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Winter Raven

Before it debuted in 2010, nobody was asking for an iPad. Even after it launched, people made fun of it. There were plenty of articles criticizing it for not having a keyboard or a stylus. Even the name was fodder for ridicule. Who would want this when they could have a laptop or a home computer?

Years later, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody with a tablet device who doesn’t see the value.

While I’m not creating technical marvels or something the masses line up for, whenever I’m deciding on a new painting, I have to fight the urge to try to figure out what people want. Most of the time, we don’t even know.

When I painted my first funny looking Grizzly Bear in 2009, nobody was asking me for animal paintings. Like a lot of art, it was an experiment, borne out of boredom with the work I’d been doing.

There are times I will paint something purely for commercial reasons, to satisfy demand.  Most of my pet portraits are client commissions, I’ve painted pandas for the Calgary Zoo, and my Sasquatch and recent T-Rex painting were market suggestions from a licensing client.

It’s a nice thought to believe that you can create art for a living, and people will throw money at you, but the real world doesn’t work that way.

If I thought too hard about each piece’s outcome and marketability before I painted it, I would have never created some of my most popular pieces.

I’ve painted more bears than any other animal, and I’ll continue to paint more because I enjoy them so much. I’ve also painted multiple wolves, lions, tigers and owls. This is my third or fourth raven.

I paint some animals more than once because there will always be room for improvement and new approaches to try. You never know when the same animal, painted differently, will suddenly resonate with people the way a previous version didn’t.

My Smiling Tiger painting is one of my best-selling pieces. Had I failed to paint it simply because I had painted tigers twice before, I would have missed out on an image that many people love, including me.
In September of this year, I gave my wife a photo of a raven for her birthday, printed on aluminum with a clear coating. It’s easily one of the best gifts I’ve given her because she loves it. Shonna hung it opposite the kitchen entry so that when you walk in, it never fails to catch your eye.

Over the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with the image as well. Because of the print medium, the different light throughout the day changes the photo. Sometimes it’s devoid of colour; other times, it’s shades of gold, and on an overcast, gloomy day, it has hints of blue. Both Shonna and I often stop to look at it.

My friend Darrel and I remain fans of the 90s television show Northern Exposure. The fictitious tales from Cecily, Alaska, often incorporated First Nations beliefs and symbolism. On one holiday episode, the radio DJ, Chris Stevens said, “You know, twinkling coloured lights are nice, and so are plastic Santas and reindeers and manger scenes, but I’ll tell you something, friends… nothing like the sight of a beautiful black-as-pitch raven to get you in the Christmas spirit.”

I doubt there’s a December since that Darrel and I haven’t recited the last part of that quote to each other.
So it’s no wonder I’ve had ravens on my mind. It’s also likely why I chose such stark contrasts in this painting, inspired by the same quality in that photo.

I’ve had to remind myself often of the lesson I learned a long time ago. If I paint what I think people want to see, the image rarely captures the attention I expect. It’s likely those paintings won’t be ones I enjoy much either. It’s the ones I paint without any expectations that end up being the most fun and often become surprising hits.

So here’s another raven, whether you wanted one or not. And here’s to the next one I’ll no doubt paint somewhere down the road, whenever the mood strikes me.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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The Great Grey Hunter

With the brilliant fall colours and abnormally warm October temperatures, the timing couldn’t have been better for some R&R in Central Alberta ranch land with a good friend of mine. For five days, we caught up, reminisced, ate good food, tipped back a few drinks, played Scrabble and cards like old men, and enjoyed the slower pace.

As usual, I took plenty of photos, mostly of horses, cows and Jingles, the most good-natured dog you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet.

I even caught sight of a moose one evening, though too far away for reference. But anytime I see wildlife is a win.

In my regular day to day, I get up at 5am, even on weekends. For anyone who is self-employed, weekends often don’t mean much anyway. So when I do take time off and sleep in, I’m still an early riser.

On our last morning, I woke just after 7 to an eerie warm light coming through my window. I got out of bed, pulled the curtain back and thought it looked like that strange hazy glow of forest fire smoke. Since we haven’t had any of that in a few weeks around here, it took me a minute to realize it was just the light bouncing off the yellow leaves on the trees and ground.

I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera, and snuck out the back door of the cabin. I didn’t want to go past my buddy’s bedroom and possibly wake him. My photography skills just weren’t adequate to figure out how to capture the weird light I was seeing, so I resigned myself to simply appreciating the moment. The three previous mornings had been pretty, but this was much more intense.

Since I was up already, I wandered out to the road to see if there might be some deer or a coyote around. I knew that anything I might encounter would take off as soon as I saw it, so the best I might hope for would be a few quick snapshots.

When I emerged from the lane onto the road, I spotted a large shape on a fence post. At first, I thought it might be a hawk. I’ve long been trying to get photos of a red-tailed hawk in the wild, but each time I see one, it’s usually while I’m driving with nowhere to pull over.

