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Hippo

My library of animal reference photos is extensive, somewhere in the thousands and all worth keeping.

Whenever I take pictures anywhere, I try to get them out of the camera that day or as soon as possible. I can take well over a thousand photos at the zoo, but after going through them, it’s rare that I keep more than fifty on that initial pass and I’m even stricter when I sort them into folders. While on Vancouver Island last month, I took over two thousand photos and kept around a hundred, not all of which were reference.

What I’m looking for is good lighting, sharp focus, nice composition and that special look that catches my eye. That’s basically the criteria for anyone who enjoys taking photos. But the big question is, “Will I ever paint from this?”

It’s a simple question and most of the time, the answer is easy. It doesn’t mean the photo is great or even good, it might even be a little blurry with poor lighting, but for reference, I can often still use it if that special something is there. In Photoshop, I can sharpen a blurry pic, adjust the lighting in Camera Raw and turn a discard into a keeper. It won’t turn it into a good photo, but I’ve salvaged many that became good reference.

True to my nature, my reference files are well organized. I don’t like clutter, whether it’s on my computer or in the rest of my life. I could never be accused of being a hoarder since I don’t hang on to stuff if it’s no longer useful. Ironic that I pack too much when I travel.

I have almost a hundred folders on my desktop for individual animals, many of which I haven’t painted yet. Some of those images will sit there for years until I get to them. They’re backed up in multiple places and I go through them whenever I ask myself, “What shall I paint next?”

A lot of the reference isn’t good enough for the large finished pieces that take many hours to complete, but are still worth keeping for what I call sketch paintings. Those are the images I’ll paint on the iPad or ones that are a little rougher, without any fine detail. These are paintings that will likely never be offered as prints, but are good practice and worth sharing on Instagram or in the newsletter.

Over the years, there have been animals I’ve seen and photographed often, but the pictures just don’t seem right for a finished piece. I’ll get plenty of decent shots, but there’s often something missing and I keep hunting for the ‘perfect’ reference.

I take photos of meerkats almost every time I go to the zoo. Next to bears, they’re the animal I’ve shot the most. I’ve done a dozen or more sketch paintings of these critters, but I’m still waiting for THE shot(s) from which to do the Totem painting.

Some of my paintings, it took me years until I finally got the shots I needed. Among those are the Red Panda, Snow Leopard, and Red Squirrel.

It was also the case for this Hippo painting.

I like Hippos. They’re herbivores, but very aggressive. They’re one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, responsible for killing around 3,000 people each year. Seems only fair, considering that the hippopotamus is listed as a vulnerable species, due to habitat loss and humans killing them for their ivory teeth.

Too many times to count, I’d visit the Destination Africa habitat at the Calgary Zoo and try to get decent shots of the two resident hippos, Sparky and Lobi. While they’re easy to see and enjoyable to watch, taking good photos proved to be quite challenging.

I tried shooting through the glass of the tank when they were in the water, but I couldn’t get any decent detail. Then I tried shooting them when they were on the surface. Nothing spoke to me.

Then one day, while shooting the meerkats nearby, I heard the hippos get out of the water. Their vocalizations are quite loud and distinctive. Almost like a honking with a lot of bass.

The keepers were spraying water into the enclosure and it became clear that both hippos were interested. I ask a lot of questions, especially of people that work with animals, and the keeper explained that the hippos enjoy being sprayed with water, particularly into their mouths.

It wasn’t long before I was getting shot after shot of that big wide mouth as each hippo invited the spray from the hose. It was exciting, knowing I was finally getting the photos I’d been looking for.

That was three years ago, and I just got around to painting the Hippo Totem over the last couple of weeks. As is often the case, I put in the final hours on Saturday morning and I’m pleased with how it turned out.

With my whimsical caricatured versions of the animals I paint, I often have choices to make about anatomy. Some hippos have extraordinarily large teeth/tusks and while I did have that reference and could have gone that route, I decided to lessen the focus on the tusks in favour of the eye and the happy expression.

