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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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A Local Cartoonist

Although I have syndicated clients across Canada and produce cartoons each day for them, I also draw one local cartoon each week for The Rocky Mountain Outlook, the paper of record for Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and area.

I’ve been their cartoonist since they opened their doors in 2001 and I’ve never missed an issue. In the early days of The Rocky Mountain Outlook, one of the owners, also the Editor, encouraged me to self-syndicate, which meant draw my own cartoons and send them out to other papers in the hopes they publish them. At the time, I’d only drawn one cartoon each week for the Banff Crag & Canyon for a few years and was very new to the Outlook.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was destined to fail. The cheap seats were full of people who said so.

I was thirty years old, and I had never envisioned a career as an artist. Not even a little. Carol Picard changed my life and it’s hard not to say Thank You every time I see her around town.

For the next five years, I drew cartoons on the side while working a full-time job to pay the bills. Early mornings before work, evenings after work and weekends, with very little money to show for it. I almost quit half a dozen times in those five years. Sometimes I drew five cartoons in a week and made $10 from the one weekly paper that ran one. That kind of thing went on for a couple of years, but it was great practice. I was finally able to become a full-time artist in 2006.

With a lot of experiments in between, eventually the editorial cartooning led to the other half of my business painting funny looking animals, which are licensed and sold in zoos, parks, retail stores and other venues across Canada and internationally. Having been a full-time professional artist for the past 13 years, I’m pretty sure I’m now unemployable in a real job.

Without The Rocky Mountain Outlook, none of that would have happened.

My editor, Tanya Foubert, delighted in calling me today to tell me that the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards were announced for 2019 and I won 1st and 2nd for Best Local Cartoon in our class. While we all know it’s not about the awards, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this feels pretty good. It’s the first win for me, although I think I got third one year.

I’ve never submitted to the National Newspaper Awards. Maybe once in the early 2000s. The Outlook submits to the CCNAs on my behalf. Since I have many clients for my cartoons, it’s always been more important to me to keep my editors and publishers supplied, happy (and paying me!) than it was to win an award.

But this one is different, because it’s the Outlook. It’s my local paper. I’ve known these people for almost twenty years. I know what the original owners went through to keep it afloat, against all odds. I know how hard the current staff and leadership work to hold to that original vision.

Once again, I am reminded of Roosevelt and The Man in the Arena.

From the official announcement of the awards on News Media Canada’s site, the first highlight was, “The Rocky Mountain Outlook from Canmore/Kananaskis/Banff/Lake Louise in Alberta picked up the most wins (five), including first place for General Excellence.”

How could I not be happy to be a part of that?

Thanks, Carol.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here are the cartoons that won. The first was about the contentious issue of Calgary’s failed bid for the 2026 Olympics. While not an official tally, half the community seemed to want it more than anything, the other half were opposed.

Second was our ongoing issue with parking in this area. My first cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon in 1998 was on paid parking. Everybody’s got an opinion and a solution, but nobody wants to pay for it, or stop driving whenever they want.

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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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An Opportunity to Give

TalkToonA couple of weeks ago, I was asked by the Banff Community High School to speak to their digital media and art classes about the type of work I do.

In the past, these presentations have been more about editorial cartooning, especially when students are studying politics and current events. It provides a window into the difference between journalism and opinion, satire and commentary. There is value there, and I think those talks are important, too, but my passion lies with the other artwork I do, so I was really looking forward to this one, as it was about the art, not the politics.  To paraphrase the teacher who contacted me, it was basically an opportunity for students to be exposed to yet another creative medium of expression, one they might not have considered.

I’ve had plenty of folks give me a leg up in my relatively short career as an artist and whenever an opportunity like this comes up, I realize it’s my responsibility to pay that forward.  So, if I’ve got the time, I’m happy to help if I can.

I was scheduled to do two presentations to two different age groups. A slide show of my work, a little background on how I got into it, the type of work I do, plus a glimpse into how the actual drawing and painting is done.

In the back and forth emails leading up to the presentations, I became aware that the Banff Community High School didn’t yet have any drawing tablets. School budgets being what they are, students often don’t get all that we would like them to have. I thought that showing them how to draw and paint digitally and then denying them the means to do so would be a little cruel on my part. Hey, look at this delicious candy I’m eating…you can’t have any.

