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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

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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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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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Kayaking in Tofino

sm_GroupShonna and I like to vacation in the shoulder seasons, often in Spring and Fall. Having lived in Banff and Canmore for the past twenty plus years, we know how busy tourist areas get in the summer and we try to avoid those months as much as we can.

Early June is a bit of a gamble, because if you run into bad luck, you could have a vacation plagued by rain, especially where we were on the west coast of Vancouver Island. They don’t call it a rainforest for nothing. Fortunately, we only had significant rain on our last evening and the day we were driving back to the airport in Comox, so we lucked out in the weather department.

In addition to a couple of wildlife tours on this trip, we decided to try sea kayaking for the first time. We booked last minute with Black Bear Kayak in Tofino, found them through positive reviews on Trip Advisor. There was only one other couple on our four hour tour, which is one of the main reasons we don’t travel in high season. Smaller tours just make for a more enjoyable time. We also had two guides, so quite relaxing and informative as both knew a lot about the area.
sm_PatrickShonnaConsidering that you can tip if you aren’t careful, I didn’t bring my best camera on this tour. I do have a waterproof pelican case for my little SX-50, however, but only brought that out when we got out for a short hike. The guides take pictures of you throughout the tour on the water and they’re free to download from their site after a couple of weeks, which is why I’m writing this post a little later than the others from the trip.
sm_Shonna01Glad I brought my GoPro camera as the majority of these shots are screen captures from video. With a suction mount, I secured it to the kayak and pretty much left it alone. Thankfully, our guide Colin advised me to tether it with a bungie and carabiner, because the suction didn’t hold the first couple of tries (tip: get it wet first) and it ended up falling into the drink. GoPro cameras are waterproof, but they don’t float. Had it not been tethered, I would have lost it. While having the GoPro running the whole time meant I got plenty of shots I wouldn’t have, it also meant that most included Shonna’s back and noggin’ and only one of me, a consequence of my checking the settings while looking at the front of the camera.
sm_PatrickThe tour takes you through the islands and coastline around Tofino with a stop on Meares Island, which is native land. You pay a small separate fee ahead of time, money that goes to the local natives who maintain the boardwalk and preserve the area. The old growth forest is spectacular and our guides were knowledgeable about the flora and fauna we encountered. Shonna and I are history and information junkies, so this was our kind of trip.
sm_ColinWe saw eagles and porpoises at a distance, but not a lot of wildlife on the day we went. Considering the abundance on our other tours, it wasn’t a disappointment. Simply paddling around on the ocean, riding the currents and trying something new made this another highlight of the trip. We would take this tour again. For our first outing, the two person kayak worked well. Next time, we’ll each have our own as they weren’t difficult to pilot.
sm_ClaireOur other guide, Claire, was from Vulcan, Alberta. There are a lot of Albertans who have moved to Vancouver Island. It’s almost a cliché. While we’re not a big rush to do it, Shonna and I do discuss it often. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up there some day, probably sooner than we think.

sm_Scenery01

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You are your own guide

LodgeViewThe view from our deck at He-Tin-Kis Lodge in Ucluelet

My wife and I don’t travel a lot, but when we do, we like to stay in unique accommodations and take a lot of half-day or day tours and excursions. While at dinner the other night in Ucluelet, we were laughing as we talked about the travelers we’d like to imagine we could be and the ones we really are.

You’re unlikely to find us hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. At one time, that was a serious discussion, but we’ve stopped kidding ourselves. It’s just not us. Same goes for reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, a week on the Amazon River or living off the land in deepest darkest Borneo. We’d like to go on African Safari one day, but it’s unlikely we’ll be roughing it much when we do.

We all like to have this image of who we could be but at some point you must realize that you can still stretch your boundaries without becoming Indiana Jones. I know some of those people and I admire their sense of adventure. Preparing for months in advance to climb Everest or hiking the Appalachian Trail? Good on ya. I think that’s cool. But it’s not my cup of tea.

On the other side of the coin, we are not cruise ship people, going from port to port with thousands of others, sticking to a rigid schedule. While we have stayed at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Costa Rica and that works for us from time to time, we are also not lie on the beach for two weeks people. We’re usually bored of that after Day 1 and have to get out and do something.

A highlight of a past vacation was a private tour to the Mayan ruins in Coba, something we booked with Edventures in Tulum, ‘cause the guy’s name is Ed. And while he didn’t offer the specific tour we wanted, he said, “My Mom will take you.”

That’s how we ended up spending the day with Judy, who drove us out there in her own SUV, and got us a private walking tour with the oldest guide who had been with the original National Geographic survey of the site. Shonna and I love history, so this was quite special, especially since he talked to us more like we were university students than tourists. Talking to Judy for three hours in the car about real life in Mexico was fascinating, too. You want to learn about life somewhere else, talk to the locals, not the information centre.

