Wild Inspiration / by Tyler Voorhees

We had begun the hike mid-morning as the dew began to evaporate into mist, which now blanketed the peaks surrounding us. Locals had warned my two brothers and me of the bears along the trail and we did our best to stay noisy as the steep, rugged path climbed its way out of the berry-strewn thicket.

 My brother Lucas conquers a peak overlooking Skilak Lake.

My brother Lucas conquers a peak overlooking Skilak Lake.

Finally emerging from the dense forest, we found ourselves approaching a saddle between two peaks. Wildflowers were abound and the hillside was speckled with rich hues of crimson, violet, and orange. The colors were even more striking against the carpet created by an intricate little white lichen colloquially referred to as reindeer moss.

 Reindeer moss (actually a lichen) blankets the mountainside of a peak outside of Soldotna, Alaska.

Reindeer moss (actually a lichen) blankets the mountainside of a peak outside of Soldotna, Alaska.

Ahead at the point at which the trail crested the saddle, there was a cluster of dwarfish pine trees and as we neared them, one of the most magical places I have ever experienced revealed itself to us.

From a distance, it looked like a dollop of forest plopped on the mountainside but once we entered its inner canopy, an entrancing little world opened up. The shore pines growing there looked like giant, gnarly bonsai trees, twisting their trunks in undulating arcs, defying gravity and dancing gracefully towards the sky above. Shafts of sunlight illuminated hidden paths weaving their way between the trees towards little coves nestled between their trunks. The roots of the pines were wooden serpents emerging from the dark soil and criss-crossing the paths through the undergrowth. I half expected fairies to start flitting about as we continued into this mythical realm.

 A cluster of gnarly shore pines beckon us as we hike.

A cluster of gnarly shore pines beckon us as we hike.

In the center of the small forest were the remnants of an abandoned campfire and a perch that was surely once occupied by a mountain sage. As I took a seat on this sacred altar and closed my eyes, time slowed to a halt and a quiet hum of joy filled my consciousness washing away all worry, doubt, and humanly pursuits. I was many miles from Michigan but I was in my happy place: exploring a new land with my heart open and time to breathe it in. This hallowed ground was in the wild frontier of Alaska and it is like no other place I've ever experienced.

 I summon the wisdom of the mountain sage.

I summon the wisdom of the mountain sage.

My stepfather had organized a trip for my brothers and me to spend a week up north on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. It's a wonderful slice of wilderness traversed by the might Kenai River, whose waters are chock full of salmon and dyed grayish blue by the glacial silt its swift current carries to the sea. It is a wild and unforgiving land where the sun never fully left us and the locals exhibited a distinct rugged, survivalist mentality.

 Glacial silt dyes the waters of the Kenai River a grayish blue and the bald eagle on the cliff takes note.

Glacial silt dyes the waters of the Kenai River a grayish blue and the bald eagle on the cliff takes note.

We had come to hook some fish and we had come to spend time in the wilderness together as men. We spent a lot of time chasing salmon but didn't have much luck as they weren't spawning at the time. Hoping for better luck out on the ocean, we took a charter boat out of Homer and harvested a heap of tasty, yet butt-ugly halibut.

The word "halibut" translates as "holy flatfish" referring to their popularity on Catholic holy days and they are a fascinating creature. Halibut being their lives as a normal-looking fish before undergoing a radical physiological change during their transition to adulthood. At about six months of age, one of their sides turns from white to dark-brown speckled color. At the same time, one eye migrates towards the other side, essentially making one side the "top" of the fish with both eyes while the white side faces the ocean floor. This countershading camouflages them from predators both from above and below.

 Our day's haul of hailbut.  Note the eyeless bottom side of this bizarre flatfish.

Our day's haul of hailbut.  Note the eyeless bottom side of this bizarre flatfish.

Halibut are the world's largest flatfish and reeling them in from above is like trying to bring  a new plank of plywood with fins to the surface. A German recently hauled in a 515 lb. monster (a new world record) and said that it was "like reeling in a submarine". In my opinion, halibut are the second-most delicious fish, only surpassed by the buttery walleye fillets that I grew up devouring.

 A tasty halibut harvested out of Cook's Inlet near Homer, Alaska.

A tasty halibut harvested out of Cook's Inlet near Homer, Alaska.

Back on the hiking trail, we left the jack pine wonderland and continued on towards the peak. I breathed in the mountain air and vowed to never forget this time and place and the majesty in which God had put me. It's no secret that being outside is restorative to the soul and after our trip to the wild frontier of Alaska, my bucket is brimming with pure, unadulterated inspiration.

 My brother and I share a joyous embrace on the summit.

My brother and I share a joyous embrace on the summit.

I've found that the greatest source of inspiration for my work is traveling. Whether it's riding a bike through the streets of Munich, trying to stay on top of a boisterous camel at the Great Pyramids of Giza, or traversing this great country of ours in search of unseen places, I've always found traveling to new lands as a way to "breathe in" so that I can later exhale new work in the studio.

The way it usually goes is that, while exploring new and uncharted territories, certain people, places, and experiences will cling to me and I take note of which seem to be the stickiest. I always try to carry a small sketchbook with me wherever I go and the next step is to make quick sketches of eye-catching places or images born out of stories that I've encountered. These are unrefined jottings and are my creative mind reacting to what it's experiencing. But perhaps that gives my brain too much credit, as I often feel like the images find me, rather than the other way around. In any case, when it's time to hit the studio, I'll often look back in my sketchbooks to see if any ideas are still interesting enough to work into a composition and voila! Travel=Art.

 My signature in the notebook at the summit, a sketch capturing how I felt about the morning's hike.

My signature in the notebook at the summit, a sketch capturing how I felt about the morning's hike.

It looks like a lot once I write it down, but it's become a well-oiled machine and is one my greatest sources of joy. In fact, if I had it my way, all I would do would be wander and create with my family in tow. Come to think of it, that's basically what I do now, but we've got our eyes on more distant lands and more ambitious projects. Stay tuned for that announcement in October's blog post.

 A quick jot capturing a memory of fly-fishing for salmon on the Kenai River.

A quick jot capturing a memory of fly-fishing for salmon on the Kenai River.

As I look back on my time in Alaska and that special forest I found with my brothers, I can't help but feel just gosh darn blessed to have these experiences. Thank you for taking this journey with me and I hope you've found some wild inspiration lately. Stay salty my friends.

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