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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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Sleepy Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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Vancouver Island 2018

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Bear Berry Buffet


Late last month, Shonna and I drove up to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail for one more regular season visit. With kids back in school, waning light and cooler temperatures, it gets quieter as Thanksgiving approaches, their last weekend before closing until May.

They still do their shows as advertised, though. As we were told, everybody paid their admission, so they’re entitled to the same experience whether it’s busy or not.

The bear presentation is a bit of a head fake, because even though you get to see the bears show off their training, it’s primarily an opportunity for keepers to educate a captive audience about conservation and safety. They talk about the differences between black bears and grizzlies and what to do should you encounter either while out in the woods. I’ve seen the bear show a few times, but as it was a small group and we’ve gotten to know the keepers, we figured we’d sit in again just to be polite.

Of course, the moment you get cocky and think you know a lot, that’s when you learn something new and get taken down a peg.

While Serena was talking about Charley and Angel, two of their black bears, she told us about hyperphagia. I’m pretty well read, have lived in bear country for more than twenty years, but I honestly can’t recall hearing that word before, or at least not so it registered. From being bear aware and years of local warnings every fall, I know that bears are eating a lot this time of year to prepare for hibernation, but I had never looked into the science.

From the North American Bear Center website, “Experimental studies with captive bears revealed the following: …Hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. Black bears with unlimited food and water ate 15,000 to 20,000 kcal per day and drank several gallons.”

According to Serena, it’s a chemical process that happens this time of year, making them eat anything and everything they can get. The Park provides plenty of extra healthy food for them during this stage to prepare them for hibernation. On this particular day, we were told that their black bears had just finished this stage and were starting to slow down.

In the wild, it can be a dangerous time of year to run into bears, because they’re so focused on eating and not so much on their surroundings. So if hikers aren’t making enough noise, they might surprise a feasting bear, which can have less than desirable consequences.

Bears in captivity still hibernate and Discovery Wildlife Park makes them as comfortable as possible in their enclosures while they sleep. Some make use of the large culverts provided, a manmade cave, while others dig their own dens in their enclosures. What many don’t know, however, is that bears still do wake up in the winter. This happens even in the wild, especially on nice sunny days, but they won’t stay up for long.

There is one bear, however, who won’t go to ground this winter at Discovery Wildlife Park, and that’s Berkley, their Kodiak Cub. She’s not even a year old yet, has plenty of energy and is still marveling at the world around her. She’s seen snow a few times and appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Serena has said that Berkley likely won’t hibernate for a few years, but she might slow down a little during the winter months.

That being said, Berkley still appeared to be under the influence of hyperphagia. Shonna and I had the pleasure of going for a walk with her in the woods that evening. On a previous excursion, Berkley seemed to want nothing more than to explore, climb trees and play. On this visit, however, she just wanted to eat.




Like a kid in a candy store, she stopped at every berry bush she could find and proceeded to chow down. It was fascinating and fun to watch. Then when she discovered Serena had peanuts, she whined like a little baby until she was given some.

Of course, when they find the treat that each bear likes best, that becomes a golden opportunity to use it for positive reinforcement and enrichment. Berkley has proven herself to be a smart bear and learns new behaviours quickly, especially when peanuts are involved.
Another black bear at the park named Reno has a thing for guacamole. I met this gentle giant in early 2016 and he’s a wonderful bear. Reno is 22 years old and has been raised at the park his whole life. He weighed one pound when they got him.

He had some issues with his lungs last month and is still recovering, but he was on the mend when we saw him, turning a corner thanks to the antibiotics. They had managed to get him to drink enough fluids without having to put him on an IV and we got to see some of his extra special TLC when we were there.
At one point, while Serena and Mari were in the enclosure with him, he started to urinate and they excitedly grabbed a specimen bottle to collect it before he was finished. They were positively giddy. You know you love your bear when his peeing makes your day. It was a good sign for his recovery and here’s hoping Reno continues to improve.

Vet bills for a bear aren’t cheap, but they do everything they can for their orphans and rescues at this place. It’s a big job, keeping all of these critters housed, fed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. I continue to be impressed with their dedication to these animals and am forever grateful they’ve allowed me to be a part of it. From sketch paintings to finished prints, I’ve painted most of their bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I hope to keep doing so for many years to come.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here’s a video of our evening with Berkley last month. I suggest you watch it in HD on YouTube.

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Connecting the Dot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what does it mean with the line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, thanks for reading my ramblings.