The colour palette I chose was a surprise even to me. I began with a leafy green background, but in the final hours, I didn’t like how it looked and changed it to reflect the magentas and purples dominant in her body. It went from a complimentary colour scheme to an analogous one. One of the benefits of working digital over traditional is that making that change late in the game is easier, especially since I keep the background on a separate layer from the subject. That’s some nerd stuff for you art types.

Seems a little anticlimactic to finally have this one finished considering how long it’s been lying in wait. The high from finishing a painting used to last quite some time, but these days, it’s fleeting.

Nothing to do but go back to the archives and see what I’m going to paint next.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Vancouver Island 2018

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Bird of Prey named Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick

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A Walk in the Park

When you’re self-employed, you’re always working. If it’s not a planned vacation or camping trip, I do some work every day. But I also make my own schedule, which allows me to take an afternoon hike and to visit popular places like Discovery Wildlife Park or the Calgary Zoo on quieter days.

My wife, Shonna, has a full-time and part-time job, a workaholic for as long as I’ve known her. As a result, scheduling time off together is usually a dance requiring some difficult choreography.

We go out to dinner or lunch once in a while, go on vacations, and still spend a lot of our time off together, but we don’t do date nights, rarely observe birthdays or anniversaries, and we loathe Hallmark holidays. I think we might have gone out for Valentine’s Day once before we were married and we haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts in well over a decade. Might seem odd to some, but it has worked well for us for the past twenty-seven years.

Of all the times I’ve gone to Discovery Wildlife Park over the last couple of years, Shonna has only been there once, and she never got to see any animals. Up visiting family, we stopped in to drop off prints while the park was still closed for the season. So she met the head zookeeper Serena and one of the other keepers I know, but that was it.

And yet, while she enjoys the stories and fun photos I come home with after these visits to the park, Shonna hadn’t been able to experience it.
Berkley is growing up fast, so I told Shonna that I really wanted her to come to the park and see her before she was no longer a cub. We both looked at our schedules, figured out a day to visit the park, and she took a rare midweek day off.

I’ve already been given more opportunities with Berkley than I could have ever hoped for, and I suspected she might be too big now to risk being up close and personal with strangers. But I’ve gotten to be friends with Serena and we both know each other well enough to be candid without hurt feelings. An example is that I can ask difficult questions about animals in captivity without her being offended, because she knows I just want to learn and abandon any misconceptions.

So when I asked Serena if Shonna and I could join her on an evening walk with Berkley, I made it clear that I fully expected the answer to be No and that I was fine with that.

I was thrilled when she said, “Yes.”

Serena already knows I won’t do anything to endanger Berkley or myself. She knows what Berkley will do; it’s always people who are the unknown variable. I assured her that I married somebody more intelligent than myself, and Shonna would be completely respectful of Berkley’s space. Serena has also wanted to spend some time with Shonna because of how often I’ve talked about her.

We arrived about 7:30PM and Serena was waiting for us. We got out of the car, and Berkley went right to Shonna, which doesn’t surprise me. Animals like me, but they all seem to like her better. Even my parents’ dog, who gets excited when she sees me, will pass me up for Shonna. It’s humbling.

Shonna simply stood where she was and let Berkley sniff around her feet. When Berkley stood up on her hind legs and put her paws up on Shonna, she didn’t flinch. Serena came over, told Berkley No, and put her back to the ground. Berkley seemed to think, “whatever” and just walked away.

Serena later told me that Shonna’s easy going reaction told her all she needed to know when it came to trusting her with Berkley.

Over the next hour or so, we walked in and out of the forest on the property. We didn’t make Berkley do anything. The whole point of her evening walks is to let her be a bear. She’d take off into the woods, climb a tree, disappear into the bushes and then burst back onto the trail.
She has recently decided that Mom isn’t busy enough working long hours seven days a week, so Berkley finds burrs to collect, which Serena must then pick out of her fur.

