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Working with Wacom

In the late nineties, when I first started to create art professionally, I had primarily drawn in pencil or pen on paper. Up until my first editorial cartoons for a local newspaper, I had never considered art as anything more than a hobby.

I had played around with some art on a computer from time to time, but only using a mouse. If you’ve never done that, it can be a rather frustrating experience, especially when you try to include any detail.

Digital drawing tablets were in their infancy, but I knew I wanted one. My ever-supportive parents bought me my first one as a gift. It was the first generation Wacom Intuos tablet, quite small, with a working surface of just 4 X 5 inches.

I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever owned. I’ve been drawing and painting on a computer ever since.

The technology was so new then, that you had to explain it to people. The worst part was that as soon as you said you worked on the computer, people figured that the computer was doing all of the work. It certainly didn’t help that one of the most popular and widespread pieces of art software on the planet was (and still is) Adobe Photoshop.

So not only was the computer doing all of the work, but all a digital artist was doing was changing a photo. I can’t count how many times I heard that stated with authority.

I’ve spent over half of my career explaining to people that digital drawing and painting is just as much of an art medium as oil, acrylic or watercolour. These days, the stigma surrounding digital art is largely gone and people realize that it’s more than just pushing a button or applying a filter. There are countless skilled artists around the world now creating digitally, each an ambassador for the medium.

One of the pillars of my two decade career has been that I’ve always worked on a Wacom tablet or display. They were the only name in digital art tools when I first started and they’ve remained the industry standard for quality and innovation. Whenever I’ve replaced one, it has been to take advantage of something new they’ve come up with that would make my work more enjoyable or efficient, never because it broke or stopped working.

 I still have a backup Intuos 5 tablet in my closet; ready as a substitute should my Cintiq 24HD display ever stop working. It’s like an insurance policy, but one I never really expect to use. I would never want to be without a Wacom device.

Even today, with advances in mobile drawing technology, I only use my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for practice pieces and sketches. All of my finished work is done on my Wacom Cintiq.

In 2010 at the Photoshop World Conference, my funny looking animal paintings were still pretty new and I was thrilled to win the Guru Award for the Illustration category AND the Best in Show Award. In a strange twist of fate that would change the course of my career, the emcee of the event, Larry Becker, misspoke and said that the top prize was a Wacom Cintiq 12wx display.

I was pretty excited about that since it was Wacom’s first crack at a portable drawing display on an actual screen.

When I went to the Wacom booth at the Expo to claim my prizes, I was told that the 12WX wasn’t actually one of them. I was disappointed but I understood that mistakes happen and wasn’t going to hold them to it. But Wacom being who they are and Larry Becker being a class act, they made good on the slip and sent me the display shortly after the conference.

As great as that was, however, the best part was that I met Pam Park.

In every career, there are people who show up to mentor, encourage and give you the right push or connections when you need it. I’ve been fortunate to have some great support over the years from some special people, without whom I believe my work and life would be significantly diminished.

I loathe the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” because it’s most often a cop-out people use for bad behaviour.

We don’t really have relationships with companies; we have them with people, so it’s always personal.

From that first meeting with Pam at Photoshop World in 2010, I then became acquainted with two others at Wacom, Joe and Wes. Over the next five years, the three of them hired me to do webinars for them, inspirational videos for new products, blog posts and I even represented the company at a training seminar in Calgary in 2011.For one demo I did for them, the subject of the painting was Pam’s dog, Brisby, seen above.

On one visit to the Banff High School in 2014, to talk about and demonstrate digital art, Wacom generously donated a number of tablets to their new media program that I was thrilled to deliver personally.
At Photoshop World, I would give presentations at their booth; one of those rare cases where doing it for the exposure was well worth my time. Being associated with Wacom has always been good for my career and professional credibility.
As the saying goes, however, all good things must come to an end. At one point, they had wanted to hire me to come down to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and work at their booth. Being Canadian, I realized I couldn’t go without a work visa and there just wasn’t time to get one. A few years ago, as my friends at Wacom moved to other positions and one left the company, the opportunities for me to work with them fell off.

A new person in marketing took things in a different direction and I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d had a great experience for quite a few years with Wacom, but that it had run its course with no hard feelings. It sure was fun while it lasted. The only regret was that I lost touch with those people who made it happen and who had such a positive impact on my career.