Add to that jet skiing in Costa Rica, an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam and Shonna’s out of the blue “let’s go skydiving” over lunch one day in Vegas and this is our best selves on vacation. We’re not testing the boundaries of adventure or blazing new trails. We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Pretty much everything is rather safe, but it’s usually just different enough that we’re living a little more of life than we’re used to, and having a good time doing it. A couple of workaholics seeing and trying new things while still making paying off the mortgage a priority.

BrokenGroupThe Broken Group Islands with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises

This past week was pretty close to our idea of a perfect vacation. I booked this trip in January, a repeat of my artist retreat two years ago. The goal was to go out to Vancouver Island, take a ton of reference shots for future paintings and get out of the office for a week. Full stop.

But as the year wore on, we planned some home renovations, and a loosely planned trip to Europe in the fall was cancelled because neither of us is feeling it this year. Shonna was able to get the time off work, but to her credit, she gave me the option of continuing to go away alone to get what I needed, without any bad feelings. She’s never been the guilt trip stereotype, so I knew if I chose to go away on this trip by myself, she’d be fine with it. We’d do something else together later. I enjoy her company more than anybody else’s, however, so the idea of her coming along added to my trip and I was happy to have her join me. In fact, she’s probably the only person with whom I could do this trip.

Driving to Vancouver Island is also something that we have never felt inclined to do. We’re not really road trip people. So we flew to Comox from Calgary.

SphereSpirit Sphere near Qualicum Beach

As this was no longer just my trip, we started looking for some extra things to do. She wanted to see if we could find the elusive white ravens in Qualicum Beach, an idea I was on board with, since we were already staying nearby in the Spirit Spheres for one night. We never found any, but it was fun wandering around forest trails in places they’d been spotted and photographed before.

On the other side of the island, the accommodation I’d booked in Ucluelet was fantastic and we were both quite happy at He-Tin-Kis Lodge. With an incredible view, it was a great place to wake up and come back to each day.

SalamandersSalamander Eggs in their gelatinous casing on Meares Island

Something I hadn’t planned on doing this week was sea kayaking in Clayoquot Sound out of Tofino. We added that when Shonna decided to come along. Quite a pleasant surprise as it was one of the highlights of the week. A four hour tour, we ended up on Meares Island walking along a rough looking boardwalk through an old growth forest among massive cedars and other natural wonders.

The next morning we ended up bear watching in Clayoquot Sound at low tide for a few hours. It gave me a ton of reference photos I hadn’t expected to get and was still a fun excursion for both of us. Seeing black bears in the wild, doing their thing on the beaches, oblivious to the silly tourists snapping shutters just meters away on boats was really quite special. We weren’t bothering them and they showed no sign that we were intruding on their day at the office.

ShonnaShonna looking for marine life in a tide pool.

Back in Ukee, we spent the afternoon hiking along the Wild Pacific Trail, looking at anemones and little crabs in the tide pools, snapping photos and enjoying the area. I’ve hiked the trail a few times before but enjoyed it most this time around. Pretty sure it was the company.

Finally, on our last full day in Ucluelet, we went out for a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises through Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands. Five and a half hours on the water, we saw bears, eagles, grey whales, seals, sea lions, deer, raccoons and more birds than I can name.

I can’t say enough about this tour. Shonna and I took it on our first visit to the area in 2011. Then I went out with them three times on my artist retreat two years ago. This time around, I had planned to go twice but they were fully booked for most of the week and Thursday was the only day available. Had that not been the case, we would have missed out on the bear tour in Tofino, so it worked out very well.

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It sounds cliché, but if you’re ever out in that area and can only do one tour, Archipelago is the one to do. I could go on at great length about why, but trust me on this. There’s a reason they’re ranked the number one wildlife tour in Canada on Trip Advisor, and they don’t take it for granted. Al and Toddy are still working hard to make sure everybody has a great experience.

Having just come home from a great vacation, I would offer a bit of unsolicited advice. Figure out who you are and what you want from your limited time off. If your idea of a perfect vacation is camping in an RV with power and a swimming pool, then do that. If you’re more at home visiting theme parks, do that. If it’s Napa Valley vineyards, mountain biking in Moab or backpacking through Thailand with no reservations but the plane ticket, then do that.

Find the experiences in life that make you feel like you’re living it well. Stretch your limitations when you can, sure, but be who you are, too. This is a limited time experience, so make it your own.

LaMontagne_Lunch

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Another Break by a Lake

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There’s an annual B.C. camping trip that a group of friends has taken the first or second weekend of May since the early 90s. At one time, there were upwards of twenty people that attended and apparently it got pretty unruly. Thankfully, I didn’t start going up there until later that decade and it has been kept small ever since.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about this trip before, right around the same time last year.