We chatted the whole time, about this and that, just three people having a regular walk in the woods, except for the little bear running around us. Most of the time, she didn’t care where we were. She just did her own thing. When she got close, I’d take some pictures and then she’d head off again.
At one point, Shonna was sitting on a large rock when Berkley decided to really check her out. She put her paws on her leg, then snuffled her ear and apparently licked it which was funny, but also kind of gross. A wet-willy from a bear tongue.

Berkley decided she wanted some of Shonna’s water. Serena apologized and said it was the same kind of bottle she often brought for Berkley so she thought it was hers. Shonna was happy to share, bear slobber and all.

We took her up to the main park area, walking past large enclosures where black bears Charley, Gruff, Angel and others lounged in the grass in the setting sun. We walked between the lion and jaguar cages, the big cats VERY interested in the little morsel scurrying past them. Berkley wasn’t phased.
For the first time, I got to see Berkley’s night-time enclosure. Up until now, since they first got her earlier this year, she has lived at Serena’s house with her husband and kids. Berkley has gone home with her every night and comes to work with her every morning.

I had asked before when she’d be making the transition to staying at the park, and the answer has always been, “when she’s ready.”

Serena has raised many orphaned and rescued animals from babies and a number of them have lived at her house until they were big enough to be comfortable alone at night. She has managed this transition many times before with bears, lions, and other critters.

That week Berkley had just started her park overnights and that night was going to be her third alone in her pen, half of a large sea container complete with bedding, hay, water, food and whatever else she needed to feel comfortable.

Just as a dog takes comfort in a kennel or crate, these animals feel safer in their own space at night and they all have somewhere protected to go when it gets dark. What I found most comforting was that when we approached the kennel, Berkley went right inside, took a drink and then came back out. Clearly, she was comfortable with the space.

Just a couple of days ago, I asked Serena how the transition was going and she said she was adjusting well.
We took Berkley back into the woods where she could play in the creek, climb some trees, dig in the dirt and tire herself out. She checked us out from time to time, but we weren’t nearly as interesting as all of the other sights and smells of the forest.

The next day, we returned to the park as regular guests, bringing donuts and muffins for the keepers and staff as a thank-you. We watched the wolf and bear shows which are always informative and entertaining. All of the animals are trained using positive reinforcement and the loving relationship between the keepers and animals is obvious.
Education is a big part of these shows. Folks get valuable lessons in how to hike and camp safely, and what to do should they encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild. They’re told about why it’s a bad idea to stop on the highway to take pictures of wildlife, and how a fed bear becomes a dead bear. It’s a better way to teach than to simply hand out a brochure. These orphaned and rescued animals provide an education to prevent future orphan and rescue situations.

They call it a show, but it’s much more than that. This isn’t a circus where the animals are trained to entertain. Training is a part of their enrichment. By using food, praise, and generous shows of affection, their minds are kept active solving problems.

What might look like a simple trick to you and me is what keeps them mentally and physically healthy. We watched Charley the black bear figure out a new trick he just learned that week, which was putting a ball in his toy box. He kept missing the box, would look to Serena for his reward and when he didn’t get it, she’d pick up the ball, throw it a short distance and she’d encourage him to try again.

After the third try, he got it in the box and received his reward. Granted, he destroyed the box in the process, but he learned something new and worked it out. Serena has told me in the past that they have to keep coming up with new tricks because they’ll soon get bored of the old ones.

I noticed recently on their Facebook page, somebody expressed concern over making the lions jump from platform to platform. Serena diplomatically pointed out that it keeps their muscles and minds active. All reinforcement is positive and in this situation, they weren’t even in the enclosure with the animals, so if the lions didn’t want to do it, they just wouldn’t do it.

The best part about my visits to the park is how much I take away from each visit. I’m always learning something new and this day was no exception.

Best of all, a couple of days later, Shonna told me it was one of the best gifts I’d ever given her.

And it wasn’t even a Hallmark holiday.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bear Belle (3 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

But I asked what else I shouldn’t do.

