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The way back: An Alaska artist, a prowling wolf and a lesson in letting go

  • Author: Julia O'Malley
  • Updated: September 19, 2016
  • Published September 18, 2016

TALKEETNA — The wolf showed up around Shannon Cartwright's place in October 2014. She never saw it, but a neighbor did. That's how she knew it was black. By then, Cartwright had lived off the grid nearly 40 years. She'd seen about 30 wolves, maybe more.

"This one," she said, "it wasn't normal."

Each morning, she woke in her cabin off the rail line north of Talkeetna and went out with her dog, Coda. Each morning she found new wolf tracks in the snow. With each passing day, the wolf was coming closer to the cabin.

Cartwright, a longtime Alaska children's book illustrator, was in her mid-60s, and lived alone. Her nearest neighbor was a mile away. Her satellite phone was unreliable. She had a rifle, but it had been years since she was steady enough to shoot it.

That fall capped off what had been the darkest period in Cartwright's life. She'd come to Alaska after college and met her husband, Gary, in 1976. Together they'd built a nomadic, wild life in some of the state's most scenic, uninhabited places. They spent summers with horses in the Brooks Range or off the Denali Highway. They fished Bristol Bay. They grew their food, hunted, and took their news weeks late from stacks of old newspapers. They wintered on their property north of Talkeetna. Hauled water. Skied under moonlight.

Over that time, often collaborating with her writing partner Shelley Gill, Cartwright illustrated 27 children's books. She worked at desks illuminated by kerosene lamp or solar-power lights in remote cabins, sometimes carrying her finished prints on horseback wrapped in garbage bags. She estimates more than two million of her books have been printed. To this day, she has never touched a computer.

In the early 1980s, Cartwright noticed that her hands shook slightly as she drew. She was diagnosed with an essential tremor, a genetic neurological disorder. It grew worse with every year and spread to her head. To draw her last five books, she had to draw two-handed, steadying one hand with the other. By 2010, she had trouble using a fork and spoon. She had to give up her artwork altogether.

"She said, 'I can't. I can't hold my pencil,'" Gill said. "It killed me. This was like her disappearing."

Then Gary was diagnosed with cancer. He told Cartwright he was leaving her. She was blindsided. She still loved him.

"My life just totally fell apart. I couldn't hardly take care of myself," she said. "I couldn't even sign my name. I was totally knocked down. The totally unexpected happened."

Wild life

Cartwright was born in Detroit, oldest of three children. Her father worked for Ford. Her mother stayed home. She went to the University of Michigan School of Architecture, where she studied graphic art and illustration. The first stories she heard about Alaska came from her grandmother, a public health nurse, who worked in Arctic villages in the 1940s and 1950s.

"She told me about how they had to dig tunnels to their house in Kotzebue there was so much snow, traveling by dog team and Bush plane. She had a huge parka," Cartwright said. "I was just intrigued."

She met Gary when she was 28. He was living in Hope, carving soapstone. She'd decided that she wanted to learn to carve, and a friend introduced her to him. Their connection was immediate and electric. In a photo taken of them that summer, they stare at the camera, unsmiling. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and a red beard. She's in suspenders, a plaid shirt and her signature knee-high, lace-up L.L. Bean boots. Her small hand sits over his large one. They moved to land not far from the railroad tracks soon after.

"We had an Army tent, we had a bag of millet, we had a bag of popcorn, we had cheese and we had powdered milk," she said. "He was so basic. We never bought ketchup. We never bought mayonnaise. We never bought butter … Everything was so simple. We lived out here so separate for years and years and years."

She grew more successful as an illustrator, but their life remained staunchly wild. Gary was private, strong, frugal and handy. He milled his own lumber, built the cabin and the out-buildings, chopped log after log. After he left, she saw him in every piece of wood, in the garden, in every nail he'd pounded in. She longed for their old life.

"I missed moving, I missed the new view every couple months. I missed the tundra, the mountains, traveling with the horses," she said.

Losses

In January 2014, just after her 65th birthday, Cartwright had surgery that placed battery-operated stimulators in her brain. Like a miracle, her tremors calmed.

She hadn't been sure she could live in the cabin alone, but friends helped her. She bought a log-splitter and a water pump. She and her neighbor, a longtime friend, began seeing each other. She sold her work at Dancing Leaf Gallery in Talkeetna, and when trains full of tourists came by, she hopped on and rode up to Hurricane, selling her books. The railroad employees felt like family; the train, like home. But, still, when she was alone, she turned her losses over in her head like a smooth stone in a pocket.

"I had talked myself out of doing artwork again," she said. "I was just searching for a new life."

Cirrus and Shannon Cartwright in the warm sun enjoying an incredible view of the Alaska Range in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Shannon Cartwright)

Gill said her friend was changed by everything she went through before the surgery.

"Shannon is one of a kind. She is so tough. She has always had such a fix on the north star, if you will," Gill said. "She's never unsure. This made her unsure."

In May 2014, Gary died. The trees greened up. The blueberries ripened. The dogwood leaves turned red. Snow crept down the hills out her cabin window. And then, wolf tracks.

Days passed and the wolf began marking territory. The smell of urine made Coda cower. The shape of the tracks in the snow felt menacing, dark, otherworldly. Cartwright called her brother, who lives in New Mexico. He suggested she call a woman he knew who people said was a spiritual healer. Cartwright thought it over and decided to give it a try. When she called, the woman told her the wolf wouldn't leave until she let go of her dead husband.

"I thought I had moved on," she said. "I realized how deep into it I still was."

Soon, she could tell the wolf was circling the cabin at night — a predator she couldn't see, unrelenting as grief.

Then one morning, Coda refused to go out. Cartwright dragged him to relieve himself and squinted down the path that led from her place to the railroad tracks. She couldn't risk the wolf attacking Coda.

"Coda was all I had left. I don't have kids, you know, my dog is my best friend," she said.

The wolf had to go.

Coda sits in the first rays of sunshine the area had seen in days on Shannon Cartwright’s property on Monday, August 8, 2016.

Moving on

A couple nights later, as she'd done most every night when she was married, she split an apple in half after dinner. She pushed half of it to the side of the table where Gary used to sit. She let herself imagine him. She lit a smudge and walked through the cabin.

"I thanked Gary for all he'd done," she said. "I was moving on."

She headed out into the evening. There was no moon, so she wore a headlamp. The wolf could have been anywhere, but she wasn't afraid. She could hear the rush of the Indian River down the hill and feel the cold on her face. She trailed smoke around every building on the property.

The next morning, there were no new tracks. The wolf vanished. Soon after, Cartwright sat down at her old drafting table and began to draw. Shapes of animals filled the page. Lynx. Marten. Whales. Swans. A new book. After seven years without drawing, the artwork poured out.

"I wasn't expecting it back. I wasn't expecting to ever be able to do it anymore," she said.

One afternoon in August, just about the time the train passed her property, whistle singing, she finished it.

Shannon Cartwright spreads out her artwork on the kitchen table for her upcoming children’s book called “Alaska Animals, You and I.” It took Cartwright almost three years to illustrate and write the story. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

"Alaska Animals, You and I" is a detailed look at animal anatomy, with a message about inclusion. It will debut at the Anchorage Museum's ReadAlaska book fair in November.

When she started, she thought it would be her last book. Now she's not sure. Gill read it and called it a triumph. It reminded her, she said, of something she once heard Iditarod founder Joe Redington say.

"He said, 'If I get lost, don't come looking for me,' " Gill said. "And that's always how I felt about Shannon. She'll find the way back."

Julia O'Malley is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage. Find her work at juliaomalley.media.

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