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Sleepy Bear

It was tough to call this one finished as I was really enjoying it, especially over the last few days. I started it in the middle of October, but with editorial cartoons, a commission on deadline, and all of the other obligations of art for a living, it was tough finding the time to sit down and get lost in this piece.

The model for this painting was Manuka, a seven year old “white” black bear who lives at The Calgary Zoo. She’s a beautiful bear, a favorite of mine.

Manuka was a rescue from Elkford, BC in 2014 where she had become a nuisance bear, too familiar with people. It’s sadly a common tale; we see it in Canmore and Banff all the time. People leave food out on their decks, fail to keep clean campsites or tourists will actually feed bears on the side of the road, despite the many warnings from conservation officials or locals.

When a bear becomes habituated, associating people with food, there are usually only a few options. The bear can be relocated, which doesn’t have a high success rate, or it will be destroyed as it becomes a danger to people. Sadly, there are usually no consequences for the people who are responsible for the bear becoming habituated in the first place.

In rare cases, the bear might find a home at a rescue facility, like The Calgary Zoo or Discovery Wildlife Park, where their dependence on humans isn’t a problem. The bears then provide an opportunity for folks who work in conservation to educate the public on why we need to protect these animals, and be responsible while enjoying the great outdoors.

Manuka lives with two other black bears and they seem to get along quite well. They’ll often be seen chasing each other and playing in their large enclosure, which includes water and rock features, logs, trees and dens.

There is a massive prominent tree in that enclosure, and while all of the bears like climbing on it, often scaling it incredibly fast with ease, there is a large green platform about 30 feet up. Manuka can often be found up there napping, which is the reference I used for this painting. She looked right at the lens, slowly opening and closing her eyes, and I was thrilled when I got home and saw the photos I knew would inspire a painting.

I took the reference pics for this piece in August of last year, but when I started working on it last month, we were surrounded by fall colours. With the sleepy nature of the pose, the fact that the bears around here were getting ready to bed down for the winter, it seemed an appropriate palette and theme. I also expected to have it done before the season turned, but for reasons I mentioned above, it just didn’t happen.
Above is a practice piece I did of Manuka a couple of years ago, in the spring when she and her roommates were just waking up, but I hadn’t done a fully rendered painting of her until now. I’m glad I waited because I’m quite pleased with the results. Painting that fur while looking at that happy sleep face, I was reminded how fortunate I am to do this for a living.

This was painted in Adobe Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. As always, photos are never part of my paintings, only used for reference. The finished file is 30″X40″. Prints should be available sometime in the New Year, both in my online store and at The Calgary Zoo.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Vancouver Island 2018

Why am I writing a blog post on my week away from the office? Because it’s pouring! But considering that the whole week on Vancouver Island was supposed to be like this, I’ve got no complaints. We lucked out on the weather, as the rain held off on all of our wildlife excursion days.

At the moment, we’re in a cabin on the harbour in Ucluelet, one of our favorite places.


While many end up on this side of Vancouver Island to visit Tofino, we’ve long preferred taking the left turn near the end of Highway 4, rather than continuing on to what to us seems like a Pacific version of Banff. No offence intended Tofino, but a busy tourist town is what we’re taking a vacation from. Ucluelet just feels more like a place you could live.


Rather than chew up four days driving to and from Vancouver Island, we’ve always flown into Comox and rented a car. If it costs more, it’s only by a small amount when you factor in the ferries, hotels, and gas. We’re not road trip people. Screw the journey, give me the destination.

On Saturday upon landing, we picked up our rental car (free upgrade to an SUV!), met up with our ex-Banffite friend Robyn for coffee, and stayed with long time family friends for a night. My buddy Darrel is my oldest and closest friend, and his parents always make us feel so welcome. Unfortunately, there are other friends we always like to see when out here on the Island, but with only a week away, after an incredibly busy summer in Canmore, we opted to be selfish and offered our regrets ahead of time.

Shonna decided we should try AirBNB and VRBO this year for our accommodations and it was a great plan. She found us a nice, albeit small, condo in a renovated historic building on the harbour in Victoria, a place called the Janion, right beside the brand new Johnson Street Bridge. An impressive piece of engineering.

Victoria has a beautiful downtown with plenty of restaurants and things to see within easy walking distance. We parked the car on arrival and didn’t use it again until we left.

The main reason for going to Victoria this time was for Orcas. Shonna has long wanted to see them. I’ve wanted to paint one as well, but this was something we’ve missed out on every previous trip to the Island so we were on a mission.

We booked with Eaglewing Tours, their floating office on Fisherman’s Wharf. A number of years ago, the owner licensed the use of my Humpback Whale Totem painting for a mural on the side of their building, and this was the first opportunity I had to see it in person. They’d combined it with another artist’s painting of orcas and whoever stitched it together did a fine job of it.

Given their reputation, we booked with them for our best chance to see Orcas.

Without subjecting you to a play by play, on our five hours in the Salish Sea, we saw over a dozen Humpbacks. At one point, with a dark sky and storm on the horizon, we could see the spray from their exhalations on all sides, an incredible and surreal sight.


On the way back, it was looking like Shonna wasn’t going to luck out on this trip, until the Captain spotted what we were after. In the end, we saw three family pods of Orcas, including two babies. One was almost a newborn, its white markings still orange.

One even swam right up to the boat, turning over to take a look at us. The experience surpassed our expectations and made the three days in Victoria well worth the drive down Island.

While in Victoria, I visited Art Ink Print for the first time, the company that supplies my digital poster prints sold in the zoos and parks. They’ve consistently exceeded my expectations when it comes to quality and service so it was nice to see where it all happens. Typical of Victoria, their shop was only a few blocks from where we were staying and I was able to see the first proof of my latest painting, Happy Baby. Prints will be available soon.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find my Otter Totem shirt in a couple of stores, those licensed and sold through Harlequin Nature Graphics in Cobble Hill. With conflicting schedules, we didn’t visit them this time, but have in the past.