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

“But I can still touch her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly has in me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, big area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that, in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

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

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Berkley the Bear

 
It has been my great pleasure to spend time at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta over the past few years. While you might think it has simply been for the opportunity to take reference photos for paintings and another venue for selling my poster prints, the benefits have been so much more.

Last Thursday, I dropped off a large batch of poster prints for their upcoming season. I’ve gotten to know these good folks and it was great to catch up with a few of them. Noticeably absent, however, was Serena Bos, the head keeper. I was told that she was on a road trip.

“Good road trip or bad road trip,” I asked.

“Good road trip. You’re going to love this,” Mari told me. She’s one of the other keepers whose company I enjoy when I’m at the park.

That’s all she’d say and despite my annoying questions (fine, I was almost begging), she wouldn’t tell me anything.

As a result, I’ve been keeping a close eye on their Facebook page, waiting for the announcement. On Thursday, I saw the first photos of Berkley, a Kodiak bear cub..

I sent Serena a text…

As the conversation progressed, I joked that I wasn’t going to be able to see her until late May. They don’t open until May 1st, I have the Calgary Expo that weekend, will be away the week after that and the month of May is quite busy. She’ll have grown so much.

Serena generously offered me a private visit with Berkley if I could come up the following day, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up. While my relationship with the park has afforded me behind-the-scenes experiences like this before, it’s a special circumstance I never take for granted.

Luckily, Discovery Wildlife Park is just a little over two hours away and the roads were good. The looming last gasp of winter weather didn’t hit that area until that evening when I was already back in Canmore.

Berkley is a recent immigrant from the U.S., but all of her paperwork is in order. She comes from a facility where her mother’s pregnancy was unexpected and the father was still present. Sadly, he killed the second cub. While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. Here’s an explanation of why from a Q&A on the National Park Service website

Many people on the Discovery Wildlife Park Facebook page are asking why she was taken from her mother so young. The simplest reason was that her life was in danger and the mother wasn’t caring for her in a manner that would have prevented it. Nature is often harsh. An uncomfortable reality, but reality nonetheless.

Serena has always encouraged me to ask a lot of questions and while I have been respectful, I’ve asked some that might have been taken for antagonism. Thankfully, we know each other well enough now that she understands I just want to learn and she’s as frank with her answers as I am with the questions.

We took Berkley into a wooded area on the park property and let her run around. Careful to keep her away from a nearby small stream, we both snapped pictures and Serena answered plenty of my questions.

Here’s some of what I learned…

Berkley will be with Serena or another caregiver 24 hours a day likely until midsummer when she will slowly get used to spending the night alone in her own enclosure. This will be done gradually and eventually she will be happiest on her own, as most brown bears are.

As Berkley could never be a wild bear, there is no danger of her seeing too many people. While she will have a strictly regulated diet for the rest of her life, people smells and our environment means she will always associate us with food, a situation that results in too many euthanized bears in the wild.

While she only weighs just over ten pounds now, Berkley will eventually grow to be an 800-1000 pound big beautiful bear over the next 5-8 years. I am grateful I got to interact with her now, because it’ll never happen again when she’s an adult. That being said, the keepers will have a daily relationship with her for the rest of her life and she will most likely view them as we would a family member we’ve known and trusted for years. Watching the staff interact with the adult bears they’ve raised from cubs never fails to make me smile.

In the wild, a Kodiak bear’s life expectancy is around 8 years. If all goes well with the circumstances they can control, Berkley can expect to live 25 or more at Discovery Wildlife Park.

Little Berkley has very sharp teeth and nails. In most of the pictures I got with her, you’ll notice I keep my hands closed, although I did get to pet her when she was distracted and Serena said it was OK. I’m not familiar enough to her that I can trust that she wouldn’t bite or scratch me.

At one point Berkley fell off a log and made a squealing noise on the way down and as she hit. My instinct was to grab her but I kept my hands to myself. Serena said that was the right call, because with Berkley flailing about, she very likely could have seriously hurt me. And bears are tougher than we are. The noise she was making wasn’t because she was hurt, it was just because she was scared. She was back on her feet and running around right away.

