This article was written by Rachel Palmer and previously appeared in the Spring 2020 Long Trail News. Rachel Palmer was a caretaker at Butler Lodge (2018) and Sterling Pond (2019), on the Long Trail Patrol (2019), and is returning this year to work on the construction crew.
As a backcountry caretaker at Stratton Pond from June through October, 2019, Kati Christoffel regularly canoed across the pond, spoke with hikers in her bubbly way, and fended off bears at her privy, but she will probably be best remembered for her art. I asked her what it was like to protect, and paint, Stratton Pond.
It’s great to talk with you again! Let’s get right into it. How did you become interested in painting?
I’ve been painting my whole life. My grandmother on my mom’s side was a watercolor artist. She taught me to paint, and my first studio was in their garage. I received a lot of encouragement from my family to make art, and painted throughout my childhood. Then I studied art at University of Maine at Presque Isle.
It’s wonderful to hear you had so much support. Did your family also get you into backpacking?
No, actually! I grew up day hiking, but my parents are not camping people. It wasn’t until college where I met a guy who backpacked that I started camping. I loved it, and then I found a job with the Student Conservation Association in the Adirondacks. That led to my southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2014.
How did you find out about caretaking?
After the AT I knew I wanted to do another thru-hike. In 2018 I hiked the Long Trail and met caretakers along the way. I had some really great interactions and thought it would be cool to do myself.
When you were a caretaker what was your best and worst interaction with hikers?
Oh, such a good question! There was some sexism, which always sucks, especially when older men acted like they knew so much more than me, when I’d been living out there for months, and it was my job to be educated about responsible backcountry behavior. But I absolutely loved the one-on-one conversations with hikers. The setting can open people to a much deeper level than talking in the front country. And quickly! I really appreciated learning everyone’s story or perspective.
Yes! People seem to be less defensive or shy in the woods, and experiencing their authenticity can leave you with wonderful memories. I’d say more confidence in who you are as an individual too, or at least inspired. Where do you find inspiration?
Through my passion at the time. As a child I loved horses, and I painted horses and animals a lot. In high school, I got really into cross country skiing and painted skiers. That led to landscape painting in college. As a caretaker I was passionate about my pond, so I sat and painted that. When you see beauty, you can create beauty, and I found my pond really beautiful.
Do you have a favorite piece from this season?
Oh, tough. I’d have to say my painting of Stratton in the fall. It was so much fun to work with all of the colors, and the water was a really beautiful purple-blue.
How many colors did you take into the woods? What was your setup, and did it evolve?
I took my watercolor palette and sketchbook in and out of the woods every week. I used the same paints I have at home, 35 colors, and I used every single shade of green! I used a Chobani yogurt cup to hold water from the pond, and my regular paintbrushes. When hiking I used a watercolor set with only eight or ten colors, and hollow paintbrushes you can fill with water to cut down on the mess. Originally I carried watercolor pencils, but paint was more my style. When I was hiking the Long Trail, I really ironed out my backcountry supplies.
Any tips for creating art outdoors?
Work small, light, and simple.
How did you balance caretaking and painting?
Ha ha, well, I thought I’d have more time to paint, but it turned out that there is a lot of trail work involved in caretaking. When I worked at Bourn Pond, though, I took my sketchbook or paint during pond duty on Saturdays. I wanted painting to be my decompression or personal time, though, so I didn’t really use painting as a tool to reach out to hikers. I was either painting or talking. I didn’t like to do both.
Where could I find the work you did that season?
I use the internet to display my work. I have an Instagram account: @watercolorwanderer, and an Etsy shop: etsy.com/shop/WatercolorWanderer. I’d also be happy to do a custom painting and can be reached through my Etsy shop. I like to do landscapes or pets, but I enjoy painting anything, really.
What are your plans now that the season is over? What did you learn that you value now?
Living alone outside as a woman really taught me to love my body, and to see through the pressures placed on women by society and social media. I don’t see that understanding ever going away. Less abstract plans are to paint and return to GMC next summer.
Catch Kati teaching a virtual workshop – Artwork on the Long Trail – on Monday, April 27! Pull your art supplies out of the attic and join Kati as she leads us in a beginning art project using an image from the Long Trail. As a former art instructor and Stratton Pond Caretaker, Kati has created many pieces of Long Trail landscapes and is looking forward to sharing that skill with you. You’ll learn the basics of interpreting a landscape image and how to use watercolors, pen & ink, crayons or even finger-painting to make a beautiful piece of art. Find the details on our virtual events page.