After nearly three weeks of warm weather it was both pleasant and strange to fly into cool, rainy Fairbanks. It’s fun to go away but always nice to come home – and nice to be greeted with joy by the herd of my stinky, dirty, shedding canine friends.
The National Park Service residency on Isle Royale was great. I found out right before I left that I’d been awarded a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts which covered a good portion of my travel expenses. It’s always easier to leave knowing you’re only being somewhat financially irresponsible.
My cabin(s!) were in the Tobin Harbor area of the park. Isle Royale was quite a busy place in the 1920’s and 30’s, with a thriving tourist industry, multiple resorts and private summer homes in addition to families who were there fishing commercially. When the park was formed in the 1940’s, various agreements were created with private landowners to purchase, donate outright, or relinquish properties later after life leases to family members ended. The cabin I stayed in was built in 1905 by the Dassler family from Kansas as a summer cottage and turned over to the park in 1991.
The little blue/grey cabin is really just sleeping space, but I used it for a studio. You can see hints of the main cabin back in the trees. The cabins are located at the end of a narrow point of land so I had water around three sides. I could either hike two miles or canoe up the inside of Tobin Harbor to get to the lodge/visitor center area, and I had a number of neighbors from the life lease families staying at their cabins during the time I was there. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and it was a nice balance of time alone and being social. (And with the hot weather, nice to know ice cream was only a 45 minute walk away!) The delicate and complicated relationship between the families associated with the cabins and the Park Service as the life leases begin to come to an end is interesting to contemplate. I don’t think any artist walks away from this residency without a sense of what the human community within the park has meant to the place and a hope that there is a way to have a part of that community continue on.
Another nice thing about the Park Service residencies is that they let you bring a friend! (Unlike other art residencies that sound more like drug rehab. . ) Brandon came along for the first half of my time there and we spent a week backpacking, canoeing, and exploring.
Part of our three day backpacking trip included a stop at the Ishpeming fire tower, where my parents were summer rangers, and I was along for the ride. What a difference 41 years makes. . . still like those berries, though.
Another thing I appreciated about Isle Royale was that it is by no means a “drive-through” National Park. Nearly everyone arrives by boat (a few on a charter floatplane) and all of the places that the three public vessels depart from are small shoreline communities. It takes some effort just to get that far. Everyone who manages to get to Isle Royale has had to do their homework, and lots of the visitors I met had been on the island multiple times. As a whole, it was a very happy, friendly, and contented group of people to interact with. Part of what I’m asked to do in return for the opportunity to be in the park is to give a couple of evening programs, and both of mine were well attended by interested audiences.
One thing that I like about the Artists in the Parks program is that they recognize the importance of getting out and seeing what the park has to offer. (Otherwise, what’s the point?) I felt like I managed a good balance of doing stuff in the park and working. And faced with the challenge of relentless sunny day after sunny day, how could you possibly just work? One former resident left a list of four pieces of advice, one of which was to “get out – you have a year to create the piece you donate to the park.”
But yes, I did get work done. Most of it still needs some finishing touches and a critical eye in the light of the studio, but I managed to finish a few pieces, start a bunch, and gather enough sketches and photographs to keep me busy for a while to come.
I wish I’d had a few extra days to explore the U.P. – I have a documented weakness for has-been early 1900’s mining towns and I would love to get back there to explore the history of that region on another trip.
Now jet lag, bills, unpacking, and housekeeping. Phones and the internet, cars and news.
That’s ok. I was lucky to get to go.