Over the years, I’ve dropped in and out of the trip for various reasons. Up until last year, I hadn’t attended in eight years as I was pouring everything I could into my business and work was a priority.  My little car was also showing its age. Fully loaded for camping, no matter how careful I drove, I couldn’t make it up the goat track section of the road without rocks and high spots introducing themselves to the bottom of my car. I don’t even want to know what it would cost to get towed out of there.

Now that I’ve got a little more of a utility vehicle, a Pontiac Vibe, I started going back up last year and it’s got juuuuuust enough clearance.

This year, The Calgary Expo was one week later and the camping trip one week earlier, just bad calendar luck. With only three days between the two, it was a scramble to draw enough cartoons for my papers, meet a deadline for an Autodesk/Wacom commission, and still be ready to leave Thursday morning, but I was determined.
smBreakfastFive of us in four vehicles, it was an easy trip up.  A little rain on the first day, but three days of warmth and sunshine from Friday to Sunday, so no complaints in the weather department. With camping, weather is more than half the battle. Mosquitos are another foe, one I failed to conquer judging by the number of bites I’ve been scratching while writing this.

The last three months have been hectic, and I was glad to have it all out of the way for this trip. With nothing but my book deadline looming and the usual cartoons, I had three restful nights, even slept in ‘til 8:30 every day. For a guy who gets up at 5:00 most of the time, that’s an accomplishment.

Aside from the obligatory errand into the woods to buck up deadfall for firewood, and splitting/stacking it back at camp, there was nothing on the agenda. Didn’t even eat or drink too much, so no mornings marred by poor judgment the night before. A few old friends came up for a welcome afternoon visit on Saturday and aside from campers on the other side of the lake, we had the place pretty much to ourselves with plenty of room to spread out our tents, trucks and trailer.
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I spent my time hanging out with the group, reading, paddling around the lake in the canoe, stalking ducks and squirrels with the camera and even managed some writing on the last afternoon. I did not, however, do any drawing. Not one sketch. Apparently I needed a little break from that, too.
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The temperature of a mountain lake in May is a might chilly, but since we all chickened out on swimming last year, I was determined to go in this time. The first dip on Friday was quick enough to get clean and it was most definitely not the typical Canadian swimming temperature of “it’s fine…once you get in.”

The next day, I did manage to swim around for ten minutes before I began to lose feeling in my toes.

I don’t enjoy being idle for too long, and realized on the last evening, that I was ready to go home, which is a good sign. Too many lazy days and I get bored, so I was happy to make the drive home. Managed to pull over and take some shots of this black bear on the way back, too, which was a nice surprise.
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On the drive home, I realized how very much I needed the camping trip this year. Next year, I might not. But it’s a nice option to have if the timing is right.

People will often tell me that I work too much, but they obviously don’t get it. I enjoy my work, even though it sometimes pisses me off (see: politics). As some of my friends are a fair bit older than I am, they’re either retired already or talk about it often. I’m of a mind that my best work is still ahead of me and my biggest fear is that some future malady or handicap will prevent me from working as long as I want to.

While I’m saving to be comfortable in my senior years, retirement is not on my radar. My work will change and evolve, I’m sure, but I can’t imagine wanting to stop. I thrive on it.

Camping trips and vacations are necessary to reset and recharge, but that means something different for each person. For me, two or three days doing nothing by a lake is ideal. Anything more than that, and I’d rather be working.

But every now and then, I still want those two or three days.

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A Break by a Lake

WoodThere’s a little lake in the Invermere Valley of British Columbia that I was introduced to almost twenty years ago by my buddy, Jim. He’s been going there every year without fail, for well over two decades. It was with surprise recently that I realized it had been eight years since my last visit. The reason for my absence was due in part to the demands of self-employment, building a business, and being a workaholic who has refused to take much time off since starting this gig full-time about that many years ago.

The other reason was that I had a little car I was trying to keep for as long as possible and when it was fully loaded with camping gear, it rode a little low to the ground. Given the nature of the road up to the lake, and the fact that on previous visits the undercarriage met with more than a few rock-knocks, I was reluctant to risk it on an often unpredictable road.

With the retirement of that car last year, and my upgrade to what amounts to today’s version of a station wagon, my Pontiac Vibe, I felt it was time to rejoin the world of camping, especially since I have all of the gear. I did splurge on a new instant pop-up tent this year, however, which worked like a charm. That’s the little green one on the far right.

CampsiteThis second weekend of May is an annual tradition for a number of friends, though people have drifted in and out of the group as time has worn on. This year, there were five of us. While it’s pretty much a guy’s weekend, our friends Babe and Susan come together, so she’s the exception to the rule.