At the same time, a little way down the road, there were two white-tailed deer. They spotted me just as I raised my camera. I got one shot before they bolted into the trees, but it isn’t worth sharing.

My attention quickly returned to what I now realized was a Great Grey Owl. A common species in Alberta, but I’ve never seen one in the wild. I thought I might get a few quick shots before it took off, especially since it looked right at me, but my presence didn’t seem to be a problem.

Female Great Grey Owls are larger than males but there’s no other way to easily tell their gender. As this was a single and quite large, I’m going with she.

With each step I took, I expected her to fly away, but she seemed more interested in finding her breakfast than worrying about me. I crept closer and moved a little farther down the road around her to get the best light, continuously taking shots.

Eventually, I got to within 8 or 10 feet and figured that was close enough. I didn’t want to crowd her. With a 70-300 mm lens, I knew I’d still capture plenty of detail.

Finally, after watching her snag a mouse and eat part of it on the next post, she gracefully dropped from the post and silently flew down the fence-line. Having taken a few dozen photos, I thought that was it, and I was grateful for the gift.

But she didn’t go far. Her next perch was even closer to the cabin than the first. I wandered back the way I came, again expecting her to take off, but she stayed put. I enjoyed her implied audacity at ignoring the No Trespassing sign, coupled with the fact that the sign colour matched her eyes.

Eventually, she flew into the trees, but still close to the property line. I took even more photos because her perch this time clearly showed the incredible camouflage of her feathers against the nearby tree bark.

Since Darrel is also an early riser and I didn’t want him to miss out on this privilege, I walked back to the cabin to tell him. I knew she might be gone before we returned, but I’d already taken plenty of shots and thought it worth the risk. He was eager to see her as well, and by the time we got back, she was in the same spot.

We watched her move between three different perches. We were so close that Darrel could still get some nice shots with his phone. He took some video as well, but it also captured the sound of my camera shutter on rapid fire.

At one point, a brief gust of wind came up, throwing clouds of yellow leaves around her. It was such a treat to take photos of her in multiple environments, almost like she was a model for hire.

Finally, we decided we’d invaded her space enough and I didn’t want to ruin her chances of getting a meal, even though I’d seen her catch one mouse already.

I thanked her for her patience, and we walked back to the cabin, looking through the shots we’d taken.

After we’d eaten a small breakfast, Darrel saw movement out the window and said, “She’s back!”

Now perched on the fence on our side of the road, she still didn’t seem to care that we were there.

We watched her jump down into the grass to catch a mouse, hop back up on to the same perch, eat it down whole and repeat the process. Here’s a time-lapse of the Great Grey hunter in action. Not a good day to be a mouse.

I’ve taken photos of Great Grey Owls before, at the Calgary Zoo Aviary and at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale. In those cases, they’ve been orphans and rescues that can’t be released back into the wild. I’ve even painted a closeup of a Great Grey before.

But to see one this close, at eye level in the wild, going about her morning, so tolerant of our visit, was a truly special experience for which I’m grateful.

As the cold weather will no doubt be fast upon us, and with nowhere to go, I plan to spend a lot of time painting. Much like the squirrels and other critters storing up food for the winter, I’ve been stockpiling reference photos for new pieces and have a few already planned.

I believe I’ll add a Great Grey Owl to that list.
If you’d like to support these beautiful birds and others like them, please donate to the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. They do great work for wildlife conservation and education.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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The Art That Binds


Shonna has discerning tastes when it comes to the art she likes.

Were we not together and she stumbled across my stuff somewhere, she wouldn’t buy it. The side benefit, however, is that she has a critical eye and if there’s something wrong in one of my paintings, she can spot it. It took me a long time to stop taking that personally and see it for the gift that it is.

That’s ironic, because had I not met her 30 years ago, odds are very good I wouldn’t be an artist for a living. The opportunities that made that possible, all the pieces lining up, were because I moved to the mountains in 1994 to save our failing long-distance relationship.

Aside from the pieces in my office and one outside my office door, we don’t have any artwork hanging in our home.

That seems to bother one friend of mine a great deal, but Shonna and I have always marched to our own beat. From choosing early on in our marriage not to have children, to the fact that we don’t celebrate holidays, we’re happy to be weird. Normal is overrated.

After 30 years together, coming up quickly on 25 years of marriage, clearly it’s working for us.

Shonna and I rarely do anything for our birthdays. We’ve never had a party for each other, nor wanted one. We never made it a thing, nor do we ever put pressure on each other to buy the perfect gift. In fact, we almost never buy each other gifts because a calendar says we should. She’s forbade me to buy her anything for Valentine’s Day, and we both loathe Christmas.