After Victoria, we headed north and west to Ucluelet for four nights. For the most part, we’re creatures of habit out here. Breakfasts at The Barkley Café and dinners at the Floathouse Grill, often more than once. From the beach in front of our cabin at low tide, I was able to watching a Great Blue Heron fishing and even saw seven River Otters go by one morning.



On Wednesday, I went out on a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Tours owned by our friends Al and Toddy, on the hunt for reference pics. Shonna’s been out with them twice, so she opted to spend the day being pampered at the Black Rock Spa, but she still got to visit when we took them out to dinner Thursday night.

This was my 7th time touring the Broken Group Islands and this go round, we saw bears, seals, sea lions, sea otters, eagles, and plenty of birds, not to mention some of the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere in the world, all from the comfort of the boat.


Thursday found Shonna and I at the Thornton Creek Hatchery on the road to Port Albion, where they’re working to increase salmon numbers in this area. We’d never been there before, but likely because we’re usually here in June and this is our first visit in September when the salmon are spawning.

One of the bonuses is that black bears frequent the river for the easy salmon meal. There is a boardwalk above the river, where for a limited time, tourists like us can see the bears without there being any danger to either species.

We headed down the dirt road through the thick growth rain forest to the gate, arriving at around 9:30, where there were already three cars ahead of us. By the time they let us in at 10, there were about a dozen vehicles waiting. Happy to pay the suggested donation of $10-$20 for the privilege, we were ushered into the enclosure where we lined up along the boardwalk rail and waited.


After about 25 minutes, the first bear showed up, plucked a salmon out of the river and went back into the woods. Over the next hour, four more bears came to visit, including two cubs. Got some great close reference photos from our vantage point, and it was wonderful to be see the wild bears feeding without any concerns.


Today is an unscheduled lazy day doing nothing in our cabin, watching the rain come down outside. Shonna and I really don’t do enough of that in our day to day. While sitting enjoying a beer in the cabin’s outdoor hot tub this afternoon, we realized we had taken no pictures of ourselves the whole trip. So looking our absolute best, we took a very rare selfie.


We’ll drive back to Comox tomorrow morning for our flight back to Calgary in the evening, back to the grind on Sunday which is when this will be posted.

Rested, inspired, and ready to draw, paint and write.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Bird of Prey named Sarah

This is my latest painting of a Golden Eagle, based on reference photos I took of a 32 year old beauty named Sarah.
On a Saturday in the middle of last month, I went downtown to visit one of the Town of Canmore’s WILD events at the Civic Centre. This annual event features everything from hikes, arts activities, educational talks about the environment, and much more. While this introvert is not a big participator in large group gatherings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Live Birds of Prey Exhibit.

Knowing this was a popular annual event, I arrived while they were still setting up with the intent of gathering some reference photos. There were four different owl species and one Golden Eagle. With such easy access to take up close reference photos, I was happy to make a small donation to express my appreciation.
From spending time with the keepers at Discovery Wildlife Park, supporting the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation each month and seeking to be better informed about the work involved in these sanctuaries, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is an expensive undertaking.

It’s not just the care and feeding of the animals that requires constant funding, it’s the building and maintaining of facilities, veterinary bills, transportation costs, and all of the little things that add up to create a big monthly bill that never seems to decrease. I read a meme online recently that said, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
The more questions I’ve asked of the experts this year, the more I realize how little I know. But I’m eager to find out so that I can not only pass on the information to foster more interest in wildlife conservation, but also that I can better understand how best I can help.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation was started in 1982, when “wildlife rescue activity in Western Canada was almost non-existent. Centre founders Wendy Slaytor and Colin Weir approached the Province of Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division with an offer to start Alberta’s first volunteer wildlife rescue facility.”

That quote is from their History page on their website. I would encourage you to click on the link, read the rest of it, and take a look around. The work they do is admirable, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds back into the wild, participating in captive breeding programs of endangered species, studying and monitoring avian populations and educating the public and how to be better stewards of the environment.

While I haven’t yet visited their Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, I plan to in the coming year when they re-open for the 2018 season. It’s open to the public, yet another Alberta destination you can add to that family road-trip next year.
I enjoyed chatting with Colin Weir (above) and his daughter, Aimee, who were happy to answer all of my questions about each of the owls and Sarah. Each of these birds has their individual story about how they came to the facility and why they can’t be released into the wild. Instead, they’ve become ambassadors of the facility, allowing people to see these wonderful creatures up close. It has been my experience that these opportunities foster more empathy for the world around us and those with whom we share it.

Colin was even kind enough to let me hold Gordon, their Great Horned Owl. I’ve painted Alberta’s official bird a number of times, but this is as close as I’ve ever been.
Ever since I discovered the local owl’s nest up at Grassi Lakes some years ago, which resulted in plenty of photos and my ‘One in Every Family’ painting (below), I’ve made it a point to educate myself about these beautiful birds. And still, asking Colin some questions about that local breeding pair, I found out there’s still so much I have to learn, about this breed and the many others they care for.
As I have four owl paintings in my portfolio, I thought I was done painting them for a little while, but I believe I might be mistaken. I did a little sketch painting on the iPad of their Burrowing Owl named Basil, but I think a more detailed painting of him will be coming very soon. Seriously, look at that face.
Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

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Connecting the Dot

About a week ago, I woke up with an idea to get a tattoo of a grizzly paw. I’ve long thought about getting a little ink and came close a while ago, but it never seemed quite right.