Berkley is going to be a teacher, in more ways than one. She will be trained to perform tasks and tricks (for lack of a better word) for a couple of reasons. One, it will keep her mind active and is a form of enrichment. In the wild, a bear will always be looking for food and that keeps their brain going. In captivity, where food is provided, it’s the job of her caretakers to provide her with things to think about and problems to solve.

But it will also mean she will get used to being trained, so that when it comes time to present her paw for a blood sample or to urinate on command for testing, she will view it as routine without any stress. These tasks will not only contribute to her overall health, but will provide a valuable scientific resource.

Just like some of the other bears in the Park, Berkley will provide baseline health data of a bear living a low stress life, a consequence of having a regular diet, enrichment and veterinary care. This information will be of great use to select post-secondary schools and research institutions that study bears in different environments. If you know what the data for a low-stress bear looks like, you know how to measure against data for a high stress bear. This will directly aid in wildlife conservation and research, for regions where bears might be living in less than ideal conditions in the wild.

You might wonder, as I did, how Berkley will fare since she won’t have her bear Mom to teach her how to be a bear. Serena assured me that there is a lot of instinct involved in bear behaviour. In the time we were out in the wooded area, that became evident as Berkley climbed over logs, scratched at trees, and scurried around sniffing at everything. She looked like a bear to me.

Her development will be fast. In just the three days since I’d seen a video of Berkley wobbling around on unsteady feet, I saw a completely different bear when I got there. While playing with her, I broke into a bit of a run and her being a bear, she gave chase. I had to run faster, almost up to my own full speed as this tiny little bear kept gaining on me.

Unsteady? Not for long.
I could go on at great length about all that I learned yesterday, but I would encourage you to go see Berkley in person, along with all of the other critters who live at Discovery Wildlife Park when they open May 1st. Go with an open mind, leave your conclusions at the gate and if you have any questions, please ask any of the helpful staff you’ll encounter.

Take part in the different talks they do and consider some of the other programs available. For a small fee, you can even get your picture taken with GusGus the beaver. Tell him I sent you and ignore him if he says he doesn’t know who I am. Trust me, we’re old friends.

Like all of my experiences at the park, my time with Berkley was special and it’s a day I won’t soon forget. I’m already planning a painting of this little diva, but by the time it’s done, she’ll have grown a fair bit, so maybe I’ll just have to keep painting her to keep pace.

Hey, there’s an idea.

Big thanks to Serena Bos and all of the other dedicated staff at Discovery Wildlife Park. You all make me want to be a better human. Any photos seen here with me in the picture, Serena took the shot.

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B.C. Road Trip

This post began in a motel room on Saturday night, just off the Coquihalla Highway in Merritt, British Columbia. That’s somewhere I never expected to be writing on my iPad, let alone in January.

Despite the fact that I’m in my mid-forties and have lived in Alberta for most of my adult life, I have never driven farther west than Kelowna. I’ve been on Vancouver Island a number of times, but we’ve always flown into Comox, rented a car and toured around that way. It’s a short flight from Calgary and I’ve never been a fan of long road trips. I’m a destination type of guy, with little interest in the journey.

The metaphor is not lost on me.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been going through a tough time lately and though I’m getting help, it would appear that it will be some time before I get back to normal, whatever that is. As I told a friend yesterday, it’s been months since I’ve felt like myself. With our home renovations finally finished late last week, I felt a desperate need to get out of the house. I figured my wife could use a couple of days break from my drama, too.

Completely out of character, I decided to take a road trip. Half a road trip, if you want to get technical about it.
My buddy Darrel has been one of my closest friends for more than twenty-five years, and he’d driven out to Vancouver Island from Red Deer to see his parents last week. Shonna and I always stay with his folks for a night on our trips to the Island as they’ve been family friends most of my life.

So, on Friday evening, I flew into Comox, had dinner with Darrel and his folks at their house and early Saturday morning, Darrel and I hit the road for the drive back.

