Travel | On Location in the Sierra Nevadas

Marilyn Simandle, Emerald Lakes [1997], oil, 18 x 24.,painting, Southwest Art
Marilyn Simandle, Emerald Lakes [1997], oil, 18 x 24.

By Edward Norton Ward

Last July a group of nine plein-air painters embarked on a five-day expedition in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ted Goerschner and Marilyn Simandle from Santa Ynez, CA, were the organizers of the trip. They were accompanied by Gil Dellinger from Stockton, CA; Edward Norton Ward from Pacific Grove, CA; and Doug Higgins, Jim Boyer, McCreery Jordan, George Pate, and Eric Michaels, all from Santa Fe, NM.

The group met to start their journey in Bishop, CA, a town near Mammoth Lakes about half-way between Yosemite National Park and Mount Whitney (at 14,494 feet, the highest point in California). From there the painters drove to the Bishop Pack Outfitters stable at North Lake and then rode into the wilderness on horseback. The following account is excerpted from Ed Ward’s journal.

The view from the head of the pack train.,Southwest Art
The view from the head of the pack train.

July 20:
We meet for dinner in Bishop, CA, where we spend the night.

July 21:

6:15 a.m. We assemble at the motel and set off into the mountains.

7:00 a.m. We arrive at the pack station and are met by Mike Morgan from the outfitting company and Marci Ziebarth, our caterer and chef. In spite of our efforts to travel light, we unload a mountain of painting and personal gear onto the dock. All this, along with the tents, ice chests, lawn chairs, stoves, and lanterns, is quite a load to pack into the back country.

One of the pack mules carrying 12 chairs.,Southwest Art
One of the pack mules carrying 12 chairs.

9:00 a.m. Everything is finally packed on 23 mules. The mule carrying the chairs looks particularly silly with six chairs strapped on either side. We mount our horses and start up the trail to the Emerald Lakes, a group of gemlike lakes above Lake Sabrina.

12:30 p.m. After riding past Blue Lake, where Edgar Payne did his famous painting Thompson Ridge, Blue Lake, we follow the trail for another mile and arrive at our destination. As the wranglers unload our gear from the mules, big puffy clouds appear and it starts to rain. Such weather is not unexpected at this altitude—we are 10,600 feet above sea level.

Gil Dellinger, Sunrise Near Bishop [1997], pastel, 8 x 12.,painting, Southwest Art
Gil Dellinger, Sunrise Near Bishop [1997], pastel, 8 x 12.

2:00 p.m. The rain has stopped and we see blue sky again. All the tents are pitched and our gear is stowed away. The wranglers have erected the cook’s tent next to an existing fire ring, and Marci is arranging stoves, pots, pans, and other cooking equipment. Marilyn Simandle is already painting. Ted Goerschner, George Pate, and I see trout rising in the lake. We aren’t ready to start painting, so we assemble our fly rods. My Coachman wet fly takes five trout from the lake for me.

4:00 p.m. I start a painting. The subject is the lake and a nameless peak rising from the opposite shore.

Ed Ward at his easel.,Southwest Art
Ed Ward at his easel.

5:00 p.m. It’s time to finish my painting before joining the others by the campfire, where Marci has a pork loin roasting on a grate. The rest of the evening is spent eating and talking around the fire.

July 22:

4:00 a.m. I am awakened by rain, then fall back to sleep listening to raindrops on the roof of my tent.

6:00 a.m. The rain has stopped, but the sky is gray and the peaks are hidden in mist. Coffee is brewing in a large pot. Marci makes real camp coffee, boiling the grounds over the fire and then dropping in cold water to settle them to the bottom of the pot. I breakfast on fresh orange juice, granola with fresh blueberries and milk, and coffee cake. The others are having scrambled eggs and bacon as well.

7:30 a.m. Ted and Marilyn set up a canopy of tarps to protect them from the rain while painting. I decide to hike to Blue Lake and explore upstream from there. There are two lakes—Donkey Lake and Baboon Lake—that look interesting on the map. I leave, telling Marci I’ll be back by lunch time.