Then out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, I got a personal email from Pam, checking in to say Hi. It was great to hear from her and in the course of catching up, she mentioned that she was back in a marketing and promotional position with Wacom and if I ever wanted to work with them again, they’d be happy to have me.

I had to give that some serious thought, for about a millisecond.

Considering the wealth of talent they have representing their products these days, it was a real honour to be asked once again to add my voice to the chorus.

After some back and forth catching up, Pam told me she was sending me the new Wacom Cintiq 16. I’ll be putting it through its paces, doing some painting on it and recording some videos for Wacom, the first of who knows how many in the near future. It’ll be a nice replacement for my Cintiq 13HD, which for the record, still works just fine.

The Cintiq 16 arrived by UPS before I was finished writing this post, and I realized that the feeling of receiving a new piece of Wacom tech, it just never gets old. In fact, I’m probably more excited about this display than I was at receiving my very first tablet twenty years ago.

Because now I know what I can do with it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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My 2020 Calendar

It’s never too early to start thinking about your 2020 calendar needs. Of course, I’m probably just saying that because thanks to my license with Pacific Music and Art, I finally have a calendar to offer.

My newsletter subscribers have known about this for some time and I’ve enjoyed packaging and shipping the orders. I’ll be heading down to the post office to send more out this morning.

These are sold in 50 Save-On-Foods stores in Western Canada, along with other retailers. It really is a little strange for me to walk into my local grocery store here in Canmore and see my funny looking Otter staring back at me. Sharing the same rack are notepads with other images I’ve painted.

The calendars retail for $12.99, but I’m offering them for $12.00 (plus tax and shipping). If you’re local, I’ll even deliver free of charge. If you’d like to order one (or two, or three, or…), send me an email with your address and I’ll be happy to make that happen. I’ll accept e-transfer or Paypal for mail orders. In person, I can take debit, credit, or Apple Pay. Cash still works, too.

And since I have your attention, I’d like to invite you to sign up for my newsletter as well. Depending on what I’ve got going on, I usually write two or three a month. It features new paintings, works-in-progress, photos, recent editorial cartoons, and thoughts I’ve been thinkin’. Since I’m not on social media, this is the best way to keep up to date on my work.

Have a great weekend,
Patrick

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Continuing Crisis of Conscience

My friend Derek and I went for a morning drive up Highway 40 into Kananaskis last week. It was raining, grey and while we were initially headed up to the Highwood Pass to take pictures of the pikas, we were also keeping our eyes peeled for anything else we might find, especially bears.

Derek is an incredibly skilled painter and tattoo artist, the owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore. His photography skills are pretty tight as well, so when it comes to art, we have a lot in common.

We never made it up to the Pass because it started to snow quite heavily as we gained elevation, but it was a quiet morning, very little traffic and we saw quite a few bears. Seven grizzlies and a black bear.

While we both got some very nice pictures, a few I can even paint from, the whole experience was tainted by my ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ guilt over taking the photos in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of painting wildlife, even in my whimsical wildlife style, is the gathering of reference. Before I became proficient with a camera, I would often borrow from generous photographer friends or buy stock photos. I still do buy reference from time to time when taking the shots myself would just be unrealistic. For example, my recent underwater painting of an Orca would require a drastic lifestyle change and a lottery win to be able to gather those shots.

I’ve taken plenty of photos at Discovery Wildlife Park and at the Calgary Zoo, many of which have resulted in finished paintings. But even though I’ve made peace with the fact that both of those facilities are doing their best to aid in conservation and that the animals are receiving the best care possible, they’re still captive animals. My support of those places has drawn some criticism and I accept that. I still believe in both places and their best intentions, for lack of a perfect solution.

What many fail to understand is that when they say animals should be left to be free in the wild; there are very few places in the world where that’s still possible. Outside of national and provincial parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, most animals are at constant risk from the most dangerous predator around. Us.

My friend, Serena, head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to bears and other wildlife. She’s big on leaving bears alone in the wild, that pulling over in your car introduces people smells and habituation risks to bears, even in parks where they’re protected. Part of their bear presentation twice a day at the park is all about educating people on being bear aware in the wild, including being a responsible tourist.

Having lived in and near Canada’s most famous national park for the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when tourists forget themselves, and close in like a mob on a grizzly bear, in order to snap that pic for Facebook. If the bear defends itself, or becomes too used to humans, they sometimes have to shoot the bear.