I’ve got friends in the Comox/Courtenay area and family near Nanaimo, and if any of you are reading this, my apologies for not getting in touch. Adding more to my schedule right now is not what I need. I was also tagging along on somebody else’s trip, so not my place to add anything to his itinerary, either.

Darrel is easy company, we get along well and neither of us was in a big hurry to get home. I sent out a couple of extra cartoons last week and told my papers not to expect anything Monday. That, too, is completely out of character. But hey, clearly the usual isn’t working for me lately.
Although routine experiences for many, there were quite a few firsts for me this weekend. First time on a B.C. ferry, first time in Vancouver, first time on the Coquihalla highway, first time in the Fraser Valley.

I know that a lot of people love Vancouver, and I was only there for less than two hours, but I couldn’t wait to leave. I’m not a fan of big cities and that one didn’t appeal to me at all. We detoured and drove through Stanley Park, which was pretty enough, then got shunted out to drive through downtown which was frustrating stop and go traffic for about an hour. Can’t imagine what it’s like on a Monday morning commute.

While I’ve seen stories on the news and pictures in the media, I was unprepared for Downtown East Hastings Street. The homeless and drug situation was heartbreaking, seeing so many broken lives. It was overwhelming and while no doubt a consequence of the depression and anxiety issues I’ve been dealing with, that’s what I’ll remember of Vancouver. That’s not a fair judgement to pass from such a short drive through, but those images will stick with me for quite some time and I was relieved to put the urban sprawl of the Lower Mainland in the rear view mirror.

With mountains on all sides, and a wide flat valley of farmland, however, I think I’d like to visit the Fraser Valley again. Perhaps in the spring or summer, though unlikely this year. It was one of the more pleasant surprises of this trip.
It was dark by the time we got to Merritt, and the following morning we opted for the Okanagan Connector Hwy, rather than continue on the Coquihalla. Plenty of snow at that elevation and before we got to Kelowna, we had an hour or so of icy roads, poor visibility and slow going. January in the mountains, so not like it was unexpected. Weather wise, we did pretty well, all things considered.
I hadn’t been to the Okanagan in over twenty years, but it might as well have been the first time as there was little that seemed familiar. We could have pushed through to Canmore on Sunday, but that would have made for a very long day, especially since Darrel drove the whole way home, despite my offer to share the duty. So, rather than spend the night in Revelstoke or Golden, we took Highway 95 to Invermere. As my buddy Jim said via text, quite the detour from Highway 1.
Turned out to be worth it, however, as we got to have a schnitzel dinner at the Black Forest Restaurant, which was better than the Subway we’d eaten the night before. Darrel and I both spent years in Germany as kids, so a traditional German meal was a nice treat. If you’re ever in that area, I highly recommend it.

Monday morning, we headed up Highway 93 for the final scenic drive home. I’ve camped in the Columbia Valley many times over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the drive in winter and it was very pretty.
As is my nature, I have a bad habit of trying to quantify experiences. Was it worth my time? Did I get enough out of it? What was the point? For too long, I’ve been asking those questions about life in general, and the answers have been unsatisfying. Life doesn’t work on a spreadsheet, a lesson I’ve yet to learn.

I’ll have to be content with the fact that I did something completely out of my ordinary, spent a few days with a good friend and experienced a change of scenery. Perhaps the benefits will be cumulative or maybe it will make trying something new a little easier next time.

Who knows?

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All About The Jags

One of the unexpected, but welcome consequences of painting my whimsical wildlife images is my growing interest in learning more about the animals I paint.

Initially, my first concern was finding enough reference. For that I relied on generous photographer friends and stock photos. As time has worn on, I’ve found that I quite enjoy taking my own photos as it makes me feel more connected to the painting from start to finish.

In keeping with that theme, I’ve been spending more time on wildlife excursions, at the Calgary Zoo and at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail.