The lake is an ideal spot that used to be a bit of a secret hideaway, but if you’ve camped anywhere in Alberta and BC lately, you’ll know that there is very little quiet and solitude to be had unless you’re off-road in the back-country. Fortunately, if you head out before the May long weekend, you might be up against unpredictable weather and a lake too cold for swimming, but you’ve got a better chance of finding a little peace.

I’d been looking forward to this weekend for quite some time this year, especially since the first four months of 2015 were very busy, with few chances for a break.

As if testing my determination to relax, our convoy of four vehicles was almost to the lake, and not yet on the roughest part of the road, when we stopped to enjoy the scenery and an unmistakable hissing sound announced that my front left tire wasn’t going to make it much further.

While I know how to change a tire, I’ve never actually had to, outside of my driver training course in the Army Reserves over twenty years ago. Believe it or not, aside from a couple of slow leaks taken in for repair over the years, I’ve never had a flat tire that warranted a roadside change. Not once.

While I began to unload my gear to get to the jack and spare, I’d barely brought it out before Jim and Al assumed the role of pit crew and had the tire changed, much quicker than I would have.

With the donut spare in place, half my gear loaded in the other vehicles, the others went on ahead to ensure we got our preferred spot, one of only three on the whole lake. I drove back down the road to the highway, headed for the Canadian Tire in Invermere. Thankfully, they managed to get my car into the shop in less than an hour. A sharp rock was the culprit, but in a good place for a patch. The mechanic told me it was a very common occurrence in that area with all of the dirt roads.

About three hours after discovering the flat, I was back up at the lake, enjoying a frosty beverage and the sunshine. Despite insomnia the first night (for no apparent reason), I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
ClelandGroupWe had beautiful warm weather for four days, interrupted only by some cloud cover on Sunday and a few seconds of very light rain. Saturday morning, I rose early and was canoeing around the lake with my camera before anybody else had gotten up.
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Ducks

ChipmunkWith plenty of time to read, take photos, play a little guitar, eat, drink and enjoy each others company, four days in the woods by a lake does wonders for one’s perspective. As there is barely any cell service in the area, the usual distractions from email and text alerts were conspicuously absent, though a short walk up the dirt road did allow for one bar of service, so our Moms did get their calls on Mother’s Day.

With no plans to stray far from home this summer, I’m already planning another camping trip in a few weeks, this time here in Alberta. If it doesn’t end up as dry as they’re predicting, or as wet as 2013, here’s hoping I can manage a few more of these outdoor breaks before the snow flies again.

It would appear to agree with me.

PatrickFB

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An Island Retreat

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Last year, I had the idea to go away on a little bit of a working vacation, an artist’s retreat, for lack of a better term. Intending to start small, I was just going to drive down the road to Kananaskis in the fall, stay at the Lodge for a few days, and just sketch, draw, paint, and write.

True to my nature, I found a reason to cancel a couple of weeks beforehand with the excuse that I was too busy. Then I beat myself up about it, angry at my habit of talking a good game when it comes to stuff like this, and then playing it safe and chaining myself to my routine. It’s an odd quirk, considering that I had no problem quitting my safe full-time job eight years ago to freelance for a living.

Thankfully, my wife and I took an impromptu vacation to Vegas around the same time, did a whole bunch of fun stuff (biplane tour over the Hoover Dam, skydiving, gun range, saw some shows) and my failure to take the retreat was temporarily forgotten.

As winter wore on, overwhelmed with work, plus planning for the Calgary Expo, the thought of getting away started to creep in again. When I brought it up to my ever-supportive wife that I was thinking of going back to Ucluelet, somewhere we’d vacationed three years ago, she gave her blessing and I started planning.

I’d fly into Comox on May 31st, rent a car, drive across Vancouver Island, rent a cabin and for four or five days, I’d just sketch, draw, paint, and write. Shonna told me to save myself some money and use the Air Miles for the flight and car. I didn’t figure out why until later.

As the trip grew closer, and I realized how much work I had to do to, I started to once again consider that perhaps I was too busy to take this time off. But if you cancel a trip made with Air Miles, you lose them. That’s pretty much what kept me from finding a reason not to go. She’s sneaky, that wife of mine.

As a chronic over-planner, I tried my best to remain open to the adventure while still keeping my eye on the ball.  I fought my urge to please everybody and declined a number of offers of visits with people I know on the Island. But I did make time for one night in the Courtenay/Comox area. Had a BBQ with good friends who use to live here in the Bow Valley, spent the night with long-time family friends (their son is one of my oldest and closest friends), and planned to see my uncle and his wife on the way back to the airport on the last day. That was all I had time for unless I removed the whole reason for taking the trip. Selfishly, and without apology, this was all about me.