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty for my choices. Even with the best of intentions, trying to be an advocate for wildlife protection AND making a good chunk of my living painting whimsical wildlife portraits, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer to where I should get my reference. If I were a wildlife photographer, it would be even harder.

If I take the photos of a captive animal, no matter how well cared for or considering their circumstances, I’m a bad person for supporting that practice. If I take photos in the wild or in parks, well I’m a bad person for stopping to get a photo, even if I’m trying to minimize my impact on the animal.
Derek and I did our best to be responsible, as we always do. We both had long lenses, so we parked a good distance from all of the bears we encountered. We stayed in my car, either taking shots from our windows or out the sunroof. We were careful to limit our time with the bears we encountered, even though we would have liked to have stayed all day, especially near the grizzly and her cubs.

We even justified those pics because on the other side of those trees behind them is a campground with plenty of people smells already there. And Parks was on scene monitoring them.

That still feels hypocritical, telling myself whatever I need to, in order to justify the shots.
Basically, there is no right answer because everybody has their own opinion and judging others by the most rigid standards of hyper morality is at the core of being human. We compare our own best traits to the worst traits in others, convinced we’re better than most. (see: social media)

If another driver fails to signal a turn, they’re a stupid asshole, deserving of a long blast on the horn, shouting and obscene finger gestures. If we fail to signal, however, well we’re only human and it was an innocent mistake. Get over it.

Think on that, next time you’re in traffic.

I will continue to wrestle with this moral dilemma, convinced there is no answer that will please everyone. Just like my artwork, I am a work in progress.

Take care,
Patrick
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Wolves in Progress

One of the most common questions I get about my painted work is, “how long does it take to do one of these?”

The glib Picasso rip-off answer is, “a lifetime,” most often hauled out when people question an artist’s pricing.

For one of my whimsical wildlife portraits, the answer is usually somewhere around 15 or 20 hours which is just a ballpark. I don’t really keep track because I don’t paint something in one sitting. There’s always other work being done at the same time, the daily editorial cartoons, admin work, and the like.

Something that took me 15 hours a decade ago, however, would likely take me less than half that, now, because I’ve become a better artist in that time. Concepts I found difficult then are routine techniques now, allowing for more detailed work in the same amount of time. This is why many artists don’t offer hourly rates, because the better you get, the quicker you get something done, meaning you’d make less money. It doesn’t make any sense that I should be paid more as a beginner than as an accomplished professional.

Because my licensing clients and customers like them, and I’ve now got a large portfolio that sells well, I’ll still continue to create the somewhat caricatured single head-shot style animal paintings. Like most artists, however, I get bored with my own work and want to try new things. That’s what led to my funny looking animal pieces in the first place, an experimental painting ten years ago.

From gathering the reference, to sorting through them, looking for the one or two that sparks an idea, to sketches and false starts, paintings take time. Posting a new piece every week would only be realistic if I didn’t have editorial cartoons to draw each day.

With that in mind, here is the beginning of a new painting, just started this morning. When I still had a social media presence, this is the kind of thing I would share just to have something to post, in the mad scramble for likes and shares. Now that I know that sort of thing doesn’t really translate into anything more than a higher level of anxiety, I hadn’t thought of posting work-in-progress shots on the blog. Since somebody told me recently that they missed seeing them, well why not?

Besides, it’s humbling to post stuff like this, because it has barely begun, which leaves me feeling exposed. I guess that’s the whole point, to illustrate (wink wink) that a painting doesn’t just happen. It starts with the broad strokes, the roughest of layouts, with many hours working alone, before ending with fine little hairs under the eyes and droplets of moisture on the gums. That moment when the personality shows up, that’s many hours down the road.

Incidentally, at the beginning of every painting, which is what you see here, I always(!) think that my best work is behind me, that there is no way my skills will be good enough to match the vision I have for the piece, and that it’s just going to suck. Go get a real job, you imposter hack, you’re not fooling anybody.

Every painting starts with this fear, and almost every artist I know suffers from this same panicky self-doubt. This is why dealing with internet trolls has always felt like amateur hour to most of us. The trolls who live in our heads are so much nastier, and unlike Twitter, you can’t block them.

All that said, these initial steps on a new painting, it’s a familiar wasteland of unfinished work and I’ve traversed it many times before. Turning back just isn’t an option and I’m looking forward to seeing how this piece turns out.

I’ll keep you posted.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Cattle Call

In need of a getaway, I spent four nights last week at the cabin near Caroline that friends and I rent from time to time. This little slice of heavenly Alberta ranch land never fails to recharge the batteries and provide new inspiration.