As a result, this was a little strange, to just wake up with this idea and rather than dismiss it as a fleeting crazy thought, it seemed completely logical. When Shonna woke up, I mentioned it to her and much to my surprise, she had no objections. In fact, when I mentioned getting it on my shoulder, she suggested I put it somewhere I could see it, like on my forearm.
Bears have been a part of my life since I moved to this valley in the mid-nineties. I’ve had an irrational fear of them for more than twenty years. But they’re also one of my favorite animals to paint, read about, and in recent years, spend time with. I’ve had many dreams about bears over the years. It’s been said that the thing we’re most afraid of can reveal the most profound parts of ourselves.

In the late-nineties, I used to hang out at a pub when we lived in Banff, called the Pump and Tap. I actually drank more diet coke there than alcohol, could smoke a cigarette and draw in my sketchbook. One of the other regulars one day showed me a black bear tooth he had. If I remember correctly, he said his grandfather had found it in Quebec with the skeleton of a bear many years ago and gave him a few of the teeth.

Out of the blue, he handed it to me and said, “I think you’re supposed to have it.”

I was taken completely off guard. Keep in mind, I didn’t paint my first Totem animal (a Grizzly bear) until November of 2009, more than ten years later.

I was grateful for the gift, this tooth yellowed by age, but polished and practically petrified.

For years I carried it with me in my pocket in a little leather pouch I picked up at one of the stores in Banff. But after a while, I worried about losing it, so I had a jeweler friend, Doug Bell, put a silver mount on it and I wear it around a chain to this day.

Like most people, my dreams are simply the reorganization of weekly experiences and events. The mind forms a narrative to connect random thoughts while it files them away in long-term memory. But around the same time I got the tooth, I was having a lot of animal dreams, many of them about bears. In fact, I was having so many of them that I began to keep a journal. While cleaning out my office recently, I came across it, along with some other books of writing.

In one dream, I was flying over a large field, very close to the ground and I came across a small pond where I stopped and hovered above it. While looking at the water, a symbol became visible under the surface. I knew that it had some significance, but I didn’t know what.

I’ve thought about it often over the years. I even drew it in ink on that little pouch in which I carried the bear tooth. While writing this, I wondered if I still have it. Sure enough, it’s in a little box on my bookshelf. While the symbol is faded, it’s still there.
When I had Doug make the bear tooth piece for me years ago, I also had him craft that symbol in silver. I alternate between wearing the two on a chain, depending on my plans for the day.
So what does it mean? I’ve searched for that symbol online and a reverse image search comes up with nothing. But in researching symbols, I’ve found that often you can decipher meaning from the different parts of a symbol.

The closest I could come up with is the circumpunct, which is a dot inside of a closed circle. It’s one of the most ancient symbols in the world, prevalent in many cultures. Depending on where you find it, it can mean the sun, God, Ra, the solar system, the universe and it’s the alchemical symbol for gold. It is the beginning of creation.

In scouting, it means ‘End of trail. Gone home.’ My buddy Darrel pointed out that it’s on Baden Powell’s tombstone, which is appropriate.

To the Australian Aborigines, it’s the symbol for waterhole. To the Ojibwa, it means spirit.

And just to throw some water on this wildfire of flighty speculation, it’s also the symbol of the Target Corporation.

But what does it mean with the line?

I found one site that quoted Manly P. Hall, from his book Lectures on Ancient Philosophy. While it didn’t show the image, it would appear he might be describing the symbol I saw.

“The dot, moving away from self, projects the line; the line becomes the radius of an imaginary circle, and this circle is the circumference of the powers of the central dot.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it over the years and ultimately, it comes down to what it means to me. If I had to sum it up in one word, what has always felt right, it would be ‘Connection.’

The individual connected to the greater whole. We are all connected to each other and the world around us, in some way or another. We each find ways to interpret that connection, to understand it, and hopefully to give strength to it. For some, it’s through religion, their faith, their relationship with their god, whatever that means to each person.

For others, it might be through science, their understanding of the universe, how the microscopic form of the atom is mirrored in the gigantic form of a solar system. Repeating patterns, order in the chaos.

I still live in the real world and am a deeply flawed human being, but in my artwork and in spending time with animals, that’s where I find my own connection.

Over the past year, I’ve experienced some of the lowest points of my life, but also some of the highest. The latter thanks to the wonderful folks at Discovery Wildlife Park who have allowed me a closer connection with their animals, especially a certain wonderful little bear. Best of all, I got to share the experience with my wife, too.
I’ll choose time with animals over an anti-depressant any day of the week.
While designing my own version of a grizzly paw tattoo, it suddenly occurred to me that the paw pad should be the symbol with which I’ve had a relationship for many years. I didn’t want any great detail; I didn’t want to over-complicate it. I just wanted what you see, the simplicity of my connection to bears and animals. Whether this belief is real or imaginary is irrelevant. It speaks to me and makes me want to be a better human.

As they’ve got a great reputation, as do their talented artists, I expected a long wait to get a sitting at Electric Grizzly Tattoo (yeah, I see it). But this was not a difficult tattoo that would take a long time, so Myles Mac managed to get me in just days after I inquired. I went with it and it was a great experience. It will take a few weeks to be fully healed and I’ll share another photo then.

When Shonna suggested I put it where I could see it, I decided on the inner forearm of my drawing arm, the claws pointing toward my hand. When shit gets a little too real, when I’m having a bad day/week/month, when I’ve let the news get to me, when my faith in people is non-existent, I’m hoping it reminds me of my connection to something greater than myself, to inspire me to make a difference where I can, to be the change I want to see in the world.

Once again, thanks for reading my ramblings.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Lake Laziness

I almost didn’t go on this recent camping trip, but I fought my nature, listened to the appeals of my better angels and made the getaway a priority over the work. Winter is not far off and I need to put as much positive fuel in the tank while I can, before the dark and dreary cold season starts burning it away.

So, I let my newspapers know I’d be gone, gave them almost double the usual cartoons last week to keep them covered, and headed off Sunday morning to go camping with old friends. Three of us drove together in a little convoy to a regular meeting spot on Highway 95 between Radium and Golden. There we met up with another old friend who traveled from the other direction and we headed up into the hills. Three trucks, two trailers and my car.

