Denali Writers in Residence: A Definite Maybe

Never mind the uncertainties of publishing, the hours spent drafting and revising, the frustrations of living far from the places where decisions are made. We get to write in Alaska. And now there’s the prospect of wilderness retreats in the heart of Denali National Park, if the writer-in-residence program takes hold. Here, poet John Morgan reports on his trial run with a great new opportunity.

When I told my writer friends that I was going to be the guinea pig writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and that if things went well, this might become a regular thing like the artist-in-residence program they have going, everyone had the same reaction—don’t screw up!

I’m just back from my ten-day stay at the Murie Cabin on the East Fork of the Toklat River, near Polychrome Pass. The cabin has a double bunk bed, a propane stove and refrigerator, and impressive bear-proof shutters with long rusty nails sticking out. (I’m told that bears actually like to scratch their backs on the nails.) Nancy, my wife, and our son Ben, spent three days with me and the cabin was comfortably big enough for us all.

The location couldn’t be more central, 43 miles from the park entrance and about the same distance from Wonder Lake. I had free run of the park road with my now very dusty-brown (formerly green) Subaru, and I quickly learned that whatever you plan or expect, something surprising will likely turn up. For instance, I’d seen a blond grizzly mom with two brown cubs several times in the fields near Eielson Visitor’s Center and fully expected to see her again as I drove out to North Face Lodge in Kantishna to give a reading. Instead, caribou mobbed the field—over a hundred of them, large and small, with some of the little ones line-up and playing “follow the leader,” the herd instinct already active in them.

On another day, it was pouring at the cabin, but I thought what the hell, this is the park—who knows what’s going on the other side of Polychrome? So I drove that way and found out…snow. But the road wasn’t bad, so I continued driving and came upon a grizzly mother and cub wrestling and rolling around in the frosty white stuff, delighted with each other and with the snow.

I tried various hikes and climbs, got myself briefly in trouble on a rocky pinnacle near Savage River (but made it down unscathed), and snapped a photograph of a possible dinosaur footprint near Tattler Creek. I kept a journal of all this, and also got a start on a number of possible poems. My agreement states that by the end of the year I’m supposed to turn in one piece of writing for the park to use, but, as with magazine publication, I’ll have the right to reprint the work afterwards.

At the end of my ten days, I talked with the program administrator, Ingrid Nixon, and with park superintendent, Paul Anderson, and they both seemed enthusiastic about expanding the artist-in-residence program to writers. They warned me, though, that it may not happen very quickly. An application and selection process will need to be set up and a method worked out for apportioning time between writers and artists in the cabin. And, this being a government program, there could be unforeseen hitches. Still, as of yesterday, it sounded very promising.

During my stay, I noticed that the cabin log book where residents are free to jot down their comments and observations has a funny seasonal bifurcation. In winter, members of the park staff arrive by dog-sled and on snowshoes and write about the overflow at Igloo Creek, and how plucky their lead dog was despite the -40 wind chill. In summer, the artists take over and write about the wonderful effects of light, the various projects they’re working on, and their fox, moose, and ground squirrel sightings. But my first evening in the cabin, reading through this log, I found myself suddenly moved to tears, feeling a rush of assent at one of the artists’ comments: “It’s as if you dropped me off in Paradise.”

by John Morgan

1 thought on “Denali Writers in Residence: A Definite Maybe”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    What a fantastic experience and opportunity for future applicants. I'm so glad you shared this with us and other 49W readers, John. Thanks!

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