I was alone at the cabin for the first night and my friend Darrel arrived Monday for the next three. Having known each other most of our lives, it’s one of those rare friendships where we can go months without seeing each other and just pick up where we left off like no time has passed.

Over the five days, we explored more of the property we hadn’t yet seen, took daily drives down gravel and dirt roads, looking for critters and anything else of interest.

On one drive west, we ventured down a rough muddy road to get to Camp Worthington, beside the Clearwater River. In recent years, it’s been used as a survival training camp for Air Cadets. In the early nineties, however, I’d been out there multiple times as an instructor with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. Hadn’t been back since, and was surprised how little has changed, though flooding in recent years has altered some of the landscape.

The cabins, mess hall and other structures were unlocked and in good repair, clearly maintained. Amazing how opening a door can bring back a flood of fond memories.

Of course, wherever we went, I was looking for animals.


On our drives and around the cabin, we saw plenty of birds, wild and domestic horses, deer, and I even saw a moose right outside the kitchen window at 5am one morning. By the time I got dressed, grabbed the camera, and figured out where she’d gone, however, she had made it across the pasture, out of range.

Shonna said that a real artist would have gone out au naturel to get the shot. I’m sure the mosquitoes would have loved that.

Apparently there has been a grizzly in the area, but we didn’t encounter that particular neighbour. I can’t say it wasn’t on my mind around the cabin, especially on my own the first night.

I’ve wanted to paint some more domesticated animals in my whimsical style, farm and ranch critters to add to the gallery of funny looking animals I’ve created. On recent visits to KB Trails, I’ve been fortunate to get some pretty wonderful reference for some horse paintings I’m planning.
This time around, I was going to visit the neighbours to take some reference photos of their cows, but when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, our hosts told me we’d have some new neighbours of our own at the cabin. Turns out they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a friend for his herd of cattle and I was delighted at the news.


Of all the animals I photographed this time, the majority were cows. After going through the four hundred or so I took, keeping only the best of the bunch, I ended up with a great selection of reference and I’m looking forward to painting from them soon. Little cows, big cows, a group of cows, there’s no shortage of inspiration and material there.

The rest of the trip was what you’d expect from two boring middle-aged guys. Enjoyed good food and drink, played games and guitar, listened to music, and fell into naps in our chairs, mid-conversation. Weather was good, bugs weren’t bad, and the welcome quiet was surreal. We could have easily stayed another week if not for that whole work thing.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Grassi Lakes Owls

For the past five years, I’ve enjoyed hiking up to Grassi Lakes here in Canmore to watch the owls.

High up on an ancient coral seabed, a popular climbing wall with locals and visitors alike, there is a cave, where each year in the spring, a mated pair of Great Horned Owls raises a couple of owlets. If you’ve got a good pair of binoculars or long zoom lens, and you get there at the right time of day, you can catch a great view of an owl family in the wild. Most of the time, it’s only one adult looking after the young while the other is out hunting, or maybe taking some me time.  Because Grassi Lakes is in a provincial park, conservation offices hang a little red sign far below the cave, warning climbers to avoid that route while the owls are nesting. Since they have no reason to hide, the owls are usually right out in the open, enjoying their view of the tourists below.

It has been my experience that anybody with a dog, large or small, attracts their attention and I’ve captured some nice expressions as a result.

Earlier this year, I hiked up there a couple of times and saw no sign of them. Great Horned Owls will typically live about 13 years in the wild, much longer in captivity. Their fertile years are shorter than that, so I always expect that each year I see them, could possibly be the last.
Last week, with only time for a short exercise hike, I went up the trail to Grassi Lakes and was delighted to see one of the adults and an owlet. This week, on a return trip, I saw a second owlet. They’re quite large, so I missed them when they were little puffballs, but I’ve taken plenty of photos of that stage of development in recent years.

I’m assuming it’s the same adults each year, but it could very well be a different pair, possibly one of the young from previous years. Regardless, it’s nice that the cave provides a recurring safe space for new owls to be born.
My painting, One in Every Family,  (shown above) was done the first year I noticed these owls and it’s not only a favorite creation, but a popular print. At Photoshop World in 2014, the image won Best in Show.

