As we ambled through the densely bordered Alaskan brush, Mark regaled us with tales of grizzly bear attacks, facts on geology, flora and fauna and stories of neighbours past and present. Our guide possessed a way of imparting knowledge that ensured its beneficiary felt effortlessly informed. He could animate every seed’s purpose and benefit, life span and cycle. His beard and burly appearance compliment perfectly a gentle bearish persona. He is a man as adept with a sewing machine as he is an axe. Eagerly accepting an invitation to visit his homestead, I accompanied two visiting artists to Mark’s house for dinner one early Autumn evening. He collected us from the relative bustle of McCarthy and drove us to the closest point a vehicle can navigate. The final mile, we would hike.
I was initially inspired to visit Alaska by the story of a young man who perished in his pursuit of the ‘Wild'. After visiting his death place, a rusting 1946 Fairbanks transit bus, I travelled further around America’s largest state, somewhat aimlessly, in the ignorance that I, after camping for 5 days, had experienced the essence of living in the wild. I had learned not to expect congratulations from locals at achieving my quest to honour Christopher McCandless. His mere mention attracted mocking scorn at best. After my pilgrimage to his ‘Magic Bus’, made famous in the book and film ‘Into the Wild’, I happened on a quirky town in the foothills of the Wrangell St Elias National Park. With the benevolent support of a local artist and business owner I achieved a placement on an artist's residency which enabled me to stay and become part of this eccentric community. Actors, writers, singers and misfits by day chopped wood and drove noisy four wheelers carelessly. By night the same bearded men and beautiful women drank whiskey, danced, sang and congregated by bonfires. It was like an Alaskan ‘Dirty Dancing'. In volunteering as a gardener, I came to meet Mark, who’s involvement in the Wrangell Mountain Centre and town council was long and respected. He had a sort of understated prominence that only became apparent as you knew him more. He had bought his land, roughly 12 miles from the townships of McCarthy/Kennicott in the early 1980’s without having ever visited the area. Living the first few bitter winters in various vehicles on the perimeter of his land, he painstakingly cut a mile through the forest and picked what he felt the right location on which to build. The last 30 years saw him create a bountiful vegetable garden and homely cabin allowing him to sustain himself on less than $4k pa.
Walking onward through deeper forest, our host imparted his encyclopedic knowledge with a contagious, childlike fascination. Pausing at an absent neighbour’s cabin he talked us through an extensive rock collection left like an open exhibition piece. It felt like a history of the earth itself. His generosity with knowledge defines him - as does the altruism I found in Alaskans alike. Onward through pretty moss covered paths we past tree hung antlers, long abandoned shacks and stationary rusting trucks slowly disappearing into the encroaching greenery. Mark proudly pointed out a moose jaw bone, forever part of the tree that had grown around it - a macabre mix of animal and plant. We continued, single file along a double width section of path, our guide just ahead. Watching him from behind, his solitary stride left a human sized space to his left, highlighting to me, the lack of another. I wondered was his life of financial independence costly in terms of human interaction? He is a person who engages warmly and openly. It didn’t seem likely to me that he would run or shy from human contact. As if preempting my thought process, he discussed his necessity in negotiating a difference between ‘loneliness' and ‘aloneness'. It was a statement that held as much poignancy as it did pride. Talking later it was reaffirmed to me that his choice of remoteness was more to do with escaping a life of debt and mindless consumerism. Simply put 'Why sprint to stand still?’ Reaching his work shed and the first of his vegetable beds he gathered what would be part of our meal. I enjoyed a tour of his main enclosure taking direction on what not to trod on and where to pause. He pointed out, with clear annoyance the scourge of moose tramplings in the same way a London gardener might bemoan slugs. Gently inspecting this leaf and that petal he talked me through what would soon be harvested and what might need more care. I stood back from him as he inspected his plants, to see a man so wonderfully defined by and in tune with his surroundings. We moved inward to the cabin. From my seat I could spy jars of pickled vegetables, salmon and moose meat lining the cluttered shadowy shelves. His life clung to every surface. It felt like a human cave - dark and safe; cluttered, cosy and comforting. Freshly gathered fruit and vegetables sat on newspaper, their muted vibrance like a renaissance painting. Onions dried, chunks of wood lay waiting for fire; jumbled books lined endless rows. This building was as much part of him as his skin. As dusk fell I went to use the outhouse, leaving the others inside sipping box wine and chatting as if old friends. Standing out of sight of the cabin’s windows I took a moment to soak in my surroundings. A mute wind chime swung gently. The trees swayed as if in slow motion - Fireweed Mountain towered confidently close by. There was a special sort of silence. I stood, cradled by a still bearable autumn breeze, completely content and surrounded by a life's work.
The remoteness of this dwelling translated into a strange sense of safety. He had made the unknown ‘known’. The ‘wild', tame. To imagine a life here is as Inspiring as it is terrifying. I realised how little I knew of surviving and this had become my new yard stick. When it came time to head back to McCarthy we set out into the ever darkening forest, equipped with head lamps and the confidence of giddy drunkenness. We were approaching the darkest part of the year before late autumn’s black nights are illuminated with snow fall. In spite of my smug self-anointed bravery at camping alone on the outskirts of town, It was still inconceivable a thought to walk through a forest alone at night. When blackness begins barely past one’s feet and the trees hide the darkest figures of your childhood fears, senses lurch into hyper-drive. Psithurism, instead of soothing, becomes a siren that makes your ears stand on edge. Sensing my growing agitation, Mark calmly encouraged a moment of mindful readjustment. Guiding our eyes upward he explained that if he forgot his head lamp, the tree tips would lead him home. We turned off our lights and saw the route emerge against the stars. These moments of connected safety were central to the healing I personally sought. Fearing not a forest at dark, to me, is the ultimate freedom. Connecting with one’s relative safeness is to connect with one’s breathing; one’s life. If you’re not afraid here - you’re not afraid anywhere. It’s odd to imagine what a random combination of events could lead me to compare two men whose desires to seek out the ‘wild' were each executed so differently. Mark’s methodology stands in complete contrast to Christopher’s meandering adventures. Two men each attempting to seek the solace of Alaska’s wilderness with the irony of the least successful being the most widely honoured. If a man survives in the forest - does it make a noise? With the popularity of 'Into the Wild' It could be argued not. Was it Chris's tragic death that gives his story more perceived romance? The irresistible narrative of a lonely drifter succumbing to nature’s brutality just as he learns his life lesson overshadows that of long term methodical planning and hard work. I’m not turning my back on Christopher - his story inspired me toward my life’s biggest turning point. Fighting my head to follow my heart rewarded me richly and it was his journey that helped me conceive my own. There is a place for risk and for spontaneity. The evolution of my opinion is more to do with witnessing first hand the result of sustained perseverance, hard work, gradual planning and measured maturity. This piece and these photos are to pay respect to those efforts. I met a man who made the ‘wild’ his home inch by inch and piece by piece, through ingenuity and single-minded ambition. Having met Mark and many more unsung hardy and hearty frontier folk like him, I feel I am a touch closer to understanding the sacrifice and hardship a life in the wild demands. You could say, I suppose, I have seen the wood for the trees :)