Over the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to have made some valuable contacts in this industry, and some even better friends. While I’ve used their products since 1997, it wasn’t until 2010 that I started getting to know a few people at Wacom quite well. Over the past four years, I’ve done webinars, tutorials and hangouts with them; written blog posts, recorded videos, done demos at their booth at Photoshop World, and even ran a booth on my own for them in Calgary at a Kelby Training Seminar. I’d hardly want to give the impression that this relationship is one-sided , however, so without getting into specifics, let’s just say that Wacom has been very good to me in return. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

Needless to say, I’m lucky to call a few of them friends. With that in mind, without shame, I requested a discount on a couple of tablets, so that I could give them to the school. I figured I could afford it and two tablets are much better than none.

TabletsMuch to my delight, my friend (who is choosing to remain anonymous, dammit!) donated five Intuos 5 Medium tablets to the school, free of charge. For those unfamiliar with these devices, I could do all of the work I do on one of these tablets. These kids aren’t being asked to settle for inferior hardware, mostly because in my experience, Wacom doesn’t make inferior hardware. While I’m currently using their 13HD and 24HD displays (seen on screen in photo below), I have had an Intuos 5 Medium tablet for quite a while and if you went to my portfolio, a lot of it has been done with that device.

I was pretty thrilled at the donation, and it would have been more than enough.

But then I realized that because they don’t yet have the Adobe CC software, the students had something to draw and paint on, now they needed a program to do it with. Lately, I’ve been using Autodesk Sketchbook quite a bit and thoroughly enjoying it. Their app for iPhone and iPad are the best I’ve seen for mobile art and those are only outshone by their desktop version. I’ve been doing a lot of sketching for my editorial cartoons with that lately, so I knew the students would benefit from it.

Even though I haven’t had a long relationship with Autodesk, Wacom works closely with them and had recently introduced me to some of the folks in charge, a direct result of the work I’ve been doing with their software. Since I was already on a roll, I sent an email to their Product Marketing Manager, told him about Wacom’s generosity with the tablets and asked if I could get some licenses for software to go with them. He simply asked how many I needed, and then made it happen.

Then, while mentioning all of this privately to an industry author friend of mine, (who also wants to remain anonymous), he asked if they could use any books. I told him they couldn’t be software specific as they’d be wasted if the students didn’t have those tools. So he asked his publisher Peachpit what they could do and sure enough they donated half a dozen books on design and photography, titles that the students will benefit from no matter what software they’re using.

While bragging about this on my Facebook page, a few people made references to these being great Christmas presents and ironic that this here often-Scrooge gets to play Santa. In truth, it really is just a coincidence of timing that I was asked to speak to the students this close to Christmas. I’ve no doubt that had I asked these wonderful folks for their assistance in September, they would have come through in the same fashion. I’ve made a point of thanking all of these people individually, and I know the school has as well.

CintiqBut, I wanted to write about it for a couple of reasons. One, these companies and people deserve a little positive PR for helping out, even though that isn’t why any of them did it. Trust me on that.

Secondly, I would encourage you to consider how easy it is to give of your time and resources, no matter what it is that you do. You can’t always say yes to these requests, and over the years, I’ve had to decline these presentations almost as often as I’ve accepted them. Everybody has obligations and responsibilities, we’re all busy, we can’t give as often as we’d like. But it sure feels good when you can.

I would also encourage you to realize that when you need somebody’s help, especially to benefit someone else, don’t be afraid to ask. You’d be surprised how often people will say Yes when you need them to give a little, especially when it involves kids and education. If they say No, that’s OK, too, and don’t hold it against them.

It’s true that I was the one who got to stand up at the front of the room to reveal all of these great gifts from perfect strangers on Tuesday, and I got to do it twice.  I wanted you to know that I was just the messenger. The real thanks go to my friends and colleagues, the ones who said Yes when they were granted an opportunity to give to complete strangers.

Thanks again, folks. You know who you are.

 

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The Owls of Grassi Lakes

FinalHere’s my latest painting, entitled, “One in Every Family.”   In this case, it’s a family of Great Horned Owls that I had the privilege of watching for a few weeks in June.

Grassi Lakes here in Canmore is a short hike and easily accessible. It’s usually quite busy on weekends and during the summer, but if you get there early and take the difficult route (not that difficult), you meet relatively few people on the way up. If memory serves, it’s about a 20 minute hike one way, at a brisk pace.

The lakes themselves aren’t large, two connected ponds really. The attraction is their emerald colour. Seemingly iridescent blues and greens make for a very nice scene and it’s a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Some benches, bridges and reinforced paths, and on one side of the far lake, you find a large rock face which is actually a fossilized Devonian coral reef. It’s also a popular climbing wall.

