Credit: Lisa Gilley
Artist's statement: I grew up in Washington and though I've had many friends who fished, worked and traveled to the state somehow I'd never managed to get myself North. I finally got my first opportunity in September 2012 when I flew up to meet my husband who had just finished a job in Seward Alaska. Most tourists leave the state by mid-September—the weather isn't always in compatible that time of year. And it turned out that our timing wasn't so great. We were caught in what the locals called an Alaskan Hurricane. I heard from many that it was some of the worst weather they had seen in decades. Of course. I had spent 40 years dreaming about going to Alaska and I chose that week. The weather was fierce and hard, winds blowing 120 mph along the Turn Again Arm, closing roads and ferries, and record flooding happening all along the peninsula and mainland. We had intended to spend our vacation on the Kenai Peninsula but because of the weather we decided to head inland toward Denali National Park hoping it would clear up. During the entire drive there the mountains were completely void in the distance. It was apparent that winter was just around the corner and the weather was getting worse. We kept hearing locals apologize for the mountain (Mt. McKinley/Denali) not being out. Where we come from that means you can't see Mount Rainier that day. Though the surrounding hazy "lowland" mountains that we could see thru the rain were technically the size of our Washington treasure. It rained so hard I had to buy rubber boots just so I could get out of the car. But we're determined travelers, hell bent on spending a few days in the park after coming from so far away. Besides, at that point everywhere else in that part of the state was underwater.
And we were glad we did. There were occasional breaks in the weather and during them we slipped in a some short hikes inside the park. We gave up on the idea of seeing the mountain (it's just a mountain after all we told ourselves) though when I was on the plane coming into Anchorage I sat next to a local who insisted I go see it. He told me that when you see Mount McKinley its a religious experience. I remember chuckling. Finally one morning we woke up and it looked like the sun was going to come out. My husband giddily insisted we fly around the mountain. I argued about the costs and he said its our anniversary gift to one another. There was no arguing with him. His manner was crazed, consumed on fixing the vacation and weather, he was on a mission. The only flights available were in Talkeetna—2.5 hours away. We called and set up a time. The company told us they were pretty sure we'd see McKinley that day. We drove like mad people because we wanted, needed to make that flight and about 1/2 mile outside of town there was a state patrol road block. The officer told us we couldn't enter the town and that Talkeetna was under an emergency evacuation because of a flash flood concern. My husband and I were desperately trying to explain, "no, no, no we just talked to the aviation company and we have a reservation". He laughed at us (just some crazy tourists) because the airport was already taking on water. We were crushed. We couldn't even get into town for lunch. I had my heart set on eating some more of that caribou stew (where the cat mayor lived) after our flight. We turned around and began the drive back to our hotel in the park in complete defeat. As we took the bend in the road there it was—the Mountain was out! The stormy skies were breaking and the light, oh the light! It was astounding! Its hard to put into words because it is so ominous. You begin to wonder how something that size can be hiding for the entire week. I began taking 200 of the most stellar photographs of the light on Denali and all the surrounding mountains. As a landscape painter I thought I had won the lottery. We spent hours just photographing it, wishing we had flown around it but so grateful to be seeing it in this glorious light. It was some of the best imagery I had ever shot. I don't say this lightly. I've been photographing my whole life and use my images for my paintings. I was stoked and looking forward to showing my friends back home, including one who was a National Geographic photographer. (Yes, they were really that good.) Just as we were about to enter the park entrance I stopped to take one more photo. I noticed I had bumped the image disc door open. I frantically checked the photo disc and I found that I had accidentally erased all 200 (plus) of them. I can't even explain how that felt.
We only had 2 days left in our trip. Though still a little deflated from the day before, and the mountain now back in hiding again, we easily snapped out of it as soon as we entered park. The rain still spit on us but we didn't care. We put on the rain gear and hiked the Savage River. The smells, colors, and cold air on our faces. A place I knew I would paint when I got home. We have traveled to other countries and all over our own country spending large amounts of time in our national parks and landmarks. But I cannot compare any place I've been so far to Alaska. And Denali National Park is one of its finest gems. Its a land on steroids in comparison to our lower 48. We took the chance coming here so late in the season but because we did so we also got the rare experience of seeing the Alaskan frontier during a violent storm and see the landscape turn its intense colors in the autumn air, all within the week. The bears were gathering their last meals, moose were hooking up, and the vistas were changing hour by hour with a hint of snow in the air. The mountain itself is extraordinary but every inch of this park, with its many different terrains, is just as incredible. Traveling thru the park made up for the weather.
In the late September season the park allows you to drive into the 30 mile mark/Teklanika River. We decided on our last day to drive all the way to that point. When we got to the end of the road (30 mile) there is a sign in the parking lot describing the Denali Artist Residency program. The park invites a 3-4 artists/writers a year to live in the park so they can create in that environment. Something I'd like to apply to someday. The sign had a painting of Denali on it and a story told by its artist who had come to the park many times over many years and never seen the mountain. It finally made an appearance during his residency and he was almost too overwhelmed to paint it. What a classic end to our trip—a story about the mountain defeating an artist. I was never suppose to photograph that mountain. But just so you know, I will be back again this year…
Download 1.1 MB