But today is Shonna’s 50th birthday and I wanted to do something special for her. We originally had some nice vacation plans this year. We wanted to have an adventure to mark her 50th, our 25th anniversary in a little over a month, and my 50th early next year, but I need not explain why all of that was cancelled.

As Shonna told another friend turning 50 this year, we’re taking a mulligan.

A few years ago, Shonna found a black and white photo online that really spoke to her. Art being what it is, it’s foolish to dissect why. Just as one song moves one person, but elicits a shrug from another, it’s personal.

It’s unlike her to be so struck by an image, so she found the photographer online, a Russian from Saint Petersburg with the pen name Key Gross. His black and white photography is quite stunning, expertly capturing urban scenes. But it was a square cropped raven with an unusual composition that Shonna fell for.

After a couple of fruitless attempts to contact him, she finally managed to have a dialogue. She told him how much she loved the photo and wanted to arrange to buy a print. Because of the difficulty of having it printed the size she wanted, shipped to Canada, and the fact that she just loved the image, he offered it to her for free, despite her willingness to pay.

He quite unexpectedly emailed her the file so she could print it herself. Given that she is married to an artist who has been ripped off more times than I can count, and the frustration of trying to maintain copyright protection in the digital age, she assured him we would only print it once and that the original file would never be shared.

ABL Imaging in Calgary has been doing my canvas and giclée prints for many years and I can’t speak highly enough about their quality and professionalism. We went to the shop together a couple of years ago to see about getting it done.

The problem, however, is that they have many options and Shonna was paralyzed by choice.

She hasn’t spoken about this photo since, obviously having given up on having anything done with it.

Shonna is incredibly tough to buy for. She doesn’t wear any jewelry, abhors dust gathering knick knacks, doesn’t collect anything, and if she wants something, she usually saves for it and buys it. I’ve learned over the years that the best gifts I can give her are simply supporting things she wants to do.

Our recent kitchen renovations (she’s an excellent cook), taking care of her car maintenance, cleaning the house, bringing her lunch to her when she forgets it, making a workout space for her in the basement when her gym closed for COVID, cleaning the house. It’s the little things that mean more than the stuff that money can buy.

Take note, newlyweds.

As it’s so rare for me to know for certain that Shonna will like or want something I might buy her, a couple of months ago, I talked to Ryan at ABL Imaging about finally getting that Raven printed.

I had measured a couple of places in the house where it might hang, to give Shonna some options. The image was 30cm each side, and I wanted to print it 22 inches. That meant some subtle Photoshop magic so it wouldn’t blur on the enlargement. Good thing I know a thing or two about that.

Ryan and I discussed how best to make the image pop and went with a boxed aluminum print. The brushed grain added some texture and a wonderful, raised relief effect on the feathers. ABL Imaging then sent it out for a professional automotive clear-coat that took it to another level. The print has real presence.
From a traditional point of view, the image breaks the rules of composition. The eye is generally the focal point of an animal photo or painting, but this one is off to the side. In fact, the feathers in the center of the piece are the sharpest part of the image, another rule broken. But the image works, it’s got character, life and proves that following the rules isn’t always what makes for a moving piece. That, and trying to please everybody is overrated.

While Shonna did take the day off for her 50th, she still woke at 5am as we both usually do, and went to the gym while I worked. When she got home, I drove down to the bakery to get her a fresh cinnamon bun, a rare indulgence. After we ate those with our coffee, I gave her the gift, which for reasons I already mentioned, she wasn’t expecting.

Before she got it fully open, she asked “Did you get me my raven?”

She was thrilled.

As I wrote this in my office, she was busy with drywall anchors and searching for screws. I took a break midway through to help her line it up.

She hung it in her newly renovated kitchen.

(she told me to add, “and it looks fantastic!”)

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Another Day of Discovery

I’m not breaking any news here when I point out that most businesses have had to adjust to operational difficulties during the past six months. Many had to close, some permanently. For the ones that survived, the opening came with severe restrictions, reduced hours and a strange new reality.

Discovery Wildlife Park began its late-season start as a drive-thru. People could visit the park, but had to stay in their vehicles, while staff did their best to ensure a worthwhile experience. It proved to be quite popular, especially since there were few options elsewhere for a family outing at the time.

Once allowed to fully open, they had reduced hours, but visitors could roam freely while keeping their distance from other guests. The park itself is a well-manicured open-concept venue, and just walking around the place is relaxing. Add in the rescued and orphaned animals, and it’s a unique experience.

Their season ends typically on Thanksgiving, but this year the last day is September 30th. With that date looming and the fantastic fall weather this year, I made the time on Monday to drive up and spend the day taking photos.
As always, my first stop was to see Berkley, a brown bear I’ve known since she wasn’t much bigger than a cat. She has a massive enclosure all to herself, complete with a pond, big fallen trees on which to climb and plenty of daily attention from staff and guests alike.
In August, Berkley weighed in at 388 pounds. As she’s been preparing for her long winter’s nap by eating a lot more, I suspect she’s well over 400 now. She’ll turn four years old this coming January and still isn’t full grown. Given the excellent care the animals receive at the park, Berkley is one of the healthiest brown bears you’ll ever see. Her thick, luxurious coat sometimes makes her look like she might be carrying a little extra weight, but she’s fit and lean.