Even though I’ve already painted these critters, I still enjoy seeing them each year and taking more photos, all of the ones seen here taken this week. Who knows, maybe I’ll paint them again one day.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Local Cartoonist

Although I have syndicated clients across Canada and produce cartoons each day for them, I also draw one local cartoon each week for The Rocky Mountain Outlook, the paper of record for Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and area.

I’ve been their cartoonist since they opened their doors in 2001 and I’ve never missed an issue. In the early days of The Rocky Mountain Outlook, one of the owners, also the Editor, encouraged me to self-syndicate, which meant draw my own cartoons and send them out to other papers in the hopes they publish them. At the time, I’d only drawn one cartoon each week for the Banff Crag & Canyon for a few years and was very new to the Outlook.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was destined to fail. The cheap seats were full of people who said so.

I was thirty years old, and I had never envisioned a career as an artist. Not even a little. Carol Picard changed my life and it’s hard not to say Thank You every time I see her around town.

For the next five years, I drew cartoons on the side while working a full-time job to pay the bills. Early mornings before work, evenings after work and weekends, with very little money to show for it. I almost quit half a dozen times in those five years. Sometimes I drew five cartoons in a week and made $10 from the one weekly paper that ran one. That kind of thing went on for a couple of years, but it was great practice. I was finally able to become a full-time artist in 2006.

With a lot of experiments in between, eventually the editorial cartooning led to the other half of my business painting funny looking animals, which are licensed and sold in zoos, parks, retail stores and other venues across Canada and internationally. Having been a full-time professional artist for the past 13 years, I’m pretty sure I’m now unemployable in a real job.

Without The Rocky Mountain Outlook, none of that would have happened.

My editor, Tanya Foubert, delighted in calling me today to tell me that the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards were announced for 2019 and I won 1st and 2nd for Best Local Cartoon in our class. While we all know it’s not about the awards, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this feels pretty good. It’s the first win for me, although I think I got third one year.

I’ve never submitted to the National Newspaper Awards. Maybe once in the early 2000s. The Outlook submits to the CCNAs on my behalf. Since I have many clients for my cartoons, it’s always been more important to me to keep my editors and publishers supplied, happy (and paying me!) than it was to win an award.

But this one is different, because it’s the Outlook. It’s my local paper. I’ve known these people for almost twenty years. I know what the original owners went through to keep it afloat, against all odds. I know how hard the current staff and leadership work to hold to that original vision.

Once again, I am reminded of Roosevelt and The Man in the Arena.

From the official announcement of the awards on News Media Canada’s site, the first highlight was, “The Rocky Mountain Outlook from Canmore/Kananaskis/Banff/Lake Louise in Alberta picked up the most wins (five), including first place for General Excellence.”

How could I not be happy to be a part of that?

Thanks, Carol.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here are the cartoons that won. The first was about the contentious issue of Calgary’s failed bid for the 2026 Olympics. While not an official tally, half the community seemed to want it more than anything, the other half were opposed.

Second was our ongoing issue with parking in this area. My first cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon in 1998 was on paid parking. Everybody’s got an opinion and a solution, but nobody wants to pay for it, or stop driving whenever they want.

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California Sea Lion

It’s been some time since I’ve done a painting in my whimsical wildlife style, but I was pleased to put the finishing touches on this California Sea Lion this morning.

This year has been a challenge to get any traction on new work as the business of being an artist has taken precedent over the artwork itself. It isn’t enough to create the art; you also have to sell it, which involves a lot of behind the scenes admin type stuff, especially when a large new license is involved.

While I enjoy most of the paintings I do, some of them are done with more of a commercial intent than for my own pleasure. This is one of those. Pacific Music and Art has quite a few retail clients on Vancouver Island and all up and down the coast into the United States. A sea lion might not come across as a big draw like a bear, eagle or whale, but they are popular with tourists, largely because they’re all over the place and accessible. They’re just a comical looking animal, with an obnoxious air of entitlement that reminds me of politicians, no offense intended to the sea lions.

Add in their distinct barking, awkward movement on land and naturally amusing expressions, I’ve always been pleased to see them on our many trips to Vancouver Island. It wasn’t hard to find reference to paint this piece, because I’ve taken plenty of shots of them over the years, just a few shown here.
Shonna and I do have a trip to the Island planned for later in the summer, but it will be the first time we won’t be going out to Ucluelet, one of our favorite places on earth. We’ll still be on the hunt for wildlife, but the adventure we’ve booked this year will have a different flavour and some new excitement.