Cheers,
Patrick

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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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A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

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

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

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

Hopefully you are, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I got a text…

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

“A baby what?”

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’ll be in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Berkley and the Bug

For more than twenty years, I’ve lived and camped in bear country. I’ve made it a point to be well educated about them, I carry bear spray and make noise while hiking, I know what to do should I see a grizzly or black bear and I keep a clean site when out camping in the mountains. I have never had a negative encounter with a bear and it bothers me a great deal when I hear of one being fed by tourists, hunted for a trophy, or killed on the highway or train tracks.

While bears have long been one of my favorite animals, I’ve also been afraid of them. When camping, I’ll most often end up lying awake in my tent for an hour or two before falling asleep, and if I wake up in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, I’m in and out of that tent pretty fast, and might lie awake for another hour listening to every little noise outside. Even though I’m well aware that if something wants to get me, a thin layer of nylon isn’t going to make much of a difference, but I’ve been operating under the, “if I can’t see it, it can’t see me,” perspective. Anxiety is rarely rational. Statistically speaking, I’m more likely to be injured by a distracted driver on the highway than I am by wildlife.

Despite this bear phobia, which is an amusing annoyance to my fellow campers, I still go out and enjoy the woods often.

This past May, on an annual first camping trip of the season at a favorite secluded lake in B.C., I slept soundly in my tent for three nights without worrying about bears at all, an unexpected surprise. Oh, they were out there, I’m sure, but my common sense seems to have finally overridden my bearanoia, and I credit that largely to my recent experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park.

I don’t like phobias. We’ve all got them, but I try to challenge mine whenever possible. So, over the past couple of years, I’ve paid for two behind-the-scenes bear encounters with their black bears and they were two of the best experiences of my life. These aren’t wild bears, they’re orphans who’ve been raised at this sanctuary. But they’re still bears, and to be inside the enclosures with them, to learn about them, to touch one of them, and even to feed one from a spoon and then a piece of apple from my mouth was exhilarating. My fascination displaced my fear.
As my prints are sold at Discovery Wildlife Park and I’ve gotten to know a number of keepers and staff over successive visits, I’ve developed a nice relationship with the park, one that I hope continues to grow for many years to come.

Earlier this spring, when their new Kodiak cub arrived, I was kidding/complaining over text messaging with the head keeper that with my schedule so busy at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to come up and take pictures of Berkley for at least a month or more after they opened a couple of weeks later. Much to my surprise and delight, I was invited to come up the next day so that I could take some photos of her, for a donation I was more than willing to pay. I wasn’t about to pass that up.
I’ve talked about that encounter in another blog post, so I won’t rehash it here, but it was wonderful. Even though Berkley crawled over me and played in the woods while I snapped photos, I know that it was a rare opportunity I won’t get again. She’s grown so much already that now only the keepers can interact directly with her, both for her safety and that of the guests of the park.
I wanted to paint her the way I got to see her that day, curious about everything, wide-eyed and playful, checking out all of the little wonders this new world has to offer her. There really wasn’t a ladybug there, of course, but I already take a lot of artistic license with my whimsical wildlife paintings, and it just seemed to fit this little bear cub.
Because the park has been so kind to me, granting me access to take photos so that I may paint many of their critters in my own style, I’m going to take this opportunity to give something back to them. This will be the first of what I hope will be many conservation donations in the future, to them and to other animal sanctuaries and facilities I’d like to support.

My initial plan was to do a limited edition print run and no others, but as I’ve already received interest about this painting from my retailers and licensees, I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t offer this painting as a regular print and licensed image. To be blunt, the more money I make as an artist, the more I can support the wildlife causes that matter to me.

With that in mind, this Berkley painting has gone for proofing and I’ll be ordering the first prints next week. From the first order, I’ll be offering TWENTY (20), 11″X14″ matted giclée prints at a special price with the lion’s share (bear’s share?) of the sales going to Discovery Wildlife Park.

And because I couldn’t support these causes without the people who support me, my newsletter subscribers will get the details first and an opportunity next week to place their orders. You can subscribe via this link.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see more of Berkley’s antics (and why wouldn’t you?!), you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook where they’re posting regular videos and photos as she grows. If you’re in the Innisfail area or plan to be, you can visit the park and see Berkley in person, along with all of their other critters. She’s still young and sleeps a lot, but she appears at the bear show each day, where the head keeper Serena and her staff offer some valuable education about their bears and bears you might encounter in the wild. It’s also a great opportunity to see all of their bears up close.