From the Wikipedia entry, the lakes “are named after Lawrence Grassi, an Italian miner who emigrated to Canada in 1912. After working with the Canadian Pacific Railway for several years he worked in the Canmore coal mines. Grassi also become a well-respected climbing guide as well as building many trails in the area including one to the Grassi Lakes which also bear his name.”

Grassi Lakes is great when I don`t have a lot of time, but still want to get some exercise. It’s picturesque, an interesting trail and at the lakes themselves, there is plenty of opportunity to take photos of Golden Mantle Ground Squirrels, a favorite critter of mine.

In the middle of last month, I was up at the lakes happily snapping pics of a ground squirrel when a woman came over to me and asked quietly, “Have you seen the owls?”

When I said that I hadn’t, she pointed across the lake to the rock wall. About 40 feet up is a little cave and sitting atop one of the rocks was a big Great Horned Owl. I thanked her and moved around the lake for a better look and with my camera at full zoom, I was able to see the owl very clearly. I could also see an owlet that until then had just looked like another rock. The camouflage was perfect.
003As it’s a provincial park, I wasn’t surprised to see an obvious red sign chained into the wall at ground level below the cave. I never actually went to read it, but somebody told me it was a warning that this particular climbing route was closed for the protection of the owls. Climbers were on the wall, but all were giving the nest a wide berth.

Over the next few weeks, I went back up to Grassi Lakes with a pair of binoculars (that I happily shared with interested tourists) and a tripod for the camera.   I took well over a thousand photos, most of them at full zoom, and probably ending up keeping a couple of dozen. Great for reference, not so much for print, but since I hadn’t planned on that; I was very pleased with the results.  The owls seemed to have no concern at the people watching from below and it usually took a raven or other bird flying by to capture their interest, although the little ones did seem fascinated by a couple of dogs splashing in the lake on one occasion.
002While I’ve painted a Great Horned Owl before, I honestly didn’t know much about them. With plenty of information online, I learned a great deal about what I was seeing, including the family dynamic, the breeding season, how long the owlets would stay with the parents…the info is easily found if you Google it.

During my visits, I was able to watch their behavior, saw both the male and female parents (the female is larger) and the two owlets. Both of them grew very fast and by my fifth visit, they looked quite a bit larger and their feathers had changed to look more like their parents and less like the fuzzy little balls of fluff that they are in the painting. They grew braver and started venturing out further along the rocks away from the cave, were actively hopping and flapping their wings, practicing their calls and mimicking their father, who seemed to spend the most time with them. A real joy to watch.

004On my sixth visit, I didn’t see them at all. A friend had said she didn’t see them the day before, either. Judging by what I’d read, my assumption is that they had learned to fly and although they do stay near the nest until the fall, my guess is that they’re also exploring their surroundings and learning to hunt. I don’t think I can expect to see the whole family hanging about the nest any longer, so I stopped going to see them.

Some locals have mentioned that the mating pair returns to that cave each year, as Great Horned Owls mate for life. The fact that I’ve never seen them before means I probably just wasn’t paying attention to that part of the wall on previous visits and they’re not obvious. I’m looking forward to next spring to see if they return and raise new young. A family of owls in the wild was a treat.

Initially, I was just going to do a few sketch paintings and move on. I started out with one of the adult male looking angry at some ravens that were harassing the nest, then another of one of the owlets trying out his lungs. The noise was truly pitiful and I laughed out loud while watching it.  Finally, I added the sibling to the initial owlet sketch painting, looking surprised. After that, I knew I was going to paint the whole family and that it would be a finished piece.  All of the sketch paintings and the final painting were done in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq display.

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007Maybe it’s because I’m a cartoonist and have this need to imbue animals with human characteristics, but watching the family interaction, I could imagine what was being said between the owlets and the parents. At one point, all of them sleeping in the sunshine, one of the owlets suddenly fluffed up and excitedly ruffled his wings. The father woke up suddenly, turned sharply to the owlet, and made some noises. I could have sworn he was saying, “Hey! Stop screwing around!”

I like to think that’s also his expression in the painting.

This whole experience was a real thrill and I think I’ll try painting more scenes like this, featuring other animals.  I’ve already got one in mind but likely won’t get to it right away. I’ve already got the reference, though, so you never know.

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Pre-orders are available for an 11″X14″ matted giclée print of “One in Every Family” until August 30th and they will be shipped in the latter half of September.  For more information or to order, follow this link.  Exshaw, Banff, and Canmore residents, please order by email for free delivery.

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A Change of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ucluelet, BC. June 2, 2014

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