It’s a dirt and gravel road for most of the way, some years better or worse than others, with the last 2km stretch resembling a goat track. That last bit requires driving in 1st gear, maneuvering back and forth from one side of the road to the other to avoid large potholes and big rocks. My buddy Al described it best when he said the road was particularly ‘bony’ this year, making it especially tricky for the two trucks pulling small Boler trailers.

There are three BC Forestry campsites on the entire lake, all spaced evenly apart, so even when it’s full, the neighbours are quite far away. We have our favorite spot and while we might not always get it, we lucked out once again this time. It’s a big site, with plenty of room to spread out our two trailers and two tents.

British Columbia is incredibly dry right now, experiencing one of the worst wildfire seasons ever recorded. There has been a fire ban on for nearly two months. With an abundance of dead-fall in the area, firewood is usually never an issue, but with no chance of the ban being lifted, we brought a propane fire bowl instead.  It provides some warmth when evening falls and is quite safe when handled properly. Most importantly, it’s legal during a fire ban.

With temperatures above 30C every day, we took extra measures like lining the inside of our coolers with Reflectix, laying soaking wet towels over the coolers during the day and keeping them in the shade.  My measure of success was going to be if I still had ice for a rum and coke on the third night and cold milk for coffee on the last morning.

I still had ice in the cooler when I got home.

I’ve been friends with two of these guys for more than twenty years, and the third for not much less. I’ve been coming to this lake since the mid-nineties the year I got married, but my buddy Jim started going there the year I graduated high school. Most of my friends are older than I am. Our buddy Babe (his real name) is in his early seventies, but he’s still hauling his little trailer up the road with the rest of us.

As we didn’t have to cut, haul and chop wood this time, it was pretty much four days of laziness. We all woke at different times, only stayed up past midnight once, ate and cooked our own food, read books, listened to music, insulted each other non-stop, napped in our chairs, went swimming in the lake quite often, ate food, drank beer and other spirits, with no agenda.
I also tried my hand at wood carving for the first time. While the result was a pitiful embarrassment and reminds me of a grade school art project, I did enjoy the process and will try again soon. I must remind myself that I used to be quite bad at drawing and painting, too. You’ve got to start somewhere.

Many assume that when four guys head to a lake in the mountains, they must be fishing, but none of us do. It just sounds like work to us. There aren’t many fish in this lake anyway.
When it comes to his canoe, Jim has one rule. Anybody can use it whenever they like, with the exception of dusk. That’s when he heads out on the lake each night and paddles around by himself for an hour or so as it gets dark. This works well for me since I was the only other person who used the canoe and my favorite time to be out on the lake is first thing in the morning as the sun’s coming up, camera and coffee in hand.

The forest ranger came by every couple of days doing his rounds, making sure nobody was violating the fire ban and we enjoyed chatting with him. He said there weren’t many campers in the area, but all he encountered were being responsible, which was nice to hear.

There were some other campers on the lake the first night and some day-fishermen one day, but for the most part, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was so quiet. It was clear most of the time, but on the last evening, the smoke from one of the many BC forest fires rolled in and by morning, the trees across the lake were blurred of their definition, lost in the haze.
There were plenty of dragonflies on the lake, normal for this time of year. We’d sit on the dock while swimming and they’d occasionally land on our shoulders or legs, an enjoyable experience. While canoeing around in the morning, I’d come across one struggling in the water and dip the paddle in to rescue it, something I learned from Jim years ago. After a few minutes drying off, it would eventually fly away. I think I rescued three or four of them. Might seem like a small thing, but I imagine it mattered to the dragonfly.

I’m used to seeing a lot of ducks on this lake in the spring. Though I heard a couple one evening this trip, I only saw one solitary loon one morning, letting out his lonely call. It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world, especially when I’m out in a canoe.
The best surprise of the whole weekend was watching an Osprey one morning and I managed to get close enough to take some photos. On the last morning, after I’d already packed up my tent and most of the car, Babe was looking out at the lake and said, “There’s your Osprey over there.”

I grabbed the camera, paddled across the lake and got a few more shots before we left, a nice way to end the trip.

This might be the last camping trip of the year, but given that it has been exceptionally warm this summer, there still might be another before the snow flies. If the opportunity comes up, I will probably grab it.
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Bear Belle (3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part post. Here’s a link to Part 1 and to Part 2.)

Walking back to the main building after taking pictures of the wolves, Serena said that I was welcome to join her and Berkley on their evening walk. I really felt I’d taken advantage of their generosity enough and told her so, but she said she was taking her anyway, so it was no imposition.

How could I say No? More importantly, WHY would I say No?I went to the main building for fifteen minutes while Serena and Denise put away the raccoons for the night and took care of some other end of day chores. I’d been told that when I next saw her, Serena would have Berkley with her and she would not be on a leash. Most likely I could expect Berkley to come and check me out and that she might put her nose on my legs, maybe even open her mouth as she did it, but that I shouldn’t be concerned as that’s all it would be.

Sure enough, I saw Serena coming and she asked, “Ready?”
When Berkley saw me, she did indeed come over and check me out. While I didn’t ignore her, I also didn’t make a big deal about it as I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. I was wearing shorts, so I felt a cold wet bear nose bump my leg a couple of times.

I told Serena that I knew not to run, as it would trigger Berkley’s instinct to chase. Even at her small size, she can likely outrun me now. While people think bears are big and lumbering, they are incredibly fast when they want to be. A bear can run up to 40mph in short bursts, faster than a race horse, uphill or downhill. That’s why you’re never advised to run from a bear.

But I asked what else I shouldn’t do.