It never fails to make me smile when I call her name, and she ambles down to see me, even if she’s at the other side of her enclosure. It’s such a privilege to sit on the grass and look into those beautiful brown eyes.
Serena (the head keeper and Berkley’s Mom) and the staff have become friends over the years. I’m ever grateful for the behind-the-scenes access they give me when I visit. During the bear presentation, I was able to take up-close unobstructed photos and got some nice reference pics of the black bears. I tried to hide a little during Berkley’s part of the presentation. She tends to get distracted if she sees people she knows.
In the middle of the day, I drove ten minutes down the road to have a visit with my folks and meet their new little animal; a Yorkie named Lily. Once again, the first favoured LaMontagne child has four legs and a fur coat. She’s a skittish little thing, but she seemed to like me. A baggie full of dog treats helped.

Upon my return to the park for the lion presentation, I got another nice batch of photos. I’ve wanted to paint their male lion, Griffin, for some time. While I still don’t have THE shot I’ve been looking for, I did get plenty to paint other images.
While nobody knows what the future holds, I expect a winter with even more time indoors than usual. With a topped-up stock of new photo reference, I’ll be using that time to paint and write.

Lions, tigers, and bears…oh my.

And an elephant.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Walking with Wolf Pups

If you’d asked me how I was doing during the past couple of months, I might have answered that I’ve had OK days and not-so-OK days, for reasons I need not explain.

This past Sunday, however, was the first good day in a long while. And it was a really good day.

Discovery Wildlife Park is open as a drive-thru right now, an Alberta Health Services approved method for people to still come and see the animals, but they must stay in their vehicles. It’s proving very popular and they’ve been busy, with a steady stream of cars winding through the park on their well-manicured gravel pathways. The staff helps the animals be seen, they answer questions and do their best to make it an enjoyable experience for their guests, despite the distancing measures.

While I think it’s great they have this option, it’s not one I’d planned on experiencing. I’ll admit to being spoiled by my connection to the park, and the access they’ve given me. I just don’t want to see Berkley from my car, especially given the drive time to get there.

Shonna and I have been very good at following the isolation rules in all of this. She still goes to work at the law office each day, but it’s closed to the public and they have the appropriate safety measures in place. I’ve stayed home, only going out once a week for groceries, completing all of my errands in as few days a week as possible.

Alberta relaxed a number of restrictions on Friday, allowing people to get together in small groups. Some more businesses have been allowed to open and people are venturing out of their homes, though still being advised to wash their hands, keep their distance, and exercise caution.

Serena and I were texting Saturday night as we sometimes do, as I’m always curious to see how the animals are doing. She often sends behind-the-scenes pictures and videos for us. I made the off comment that it’s too bad I wouldn’t be able to see the wolves while they were pups, to which Serena replied, “Why not?”
As she did with their Brown bear Berkley when she was a cub, Serena takes 8-week-old Sassenach and Highlander for a walk each evening in the large fenced wooded area at the park. She lets them explore, play, and get into trouble, without having to worry that they’ll go anywhere.

We’ve had the privilege of many walks in the woods with Berkley. So it was exciting when Serena invited us to come up Sunday evening and meet the wolf pups in the same way.

Shonna later said she was impressed at how I jumped at the chance without overthinking it. Spontaneous is not my default setting.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day. With warm temperatures, sunny and cloudy skies, very little traffic on the highways, we headed up that afternoon, a little over two hours’ drive one way.

I talk with my parents often enough on the phone and via FaceTime, but we hadn’t had an in-person visit since they left for Arizona in the fall. As they live ten minutes from the park, we made time for a short visit on their deck beforehand, keeping our distance, of course.

We met Serena at the park at 6, drove over to the wooded area and before long; the wolves were doing their thing while we took pictures.
Part of the reason we have such a good relationship with the park is that we’ve always given the animals their space. There’s no chasing, lunging, grabbing, yelling, basically any behaviour that’s going to freak them out. We were content to watch, let them get comfortable with our presence and it was up to them to come to us.



Thankfully, once they did, both pups did check us out, but their primary focus was on each other, exploring, playing and attacking.
As Serena said, “It’s Fight Club, every night.”