The mountain road out to Ucluelet and Tofino is winding, narrow, and a little hairy in places. I’m not a road trip kind of guy, I don’t like driving much in general, but that drive was a lot of fun thanks to the zippy little (and bright green) Mazda 2 the rental company gave me. Heading out early, I avoided any traffic and arrived in Ucluelet on Sunday morning before noon, to an ideal little cabin right on the harbour. It was bright green to match the car.

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The plan was to sketch, draw, paint, write and be creative. Shonna and I took a wildlife tour three years ago with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises and it was a highlight of our trip to the Island. I wanted to spend another day on the water with them again. I was going to walk along Long Beach again, spend at least one day in Tofino, and hike some trails in between there and Ucluelet. I wanted to be productive, make the most of my time and get stuff done. In no time at all, the best laid plans of this obsessive over-planner were tossed out the window.

I didn’t sketch at all. Not once. I didn’t paint. I only wrote one blog post. I wasn’t creative in the slightest.

Hiked every day on the Wild Pacific and other trails, including a very creepy, but exhilarating walk through the rainforest to Half Moon Bay at twilight, where I didn’t see another soul for more than two hours.  I spent three days on the water with people I now consider friends, and that’s an upcoming post all on its own. I was still up before 6:00AM every day, out with the camera and a coffee in my travel mug. I wandered the harbour and docks, smelling the salt air, and ignored the news of the world. I took a ton of photos. It was perfect.

Talking to Shonna one night, I confided that I really didn’t feel like going to Tofino. I didn’t even feel like going to Long Beach, as there was plenty for me right around Ukee. But, I felt like I was supposed to go to these places because I was already in the area. She told me to do whatever I wanted, that it was my trip. If I wanted to stay in bed all day in the cabin, read a book and take naps, then that’s what I should do. And she was right.

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There was this familiar urge to get things accomplished, but the only work I did was that I managed to get my prints into two new galleries, in both Ucluelet and Tofino, which will again be a whole other post, and I still didn’t have to go to Tofino. I felt this obligation to come back from the trip with a sketchbook full of work, thousands of words written, and a line by line accounting that quantified and justified the expense, as if I had a boss I needed to impress when I got home.

Last I checked, I became a freelancer so I didn’t have to deal with a boss like that.

Another artist might think it a sacrilege that I went all that way and didn’t do any of the creative stuff I was “supposed to do” while I was there. But according to what so many have told me I should be doing over the years, everything I’ve done to build my successful career as a freelancer has been wrong, anyway. Most of the advice I’ve gotten from other artists has been based on their own experience, and people like to justify their way of doing things by telling others they should do the same thing. If I were to add my own experience based truth about this profession, I would say, “Consider all of the advice, but ignore most of it. Trust your own instincts and chart your own course. It’s the only way you’re ever going to be happy.”

This trip exceeded my expectations. I came home inspired and invigorated. I will do it again, might even go back to the same place because I loved being there and I loved coming home, too. The photos I took have given me plenty of reference to paint from and that allows me to relive the experience. Given the chance to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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A Change of Place

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It’s easy to become so accustomed to your surroundings that you fail to see the forest for the trees.  Living in Canmore, we often forget to look around and realize that we are so incredibly fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  You can get used to anything, no matter how idyllic.

Sure, I go on my hikes, sketch and take photos and appreciate the beauty, but when you’ve lived in a place for a long time, you never quite recover the feeling of seeing it anew.  It’s only when we happen to hear a visitor exclaim with awe and wonder how majestic and beautiful our mountains are, that many of us stop, look around and think, “yeah, they’re pretty spectacular, aren’t they?”

I found this sense of wonder this morning in Ucluelet.  Wandering the small craft harbour, socked in by fog and low hanging cloud.  With a camera ’round my neck, a sketchbook in my backpack and my first cup of coffee of the day in hand, I marveled at the sights, sounds and smells, experiencing my first morning in this place.

At 6 AM on a Monday, there are low conversations and murmurs from the boats, as men get ready to head out for a day of fishing.  Some of these are surely tourist charters, but clearly there are those that aren’t.  Having been a local in a tourist town for many years, it’s easy to spot the difference.

In a broad sense, these locals are no different than any others.  Just another morning at work, they’re likely oblivious to the little nuances that are making me smile, take in a scene, or breathe a sigh of relief that I don’t have to work this morning.  Anyone who has been in fog knows the sound is different, and I quite like it.  Seagulls and ravens criss-cross the harbour, some with little morsels in their mouths, others bitching at the ones who got some when they didn’t.

At home, ravens calling and squawking outside my window is annoying, and I often wish that they’d just shut the hell up.  But here, they add to the scene, the immersion in the experience and the change of place has me welcoming their racket.