Serena told me not to ruffle her fur back and forth on her back like you might do to a dog as it’s a signal for aggression, or rough play. A bear cub is very strong and even without meaning to, Berkley could hurt me. So while I didn’t need to be afraid of her, I did need to respect her space.

“But I can still touch her?”

Serena said that I could.
When I first met Berkley, she was about 12 pounds and very small as you can see in the above photo. That was mid-April. When I saw her again last week, she was 54 pounds. The difference is startling, because while she’s still a cub, you can see the adult bear she’s going to become, especially in the way she walks.

I had already doused myself once again in bug spray before they arrived. I had asked if it would bother Berkley, but Serena said the keepers wear it, so the animals are used to the smell. We headed for the tall grass and trees and I instantly realized the spray wasn’t going to cut it. Again, still worth it, but I was scratching for days afterward.

At first, she stuck with Serena and I walking along the path, but eventually Berkley took off into the tall grass, as she often likes to make her own route.
We came to the creek and I was told to sit down on a rock close to the water. Berkley usually crossed a log there and sitting where I was, I might get some good shots. Of course, that didn’t quite work out when Berkley came right to me and started climbing up my shoulders and back. I’ll admit to being quite nervous at this point, but Serena told her to get down and she did.

It should be noted that while Berkley has sharp claws, I’ve never felt them when she’s crawled on me. Not once.

Serena apologized because she suddenly remembered my recent fear of bears, but I was just startled more than anything. Berkley had already found other things to explore, anyway.

Serena told me not to be offended, but that Berkley really wouldn’t be that interested in me. I can’t remember her actual words, but it became clear that I was simply another piece of forest furniture. I was fine with that, because it made following her around and taking photos much more enjoyable and natural.

As we walked, Berkley went this way and that, just having a great time being a bear. She must have climbed more than half a dozen trees and it was amazing to see how easily she did it, scrambling up a trunk as if it was a ladder, then crawling back down to check out something else. She’d dig in the ground, chew on a stick or leaves, eat some grass, whatever caught her interest.
I asked plenty of questions, as I always do, and eventually I realized how comfortable I was walking through the woods with a bear. She never strayed far from Serena, but still did her own thing while we happily snapped photos of her.

We came to one of many large logs across the creek and Serena crossed first, leaving me on the other side with Berkley. She took a few photos of us with her camera but I knew I’d never get to see them until the fall. Summer is so busy for the park staff that any pictures and video you see on their active Facebook page have been taken with Serena’s phone, although they sure don’t look it.

She just hasn’t the time to download and sort through photos from her DSLR during peak season. So I asked if she’d mind taking a few of Berkley and I with my camera. It warrants mentioning that a lot of my photos from the walk are only good because Serena gave me some tips on shooting in the woods in low light.

I leaned across the creek and nervously handed my camera across to her, remembering my broken lens last month when I fell on some rocks on Vancouver Island.
My standing up and then sitting back down attracted Berkley’s attention, which made for a great photo. But then she decided I was worth checking out again and she crawled up on my shoulder. This time, I wasn’t so nervous until she started snuffling my hair, which is when Serena called her off.
Berkley crawled off and crossed the log, once again letting me know that know I’m not THAT interesting.

On the other side of the creek, Serena was looking at the photos in her camera, when Berkley came up behind her, started pulling on the string of her backpack. Serena leaned back so Berkley could crawl up on her and I got this shot.
This kind of photo can be misleading and people might think Berkley is as tame as their dog or cat. She’s not.

Berkley is a cub and only six months old and they’re still getting to know her and how she reacts to other people. One bear’s personality will be different from the next. Still, the most unpredictable ingredient in these encounters will be the person, not the bear. They can’t risk somebody thinking she’s so cute and reaching out to cuddle her or push her around. People might have the best of intentions, but she’s still a bear with wild instincts.

This experience of walking with her in the woods is not something they can make available to most people. I honestly didn’t expect to be offered this opportunity again after the first time because she’s getting bigger. Serena told me that the keepers have been around me enough to know that I’m not going to do anything to endanger the animals, staff or myself. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve gained their trust, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Serena knows Berkley best as she still takes her home every night. It’s a lengthy process getting Berkley used to being alone for extended periods of time. She has a small barn on the property where she goes to sleep during the day and that’s a comfortable space for her. Eventually, she will have a very large enclosure all of her own, and it’s there waiting for her. But to introduce her to such a large space all at once would be frightening so it will be done carefully and gradually. Until then, she demands a lot of Serena’s time, with the nightly walks and constant care, but as she said, “that’s the commitment I made when we adopted her.”

When you see photos and videos of Berkley playing or cuddling with Serena on Discovery Wildlife Park’s Facebook page, it’s because she might as well be her Mom. Berkley trusts her completely. She’s also that comfortable with Serena’s Dad, Doug. At the end of the evening when she saw him in a golf cart, she went right over and climbed up the front of it to see him, putting her face right up to his. Serena’s husband and kids are used to having all sorts of little animals at home, too.

This family knows bears. And lions, tigers, wolves, ostriches, beavers, raccoons…it’s a long list.

I’m sure they’re getting sick of me thanking them for the opportunities they’ve made available to me at Discovery Wildlife Park. It has been a great privilege to be granted such access to their animals and to continue to build relationships with the staff. Learning about the animals and their behaviour has been as rewarding as taking the photos.
Just like many of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park, Berkley is an ambassador for her species. Post-secondary Biology students are getting the opportunity to visit with her and watch her explore, just like I did. She is providing baseline health stats for a healthy Kodiak bear cub and will do so her whole life. She has already been trained to give urine and has started the training to give blood. That data is shared with universities and researchers to give them a better understanding of bear physiology, which will in turn help with populations in the wild.

I look forward to many more visits to the park and if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great place for families and there are education opportunities for all ages. Ask questions, even the uncomfortable ones, but please do so with respect. The keepers are more than willing to answer them.

