Sunday, February 5, 2017

The View from Sperry Chalet

Painting the View From Sperry Chalet (photo by Marnie Fender)

The following day I opted to stay close to Sperry Chalet. In the morning I worked on my large watercolor painting of the view from Sperry Chalet. This photo was taken by Marnie Fender, a charming lady and fellow painter who was staying overnight with the Glacier Guides group. Thank you, Marnie! I love this photo, it's my favorite of all the ones taken at Sperry. For me, this photo tells the story of the unexpected fulfillment of a childhood fantasy I constructed when I was about eight or nine: my alter ego Maria Elena lived in the Swiss Alps and tended a herd of goats when she wasn't in school...

At that age I set out to make one drawing for every day of the year representing the daily life of my alter ego--producing 365 color pencil drawings was my goal. For the next few years I worked on this self-imposed project in my free time. I credit this with the development of my artistic abilities. By the time I left Cuba at age thirteen, I had piled up nearly one hundred and twenty drawings which show the natural development of a child learning to draw the world around her, learning the use of perspective, proportions and color to give an impression of the three-dimensional world. I also learned a great deal about Switzerland, geography, culture, and how to research subjects using our family encyclopedia.

My mother valued this record of my artistic development so much that she gave up some of the limited space in her suitcase to pack my drawings to bring when she left Cuba. I still have them today.

For most of us, our childhood fantasies hardly ever become reality--nor are most fantasies ever intended to become real. I had never thought that my childhood fantasy could ever come true, so for me to finally be able to actualize a semblance of it some sixty years later is still hard to believe, and an unexpected joy! Thank you, Kevin, for the marvelous opportunity to make my dream come true.

The View from Sperry Chalet, watercolor, 15" x 22".

I hadn't finished this painting at the end of my stay--a few of the trees in the foreground weren't quite done--but it was far along enough that I could finish it later, after I got home. I think the painting gives a good impression of the dizzying heights and crags, the expanse of forest, lake and mountains, of all the beauty that can be seen from Sperry Chalet on a clear summer morning.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sketching the Alpine Meadow




Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis)


The weather was splendid the next day--that morning I decided to hike over Lincoln Pass to sketch the patches of Bog Laurel I'd seen on my first visit to Ellen Wilson Lake. I started out hiking directly from the back of Sperry Chalet. The patches of Pink Mountain Heather under the subalpine firs were in full bloom, and I stopped to photograph them.

On the way up to Lincoln Pass I ran into a couple from the east with whom I'd chatted the previous evening at dinner. They were about my age, but I soon passed them while they were taking breaks from the uphill traverse. I was rather amazed when I realized this--in only one week of hiking up and down these trails I was noticeably stronger and in better condition than I had been when I arrived. If I could only have stayed at Sperry for the rest of the season, I would have been able to tackle the long Gunsight Pass Trail easily.

I went over the pass and continued down, trying to remember exactly where the boggy meadow with the lush stand of Bog Laurel was. It would be on my left as I approached.

Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia)

It was a bit farther down the trail than I had remembered, but the meadow was easy to find. The ground was considerably drier now than the week before and the pools of standing water from the snow melt almost all absorbed. I walked around to find a nice spot to set up my camping stool, looking for some shade. There was very little shade and I positioned myself with my back to the sun so as to shade my sketchbook.

Close-up of Bog Laurel flowers

At one point I looked up from my sketch towards the rocky mass of Gunsight Pass Mountain in the background, and thought my eyes were playing tricks on me--I could see a spot of what looked like blue sky through the rocks! Nah, it was probably a trick of the light, a reflection. I kept looking, and saw the blue change to white as a cloud sailed past, then back to blue. Well then, this had to be the famous "hole in the wall" that had been described by Beth Dunnegan in her Sperry Chalet book. Kevin had told me that the hole in the wall was only visible from Sperry Chalet on one day in August (he couldn't remember the exact date) when the morning sun shone through the small opening. But here I was looking at it from the other side of the mountain--what are the chances?

After an hour or so, with the sun directly overhead it got so hot I couldn't stand it, and I moved my setup over to the edge of the meadow, into the scant shadows cast by a couple of subalpine firs near some rocks. Here I ate my lunch amid the bees and insects buzzing around the flowers. Ranger Dan came up on the trail, and I greeted him asking where he was heading. He told me that a dead baby goat had been reported at the Ellen Wilson Lake campground, and he was going to dispose of the carcass before it attracted a hungry bear. I had noted before that the park rangers are assiduous in their task to keep bears away from places where humans are, and vice-versa. I wished him good luck and he went on his way.

Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and Yellow Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)

After lunch I added some Yellow Mountain Heather to my sketch, and a rock with some other plants I was not able to identify (they are probably some form of aster or groundsel), but I'm afraid my attempt to describe the environs--that mass of flowers in the rocky subalpine meadow--was not very successful--just passable, I'd say.

Yellow Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)


Ranger Dan went by the trail again on his way back, and I asked him about his mission. He replied that he had not been able to find the goat carcass--either something had got to it before him, or perhaps another one of the campers had buried or moved it away from the campground. In any case, he had enjoyed the hike in this beautiful weather.

I packed my gear shortly after, and thought of going further down towards Ellen Wilson Lake, but the  the sun and the heat had tired me out, and I decided to head back towards Sperry. It was still fairly early in the afternoon when I reached Lincoln Pass, so I lingered there to do another sketch.


Mt. Edwards from Lincoln Pass, watercolor pencils, 8" x 6"


For this view of Mt. Edwards I used only watercolor pencils. Later, when I got back to Sperry Chalet I went over the lines with water to blend some of the tones. I was surprised at how well it turned out--better than my earlier sketch. The mountain's geologic formations can really be appreciated from this vantage point.


Photo of Mt. Edwards from Lincoln Pass

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Blue Larkspur

Glacier Plants II, color pencil 10" x 8"

After a day of rest my knees returned to almost normal. In the morning I showered early and did some laundry by hand before breakfast. After breakfast I worked on my watercolor of the view from Sperry Chalet for a couple of hours as the day gradually warmed.

After that I got my pack lunch and headed out towards the ledges at Akaiyan Falls to sketch the beautiful blue larkspur flowers I'd noticed on the way back from my hike to Sperry Glacier. Kali, a young lady on the staff who was the dishwasher and liked to sketch, had the afternoon off, and decided she would meet up with me later on location.

Profusion of Pink Spirea and wildflowers on the ledges

St. John's Wort (Hypericum formosum var. scouleri)

The wildflowers along the trail were amazing--each day seemed to bring on a new progression of bloom as previous flowers faded and set seed. Places where the sun warmed certain ledges earlier brought out a flush of bloom in some places while others ledges in shadow wouldn't bloom until later--making the flowering period dependent on the exposure.

The growing season being so short here, after a week many of the wildflowers in the cirque were now approaching late spring to summer, whereas the week before it had been early to mid spring.

Billygoat on the trail

When I got to the waterfall, a billy goat was lying right on the trail, but he graciously moved farther up a ledge, leaving his spot to me. I set up my camping stool and started to work right away. After I'd finished sketching the larkspur, I took my lunch break. Later Karen, the baker from the Chalet, passed me on her way up towards Comeau Pass and stopped to take this photo--notice the two goats on the ledges behind me.

Sketching the larkspur with goats behind.

 Impossible to paint the iridescence of the intense blue and purple of the low larkspur flowers with color pencil! I'd need something like the interference colors made by Daniel Smith, or a mineral watercolor pigment. Once I completed the larkspur, I looked for a few other flowers to add to my sketch, to give a sense of how these plants grew and bloomed together. I figured the yellow of the St. John's Wort flowers with a tinge of deep red on the buds and at the petal tips, and a sprig of scarlet red Indian Paintbrush would complement the larkspur's blue for a set of primary colors. Some gray-green leaves of yarrow and a couple of rocks would tie it all together.


Low Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor)
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexiflora)

Kali joined me and we chatted while we both worked. An interesting young lady, she has a degree in architecture, but had become disillusioned with it as a profession, and wanted to write instead. Her grandfather was from Czechoslovakia and had taken refuge in Bolivia toward the end of WWII to avoid an assassination plot. Her father had been born in Bolivia and immigrated to the US as a young man. She did very amusing pen and ink drawings--I hope she will continue to draw as she finds her way towards an artistic life.

Later on I had a chance to admire her caricatures of people when she drew a wonderful get-well card for Karen's husband who had fallen while hiking a few days earlier. Dan twisted his knee and had torn the ligaments; he had to be sent down the mountain trail on mule back. They operated on his knee as soon as it could be scheduled, but he would be unable to resume his duties on the staff for a couple of weeks at least. Kevin had to send a substitute to replace Dan, and Jason came up to take up his position on the staff.

It got very warm as the sun moved to the west, even positively hot, but by this time I was almost finished with my sketch. Kali decided she wanted to hike a bit farther up the trail, and I walked back to Sperry Chalet. Another hoary marmot appeared on the trail as I was walking back.

Hoary marmot on the trail.
Maidenhair ferns and club mosses grow among the ledges.

BTW, high quality digital reproductions of this painting  of Glacier Plants II and Glacier Plants (with the Pentestemons) will be available for purchase soon, coming in early 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Red Monkey Flower

Red Monkey Flower (Mimulus lewisii), watercolor pencil with color pencil.