We spent about two hours with them, visiting and catching up with Serena and taking a lot of pictures. I had my camera, but also my phone. Shonna and Serena took pictures with their phones and I got copies of all of them. So most of these pictures are mine, but some are theirs, too. And we don’t really know which are which.
The funny thing is that like most young animals, they were just bundles of energy, until they weren’t. Once they crashed, they crashed hard. Serena then told us we could pick them up, because at that point, they didn’t care. Holding a snoozing wolf pup is a real treat.
As always, we are forever grateful for our connection with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their orphaned and rescued wildlife critters receive the best care, and you need only look to how the keepers and animals behave around each other to realize how much love there is between them.
We were happy to make another donation to the park while we were there, as they really need it right now. In a regular year, they’re only open from May to October, but they still need to feed and care for the animals the other six months of the year. Maintenance of the facilities, upkeep of the grounds and enclosures, veterinary bills and a long list of accessory expenses, not to mention the salaries of the dedicated staff, makes for an expensive undertaking.

I came home with about two thousand photos. After hours of weeding out the ones I can’t use, I still ended up with dozens of reference shots. I’m so glad to have taken photos while they were little, because they certainly won’t remain that way for long. Their eyes are already changing from blue to yellow. There’s no doubt I’ll eventually create paintings of both of them.

After more than two months of being locked down, that was the perfect break from isolation. And to top it all off, Shonna and I drove back into the mountains that night under a brilliant red sky, one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen this year.

Cheers,
Patrick
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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Ring-Tailed Ringleader

Here’s a new painting, a Ring-tailed Lemur just finished this morning.

Wacom sent me their new Wacom One display to take for a test drive and to record a video for them. The video has an inspirational theme, rather than a technical one. I’ve written the script, recorded the video, but now I need a few days to edit all of the footage and record the audio, especially since I have my cartoon deadlines as well. It’s a lot of work to take a painting that took about 15 hours and compress it into a 3 or 4 minute video so people won’t get bored.

Seriously, I love painting hair and fur, but it would be effective torture to make me watch many hours of somebody else doing it.

Initially supposed to be more of a cartoony creation, I wanted to see what kind of advances Wacom had made in their display technology, so I painted with it instead. The Wacom One is being marketed as an entry-level display, but I enjoyed working with it and didn’t feel hobbled at all.

I’ll have a more technical evaluation post a little later, but for those of you who just like looking at my funny looking animal paintings, I’ll save those details.

The Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Calgary Zoo are fun to watch, and the Land of Lemurs is an immersive experience. Their enclosure allows them to freely roam where they like and it’s the people who are restricted in the center, but with no barrier. With zoo staff on hand to make sure people follow the rules, the open-air concept allows for some great photo opportunities.

I’ve taken many shots of these critters and plan to paint a group of them together as they like to huddle in a ball. All of the expressive faces peeking out is quite comical.
While going through my photo reference, however, I came across the image above. She’s a female, as are all of the ring-tailed lemurs at the zoo (or were at the time of this photo), and I liked what I saw. I even loved the blue sky background, and saw no need to change it. I don’t know if she really has a bad attitude, but part of the reason I paint the personalities I do is that I actually see that in the photo reference I take. The painting definitely looks male, however.

This was a lot of fun. I know I say that about many of my paintings, but I’d put this painting experience in the Top 3. Many of my paintings could be labelled cute, but this one borders on psychotic, which is probably why I liked it so much. Those crazy eyes suggest a critter that isn’t quite all there.

As my friend Pam at Wacom said this morning on Instagram, “He looks like an evil ringleader.”

So while I don’t know if it’s the kind of image that will be popular on a print or licensed product, some of my best images were ones I did for myself. I never expected my cantankerous Ostrich image to be popular and that one has developed a strange cult following I don’t fully understand.

I worked a very long day on Sunday drawing three editorial cartoons so that I could spend all day yesterday putting the final hours in on this piece. I could have finished it last night, but I erred on the side of patience and decided to sleep on it. When I opened the image this morning, I laughed out loud. It’s such a ridiculous expression.
Another hour on the fine hairs, tweaks here and there, tunes cranked in the earbuds, and I’m glad I waited. It was a great way to start my day.

I’m looking forward to sharing the video soon.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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A Visit with Birds of Prey

After my first visit to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta last year, I was looking forward to another visit this season. Unfortunately, with other obligations close to home, I didn’t manage to get there before they closed last month for the season.

After reading their latest newsletter, which is always informative, I realized that I had not only failed to visit this year, but I hadn’t contributed financially either. I called up last month to make a donation and the patriarch of the family, Colin Weir, told me they’d be in Canmore again on October 5th at the Civic Centre.

I marked it in my calendar and made sure I wouldn’t be away or have other obligations.

A really nice day for it, I got there first thing on Saturday to avoid what would later become a good crowd of people. The birds were outside, in conjunction with a larger event focusing on Geology, fossils and the Canmore Museum, located in the Civic Centre.

