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Continuing Crisis of Conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care,
Patrick
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Cattle Call

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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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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Vancouver Island 2018

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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A 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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You are your own guide

LodgeViewThe view from our deck at He-Tin-Kis Lodge in Ucluelet

My wife and I don’t travel a lot, but when we do, we like to stay in unique accommodations and take a lot of half-day or day tours and excursions. While at dinner the other night in Ucluelet, we were laughing as we talked about the travelers we’d like to imagine we could be and the ones we really are.

You’re unlikely to find us hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. At one time, that was a serious discussion, but we’ve stopped kidding ourselves. It’s just not us. Same goes for reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, a week on the Amazon River or living off the land in deepest darkest Borneo. We’d like to go on African Safari one day, but it’s unlikely we’ll be roughing it much when we do.

We all like to have this image of who we could be but at some point you must realize that you can still stretch your boundaries without becoming Indiana Jones. I know some of those people and I admire their sense of adventure. Preparing for months in advance to climb Everest or hiking the Appalachian Trail? Good on ya. I think that’s cool. But it’s not my cup of tea.

On the other side of the coin, we are not cruise ship people, going from port to port with thousands of others, sticking to a rigid schedule. While we have stayed at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Costa Rica and that works for us from time to time, we are also not lie on the beach for two weeks people. We’re usually bored of that after Day 1 and have to get out and do something.

A highlight of a past vacation was a private tour to the Mayan ruins in Coba, something we booked with Edventures in Tulum, ‘cause the guy’s name is Ed. And while he didn’t offer the specific tour we wanted, he said, “My Mom will take you.”

That’s how we ended up spending the day with Judy, who drove us out there in her own SUV, and got us a private walking tour with the oldest guide who had been with the original National Geographic survey of the site. Shonna and I love history, so this was quite special, especially since he talked to us more like we were university students than tourists. Talking to Judy for three hours in the car about real life in Mexico was fascinating, too. You want to learn about life somewhere else, talk to the locals, not the information centre.

Add to that jet skiing in Costa Rica, an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam and Shonna’s out of the blue “let’s go skydiving” over lunch one day in Vegas and this is our best selves on vacation. We’re not testing the boundaries of adventure or blazing new trails. We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Pretty much everything is rather safe, but it’s usually just different enough that we’re living a little more of life than we’re used to, and having a good time doing it. A couple of workaholics seeing and trying new things while still making paying off the mortgage a priority.

BrokenGroupThe Broken Group Islands with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises

This past week was pretty close to our idea of a perfect vacation. I booked this trip in January, a repeat of my artist retreat two years ago. The goal was to go out to Vancouver Island, take a ton of reference shots for future paintings and get out of the office for a week. Full stop.

But as the year wore on, we planned some home renovations, and a loosely planned trip to Europe in the fall was cancelled because neither of us is feeling it this year. Shonna was able to get the time off work, but to her credit, she gave me the option of continuing to go away alone to get what I needed, without any bad feelings. She’s never been the guilt trip stereotype, so I knew if I chose to go away on this trip by myself, she’d be fine with it. We’d do something else together later. I enjoy her company more than anybody else’s, however, so the idea of her coming along added to my trip and I was happy to have her join me. In fact, she’s probably the only person with whom I could do this trip.

Driving to Vancouver Island is also something that we have never felt inclined to do. We’re not really road trip people. So we flew to Comox from Calgary.

SphereSpirit Sphere near Qualicum Beach

As this was no longer just my trip, we started looking for some extra things to do. She wanted to see if we could find the elusive white ravens in Qualicum Beach, an idea I was on board with, since we were already staying nearby in the Spirit Spheres for one night. We never found any, but it was fun wandering around forest trails in places they’d been spotted and photographed before.

On the other side of the island, the accommodation I’d booked in Ucluelet was fantastic and we were both quite happy at He-Tin-Kis Lodge. With an incredible view, it was a great place to wake up and come back to each day.

SalamandersSalamander Eggs in their gelatinous casing on Meares Island

Something I hadn’t planned on doing this week was sea kayaking in Clayoquot Sound out of Tofino. We added that when Shonna decided to come along. Quite a pleasant surprise as it was one of the highlights of the week. A four hour tour, we ended up on Meares Island walking along a rough looking boardwalk through an old growth forest among massive cedars and other natural wonders.

The next morning we ended up bear watching in Clayoquot Sound at low tide for a few hours. It gave me a ton of reference photos I hadn’t expected to get and was still a fun excursion for both of us. Seeing black bears in the wild, doing their thing on the beaches, oblivious to the silly tourists snapping shutters just meters away on boats was really quite special. We weren’t bothering them and they showed no sign that we were intruding on their day at the office.