The storm and not passed completely--around 8 PM it rained again, harder this time, and then it got very, very cold. Once again I bundled up with all four wool blankets on my bed, and I was thinking we might see some snow on the ground in the morning, but it didn't snow.

Sperry Chalet on an overcast morning

My rapid descent the previous day had taken its toll--in the morning my knees were so sore I could barely amble down to breakfast. It was overcast and very cold. It seemed like a good day to spend hanging around the chalet. After breakfast I walked around looking for something I could sketch indoors, and found some beautiful Red Monkey Flowers right below the balustrade of the chalet. This was the same flower I had seen for the first time blooming in masses by the hillside rill on my hike up to Sperry Chalet. I'd seen a lot of it blooming along the ledges between the waterfalls on the Sperry Glacier trail--it was obviously a common wildflower here.

Sedge (Carex podocarpa) pencil sketch

I picked a sprig and placed it in a glass of water in the dining room, then sat at one of the tables with my sketch book and color pencils. The rest of the day went by quickly as I worked on it and later on a black and white sketch of the sedge with black flower heads. During breaks I perused the botanical books in the Sperry library.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hike to Sperry Glacier II

Mt. Edwards from Comeau Pass

Clouds began to gather on the west as I ate my lunch. My lunch companion's friends arrived as we were finishing, and he put his backpack on. The young men took off right away while I lingered a bit taking in my surroundings. From here I could see several expanses of snow fields zigzagging across rocky ridges. The trail had disappeared, but rock cairns piled every so often on the ridges marked the way.

Stone cairns marking the trail

A group of mountain goats were looking for grazing just below the pass, and scurried away as I approached. I wondered if they used the stairs at Comeau Pass to get over the pass (the grizzly earlier in the week had used the stairs), or if they preferred to simply walk on the rocks--either would be easy for them.

Mountain goats below Comeau Pass
Mountain goats

A group of hikers returning from the glacier passed me on a snow field, and the young men hiking  ahead of me were so far ahead I soon lost sight of them. Looking down the hill, the array of small lakes dotting the snow fields, and the peaks below were gorgeous.

Hikers going to Sperry Glacier
Trail to the glacier
View to the north

Lakes near Sperry Glacier

Even the lichens on the rocks were fascinating: bright orange-red and yellow-green. I followed the rock cairns as best I could, but somehow I must have veered off-course, and when I finally came around a promontory, I saw that I was a couple hundred feet below the glacier. I started back uphill too close to a rocky outcrop, and before I realized it, my foot had sunk down into an undercut in the snow. Fortunately it went straight down, and I didn't twist anything, just sank into the snow up to my crotch. That shook me up--what if I'd sprained or broken an ankle? How would I get back on my own? I was probably crazy to be hiking alone, at my age.

Hikers on Sperry Glacier

The sky was becoming increasingly cloudy. It looked as if a storm was coming, the question was how long before it would get here. After seeing the ferocity of the first storm a few days earlier, the last thing I wanted was to have to go over Comeau Pass during a storm--on those exposed ridges one could easily be hit by lightning.

It was about two o'clock and the young men who had gone ahead of me and played on the glacier were now coming back. I gauged how much more time it would take me to reach the plaque that marked the glacier, and it was more than I wanted to chance--my remaining energy was better invested on getting back over the pass before the storm hit.

With Sperry Glacier in the background
Near Sperry Glacier

Reluctantly, I decided to settle for a couple of photos standing in front of Sperry Glacier, which my young friend took, and then start back. Near the pass I encountered a family group with children who thought they had reached the glacier, and I explained that they had about another half-mile to go to get there. They continued forward, though I wouldn't have advised it.

Going down the staircase

I managed to reach the staircase at Comeau Pass just ahead of the storm. Once below, as I ran downhill on the trail, the winds buffeting the exposed ridges were so strong they almost knocked me down,--I would have fallen, except for  my hiking poles holding me up. I stumbled down the trail as fast as I could while the first drops of rain fell. As soon as I reached a less exposed area, I stopped to pull on my jacket and put the hood up, and continued hurrying down to lower altitudes.

The deluge I had expected didn't materialize, or the lightning, only a bit of rain, not enough to soak through. Yet the trail had become like a stream in places, the water tumbling down in torrents over the rocks. The flow of the waterfalls seemed to have increased, the sound of the water and wind overwhelming.

Akaiyan falls during the storm.

As I descended the storm passed, and my attention turned to the plants--they seemed to thrive with the periodic soaking, whether from snow melt or rain. I stopped to photograph some of them before heading home to Sperry Chalet.