Sitting at the small table in my cabin as I write, I just looked up and saw a bald eagle fly by in the distance, the details hazy in the lifting fog, but unmistakable with his white crown and tail feathers. It’s a little exciting, because I don’t get to see them often, they show up so rarely at home.

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This is how the tourists in Banff and Canmore feel when they see an elk, or if they’re fortunate, a whole herd of them. For locals, the elk are easily viewed as a hazard to avoid while walking or driving. We have our little condescending smiles when the tourists go gaga over them and start snapping pics like crazy. I imagine a local here might have felt the same had they spied me on a dock yesterday, where I spent twenty minutes happily taking photos of a bald eagle high in a tree, silly tourist that I am.

This is clearly why I’m here and why a trip like this is necessary. While calling it an artist retreat sounds haughty and pretentious, it’s really just a change of place to adjust my focus. I’ve no doubt that I’ll return home with a renewed sense of inspiration to paint, write, and sketch. It happens after every vacation, so it’ll no doubt be doubly so after this one.

Finally, it strikes me that I am incredibly blessed. Not only to have the means to take a trip like this, a purely selfish excursion, even politely telling a couple of friends that they could not come with me, but that I have the support of my wife, and those same friends who said, “Go. Have fun. Do what you gotta do.”

Someone once said, “They’re always making more money, but nobody has figured out a way to make more time.”

It’s the fear of squandering my own time, even though I’ve no idea how much of it I’ve got, that had me seeking a temporary change of place. I’m not often at peace, it’s just not in my nature.  But this is close.

Ucluelet, BC. June 2, 2014

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Legend In My Own Mind.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love movies. It’s not that I’m the type of guy who can name the cinematographer from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or anything like that. I’ve never seen Citizen Kane and I didn’t really like The Godfather. Sacrilege in some movie circles, I know, but I’m not a cinema snob. I just love being entertained by a good movie.

I don’t watch awards shows, and I have no interest in celebrity gossip. I really don’t care who’s sleeping with whom in Hollywood, and don’t understand why anybody else does, either. I will admit, however, that I like hearing that somebody whose work I love is a nice person, too. For example, on the commentary track for Aliens, Bill Paxton tells a story about what a class act Sigourney Weaver is and how hard she works. I love that movie, and that somehow makes me like it a little bit more.

I do have my favorite directors, screenwriters and actors, but only because certain people consistently create or star in movies I like. There are a number of movies I’ve seen a dozen times or more, and I get something different out of them each time. A consequence of this affinity for the silver screen is that I have an uncanny knack for remembering movie quotes, and let me assure you, that’s a useless skill. Pretty sure I’ll need some bit of information that was discarded from my brain years ago, just so I could remember what Frances McDormand said to Billy Crudup in ‘Almost Famous.’

One of my favorite movies is Legends of the Fall. Not because I particularly like the story, but because I got to work on it. While it’s true that I was only an extra, I got paid well for it, and it was a lot of fun.

In 1993, I was an instructor at the Air Reserve Training School at Canadian Forces Base Penhold. It was a full-time job teaching basic training, and I enjoyed it. At the end of one summer session, my boss mentioned to us that she had heard that a major Hollywood movie was filming in Calgary and that they needed extras with military experience. Nobody else from the training school or my unit tried out, but since I had no immediate plans, and it was a paying gig, I thought it would be pretty cool.

At the time, Calgary still had fully operational military bases and the film crew was working in conjunction with the military to ensure they got the right people. I went down for the audition at one of the hangars on the base. The audition wasn’t about acting, it was just so that the production company could find out what your military experience was so they could assign you a position in this fake WWI Canadian Army.

The next weekend, there were 60 of us learning WWI foot drill on a parade square, being yelled at, marched around and basically being treated like we were all back in basic training. Since we were all reservists or regular force members, it was more entertaining than anything else. Their full intent was to run the movie WWI army like a real army WWI army.

We were given rifle training on authentic WWI Lee Enfield rifles. Mine had a stamp from 1917 on one of the metal parts. This was the main reason they wanted people with military experience, and only the 60 from the original weekend were going to be firing weapons. For those unfamiliar with weapons and firing blanks, there is usually something called a BFA (blank firing attachment) fixed to the end of the muzzle on a rifle during training exercises. Blanks can still cause serious injury at close range, and a BFA helps prevent that. During filming, however, the BFA’s were removed as the rifles had to look authentic. This meant that everyone was VERY serious about weapons safety as there was an added element of danger. Only those with weapons training were issued blank ammunition and rifles.

