Through much of the 1970s my favorite playground lay a handful of miles up the road -- in a lightly discovered notch in the Talkeetna Mountains. There, in an area called Hatcher Pass we built igloos in which to spend winter nights and cross country skied up every valley we could access while I chased ptarmigan all over the hillsides with my camera.
Then Hatcher Pass got discovered. Today you can go online and see trail conditions in areas where we simply skied anywhere we wanted. We used to check conditions by eyeballing the mountains from Palmer. You now pay to park where we just pulled off the road to spend the day without seeing another sole. Areas are zoned for motorized and non-motorized use. Trails are “groomed” in winter. We were spoiled. And yet, looking at the area it still looks mostly unspoiled. It took regulations to keep it that way.
I painted “Springtime Near the Pass” using photos I took in early June several years ago as a reference. It’s of an area across the Little Susitna River guarded by a necklace of alders. I’ve never been up there. The alders are too thick -- the Little Su too swift unless it’s frozen.
However, I have been on that hillside further up the drainage. On sunny March days I learned to glass the slopes from across the valley looking for slightly warmer (than snow) white blobs on the south side of alder and willow thickets. Ptarmigan! Off I’d go on skis in search of the ultimate ptarmigan photo. White-tailed ptarmigan were particularly tame. So tame that I once photographed a friend actually touching one after I took its picture alongside the tip of my ski.
So in “Springtime Near the Pass” I had to include a couple of ptarmigan. In spring colorful male Willow Ptarmigan sit in the tops of alders or willows -- I suppose declaring their territory for all the world to know. Just check one out. Like a child in a nursery he’ll tell you it’s all his. His drab female companion can be found modestly waiting nearby on the ground. Of course she must be impressed. In this painting my Willow Ptarmigan is small, the territory big. That’s how I feel in these unspoiled corners of Alaska.