Last year, I went on two behind-the-scenes…well, I’m just going to call them adventures…with their lion cubs Griffen and Zendaya. I’ve painted Zendaya, but have yet to paint Griffen and might wait until his full mane comes in. Right now, he looks a little like a teenager with awkward hair issues.

This year, the focus of my park visits has been on black bears and I’ve had two memorable behind-the-scenes visits. I’m saving that part of this story for another post.

I’ve been getting to know the keepers pretty well and I am obviously not making too much of a nuisance of myself or doing the wrong things, because after my time with the bears, I’ve twice been invited behind the scenes with their jaguars. It was great to get closer than usual to take pictures and to learn more about their care. Who’s going to say No to an offer like that?
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smmagnumposeDiscovery Wildlife Park is home to two jaguars, Mia and Magnum, brothers born and raised at the Park. Magnum is black, Mia has the stereotypical spotted pattern, and both are beautiful animals.

In July, I got to see how the jags are trained and witnessed their claws being trimmed. Training any animal with positive reinforcement requires plenty of patience and skill. With auditory signals and clickers, verbal commands, repetition and reward, I watched as each jaguar ran over to a specific spot by the fence, and put his paw through a small opening for inspection. When the behaviour was performed correctly, he’d be given a reward of a piece of meat on the end of a stick.

smmagnumclawsThe keepers can go into the enclosures with many of the animals, including the lions and bears, but nobody goes in with the jaguars. All of the training is done through a chain link fence, which I find even more impressive.

While you might think the purpose of learning tricks is to entertain people, the real benefit of training is best seen when it comes to the health and well-being of the animals. Teaching them new tricks, hiding things for them to find, and changing up their environment is all part of their enrichment. This kind of stimulation keeps them mentally fit.

But it also makes caring for their physical well-being much more efficient. Rather than tranquilizing an animal on a regular basis for a health checkup, they’ve made showing up for inspection another learned behaviour, a routine they get used to. This leads to a long and healthy life because any problems can be caught early and remedied.
smmiaclawsWhile his claws were being trimmed on my first visit with them, I noticed that Mia had a broken tooth. The head zookeeper, Serena, has explained to me that the jaguars have to open their mouths for inspection twice a day just to make sure everything is OK. In early April, it was not. There were no indications that he was in any pain, but Mia was scheduled for a root canal in July.
smtoothproblemI had planned to write this post after that first experience, but got sidetracked and never got around to it. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited, because I get to share how it all turned out.

Last week, I had an exciting time taking more pictures for my upcoming Black Bear Totem but also got to go behind the scenes with the jaguars again!

I had forgotten about the broken tooth until Serena produced a toothbrush on the end of a stick while training Mia. He had been taken to The Calgary Zoo during the summer and that’s where the root canal had been performed. Everything went well, but now Mia must have the area around that tooth brushed three times each week in order to keep food, hair and other debris from causing any problems.
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smsurgery-1
The benefit of training is clearly evident in that Mia will open his mouth for Serena to get in there with the toothbrush and then another keeper will reward the behaviour with a piece of meat. From Mia’s perspective, he’s just learned another trick. As they had allowed me to get right up next to the fence, I was able to watch this procedure closer to a jaguar’s mouth than will ever be comfortable, but it was thrilling.
smmiateethclean
smmiarewardNo word on whether or not Mia will learn to floss anytime soon. I’ll keep you posted.

As anybody who has ever had a sick pet knows, you usually see a positive change in their demeanor once they’ve been treated. I asked Serena about this, and she said the vet had forecast that as well, but Mia hadn’t shown any initial behaviour changes, so they appear to have caught it before it had given him any real pain in the first place. All thanks to the training.

It’s true that my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park over the past year and a half has been out of the ordinary and you might think the best result of that would be all of the up close and personal reference photos I’ve been able to get for my paintings. Yes, that has been great.

