(Originally published in the Copper River Record April 28, 2022)
At the end of dirt main street in McCarthy, an old wooden building stands with a false front stamped in faint, faded back letting that says, RO.G. Watsjold Groceries & Meat – Hardware. Lovingly referred to as the Old Hardware Store, the relic is the home of the Wrangell Mountains Center, a nonprofit science and art organization that hosted the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop for twenty-two years – until the pandemic temporarily shut down the program in 2020. This summer, the WMC brings back its longest-running, most impactful workshop.
Nancy Cook started the writing workshop in 1998, featuring visiting writer and instructor Gretchen Legler. Cook shares the initial inspiration, “I was on the staff of Wrangell Mountains Center Wildlands Studies program in 1995. We decided to host a three-week San Francisco State program on illustration and writing, producing a beautiful anthology of work called Learning the Landscape. The notion of doing a week-long writing workshop grew out of that first Wildland Studies program.” At the time, Cook was getting an MFA at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and worked as a ranger for the National Park Service.
From 1998 – to 2019, the Old Hardware Store housed writers from Alaska, and the Lower 48, including Scott Russell Sanders, Robert Michael Pyle, and Kathleen Dean Moore. “The number of important nature writers this workshop brought to the Wrangells, both Alaskan nature writers and nationally recognized writers, has been inspiring,” said Cook.
A few of those participants from the early writing workshops stayed and made a home in McCarthy, like Maria Shell and Patt Garrett, who eventually bought cabins right across the street from the Old Hardware Store. In 2001 Patt Garrett (a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award recipient) was working as a Supervisor for the Department of Corrections when a co-worker first told her about the writing workshop in McCarthy. “Where?” Garrett chuckles, thinking back on those early days. “It got me away from distractions. It was a commitment to do the workshop back then – that road! I stayed in tent city, in a pop-up that leaked, and I learned about blue tarps. For a city kid, that was an incredible experience. I had to do it on my own. We didn’t have wifi or phones or plug-ins for computers back then,” said Garrett.
Alaska Writer Laureate Frank Soos, who tragically died last year in a bicycle accident, and Nancy Cook, were Patt Garrett’s first writing workshop instructors. Garrett said, “I found Nancy very compelling to work with. She’d drag us up on the glacier, march us through town and tell us about the geology of the place. Frank and I would sit and sap off each other. We both grew up in mining towns.”
A self-described introvert, a “long-hand, snail-mail, old-fashioned” Garrett went back to the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop ten years in a row. “I showed up with my #2 pencil and spiral notebook and listened to all these writers who were published. They came from all over and were tripping on the place. I would go off by myself sometimes to write and think and found the museum to be inspiring. They offered me a job there a year or two later.” Patt Garrett has stayed with the museum as a Volunteer Docent for twenty years.
Town people and tourists filled the Old Hardware Store great room to listen to readings publicly held during the writing workshops every summer. Nancy Cook describes the magic of those cozy communal evenings, “I do believe there is a creative channel in that parlor powered in part by fireweed flowers and the old barrel stove. The number of final participant readings we’ve enjoyed in the waning light of an August night has been amazing. Those have been the best readings I’ve been to in my life, and I’ve been to a lot of readings.”
Cook highlights other favorite memories from the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop, “I remember when Robin Child broke her leg, came in the door on crutches, and ended up joining us. She wrote one of her first banjo tunes as part of the writing workshop. And the Haiku Hike to the toe of the glacier is such a rich tradition. I’ll never forget the day we were there writing Renga and a pack of Dall Sheep ran through our group crossing the subalpine. We also took field trips to my parent’s cabin, and I witnessed my own mother’s memoir emerge with the support of so many fine visiting writers.”
An unusual and fun tradition bloomed from the camaraderie of the workshop – the pink flamingo happy hour. WMC used to rent the Commissioners cabin to lodge writers during the workshop, and over time the writers took over the space with a pink flamingo theme. Nancy Cook recalls some of the silly fun experienced during the happy hours: “The marvelous Kari Bernard of Gakona would sing El Senór Delgato Was a Cat, every year.” Cook suddenly breaks into song, with a low theatrical voice and unrecognizable accent, “El Senór was a cat. He was white and fluffy and mighty fat.” Her voice trails off with a belly laugh saying, “You had to be there to understand.”
In 2020, the workshop stopped running for the first time in twenty-two years due to the pandemic. This year, WMC is bringing back the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop from June 22–26, 2022, with instructors Corinna Cook and Mary Odden. Nancy Cook has shifted her focus to a variation, or tributary, of the writing workshop called Riversong – a hybrid music and poetry workshop that takes place while rafting down local rivers. Supporting the writing workshop’s continuance, Nancy said, “I’m delighted to tap local talent, Corinna Cook, and I know Mary Odden will be a wonderful addition to this tradition.”
There are few places where a writer can go off-grid these days and plug into nature and community so completely. The weathered wood walls of the Old Hardware Store hold all the stories inspired by the wild landscape, infused by the intimacy of groups living and writing together for a week. The Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop is about more than honing the craft. As Nancy Cook said, “Good writing requires a sense of vulnerability and adventure – arriving in the Wrangells, trekking down McCarthy Road, stumbling up the gravel path to town, witnessing the glacier – these experiences shake loose the stories which are so important for our time.”
For information on the 2022 Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop, go to: www.wrangells.org/writing-workshop-2022.
Michelle McAfee is a creative nonfiction writer based in Southern Oregon with deep roots in McCarthy, Alaska. She is a staff writer for the Copper River Record, and works with the Wrangell Mountains Center. In 2019, she created, designed, and edited a grassroots music magazine and podcast called SONGBONES. She has a background in professional songwriting, and was a staff writer for Bluewater Music Publishing, Maypop/Sony ATV Music, and Warner-Chappell Music. Currently, she is writing articles, essays, short stories, and making a valiant attempt at memoir. You can find her at www.michellemcafee.com or on Instagram at @michellemcafeemuse.