Responsible wildlife sanctuaries offer many benefits. They provide homes for orphaned animals whose unfortunate circumstances prevent reintroduction into the wild. They provide valuable insight into behaviour and physiology that is often too difficult or unsafe to observe in the wild. And when people have an opportunity to see wildlife up close, it fosters more empathy, and instills in many a desire to protect them.

It certainly has in me.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Time with Two Wolves (2 of 3)

(This is the second part of a three part post. To start at the beginning, here’s the link.)

After we put Tunk the skunk back in his kennel with his siblings, Serena (head zookeeper) asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day. I told her I was going to see my folks, deliver some prints, but other than that, I was free.

A photographer had booked a shoot with the wolves on Saturday, but ended up canceling at the last minute. Serena and her staff had done a fair bit of work setting it all up and were disappointed they weren’t going to be able to do it. She said that if I could come back just before closing at 7:00 that evening, I could have a shoot with Nissa and Lupé.

She basically sounded like she was apologizing for asking me to come back and help them, like it was a big inconvenience for me, which made me laugh. An unexpected private photo shoot with a couple of wolves? I don’t know. Let me check my schedule.

We checked to see if Denise (another keeper) was available that evening to ‘play’ as well, another indication how the keepers view their jobs. After they’re done working with the animals all day, they’re still up for more time with them in the evenings.

Photography shoots with education is something they’re looking at doing at Discovery Wildlife Park on a semi-regular basis in the future. For a fee, professional and amateur photographers alike can have the opportunity to learn from an instructor how to take better photos of wildlife. I will be one of the first in line to sign up.
Given that I’ve gotten to know the staff and they know what they can expect from me, they wanted to use me as a guinea pig for the area they’d staged for this sort of thing. My last two visits, I’ve found out that there is much more to this park than the area visitors use day to day. A large lush forested area in a wide gully on the west side of the property has a creek and other water features, big trees, and vegetation. It’s all fenced and the keepers can often take some of the animals out of their enclosures and let them run around on their own.

Kind of like an off-leash dog park for bears, wolves, beavers… you get the idea. It’s quite beautiful in there.

When I arrived back that evening, Denise was still with a small group of campers, giving them a behind-the-scenes tour with the big cats. That’s one of the bonuses of camping at Discovery Wildlife Park campground. For an added fee, you get extra opportunities for animal encounters that day visitors don’t get.

While we waited for Denise, Serena took me over to the staging area and walked me down into the gully from where I’d be shooting. There was a large long wire fence between the rest of the forested area and another large enclosure. It has a heavily forested brush area, a large pond, some big rock slabs they brought in, basically a number of assembled features that, while man-made, look very natural and appealing.

Serena told me that it would be the first time the wolves had ever been in there before, so it would be an exciting enrichment evening for them.

With the setup explained, we headed for the wolf enclosure. Lupé is a little nervous around strangers and is afraid of gates, so I was asked to stand back a fair distance while they got their leashes on and brought them out.

Nissa was happy to see me, but then she’s happy to see everybody. I was offered her chain leash, which I gladly accepted and I had to remind myself that she’s a wolf, because it was easy to feel like I was just walking a friendly dog. I could rub her fur, pet her, and when I crouched down and got close to her, she was eager to lick my face.

These wolves have been raised at the park since they were pups. While a bit more of a story to it, one they’ll be happy to share with you at the park, the short version is that they were orphans and Alberta Fish and Wildlife offered them to the park so they’d have a home.

We took the wolves to the enclosure where I broke off and went down to the path I’d been shown. Serena, Denise and the wolves went to the entrance at the other side of the enclosure. I didn’t think to take photos of the whole setup, but from my vantage point on the other side of the fence, I was looking at the pond and rock formations. Beyond that was the brush and forest which sloped up to the gully’s edge. The gate was up on that ridge across from me.

Like I said, big area.

Once inside, Serena and Denise let the wolves go, and then walked down the hill to the fence, where I waited on the other side. The wolves were already busy exploring this new environment.

Serena said, “Let’s just let them be wolves for a little while.”
After they had some time on their own, she called them using both her voice and an electronic tone, all part of the training they receive during their daily enrichment.

In the wild, animals are constantly searching for food and working at their own survival. In captivity, however, where all of their food and safety is provided, enrichment is an absolute necessity to keep them healthy. It provides them with challenges, problems to solve, and many opportunities for them to exercise their bodies and minds.

All of the training at the park is done by positive reinforcement, in the form of loud praises, play, and healthy food rewards.

While the bears and big cats have established marks that they go to, (a small plate of rock, a log, a platform) the wolves have been trained to choose their own and it’s fascinating to watch. On the command to ‘find a mark’ they each look around, decide for themselves, go to a spot and pose. They’ll often choose great spots, for which they are then rewarded, reinforcing that behaviour. If it’s an especially good mark, that spot will be reinforced as well.

They are also taught to lay down, crouch, jump for their reward, go fishing in the pond, and a number of other actions. Best of all, there is no doubt they’re enjoying themselves as Serena puts them through their paces.

I asked at one point what they would do if I came into the enclosure from my side of the fence. I knew I wouldn’t be in any danger as I’d already interacted with Nissa up close. Serena said I wouldn’t get any good photos because they’d just be interested in me and Nissa especially would just want to play with me. So from my side of the fence, with large enough wire spacing for me to get my lens through, I was able to get hundreds of shots without being a distraction to the wolves.

If I saw something I liked, I’d ask Serena if she could get one of the wolves to do it again. I could ask questions the whole time and Denise was taking just as many photos as I was, from her side of the fence. Because the wolves are so used to her, she wasn’t a distraction for them. I distracted her, however, by repeatedly asking, “which one is which, again?”

Nissa is lighter and fluffier, but it’s subtle.