But what I’ve enjoyed most about visiting the Park is all that I’ve learned. The keepers have been generous with their time and while I’ve been respectful, I’ve asked plenty of direct questions about animals in captivity, why the need for training, the meaning of different behaviours and their overall care. With every question I’ve asked, I’ve been given straightforward answers, ones that satisfy not only my curiosity, but also give me the confidence that I’m supporting a facility that has the best welfare in mind for the animals in their care.

If you haven’t been, I would recommend a visit. I plan to return often.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the individual zookeepers for generously sharing their time and knowledge with me. Serena, Mari, Denise, you’re aces. Thanks so much.
smmagnumfaceIf you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

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Grizzly Ride Into K-Country

HighwoodPassHighway 40 into Kananaskis is one of the prettiest drives around here. From Canmore to the Highwood Pass (the highest paved road in Canada), it takes about an hour, although most people make time to stop along the way for photos of the scenery or if they’re lucky enough to see wildlife.

This time of year, it’s a busy place, especially on weekends. Almost all of the campgrounds stay full the whole summer. For that reason, I’m not a big fan of camping in K-Country, but I do like to make the drive once in a while.

Wednesday mornings are usually one of my busier days as I have two cartoons to get done and sent, one syndicated and the local cartoon for the Rocky Mountain Outlook. This week, I worked a little longer beforehand so that I could take this morning to go for an early drive, hopefully to get some photos of grizzly bears. A photographer friend told me that I’d have the best chance of finding them on that highway just as the sun was coming up before the tourists got going. As he’s got some beautiful bear pics and makes his living as a wildlife photographer, sounded like good advice to me.

The wildlife around here becomes scarce in the middle of the day and traffic is quite heavy all summer long. I got up before 5, sent out the cartoon I’d already drawn, grabbed a coffee, a quick bite and was on the road by 6:30.

While I had my heart set on animal pics, I know that’s always hit and miss and critters don’t punch time clocks, so I was optimistic but realistic. With only a few other cars on the highway, especially the last half of the climb, the scenery was spectacular as always. Happened across a red pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road and with nobody else around, I pulled up beside him and asked if he’d seen any bears. He said he hadn’t, but that’s what he was after. I think he was listening to radio collar frequencies, but I can’t be sure.
PikaI drove off up to the Pass without any wildlife sightings. After a few moments enjoying the stillness, I got back in the car and started back. Just two minutes from the Pass, I stopped at a spot well known for pikas and had some fun chasing the little buggers around the rocks with my camera, hoping I’d get some that would turn out. For you photographers out there, I was shooting with a 24-70mm lens. Pikas are fast and small, so I was relying a lot on luck, that one would just happen to run past me, close enough to get a decent shot. Managed about five keepers and I’m honestly surprised I got that many.

That bigger lens is still on my wish list. Someday.

On the way back, I decided to take the Smith-Dorian Trail back to Canmore, a 60km gravel dirt road. Not really a shortcut, just a different route. After about 5km, however, I turned back to Hwy 40. The road has become a severe washboard and I didn’t want to shake my car apart.

Kicking myself a little for turning back, I was rewarded for the decision. Not long after turning onto Highway 40, I came around a corner and sure enough, there was a large grizzly bear by the side of the road. Parked beside her, that same red pickup truck.

I pulled over and started clicking away.
Bear152As she munched away on bushes, moving down the ditch, red pickup truck guy moved around me for a better angle. When she had moved past me, I did the same and he and I played a little bit of a game of leapfrog as we kept pace with her, both of us shooting from our vehicles. At one point I asked him if I was in his way, and he waved it off with a smile, both of us trying not to hurt the other’s chances at the best shots.

I will admit that I was suffering from lens envy. His was bigger.

She eventually wandered off into the bush and I headed home, anxious to see if I’d gotten any shots. I got about three good ones I want to keep. Nothing that I’m likely to paint from, but I finally got to see my first grizzly in the wild. She had a radio collar on her, so I could see that she has been designated Bear 152. She sure is pretty.

Looking her up online, I’m pleased to see that she is not a nuisance bear, and plenty of other folks have had the same great experience to have come across her in their travels. I’m hoping to again.
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