Yellow mountain heath (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)

Alpine wildflowers and mosses
The storm over Sperry Chalet

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hike to Sperry Clacier I

The Sperry Glacier Trail.

Most of the folks who visit Sperry Chalet spend two nights (if they can get reservations)--to rest from the hike on the first night, then hike up to Sperry Glacier on the next day, and rest for another night before going back down to Lake McDonald. Those who can't get a second night's reservation usually hike up to the Glacier on the following day and then go back down to Lake McDonald, making for one very long hike on their second day.

The hike from Sperry Chalet to Sperry Glacier is about 3.5 miles one way, with an elevation rise of about 1500 feet up to Comeau Pass. Being fortunate to have ample time at Sperry Chalet, I could choose which day to hike up to the Glacier. After several days of conditioning with short hikes, I was ready to attempt the hike to Sperry Glacier towards the end of my first week.

Bear Grass along the trail.

The staff had told me there would be several difficult switchbacks on the way to Comeau Pass, and a number of slippery snow fields to cross--to watch out for undercuts in the snow, where one could easily fall through. I lightened my pack as much as possible, taking only water and lunch, with the usual extra layers of clothing and can of bear spray on my belt, and I put the snow tips on my hiking poles.

Akaiyan Falls.

I was already familiar with the first part of the trail between the two waterfalls, and didn't linger there to take photos, except for some really beautiful stalks of Bear grass. I made mental notes of other plants that I hadn't noticed before for future sketching excursions. 

Shortly after the second waterfall, the trail became steeper, and once again, I started needing frequent breaks to catch my breath. The vegetation was becoming sparser, but there were still plenty of alpine wildflowers to observe as I rested.

Alpine buttercups

As the trail rose, new views of the rock formations became visible, and I came across the first snow patch--it was much slower walking on this, because it was so slippery from the tracks of other hikers. The snow tips on the hiking poles were a big help, I was glad to have them.

Patches of snow on the trail.
The waterfall above the cirque.
Looking down at the trail.

Distances can be so deceptive in this kind of terrain--certain landmarks appear close, but the trail swings around wide, making the distance much greater than one thinks at first. Looking down at the trail below me, I got a much more accurate view of how wide the circle it really was, and how the switchbacks doubled back and forth. After this stretch the trail leveled out a bit and rose past several small lakes with a good deal of ice still in them.

On the Sperry Glacier trail.

At this point I passed a young couple from Colorado I had met at Sperry Chalet the night before, hiking back from the Glacier. It was around eleven-thirty in the morning and they had  already been there and were heading back towards Lake MacDonald--I wished I could be as young and physically fit as they were, but I wasn't doing too bad for someone my age. They were kind enough to offer to take this picture--I was sweating profusely from my exertions but reluctant to shed my vest in the chilly breeze.

Featherwoman Lake on the way to Comeau Pass.

I hadn't caught sight yet of Comeau Pass, but there were some lovely meadows around the lakes, and spectacular views of the mountain ranges beyond.

Meadows above the lakes
Wildflowers at the timberline.
Mt. Edwards from the trail.

The imposing mass of Mount Edwards loomed towards the left, its waves of geological strata scoured by the action of glaciers over eons. A hoary marmot clambered around the rocks nearby, and there were still more snow fields to traverse.

Hoary marmot near Comeau Pass.

Eventually, the snow fields led to the headwall that forms Comeau Pass. Dr. Lyman Sperry's party had to climb up this vertical wall to get over the pass; later on an immense ladder bolted onto the rocks was installed to make it easier (shudder!) for hikers to climb. To make the trek to the glacier less daunting, in the 1930's the Park Service widened a natural fissure in the rock (this was accomplished by trail crews using hand chisels), and a rock staircase was built into it, still used today.

The headwall at Comeau Pass
Going up the stair at Comeau Pass

As you can see, the rise on some of these steps is three to four feet in height, while the treads are very narrow, making for an interesting scramble up. The guy wire railing was a recent addition--the original railing was a rope that had to be replaced every few years--and very necessary on the way down. It's not hard to imagine what it'd be like to try this stair in icy conditions...

Looking down the staircase.
Comeau Pass and Gem Lake

After the workout getting here, it was a good time to enjoy lunch at the top of the pass. I sat on a rock while contemplating the views, but with the wind and exposure, drenched in sweat, I put on my jacket to ward off the chill.  The moment I brought out my paper bag lunch a tiny chipmunk showed up--how it is these animals know we're bound to drop a scrap or two?

Chipmunk joins me for lunch at Comeau Pass

As I was eating my sandwich, a young man joined me. We chatted as we ate--he was waiting for his three friends to catch up. They were from California, taking a trip through the Rockies, and had camped at the Sperry campground near the chalet.