The regular cast of characters were there, the ambassadors that travel with Colin when he goes to these events. These are birds that can’t be released back into the wild and have lived at the Centre for a long time. A Great Horned Owl, Short Eared Owl, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl and Golden Eagle, each with names like Basil, Dexter and Edgar.
Their Golden Eagle is in her early thirties, and I painted her a couple of years ago. Sarah is a beautiful bird and Colin admits he’s very close to her, having raised her since the 1980s. His daughter, Aimee has joked that Sarah is the favorite child.

While I enjoyed painting Sarah, it’s not one of my more popular prints, largely because when the general public thinks of eagles, they’re most often after the Bald variety and that painting of mine is far more popular than this one.

Even still, I couldn’t resist taking more photos of Sarah, knowing I still may do another painting of her, for my own enjoyment.
I spent a good couple of hours there, taking hundreds of photos of all of the birds. The opportunity to get up close and personal, acquiring such detailed reference is one I rarely pass up. I was happy to leave another donation for the privilege of having the birds come to me.
When it comes to supporting charities and causes, I would encourage you to find the thing for which you feel a personal connection.

Whether it’s research into a medical illness that has touched you or a member of your family, efforts for building a new library in your community, or a regular donation to the food bank, find something you can regularly support that makes you feel like you’re making a difference.

As this is a wonderful facility that rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey, I know how much they rely on public support to continue the work they do. With so many worthwhile charities and causes out there, it can be overwhelming to want to give to everybody, but only having the funds to support a few. I decided quite some time ago that all of my charitable donations would go toward wildlife causes, especially facilities that help animals in need of emergency care and rehabilitation. I make a monthly donation to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Airdrie, contribute to Discovery Wildlife Park in whatever way I can, and I support the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, but I say No to most everything else, even though I still feel guilty while doing so.

Giving is one of the most selfish things we do, because it feels so good. It’s addictive. I’ll freely admit that it’s also self-serving for me to support wildlife causes and facilities because it’s allowed me to be able to get up close and personal with many of the subjects I’ve painted. How could I not support them in return?

I make a good living, but I’m not wealthy, despite the outsider’s view that everybody who lives in Canmore and Banff is rich. That’s right, the people serving coffee in the local shop, working at the gas stations, cleaning hotel rooms, and working in the grocery store are all rich people, slumming it because they’re bored.

To support a charity, any charity, doesn’t required a huge outlay of funds. A monthly donation of even $20 helps these places because they’re not just relying on your contribution but all of the others who can only give a little, which amounts to a lot. A monthly donation helps them budget for the year, to get the most of their donations and stretch it as far as they can.

I was talking to Colin on Saturday about the challenges faced with fundraising in a facility like his. He told me that their small staff does everything, from rescuing the animals, caring for them, releasing them, training new staff and volunteers, ordering for the gift shop, maintaining the facilities and what I can only imagine is a much longer list of daily duties that go on even when the facility is closed to the public in the off-season.

He told me about somebody who had called him recently from Fort McMurray who hit a Great Horned Owl with his truck at night. Colin showed me the picture of the owl trapped inside the damaged grill, looking out at the man taking the photo. He had to talk the guy through the extrication over the phone and they managed to free the owl that was seemingly undamaged. These types of calls are not unusual, and come at all hours.

On top of all of that, they also have to have a sharp focus on fundraising, or it all stops.

While the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation has a few generous corporate sponsors, like Fortis Alberta and AltaLink, they don’t receive any funding from the Alberta or federal governments. When governments change, priorities change and funding can suddenly be frozen or come with strings attached that would ultimately hinder their good work, rather than help.

If you think about some of the larger, more well-known charities, Colin points out that those organizations often have fundraising and marketing departments with more people in them than the entire staff at the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. Not to mention that the marketing budgets of larger charities often exceed the entire operating budget of a facility like the Birds of Prey Centre, where all of the funds raised go directly to conservation.

The next time you’re thinking about where best to put your limited charitable donations, I would encourage you to find somewhere that does great work that aligns with your values. Consider choosing a small facility, where they might not have the flashiest of ad campaigns, but are on the ground doing great work that matters, necessary work that if they didn’t do it, nobody would. You won’t get the chance at a lottery prize or be invited to a gala fundraiser, but you’ll be able to see firsthand where your money goes and the good that it does.

It might be your local SPCA or animal shelter, a local greenhouse that grows food for struggling folks in your own community, or somewhere like the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation.

Be selfish. Give a little.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Clearwater Calf

On a recent visit to the cabin near Caroline in June, I was delighted to hear from the owners of KB Trails that they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a neighbour for his cows.  While I’m not exactly a city slicker, I’m pretty sure that nothing says, “he ain’t from around here” quite like standing in the middle of a field taking pictures of cows.

Even the cows seemed to be asking, “What’s this guy’s deal?”
But for me, any chance to get up close and personal to a critter for some photo reference is a good day.

I do love that landscape up there in Clearwater County, and the pasture behind the cabin. It seems there’s always something new to photograph. Deer, coyotes, moose, horses, cows, and a wonderful dog names Jingles. This is the second painting I’ve done from my trips up there, Jingles being my first. But it certainly won’t be the last.