ShonnaShonna looking for marine life in a tide pool.

Back in Ukee, we spent the afternoon hiking along the Wild Pacific Trail, looking at anemones and little crabs in the tide pools, snapping photos and enjoying the area. I’ve hiked the trail a few times before but enjoyed it most this time around. Pretty sure it was the company.

Finally, on our last full day in Ucluelet, we went out for a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises through Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands. Five and a half hours on the water, we saw bears, eagles, grey whales, seals, sea lions, deer, raccoons and more birds than I can name.

I can’t say enough about this tour. Shonna and I took it on our first visit to the area in 2011. Then I went out with them three times on my artist retreat two years ago. This time around, I had planned to go twice but they were fully booked for most of the week and Thursday was the only day available. Had that not been the case, we would have missed out on the bear tour in Tofino, so it worked out very well.

GreyWhale

CalifSeaLion

BlackBear

BaldEagle

It sounds cliché, but if you’re ever out in that area and can only do one tour, Archipelago is the one to do. I could go on at great length about why, but trust me on this. There’s a reason they’re ranked the number one wildlife tour in Canada on Trip Advisor, and they don’t take it for granted. Al and Toddy are still working hard to make sure everybody has a great experience.

Having just come home from a great vacation, I would offer a bit of unsolicited advice. Figure out who you are and what you want from your limited time off. If your idea of a perfect vacation is camping in an RV with power and a swimming pool, then do that. If you’re more at home visiting theme parks, do that. If it’s Napa Valley vineyards, mountain biking in Moab or backpacking through Thailand with no reservations but the plane ticket, then do that.

Find the experiences in life that make you feel like you’re living it well. Stretch your limitations when you can, sure, but be who you are, too. This is a limited time experience, so make it your own.

LaMontagne_Lunch

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Be careful what you wish for.

YesNoGot this question on my Facebook page this morning.  After writing the response, I thought I’d share it here as well with a few added sentences I thought of after the fact, as I get this sort of question a lot…

Hey Patrick, is your illustrations your main income?? I’m rattling around so much with going full time with my gift of photography but afraid to take that jump.. I seem to have no time to create working a full time job and kids;)

Hi ________:

Between editorial cartooning, illustration, painting commissions, print sales and licensing…yes. I’ve made a good full-time living as an artist for the past seven years. But for nine years before that, it was a gig I did on the side while holding down a full-time job to pay the bills.

I built my business working mornings before work, evenings and weekends and finally got to a point where I couldn’t get any busier until I quit my job as an office manager for a physiotherapist. Living in Canmore (high cost of living in the Canadian Rockies) on one income is near to impossible, or at least was for us then, so the deal with my wife was that if I couldn’t pay my half of the mortgage, I had to at least get a part-time job to supplement the art income. Fortunately, my boss at the time was (and still is) a great guy, knew what I was planning from day one, and when I gave him two months notice, he suggested I go part-time first and he hired somebody else part-time to take up the slack. About six months later, I had to give notice again as I got a lot busier, but waited until he found the right person to fill my job, which took about a month. It was the best LAST job to have.

It was a real struggle for the first few years, a lot of waiting for money to come in, going into overdraft more times than I can count before I wasn’t relying on every invoice being paid in order to pay my half of the bills, but every year has been better than the one before. It hasn’t really been a struggle for about three or four years now.

I don’t want to discourage you, but your situation contains a big factor that mine doesn’t. We never chose to have kids, so the risk wasn’t nearly as much. My wife and I have often said that if we’d had children, I likely wouldn’t have been able to quit my job. I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course, lots of people do it, but it will be a lot more pressure on you. In those first few years, I had no time for anything else but working. Even now, I work almost every day.  I finally figured out awhile ago why they say ‘do what you love for a living.’ It’s not because you’ll be happy all the time. It’s because when everything is hitting the fan, you haven’t slept, eaten, and the bills are overdue, if you didn’t love it, you’d toss it all out the window and quit. Loving what you do is a survival requirement.

Without knowing anything more about your situation, I would advise that before you quit your job, make sure all of your ducks are in a row. Everything from bookkeeping, accounting, taxes and some money in the bank. Get as many gigs as you can part-time first and make your big mistakes while you still have a job. Those first few years, I was on edge and scared ALL the time, feeling like I was one gig away from losing my business.  You spend half of your time doing support work. In addition to bookkeeping and invoicing, you’ve got marketing, correspondence, portfolio and website maintenance, travel time, all of the little things that will take time away for your photography. So those billable hours have to cover that time, too.