9:00 a.m. I am working my way up a poorly marked trail above Blue Lake. Donkey Lake should be off to my left, but I’m not sure I’m still on the trail. I’m crossing meadows of wildflowers—large stands of red Indian paintbrush are everywhere. A stream tumbles over cascades and winds through the meadows. As I continue to climb, the trail nearly disappears.

McCreery Jordan, Sierra Afternoon [1997], oil, 10 x 8.,painting, Southwest Art
McCreery Jordan, Sierra Afternoon [1997], oil, 10 x 8.

10:30 a.m. The trail is getting steeper and rougher, and I can hardly find it in some places. I am beginning to think that setting off alone was stupid, as nobody knows where I am. I have definitely missed the trail to Donkey Lake. From the map, I can see that I am well above 11,000 feet, so I decide to turn around and retrace my steps back to camp.

11:45 a.m. I return tired and a little queasy from the altitude.

2:00 p.m. It’s raining off and on. Ever hopeful, I start a painting during one of the breaks, setting up near Ted and Marilyn’s canopy. Halfway into it, the rain begins again, and I am forced to take my gear into the tent to dry. I decide that a nap is the best way to wait out the rain.

6:00 p.m. Marci serves us another wonderful dinner. The evening is spent sitting around the campfire, talking about our day of painting and exploring these beautiful mountains.

Edward Norton Ward, Hunger Packer Pass [1997], oil, 24 x 30.,painting, Southwest Art
Edward Norton Ward, Hunger Packer Pass [1997], oil, 24 x 30.

July 23:

6:00 a.m. It rained again during the night, and morning dawns gray and cloudy. Despite the rain, Marci is making blueberry pancakes.

8:00 a.m. The rain is really coming down now. We continually have to spill water from the cook tent where it’s collecting, and we dig a ditch to divert the runoff away from the campfire. Eric Michaels reports that water is getting into his tent. I’ve never seen it rain so hard and long in the Sierra Nevadas.

11:30 a.m. Finally the rain stops and the sun breaks through the clouds. Eric reports that six inches of water are in his tent. We help him move his tent to higher ground, then spread his gear on some flat rocks to dry.

George Pate, Morning Shadows [1997], oil, 9 x 12.,painting, Southwest Art
George Pate, Morning Shadows [1997], oil, 9 x 12.

1:00 p.m. George Pate and I decide to hike up up to Topsy Turvy Lake to sketch. When we arrive, there’s a perfect composition under the peaks. George started our hike with a full painting kit and portable easel but stashed them along the way. Now he’s sorry. We settle for pen-and-pencil sketches and photographs.

3:00 p.m. The rain holds off as we start back to camp. Once there, I see another fine composition and finish a painting of the lake with background peaks off to the north. Things are looking up. Eric’s bedroll and gear have dried out and everyone is in good spirits. Today has been a real test of our group, but they all come through in good humor.

Jim Boyer, Sierra Sunrise [1997], oil, 12 x 9.,painting, Southwest Art
Jim Boyer, Sierra Sunrise [1997], oil, 12 x 9.

5:30 p.m. Cocktail time. Good painting, good company, and dry sleeping bags. What more could anyone ask for? After a fine dinner, we talk well into the night.

11:00 p.m. Stars are showing in the sky, and tomorrow promises to be a great day.

July 24:

6:00 a.m. I awake to beautiful sunshine. Marilyn has already been out photographing the peaks and lake in the morning sun. No wonder they call the Sierra Nevadas “the range of light.”

7:30 a.m. Breakfast over, I am impressed by a view of our camp, cook tent, and smoke drifting up from the fire. All the artists are having their last cup of camp coffee as I set up my easel and start a painting of the scene. Soon Ted and Doug join me.

9:30 a.m. I finish my painting and Marci likes it so much I give it to her. Ted and Doug get good paintings, too.

Doug Higgins, detail from Sunrise [1997], oil, 40 x 30.,painting, Southwest Art
Doug Higgins, detail from Sunrise [1997], oil, 40 x 30.