From time to time, I’ll paint an animal where it’s a real challenge to get it to look right. Might be something in the features or in the fur, but some of my paintings have felt like real work.
This one, however, was quite easy, which was a welcome surprise. It still required quite a few hours at the digital drawing board, but it never had any frustrating moments. It was just putting in the time until it was finished.

Up next…well, I’ll let you know.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Fall Photos at Discovery Wildlife Park

An opportunity recently came up to do a fall photo shoot at Discovery Wildlife Park. I got the text while hanging out at Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, which Shonna calls my artist support group.

The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.

We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.

Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.

Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.

After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.

I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”

That never gets old.
Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.

We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire.
Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.

Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.

Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.

With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with.
Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.

Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.

I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings.
I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Kayaking With(out) Whales

After a trying year of challenges, both business and personal, Shonna and I had been eagerly anticipating our vacation this past week. Booked in early May, it was the light at the end of the tunnel of our still as yet uncompleted kitchen renovations which occupied our entire summer.

That light didn’t turn out to be as bright as it first appeared.

We wanted to see orcas and other wildlife from a kayak and we did a fair bit of research to not only choose the best time of year to go, but the ideal place to see them. We researched different companies and were confident that we had put our best foot forward in advance.

We had only kayaked once before a few years ago in Tofino and liked it enough that we wanted to try a longer trip.
Because of my workload and commitments to my newspaper clients, I can only take a week off at a time, rarely more than once a year. Whenever possible, I try to have it be a working vacation and since Shonna loves wildlife like I do, it’s usually easy to do on Vancouver Island.

To drive to Vancouver Island would be a total of four extra days on the road, hotel stays, ferry crossings and delays, so we always choose to fly from Calgary to Comox and rent a car. We’ve taken our Island trips like this for years.

On Tuesday of last week, we drove up to Campbell River from the Comox airport, took the ferry over to Quadra Island, and checked into a wonderful little B&B called Chipperfield Hollow, where we stayed on our first and last night on Quadra. We’d highly recommend it.

That evening, we had a pre-trip meeting at a local inn, just a short walk down the road, where we met with our guides from Spirit of the West Adventures. They operate a number of different tour options, but the one we selected was the Johnstone Strait Ultimate. Four days, three nights with a base camp. This company was suggested by a neighbour who used to guide in that area and our research supported that recommendation.

The next morning, we boarded a water taxi for the 2.5 hour trip up to the camp in Johnstone Strait.

Rather than give you an itemized itinerary, let’s just jump to the pros and cons.

First, the good…

The company was top notch. From our initial booking and advance emails we got all summer, our experience with their service couldn’t have been better. While on the trip, the three guides were professional, friendly, safe…I could just go on with positive adjectives.
Shonna and I rented rain gear and sleeping bags from them which were better than expected. The tent we slept in on a solid wood platform was equipped with comfortable Thermarest mattresses, and had an incredible view. The camp in the Johnstone Strait was in a perfect spot, the tents and platforms well laid out, a covered dining and kitchen area, camp toilets, even a propane heated shower in the trees and a wood-fired hot tub.
The food they provided exceeded expectations. From the appetizers and meals at the camp to the lunches and snacks they brought with us while kayaking, we certainly didn’t go hungry. They accommodated all dietary restrictions, confirmed well in advance. I can’t eat salmon or shellfish; so on the first night when they BBQ’d salmon for everyone, I got ling cod fillets that were delicious. Gluten free options, dairy free options, all were available for those who needed them.
The kayaks were in great condition, as was all of the other equipment. Safety was their top priority, not only while on the water, but in camp as well. This included briefings about possible bear encounters, keeping food out of the tents, etc.
Our kayaking trips were enjoyable. Shonna and I shared a tandem kayak the first couple of days, and then we each had a single kayak on the last full day. We kind of had to put our foot down with the other guests the evening before, explaining that we had done our time in the double, and just because we were a couple, didn’t mean we didn’t want to use the single kayaks.

For the first time ever, I checked two bags on the flight. The weather on Vancouver Island can turn on a dime and if it starts raining, it can go on for some time. Even when it stops, good luck in getting anything to dry because of the high humidity out there. So we brought plenty of clothing for that eventuality. We left our extra bags at the B&B on Quadra, but took plenty of clothing with us.

With perfect weather the whole time, we didn’t need most of it. It wasn’t even that cold at night. It didn’t start to rain until we were on the beach on our last day loading our gear to go home. We felt bad for the incoming group arriving in the rain because the forecast wasn’t good.
Each morning, we were socked in with fog, which made for an ethereal dreamy kayaking experience that I consider the best part of the trip. Eventually it lifted and we’d have beautiful sunshine and blue sky for the rest of the day. Better still; the water was a flat calm most of the time, unusual for that area.
When it came to the parts of the trip we were promised by Spirit of the West Adventures, we had no complaints.