In the meantime, I’ll be starting another painting right away with plenty more planned for this year.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Brené Brown & The Man in the Arena

As cliché as many might be, good quotes stick around because they resonate with so many people, even though some can be overused until they mean nothing.

That quote by Einstein, if indeed he was the one who really said it, about doing the same thing over and over again, we’re all tired of that because people trot it out every single day, usually on social media. That should be included in the definition of irony.

I was reminded of one recently, however, from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s usually just referred to as The Man in the Arena, and goes like this…

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

As someone who gets a fair amount of criticism, whether it be from people who don’t like my cartoons, my animal art, or my writing, you soon realize it’s just part of the territory. You can’t put yourself out there without painting a target on your back. It has always been easier to criticize than to put your neck on the line and risk something yourself.

When I was younger, I would bristle at the nasty comments I would get, first on forums, then later on social media. Most of the time, it was from strangers, which shouldn’t make a difference, but as any heart-on-their-sleeve creative type will tell you, 100 compliments never seem to matter as much as one criticism.

Sometimes that criticism comes from a friend or family member and when oft-repeated, it can take a toll. But eventually, you realize that someone who makes it a point to criticize often, or lob the same criticisms again and again, well, it’s not about you. It’s about them.

Constructive criticism should be welcomed, especially if it comes from a trusted source who genuinely wants to bolster your success or help you be a better version of yourself. Sadly, that is more rare than the former. I am fortunate to have had plenty of constructive criticism in my time that has made me a better artist.

In either case, you trim your sails accordingly.

Rather than write a long missive on this, I’m going to include links to Brené Brown’s two TED Talks that prompted the writing of this post, since it was she who reminded me of the Roosevelt quote. I could poorly paraphrase her insights, or just let her speak for herself. The first is one of the most watched talks in TED history, the second not far behind.

While drawing a cartoon this morning, I watched/listened to her recent Netflix special that I would highly recommend, called “Brené Brown: the Call to Courage”. In fact, you could probably skip the TED videos and the special would cover most of it, but the talks have some pretty funny moments.

If you’re struggling in the darkness, there might be some light there for you.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bearing It All

“Don’t run.”

That’s what I told myself after coming across a black bear and her cub, the first time it has ever happened to me, in a place where I’ve worried about it for the past twenty years.

Each year, the first weekend of May, a group of friends has camped at a lake in B.C. for three nights, though the roll call changes from time to time. In earlier years, we used to go more often during the summer as well, but this formerly well-kept secret spot just isn’t anymore.

My first trip was in ’95, with gaps when I was first self-employed and time off was rare, and when I owned a little car that couldn’t make it up the road without multiple rock hits on the bottom.

Still, I have many trips under my belt.

Paddling around the lake in the canoe, lots of laughs, some bad weather, some good, plenty of stories about past excursions, and treasured shared memories with friends I’ve known for decades.

One thing I could never quite kick, however, was my fear of bears.

I’m an anxious person, high strung, easily startled, on edge most of the time. At some point in your life, usually after a mid-life crisis, you just have to own it and say, “fuck it, this is who I am.”

I won’t apologize for it anymore. Nobody else does, and I know plenty of people just as screwed up as I am, whether they’ll admit it or not.

I’ve had my share of irrational fears, but have done my best to face them, most with great results.

Claustrophobia. I went caving. Twice. It included plenty of tight squeezes, only one of which I couldn’t bring myself to do, but the experience was incredible. Not just facing the fear, but seeing that ancient underground world.

Fear of Heights. Shonna and I went skydiving in Vegas. An unparalleled rush, I would do it again without hesitation.

Fear of Public Speaking. I’ve taught at conferences, given talks to groups, spoken to schools. It no longer bugs me.

My fear of bears, however, is a strange one.

I probably know more about bears than most people. Living in bear country, I’ve educated myself to try and come to terms with this irrational fear. And yes, it is irrational because bears are not looking to have a confrontation. Despite what you might have seen in movies and on TV, bears would rather not encounter people. When bears meet people, it often ends up very bad for the bears.

And yet, people still have encounters for a variety of reasons.

They go camping and leave food out. Bears are opportunists with an incredible sense of smell and will come into a campsite simply to get a free easy meal. Most of the time, it’s preventable, but people are slow learners.

Folks will stop on the road and actually get out of their cars to approach a bear for a photo. This is a large animal that will defend itself. It did not instigate this situation simply by being there but it will react if it’s threatened.