10:00 a.m. There’s another great scene off to my right—this one is a view through the trees to a rock ledge in sunlight, with the peaks towering in a haze of backlit sun.

1:30 p.m. I feel smug, having finished two paintings this morning, and reach for my fly rod. The trout are rising and they take my fly readily. There are so many hungry fish in the lake that I get a strike with nearly every cast.

2:30 p.m. I decide to paint a snowfield winding its way down a ridge above the opposite shore of the lake. I set up my easel and start to work. The painting almost paints itself. That’s what happens on painting trips—the longer you’re out, the more your skills improve.

5:00 p.m. Marci has a filet mignon grilling over the campfire. We are in good spirits, as everyone had a great day of painting. We estimate that about 100 paintings have been completed during the last four days.

Ted Goerschner, Blue Lake Vista [1997], oil, 16 x 20.,painting, Southwest Art
Ted Goerschner, Blue Lake Vista [1997], oil, 16 x 20.

6:00 p.m. Marci has outdone herself. Besides the filet mignon, which was perfectly grilled, she served flaming peaches wrapped in crepes and topped with raspberry sauce. We have a great evening around the campfire—my stomach aches from laughing at Ted’s and Eric’s jokes.

July 25:

Another sunny dawn. Although it’s our last day, Marilyn and Doug are already at their easels: There’s always time for one last painting.

7:00 a.m. During breakfast Marci tells us that the packers will arrive about 10 a.m. We break camp and pile our gear on tarps near the cook tent.

Eric Michaels, High Sierra [1997], oil, 12 x 9.,painting, Southwest Art
Eric Michaels, High Sierra [1997], oil, 12 x 9.

10:00 a.m. Marilyn, Ted, George, and I decide to hike rather than ride out. We want to take as many photographs as possible on the way down. We start out before the pack train arrives and meet them at 10:30 a.m., about a mile below camp. We estimate that it will take them at least an hour to pack the tents and gear, so we’ll be able to keep ahead of them on the way down.

11:00 a.m. We break for lunch at Blue Lake. It’s even more magnificent in the sunshine.

1:00 p.m. We arrive at the trail head hot and thirsty. I hike down to get my Jeep and we drive up to the boat landing at Lake Sabrina to buy some beer. We see the pack train and riders coming down the trail on the other side of the lake and decide to surprise them with drinks.

1:20 p.m. We get back to the trail head just as the first riders are coming in and hand them each a cold beer. What a way to end a great trip!

3 p.m. We collect our gear and head down the road to Bishop, where our motel and hot showers await us. That night we celebrate with a final meal together.

Works by these artists can be found at the following galleries:

Jim Boyer: N. Mirkovich Art Gallery, Houston, TX; Benson Fine Art, Ruidoso, NM.  Gil Dellinger: John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Pitzer’s of Carmel, Carmel, CA; Galerie Gabrie, Pasadena, CA; Michael Wigley Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; and Gallerie Iona, Stockton, CA.

Ted Goerschner: Galerie Gabrie, Pasadena, CA; Zantman Art Galleries, Carmel, CA; Lagerquist Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Naples Gallery, Naples, FL. Doug Higgins: Merrill Gallery of Fine Art, Denver, CO; Gallery at Shoal Creek, Austin, TX.  McCreery Jordan: Northern Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Vail Fine Art Gallery, Vail, CO; Aspen Fine Art Gallery, Aspen, CO; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH.  Eric Michaels: Breckenridge Galleries, Breckenridge, CO; Whistle Pik Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Michael Wigley Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Gallery at Shoal Creek, Austin, TX; The Studio at Long Grove, Long Grove, IL.  George Pate: Joe Wade Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM; Dearing Galleries, Taos, NM; DeWolf Fine Art, Sedona, AZ.  Marilyn Simandle: Galerie Gabrie, Pasadena, CA; Zantman Art Galleries, Carmel, CA; Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; Naples Gallery, Naples, FL; ERL Gallery, Winston-Salem, NC.  Edward Norton Ward: Nedra Matteucci Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Carmel Art Association, Carmel CA; and Collector’s Gallery, Carmel, CA.

Featured in “On Location”  February 1998