The key word, however, is promised, because there are certain things they can’t control, and that’s what took the shine off of the rest.

Here’s what was lacking…

Including Shonna and I, there were 13 people on our trip. I was the only guy. Most of these women were older than we were and it created a strange dynamic. Even Shonna said that a balance of men and women would have been much more preferable. While it’s always nice to hear other people’s perspectives on things and everyone was friendly and nice, it often felt like we were on vacation with our mothers’ friends. It would have been just as weird had it been all guys and Shonna the only woman.

True, our lead guide was male, but he was there to work and run the tour, so that doesn’t really count.
It’s not like it was planned that way, and only a few of the women knew each other before the trip. There was a balance of genders on the trip before and a balance on the trip after, just not on ours. It should be noted, however, that all of these women were fit and up to the trip. When it came time to haul kayaks and gear, everybody pulled their weight. I even learned a few useful tips from some of the more experienced paddlers.

On one day, with the currents looking like the afternoon might not be ideal for kayaking, we were told to bring some WALKING shoes as we would be going on an easy hike instead. Since we were told to make sure we always had dry shoes in camp, we had our water socks for kayaking, and I had a pair of Keen sandals for this walk.

Turned out that the hike was downright vertical in places, up a winding roller coaster of rainforest trail with criss-crossing roots to navigate. What made it more difficult was that I was carrying my expensive camera in one hand the whole time. The pace was brisk and at one point some of the other guests began asking how much further. The guide told a white lie and said we were at the halfway point when we were actually about a third or less. Four women decided to turn back to the beach and a guide went with them. Had Shonna and I known how much further to the top and how anti-climactic it would be when we got there, we would have done the same.

We had no time to stop and look at the forest around us and it felt a little like a forced march when she and I were in the Army Reserves years ago. Shonna does Cross-Fit every morning and I regularly hike here at home, but the pace and terrain kicked our asses. I don’t know how the guide did it in Crocs.

For our efforts on the return, we were drenched in sweat, I had two very large blisters on one foot from wearing shoes in which I would never do a hike like that, and felt we’d been a little ripped off. We didn’t pay for a kayaking trip to waste an afternoon hiking, something we can do at home.

Needless to say, we both arrived back at the beach pissed off and fuming, biting our tongues. We would have much rather paddled around the sheltered bay or relaxed at the beautiful location of our camp if we couldn’t kayak, perhaps wandering the shore, looking for wildlife.

Shonna and I have lived in the Canadian Rockies for more than 25 years and the main business here is tourism, just as it is for many parts of Vancouver Island. When it comes to seeing animals, there’s a saying in both locales… “Wildlife doesn’t punch a clock.”

That means you can try your best to find the animals you came to see, but sometimes they just don’t show up. We were in the right place, at the right time, and pretty much got skunked.

Technically, we saw two or three orcas. On the trip up in the water taxi, way off in the distance, there were some blows and dorsal fins. Then while at camp, we saw some blows even further away one day, but couldn’t tell if they were humpbacks or orcas. One night, Shonna and I thought we heard blows in the water outside of our tent and figured it must be orcas, but it was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

We think it’s fair that we don’t count these.
We did see a black bear on our beach a couple of times, then later while kayaking in the fog another morning and on another beach nearby. We’re pretty sure it was the same bear and surprisingly, I was just fine with him being that close, despite my earlier bearanoia tale while camping this past May.

Other than that, we saw some white-sided dolphins go by from our camp a couple of times, a seal and sea lion, a blue heron, and countless ravens and seagulls. The only reference pic I got that I can paint from, however, is the blue heron, and the photos I took at Point Holmes in Comox a couple of days ago might be a better choice.

No orcas, no humpbacks, no otters, no eagles. On all of our visits to the Island, this was the trip where we saw the least wildlife of any kind.

At the end of our trip, we spent a couple of extra days in Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland visiting with a few friends we don’t get to see often enough. We kept trying to put our finger on exactly why this trip was a disappointment, and it pretty much came down to the reasons above. We still got to spend some time off together away from work, which is always a plus.
Just as somebody can end up spending days in their hotel room in Mexico from drinking the water, or luggage can get lost, or a hotel reservation can be screwed up, it was simply bad luck. That doesn’t really take the edge off of the disappointment, however, or that our hard-earned money is gone, or the fact that we really needed a good vacation and it didn’t measure up, or that I didn’t come away with any reference photos or inspiration for paintings.

As in all things, shit happens.

Cheers,
Patrick

Some of these pics were taken by iPhone in a waterproof plastic case or are stills from GoPro video, so not as sharp as I’d like. But I wasn’t about to take my good camera out of the dry bag on open water if I didn’t have to. An orca or humpback would have been worth the risk.

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