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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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Continuing Crisis of Conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care,
Patrick
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Cattle Call

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Grassi Lakes Owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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California Sea Lion

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bearing It All

“Don’t run.”

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

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

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

Still, I have many trips under my belt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, I was in my small tent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my underwear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

This past weekend, I returned once again to the little cabin near Caroline that my friends and I rent from time to time, this trip booked in early December.

With one eye on the forecast, my plan was to head up Thursday morning, with Jim and Al coming up later that day when they finished work.

The owner’s son, Wilson, called me Wednesday evening to ask me what I was driving. He said there was a large section of the road covered in water and he was concerned that it might be too deep for a car. I drive a Pontiac Vibe, a modern version of a station wagon.

I thanked him for the call, and then spent the rest of the evening dealing with all of the what-ifs flooding my overactive imagination. At the darkest end of the unlikely scenarios created by my obsessive psyche, I’d try to go through the water, underestimate its depth, water would splash up into the air intake, damage the engine, and I’d have to buy a new car.

An unrealistic and foolish prediction, I know, but when my mind goes exploring these dark places, it’s like trying to talk logic to a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. The pin is out, the grenade thrown.

Never mind that I had already been presented with simple solutions. Wilson has said if I got there and it wasn’t passable, I could just come back to their house, load my stuff into their truck and get to the cabin that way. The other option, wait for Jim and Al to arrive, and ferry my stuff in their truck.

The silly thing about this whole scenario is that whenever life presents me with unexpected situations, I don’t curl up in the fetal position. I’ve never shrunk from a challenge, unable to cope.
I once stopped on the side of a highway in a winter storm in northern Alberta, the first responder to a scene where a guy had hit the guardrail and was lying on the ground outside of his car. Lucky for him, I was a new EMT at the time, and handled the situation without hesitation. As a student on my EMT practicum in Calgary in the early nineties, I once pushed my way through a room full of firefighters to help a dying AIDS patient, because everyone else seemed afraid to touch him.

During the 2013 flood, when we had to evacuate our home, Shonna and I dealt with it. No tears, no freaking out, we just worked the situation.

My track record of handling unexpected situations and difficult problems is pretty solid, especially if I don’t have a lot of time to think about it.
A few years ago, while with these same friends, we were driving up a familiar dirt road to a lake we frequent in BC. It can be challenging at times, but most often, slow and careful gets the job done. Almost to the lake, we stopped to admire the view and I heard a hissing sound. Sure enough, a flat tire.

I’d barely begun unloading my gear before Al and Jim were jacking up the car, and putting my spare donut on it.

To make sure we got our preferred spot, they took half of my stuff with them up to the lake and I had to drive back down the road to the highway and then to Canadian Tire in Invermere to get it changed, about three or four hours round trip.

Now, had you told me a day or two before that I was going to get a flat tire on the road up to the lake, my mind would have turned it into a disaster, throwing up dozens of unanswerable what-if questions. What part of the road? Is the rim damaged? Will I be able to get out of there? Is the rest of the car damaged? Was the spare good enough? Can you even drive on that road on a donut? Was it really worth the risk or should I just cancel?

Even knowing the unlikelihood, my mind goes straight to the worst case scenario in a futile attempt to control it.

The irony is that I don’t remember any other specifics from that weekend other than the fact that the weather was great and we had a good time. What I remember most is the flat tire, and it’s not a bad memory, it’s just another story to tell.

The whole thing was an inconvenience. I wasn’t even that put out by it. Had a nice lunch at a café while waiting for the car to be done and I got out of gathering and splitting wood, which is the first chore to be done on arriving at the lake.

All because I didn’t know about it in advance, so I couldn’t worry about it. Every year, I worry about that road and on dozens of trips, that’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Fast forward to this past weekend.

I woke up in a better frame of mind, determined to simply deal with whatever I was presented. I have winter boots and hiking boots, but never had the need for rubber boots. Given the warning call about the water, however, I stopped in Cochrane and picked up a pair.

Upon arriving at the house, Wilson met me and said it might not be as bad as he initially thought. I told him I’d head down and if it wasn’t passable, I’d come back.

On the road down to the cabin, I came to the water hazard across the road, put on my rubber boots and walked through. It was about three car lengths long, maybe six inches at the deepest. Sure, you wouldn’t want to race a car through that, but it certainly wasn’t impassable.

All of that worrying for nothing. Story of my life.

And still, in retrospect, I’m glad he called. With so much spring melt and what became three beautiful sunny days, anytime we were out of the cabin and off the deck, we had to wear rubber boots because there was water and mud everywhere. I would have destroyed my hiking boots or shoes. I even went for a hike down to the Clearwater River, which meant crossing a creek three times, something I could only do in the rubber boots.
It was a great weekend. Sunshine, lots of laughs, no politics, spent time with the horses, and got to hang with Jingles a little. Sure would have hated to have missed it over what amounted to little more than a big puddle.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that the lesson learned is not to worry about every little thing, to let it go, to just take life as it comes, but the truth is that I’ve been presented with that lesson countless times and I still haven’t learned it. I know you can’t control everything and that it will always be the thing you DIDN’T think of that bites you in the ass.

Like angry beavers.
It’s just the way I’m wired, and as annoying as it might be to my friends and family, it’s nothing compared to how much it bothers me, because the noise of it never stops. But I’m always working on it. I still manage to face my worries, rather than hide from them. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.

I also know this…if everything always went according to plan, if nothing ever went wrong, if it was always sunshine and rainbows, it would be pretty damn boring.

And I’d have nothing to write about.

Cheers,
Patrick

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