My being a guinea pig amateur photographer let them try things and have a bit of a rehearsal without worrying they were wasting a client’s time and money. I also had no agenda and was happy to just be there, taking advantage of whatever situation popped up.

Sometimes photographers will go into a shoot like that with an idea of exactly what they want the wolves to do or with pre-planned shots they want. In my opinion, that’s a guaranteed way to miss out on the happy accidents, one of the wolves doing something special, resulting in a great shot that couldn’t have been anticipated.

Some of my best painting reference shots have been ones I didn’t expect to get.

I don’t know how long we were in the woods, but pretty sure it was more than an hour. Despite dousing myself in bug spray, it was hot and muggy and it didn’t last long. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so many bites and they were getting me right through my shirt. Mosquitoes love me and I get a strong reaction from bites. But it was worth it.

On the way out, Serena took some photos of me with Nissa and this was my favorite. I had to turn her head toward the camera because she kept licking my face.

And after putting a couple of happy wolves back in their enclosure, I was offered one more opportunity to be eaten alive by mosquitoes, which I happily accepted.

More on that, in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

By the way, if you want to get up close and personal with Nissa and Lupé, Discovery Wildlife Park offers Adventure Packages, one of which is ‘Walk with Wolves.’ You can’t beat the price and included extras. You can find out more on their site.

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A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

Thursday was a really good day, so much so that I’m splitting it up into three blog posts. This is the first.

I’d already had high hopes, as I was dropping off a $525.00 donation to Discovery Wildlife Park, made possible by followers of my work who took advantage of the first offering of the matted giclée prints of my painting of Berkley. Not only was painting that image a lot of fun, but selling the first twenty (ended up being twenty-one) with proceeds going to the park made it even more special.

Charitable giving is probably one of the most selfish things a person can do, because it just feels so darn good. Now this donation isn’t exactly hard-core philanthropy, but that is where I’d like to end up one day, supporting animal causes with as many big donations as I can muster. If I have to exploit those who like my work in order to do it, I’m OK with that.

Hopefully you are, too.

I wanted to get to the park when it opened, but some email issues delayed my departure from Canmore, so I didn’t arrive until after 11. By that time, special programs are underway and the place is getting busy, so I knew not to expect to be able to have any time visiting with the staff as their work day was in full swing.

I delivered the first poster prints of Berkley to Debbi, one of the owners, along with the cheque and a framed matted Berkley print, the one I used for the donation. I sent Serena, the head zookeeper, a text letting her know I was there, but she was out with the kids’ camp, a Zookeeper for the Day program. Told her I’d be around taking photos, but I knew they’d all be busy. If I didn’t see any of them on Thursday, I was fine with it.

I stopped by the Tiger presentation that was just starting, then went over to check out the wolves, the ostriches, deer, and of course, the black bears.

It was a HOT day, I was sweating under the sun, and figured the black bears would be trying to stay as cool as possible. Dark fur on a sunny day, they really should know better.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Gruff actively playing with an orange ball in his enclosure. He’s the bear I used as the model for my Black Bear Totem painting. I was fortunate to be able to spend time inside his enclosure with him to get the reference shots for that, an experience I won’t ever forget.

He’s a wonderful bear with a great temperament and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him throw the ball in the air and chase it when it hit the ground. He has this habit of covering his eyes when he throws it up, likely had it land on his face more than once, I think. As I was taking shots zoomed in through a double fence, I couldn’t get a good enough shot of him standing up when he threw the ball, but here are a few of his antics on the ground.
Given that he must have been getting warm with such activity, I wasn’t surprised when he went for a swim in the pond inside his large enclosure. I’ll admit to being envious.
. . I heard one woman say to another, something about how great it was to see the bear so happy and playful, clearly well looked after. It’s nice when other folks recognize what I already know from my experiences here. These animals are loved.

When he finally did come out of the water, he went back to his ball, but he seemed to have used up most of his energy prior to his swim and lay down in the sun.

At this point, having been there for an hour, I was thinking I might leave, go see my folks who live just ten minutes down the road, and then head into Red Deer to deliver the last of the Berkley prints, with plans to come back the next morning before heading home.

But I got a text…

Serena picked me up in a golf cart, and said I had a ten minute photo shoot before she had to get back to her duties. I asked what I would be shooting and she simply said, “a baby.”

“A baby what?”

She wouldn’t tell me, said it was a surprise, but that I should change lenses on the way. I wouldn’t need the zoom lens.

She drove me back to the keepers’ area where some of the smaller animals are kept at night and I told her I hoped it would be a skunk because the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation (another facility I support) keeps posting pictures of skunks they’re rehabilitating and I want to paint one. The problem is that AIWC re-introduces animals back into the wild, so they don’t allow visitors to come and take photos, which is completely understandable.

Sure enough, I was introduced to Tunk, one of three baby skunks they’ve recently adopted when a farmer decided he didn’t want them around. Oreo and Flute are the other two, who I saw, but they’re not quite socialized yet, so Tunk was my model. Serena placed him in the grass surrounded by yellow flowers. While it was a great setting, and I was lying down, taking rapid fire photos, he was rambunctious and I couldn’t get any good pics.

So we took him to a nearby broken tree and let him run around a bit on top of that for a very fast photo shoot. I’m glad he’s had his scent glands removed, because I found myself looking at the business end of this little critter more than once and the possible consequences crossed my mind.

Baby skunks. What a treat.
Had the day ended there, I would have been quite pleased. But then I was invited to return that evening for…

Well, that’ll be in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A long time ago…

falconDespite a recent declaration that between now and January, I don’t set foot in a shopping mall, I realized I was a hypocrite on Saturday when I found myself standing in Chinook Centre in Calgary.

Shonna and I wanted to see the new movie Arrival (highly recommend it) on the big screen, she needed to buy a few things and I realized I could use something new to wear for her upcoming office Christmas party. After we bought a few shirts for me, Shonna went off to shop and I wandered the mall, dealing with my agoraphobia, which in my case is not so much a phobia as it is an aversion to other humans.