People will come across a bear in the woods because they weren’t making noise and surprised it. Same situation, the bear will startle and defend itself, especially if it has cubs.

I could write thousands of words about bear safety, but the information is easy to find. Bears will leave you alone if you leave them alone, almost all of the time.

It’s incredibly annoying when somebody finds out I’m afraid of bears and then tells me all of the anecdotal information of which I am well aware. I’ve lived in bear country for 25 years. I know this shit.

Where I live in the Canadian Rockies, there are people who run into bears all the time, whether in their yards, while hiking, camping in the back-country and it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. My phobia makes no sense to these people, just as it doesn’t to me. I’ve even tried hypnosis, which helped me be more comfortable hiking, but did nothing for sleeping in a tent.

It’s embarrassing, it feels juvenile, and there is no small sense of shame surrounding the whole thing.

Despite my own internal logical arguments against it, the fear persists.

In 2016, I began a relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. They had a behind the scenes bear encounter with their orphaned black bears to learn more about them. I signed up, to work on my fear.
It was an experience I won’t forget. When the head keeper Serena (now a friend) found out I had a phobia, she took it up a notch and I got up close and personal with a black bear, even feeding a gentle giant named Reno. This was huge for me, and since then I’ve had even more encounters with their bears, especially with their latest orphan, a grizzly named Berkley.
Anybody who has seen my photos, videos and my experiences with Berkley probably doesn’t get that I’m afraid of bears. Over the past couple of years, we have walked together, played together, she has crawled all over me, given me kisses. While I don’t have close contact like this with her anymore as she’s much bigger, my time with Berkley has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Bears are my favorite animals to photograph, paint, read about, and champion. I feel strongly about bear conservation, rescue, and preserving their habitat. All of the time I’ve spent at Discovery Wildlife Park, I’ve asked many questions of Serena and she’s taught me plenty about bears.

So it makes no sense to me that they are what I fear most when I go out into the woods.

Just like challenging my other fears, I have been determined to continue to expose myself to the threat to try to get over it. I still go camping out there, and every night when I lie down on my cot in my tent, I spend the next couple of hours trying to get to sleep. It eventually comes, but the fear remains undiminished, year after year.

Friday night, we arrived at the lake, set up our accommodation and got to work gathering firewood for the weekend. My friend Jim in his little Boler trailer, Babe in his Boler trailer, and two friends Babe brought with him had a forty foot custom renovated blue school bus that navigated the difficult road with ease, an impressive feat.

As usual, I was in my small tent.

Despite the sketchy weather, colder, windier and wetter than forecast, it was rather normal. But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to feel the trip is a bit of an obligation. Sleeping in a tent loses its appeal as one gets older and early May in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable and usually quite cold at night. Falling within days of the Calgary Expo, it’s a challenge to get everything home from that event, unpacked, put away, get cartoons done for the week, then shop, pack and take off again a few days later for this trip. It shouldn’t feel like another chore.

Even though it’s a beautiful spot, the novelty of the same place, on the same weekend, each year, has lost a great deal of its appeal for me. But I’ve kept going, because I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits.

That’s the frame of mind with which I started this weekend, though I kept it to myself.

As usual, I lay awake in my tent for a couple of hours, trying to talk myself out of my usual bearanoia and eventually fell asleep.
The following morning, I woke early, made some coffee, grabbed my camera gear and headed out in the canoe for a paddle around the lake. It was enjoyable, although windy and cold, but comfortably familiar. I patrolled the shoreline, taking pictures of ducks.
The weather grew progressively sketchy. But we read, talked, got to know our new camping companions, and puttered as usual.

In the early evening, I decided to take a quick walk up the road to send Shonna a text. Unreliable cell service out there means pockets where No Service becomes one small bar for short windows.

About 150 yards away from the camp beside the road, I approached a familiar flat green space. Through the trees, I saw a large moving black shape, then another smaller one behind it in the grass. A black bear and cub.

I stopped, looked back and forth to make sure I wasn’t looking at a stump or pile of dirt and it moved again. I shouted, “HEY, GET OUT OF HERE!”

She raised her head, looked in my direction, then ignored me and went back to eating.

I turned back the way I came and started walking, too fast.

“Don’t run.”

Forcing myself to slow, I kept one eye on where I was going and one behind me. Since I was close to the camp, Jim was coming up to the road as I got back. They’d all heard me yell.