Thanks for being here.

Patrick

EDIT: All twenty prints mentioned in this post have been sold.

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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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The Black Bear Totem


Right up until the end of 2009, my art focus had primarily been on syndicated editorial cartoons and caricatures of people. Along the way, I’d also done illustration for businesses and board games, had tried my hand at some editorial Flash animation, and experimented here and there with creative off-shoots I thought might eventually yield some fruit.

Keeping a somewhat regular blog for the past nine years has served to become a business diary of sorts. It’s interesting to look back and read about my best laid plans. With the benefit of hindsight, some now make me cringe, knowing that had I gone further down some of those roads, I would have been disappointed. I’m also surprised at the blind optimism and enthusiasm in some of the posts, an elixir I wish I’d been able to bottle for mid-life.

The time I spent working on caricatures was excellent practice. I’m much better at drawing likenesses in my editorial cartoons today than I was then and it takes less time to get there. As I wasn’t interested in going that route, I never developed the skill to draw caricatures live. But people used to hire me to create them for birthday presents, wedding invitations, and other occasions. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy still doing that now, but it was all grist for the mill.

I was also getting pretty good at detailed caricature paintings of celebrities, but navigating the legal minefield of likeness rights, the large number of artists already doing that kind of work, and the awareness that my heart wasn’t going to be in it for long, I was a little lost.

This brings me to November 2009, right after my first trip to Photoshop World in Vegas. That summer, I had painted a caricature of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with her holding one of the Aliens on a leash. The whole reason I painted it was to try to win a Guru Award and I didn’t get nominated. I didn’t enjoy the work, the finished piece felt wrong and I wished I’d never done it.

While disappointed at the time, it was a turning point in my career. I learned not to create something just to win awards and it lit a fire under me to find something new.

Upon returning home with the realization that caricatures of people was no longer where I wanted to focus, I painted a grizzly bear. Although it didn’t start out to be a caricature, it definitely ended up as one.
By February, I had a gallery in Banff willing to hang canvas prints of the Grizzly and subsequent Raven and Elk Totems on consignment. And then people started to buy them. I’ll never forget something the gallery manager told me about my whimsical style of painting. He said that no matter how well I painted, if I’d brought him realistic wildlife, he wouldn’t have been interested, because that’s what everybody else was doing. I’ve heard that a lot over the years.

On my next trip to Photoshop World later that summer, my Moose Totem won the Guru Award for the Illustration category and my Wolf Totem took Best in Show. While I didn’t paint them to try and win awards, it was that event and those chunks of plastic that introduced me to some great people at Wacom, and helped open some other doors that might have remained closed.

Since then, these whimsical wildlife portraits have become a defining part of my life. There are now over thirty paintings in the Totem series, several other whimsical prints, dozens of pet portrait commissions, and hundreds of sketch paintings.

There are now three kinds of prints sold in the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, About Canada Gallery in Banff, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery in Ucluelet. The images are currently internationally licensed on T-shirts through two different companies, and on decals and cases. I’ve written articles for magazines, have recorded a couple of training DVDs, taught webinars and run an event booth for Wacom, and am coming up on my fifth successful year with a booth at The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.

I’ve also discovered a love of photography as a result of this work. While I’ve often relied on generous photographer friends for reference photos, I now take my own reference photos whenever possible. This has led me to new friends and experiences that have helped me get up close and personal with these critters I enjoy so much, sometimes face to face.
It is my belief that the next chapter in this work is calling me to get more involved with conservation, to give back to the wildlife that has given me so much. It might have taken me most of my life to find it, but I believe there’s work for me there, although I don’t yet know how it will manifest. I’ve already been looking for and taking advantage of those opportunities.

As all of this started with a grinning funny looking bear, it seems appropriate to reflect and bookend this chapter with another bear, eight and a half years later. The Black Bear Totem, modeled from a wonderful gentle bear named Gruff who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park, although that’s Reno in the photo above. I admire Gruff from a little farther away.

In writing this and checking my facts, I found the following in my blog post from November 2009 when I revealed the Grizzly Bear Totem, which incidentally is still one of my best selling prints.

“I recently found myself inspired to do a series of wildlife paintings, but I wanted them to have personality and life to them. Something different, something fun…I really think I’ll enjoy working on this series.”

I had no idea.