While leaving The Bay, however, I came across a small display of Star Wars toys, specifically the new Air Hogs remote control Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and Tie-Fighters. I paused and looked at the boxes while my inner child tugged hard at my jacket asking, “Can we get one, can we get one, can we get one?”

Walking out of the store, I remembered one of my best Christmases, back when I still liked the holiday. We were living in West Germany at the time, it would have been ’81 or ’82, I think. I had the Star Wars figures, the X-Wing Fighter, the land-speeder and some weird pod-like craft that I have never seen in the movies, but the marketing team at Kenner somehow convinced my parents to buy for me.

I played with them all. The lightsabres that slid out from the arms were missing, as were the capes and the little guns, the paint was scarred and scratched from all of the battles I put these poor action figures through. They would fight on the blanket planet, the dresser plant, the under the bed cave, the forest planet out back (a coniferous bush of some sort), the sandbox planet. Those toys really got around and rarely had any time for a drink in the cantina.

The X-Wing Fighter wouldn’t X anymore, because I broke the wings and my Dad had to glue them back together in the closed position. The cockpit lid would come off on a regular basis as would the guns. A battery had broken open inside the compartment, rendering that useless, so it wouldn’t make any noise anymore. And I didn’t care. I still had fun with it.

But the best toy I ever got for Christmas was The Millennium Falcon. It was the original, the one that came in that first printed cardboard box. I never got the tie fighter or the Death Star playset or the carrying case for the figures, but the Millennium Falcon was the prize, that was the best toy in the whole collection.

This was back before everybody had a credit card, so I remember going to the Canex department store with my Mom. She would often head to the back of the store to the little office kiosk, tell me to wait over by a corner so I was out of earshot and couldn’t see anything. All I knew was that she was making a layaway payment, whatever that meant.

Yes Virginia, there once was a time where you had to budget for Christmas, make deposits ahead of time with real money and you didn’t get your stuff until it was paid for.

I loved that toy, and I beat the hell out of it.

By the time I had outgrown those Star Wars toys, the Falcon’s lid had been cracked and glued more than once, the hidden floor compartment cover was missing, as was the little light-sabre training ball, the cockpit hatch regularly came off, none of the electronics worked and it didn’t even stand up straight as one of the legs wouldn’t fully extend.

A number of years ago, my parents opened a box in the basement, found a bunch of that stuff and asked me if they could get rid of it in a garage sale. I told them sure as I had no use for it. I’m not a collector of anything and while I’ll still watch the Star Wars movies, you’ll never find me lining up to see one or dressing up as a character at Comic-Con, but I also don’t judge anyone who does. If you’re having fun and not hurting anybody, do your thing.

Over the years, whenever I see articles or hear people talking about how much those old Star Wars toys are worth, especially if they’ve never been opened, I just shake my head.

When I was looking at the new versions of those toys on Saturday, the ones that actually FLY now, I wasn’t thinking of the investment potential, what they’d be worth in thirty-five years or where I could store them.

I just wanted to play with them.

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John C. McGinley – A Portrait

mcginleyfinalIf somebody had asked me a few months ago what I remembered about the television show ‘Scrubs,’ I would have likely said that it was good, a funny show. I was a regular watcher during its initial run and had fond, albeit non-specific memories of it.

In recent months, I have rediscovered the show on Netflix. As each episode is just over twenty minutes, it’s something I’ve been able to watch while having breakfast or lunch, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around. I’d forgotten how much heart it had. It could take you from laughing out loud at over-the-top ridiculous story lines to breaking your heart in the final two or three minutes.

The story arc featuring Brendan Fraser as a guest star just killed me, as one example. Another wonderful rediscovery was the music. I bought a few albums in the last couple of months, just because I heard songs on that show that I’d forgotten; Jeremy Kay, Colin Hay and Fountains of Wayne, if you’re curious.

One of the characters I most identified with was Dr. Perry Cox, played by the incredibly talented (and underrated) actor, John C. McGinley. His portrayal of the character could make you hate and love him in the same episode. Without a detailed dissection, I’ll just say that Cox was damaged, protecting himself by putting up walls and keeping everybody at a distance. But every so often, you’d get a look inside at a caring individual who just wanted to make a difference, despite knowing he was fighting a losing battle.

No more was that evident than in the 5th season episode, “My Lunch.”

McGinley’s performance in that episode was profound. Without shame, I’ll admit that it moved me to tears. Not just a single tear down the cheek, but hitching my breath crying. I bought it completely and was at a bit of a low point in my own life at the time. It was cathartic.

I just felt the urge to paint that moment, the moment Cox shattered. When he finally reaches his broken and beaten mentor in the following episode, J.D. tells Cox how proud he is of him that “after twenty years of being a doctor, when things go badly, you still take it this hard.”

While I’m not a doctor, I get that, for so many reasons. It hit me deep. That’s what happens when you combine exceptional creators, writers, and performers, all delivering at the top of their game. Magic.

I worked on this in between the deadlines, so it was painted here and there when I had time. When it wasn’t working, when I didn’t feel it, I went back and watched that scene again and it refilled the tank, reminding me why I’d started it in the first place. I just watched it again before writing this and as I do, the painting is still not done. But it’s close. I could nitpick it for another week, I’m sure, and while it’s not as polished as other portraits I’ve done, that’s probably a good thing. It’s time to let it go.

Just as with every other portrait of a person that I’ve painted, this was a personal project. No deadline, no pressure, not something I’ll have to sell. I painted it for me, and it was well worth my time. I hope others like it, but if not, that’s OK, because I improved my own skills, took a break from the paying gigs, enjoyed myself and am now ready to move on to something else.

And I’m feeling pretty good.

Cheers,
Patrick
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