The following weekend, there were 700 more men, and those of us that had been trained the week before were assigned men that WE had to train in the WWI foot drill that we had just learned. Let’s just say that we weren’t ready to go on parade, but they were trying to instill at least a little bit of discipline. They divided us into companies and that’s who we were with for the entire shoot. I’m almost positive that these added guys didn’t have to have military experience, as they were only being used on the shoot for two or three days.

The week after that, we were working full-time. I stayed with a friend in Calgary for three weeks, sleeping during the day, working all night long. We had to be at one of the Calgary colleges each day by 2:00PM, where they would take us out to a location north of the city. Each morning, after shooting, they would bus us back to Calgary at 6:00AM. I never got more than 6 hours sleep those three weeks and almost no time off. That was what we had all agreed to when signing up.

Apparently they had paid a rancher for the use of three or four of his fields for the duration, and they ripped it to shreds converting it to a WWI battlefield. The first time I saw the battlefield, it was eerie. A field full of mud, burned trees, elaborate trenches, craters full of water, and barbed wire everywhere. I found out later, that they put that field back to it’s original condition after filming, and that the rancher was paid very well.

The main tent in the staging area consisted of two large connected circus tents, one full of tables and chairs like a beer tent where everybody would gather at the beginning and end of shooting and where they would put us if they had an hour or so with nothing for us to do. The other half of the tent was wardrobe and makeup and let me tell you, it was incredibly organized. They fitted each of us for authentic WWI uniforms that they got from a prop house in London. These were real WWI woolen uniforms. We were shown how to put them on, complete with puttees. It was a factory of efficiency, and everyone was incredibly professional.

They treated everyone fairly, but tolerated absolutely no screwing around, especially in the beginning. Because they were issuing working firearms, there was ample security on set and they double checked everything when it came to signing weapons in and out. The first day, about 20 of the 700 were kicked off the set for not following the rules. It wasn’t open for debate and they gave no second chances.

Each day, we’d be briefed on what was going to happen that night along with constant safety briefings. We would then march in formation, according to company, down to the battlefield. They really ran it by the book.

For those first three nights, the ‘army’ just basically ran across a muddy field, back and forth all night long. It was very well lit, but it was tough. Most of those runs were rehearsals. We were to pick our own path, know where we going to run, so that when filming began, nobody was running into each other, we all knew where we were going. We knew where the explosions were going to happen, and there were tech guys sitting in holes all over the field. From the camera side, they couldn’t be seen, but from our point of view, it was a bunch of guys in bright jackets in plain sight with control boards in front of them. Their job was to detonate the squibs (movie explosives) on the field. With 700 guys running across, these guys were pros. NOBODY was hurt by an explosive during the whole shoot, to my knowledge.

In the beginning, somebody would come up the line, I think it might have been one of the assistant directors and just start pointing at every third or fourth person before every rehearsal. “You’re dead, you’re dead, dead, dead, dead…” and this just meant that somewhere in your run, you fell down, and we were told specifically not to ACT. You just fell, and then stayed still. When they started shooting, a couple of guys were kicked off set for being ‘theatrical’ when they died, mugging for the cameras.

It was cold and rainy some of the time, but they had constructed the trenches with shelters in them that the cameras couldn’t see, and they would get us back to the circus tent to get warm regularly. Lots of coffee and tea, plenty of food for everybody, ample time to rest up for the next scene.

Once the first three days were over, that’s when the real fun began. Initially we had to go through metal detectors going through to wardrobe in our underwear and t-shirts, just so you couldn’t bring in cameras or recording devices. Anything like cigarettes, lighter, stuff like that, you could just hold in your hand so they could see it.

Interesting side note about cigarettes. They’d let the smokers smoke during filming of the daylight trench scenes to add to the authenticity, but they’d give out hand rolled cigarettes that looked like they’d been run through a washing machine and then rolled in mud. I tried one, and it was horrible.

With just the 60 of us, and the cast and crew, they slacked off on the security a little because we’d earned a certain degree of trust. They started to allow us to bring in cameras, with the understanding that they could only be used at certain times and never be pulled out during filming. While I didn’t take these photos, they were taken with permission. Unfortunately, all of these you see here are scans of small prints, and my scanner sucks. Still, you can click on any of them to see them a bit larger.

Our company went from about 50 guys down to 10 after the first three days, and we all got along really well. With no women on the set aside from crew, it was just a bunch of overgrown boys playing army in an amazing playground, and what could be more fun than that. The cast and crew were fantastic, and I don’t recall one personal bad experience the whole time.

Some memorable moments:
Brad Pitt.
The first night the actors came into the trench, everybody was a little nervous. Close quarters in the trench, so they had to squeeze between us. One guy in my company got a tap on the shoulder and when he turned around, Brad Pitt was trying to get by. He kind of stammered, “Oh excuse me, Mr. Pitt,” to which Mr. Pitt replied, “F**k off, call me Brad.”

