As soon as I reached the cabin it started to rain. About 12 small wooden platforms with tent tops surround the cabin, I had one tent to myself. Each tent contains two cots, that is all. We supplied our own sleeping bags and food. Water is hauled in from the creek to a storage container in the roof of the main cabin. An outhouse served as the privy. It is a very comfortable set-up. The crews get along well together and pitch in to share the work of cooking and housekeeping.
Because of the short notice I am often not as prepared for what I might encounter on some of these trips as I should be, this time I realized I forgot my hiking boots and had only tennis shoes. That evening the clouds cleared and I decided to take a hike exploring the narrow gravel road that led to Young Creek, west of the headquarters…..
Gail Niebrugge, Alaska artist