I told them what I saw. Naturally, I was the only one freaked out by it.

We ate dinner, but stress completely ruins my appetite, so I ended up discarding half of mine, the meal I’d been looking forward to most.

Years ago, Shonna and I were camping with Jim out there and while he was out in the canoe, we had seen a large black shape up on the road that spooked us. It turned out to be a cow, as ranchers down the mountain will often let their herds wander.

Did I really see a bear through the trees, or was it a cow? I doubted my own eyes, thinking my overactive imagination had conjured up my worst fear.

After dinner, Jim said he’d go back up the road with me to check for evidence that I saw what I’d thought I saw.

I was now wearing my bear spray on my hip, and Jim had a large stick he was loudly tapping on the ground as he walked behind me, an effort to alert a bear to our presence. The silly thing is that I was almost trying to be quiet so that I could get some validation that I wasn’t making this up. I know better than that.

Sure enough, as we approached the green space, Jim’s tapping did the trick. With plenty of room to spare, a black bear ran up onto the road from the flat area, heading away from us, followed by one…two…three cubs.

From my car, a cabin, on a boat out in Ucluelet, that kind of sighting would have been wonderful. In that environment, however, it ruined my weekend.

There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.

Thankfully, I had options other than my car. Jim’s Boler has a single bed in it he calls the spice rack because it’s so narrow, but I’m not a wide guy, so it would work. Better still, our new friends had a garage built into the rear of their converted bus for their two Harleys they’d left at home. My cot fit with plenty of room to spare, their hospitality greatly appreciated. I even had my own entrance so I didn’t have to invade their privacy.

We keep a clean camp, but we’d eaten plenty of food. Bears had investigated the picnic table before, just not on trips I’d been on. The next morning, no tracks, no scat, no sign they’d been there.

I had contemplated going home, but I had slept well in my secure accommodation so I decided to continue on with the weekend. I still canoed, even hoped I might see the bears around the lake so I could take pictures from the water, but saw no more sign of them. The weather went from rain, to sunny breaks, to windy, to cloudy, back to rain, with no end in sight.

We alternated between sitting by the fire, huddling under the tarp, sitting by the fire, then moving under the tarp again. All of us wearing multiple layers, toques, gloves and trying to stay positive.

More than once I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

On the last evening, Jim came back from his paddle around the lake and said the bear family was in the vacant site at the other end of the lake. They’d stayed in the area the whole weekend.

You might wonder, knowing what I know of bear behaviour, that they aren’t predatory, or naturally aggressive, or looking for confrontation, what did I think was going to happen? I mean, she ran the other way long before we even got close. That’s typical and appropriate bear behaviour.

Here’s an example of where my mind takes me…In the middle of the night, while we’re all asleep, they wander into the camp looking for food. One of the cubs comes over to my tent, starts pawing at it, perhaps attracting Mom’s attention. I wake up at the noise, try to yell out or set off my car alarm, it startles Mom or the cub, but instead of running away, she gets defensive and I’m toast.

In my underwear.

The what-ifs of my paranoid mind spiral downward from there, taking turns with the self-loathing voice telling me I’m being stupid.

As my wife said when I got home, “Why do you keep going? What are you trying to prove?”

The only answer I can come up with is that I don’t want to be a coward.

I force myself to go on this trip every year, intent on beating this phobia, even though after twenty years, it’s still undiminished, just so that I can say I didn’t give up.

That’s a great frame of mind when something matters, like my marriage, career or a difficult painting or project.

But this is supposed to be a relaxing getaway after the most demanding part of my year. One day back and I can tell you, the most relaxing part of it was the hot shower and good night’s sleep when I got home.

This is likely my last trip to the lake for the foreseeable future. Investing in a hard shell trailer or larger vehicle for the three or four times I might use it each year is a bad investment. Add to that having to pay to store it somewhere. Doing the math, I realized I could rent a cabin for four three night stays every year for the next ten to fifteen years for the same price it would cost me to buy a trailer or camper, not to mention the vehicle to haul it.

And it’s a much more comfortable stay when the weather turns foul, where seeing wildlife is a treat, not an imagined threat, where I sleep well, truly relax and recharge.

While I’ll take some grief from my friends for this decision, they’ll eventually realize it’s a much more enjoyable trip without the guy who jumps at every rustle in the bushes.

It’s ironic that I’m soon heading up to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year. I miss Berkley and the other bears.

Cheers,
Patrick