Aidan Quinn.
One morning, when we were all getting ready to board the buses back to Calgary, the crew needed one company to stay behind to film some daylight stuff. Turned out that whoever stayed wasn’t going to get to go back to Calgary at all that day. The 10 of us were asked, and we said, ‘sure.’ We were having fun, although we were exhausted. The scene was with Aidan Quinn and he felt bad that we had to stay behind. After the scene was shot, we were told to get back to wardrobe and they’d give us a clean change of uniform, and then we could find a place to nap.

While we’re getting changed, Aidan Quinn walks in with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, carrying a flat of Labatt Genuine Draft and said, “where do you want it?” He sat and had beers with us for about an hour, posed for photos with some of the guys, and said thanks for sticking around.

No Egos
One night, had to be about two in the morning, they kept having technical trouble with something. Could have been a camera, lights, I don’t know, but it was a very cold night. They kept debating whether or not to send us back to the tent. Finally, somebody called out for runners from each company and they brought back heavy duty coffee containers to the trenches. We all had our own cups in the kit they gave us, so while they didn’t want us to leave the set, they still wanted us to be warm. This happened once in awhile, and there were strategic holes in the trenches for modern items to be hidden when shooting started, including those coffee containers.

Thinking they had the problem solved, they brought Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas into the trench, and by this time, we were fairly comfortable around them. They were nice to us, kidding around, that sort of thing. The problem, whatever it was, persisted, so they were going to pull the actors back to their trailers until it was solved. Brad Pitt said, “we got coffee, we can wait here.”

He and Henry Thomas sat and chatted with us for over an hour, answering questions, telling stories, laughing a lot, just hanging out in the cold like the rest of the guys.

Taken Care Of
One very telling experience about how well we were treated. One night, near the end of the third week, our company was running across the battlefield in some scene, explosions going off everywhere, firing our weapons, and a squib exploded very near me. I wasn’t in any danger because I knew that whoever set it off knew exactly where I was, but we had been told that if an explosion went off near us, even if we hadn’t been told to die, we were to fall down. So, myself and the guy nearest to me both collapsed, right into a crater full of water. We managed to keep our heads out of the water, as well as our rifles when we fell, but just laid there until we heard CUT. It was a good two minutes in that cold water and I was soaked. As soon as the director yelled cut, he sent in a crew to get us out of the water. They got us out of the field quick, into a van, drove us to the circus tent and into fresh dry uniforms very quickly. They gave us coffee and wouldn’t let us leave until we assured them we were warm enough to keep going. Best of all, we didn’t ruin the shot.

There are plenty of other things that happened on the set, but what I remember most is that the actors in that movie were genuinely nice guys and treated everybody with respect. The crew treated us well and on the last day of filming, the director, Edward Zwick, told us all that we had performed beyond his expectations. He said that it was like working with stunt men, not extras, which was nice to hear.

The experience of Legends of the Fall reinforced my love for movies. It didn’t make me want to be an actor. Hell, it didn’t even make me want to be an extra again, but working on that one movie just reinforced my love of the art form. It even changed how I watch movies, because sometimes I’ll see a certain camera shot in a movie, and I’ll remember that I know how they do that. It’s probably one of the reasons I enjoy Director’s Commentary on DVD’s so much, too. That’s where all the stories are told.

I’ve still got photocopies of the script and some storyboards, some photos I took and others took for me. I’ve even got some videotape that somebody from the crew sent to one of the guys in my company weeks after filming, showing unedited dailies, including some with the actors.

There are a number of scenes that I can pick myself out in the movie, just because I recognize myself or guys in my company. But for the most part, there’s only one place you can definitely see me in the movie, and that’s this one below, that I copied from a YouTube clip. I haven’t seen it in awhile. When I showed it to my wife, she said, “you look like a baby!” It was, after all, 18 years ago.

Incidentally, this was a breakfast scene in the WWI camp, filmed at sunset. We were told that Brad Pitt’s character Tristan was riding into camp with scalps around his neck, and we were supposed to part the way. They wanted us to look shocked at what we were seeing but not to exaggerate it too much. While Brad Pitt did come through on the horse and we did get to see that, what we’re actually looking at in this photo is an ATV coming through with a camera on it.

If you’d like to see the actual clip, here’s a link to one somebody posted on YouTube. You can see me on the left of the screen from 2:56-3:00.

I’d like to work in movies again someday, but in an artistic capacity, maybe as a digital painter or a character designer. But for now, I’m happy with the memory that I got to do it once, and it was great. If you ever get the chance to be an extra in a movie, paid or otherwise, I would advise you to do it, just for the fun of it. It really was one of the best experiences of my life.