I’m a big believer in doing what you love for a living, but it’s never easy. A lot of sleepless nights, chewed fingernails, and figuring things out as I went along, most often from doing a lot of things wrong.  The stress WILL take its toll in a number of different ways.  For however long it takes, vacations can no longer be a priority and you must go without luxuries.  When you do take time off, you’re not getting paid.  There is no such thing as a weekend anymore and if you don’t have a spouse whose job comes with health and dental benefits (fortunately I do), then you have to factor that into the equation.  I know a number of people who quit their jobs without having any idea of what running their own business required and it’s unfortunate, because often they’ll end up giving up their artwork altogether because of the failed business. So they took what they loved and killed it in an effort to make it their job.

Having a hobby you love is not justification for doing it for a living.  There are many days where the last thing I want to do is draw.  I’ve invested so much of myself into my business, and honestly there is nothing I would rather be doing.  Many people like the idea of being self-employed, but it isn’t for everybody.  You can also count on friends and family failing to understand your choice and telling you that you work too much and should take more time off.  They never stop doing that, by the way.

Whatever you decide, give it a lot of thought, but keep doing what you love. If it takes a little longer to do it for a living, and that’s what you really want, so be it, even though it’s frustrating to have to wait. I started very late to this art gig, didn’t even consider it until I was in my thirties and I know people who started even later than I did and are doing very well.

Anything’s possible, but as the old saying goes, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Best of luck,
Patrick

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Lessons, Light, and Joe McNally

Joe McNally is an incredible photographer whose work I’ve enjoyed for awhile.  Visit his website at joemcnally.com, look through his portfolio, and it’ll tell you all you need to know about him.

Sure, I like taking snapshots like anyone else, but I don’t want to be a photographer.  The mechanics of photography reminds me of my struggles with high school math, and even though the calculations involved with ISOs, shutterspeeds, and aperture settings eventually become somewhat instinctual to an experienced shooter, I really haven’t the interest in doing the work it would require to become proficient with a camera.  My time is already maxed out learning to be a better painter.

So why did I bother attending Joe’s ‘One Light, Two Light’ seminar in Calgary yesterday?  Well, there were a couple of reasons.  One, Joe is a master of light.  There is something in the quality of the portraits he takes that seems a little ethereal.  There is a life in his images that evokes an emotional response.  To me, that’s the definition of art.

The other reason is that Joe has a reputation for enjoying his work.  Anyone who underestimates the value of passion is completely missing the point of an artistic pursuit.  Joe will be 60 in a few weeks and has been working behind a camera for more than 30 years.  Not only does he still seem to be enjoying himself, but he has an infectious sense of humour and a charismatic way of teaching that is incredibly inspiring.

This wasn’t a Photoshop seminar.  All of the work Joe was doing, in fact, was ‘in camera.’  I also found out that when he works for National Geographic, something he has done many times, they require that none of the files ever sees a photo-editing program.

Joe’s ‘no B.S.’ tone when he talks about gear, technique, and ‘the rules’ was refreshing.  I hang around a lot of photographers and some of the arguments these folks have when it comes to gear, settings, and quoting the ‘experts’ can be downright combative.  Joe doesn’t seem to bother himself with that nonsense.  At one point, he even held up his camera and said, “This is just an expensive blender.”

It might seem obvious to say that you can learn a lot from the work of other artists.  Too often, however, a painter will only look at other painters, a sculptor at other sculptors, and a photographer…you get my point.

I know of many talented artists who are doing very well and have a great many devoted followers.  While I appreciate their expertise, their work may not move me.  I’m absolutely certain that many would say the same when referring to my artwork.  Hey, different strokes for different folks.  So, when you find work of another artist that does excite you, ask yourself why, especially if they don’t work in your medium.  Obviously there’s something there that’s worth exploring.  Joe’s work speaks to me, and I don’t say that lightly.

When I mentioned on Facebook that I was attending this event, my photographer friend Susan joked, “What do you need with flash anyway?” referring to the fact that the workshop was all about flash photography and the different techniques to get the best results.

Another photographer friend, Gudrun, who was sitting with me at the seminar, posted on her page after the event, “Joe McNally’s seminar today was good, but my favourite part was watching how excited Patrick got seeing some of the lighting results!”

They were both right.  While the technical aspects were interesting to watch, most of it was entirely lost on me as a painter.  I worked on sketches whenever Joe was talking about the gear.  It was the results that made me sit up and take notice, and yes, I found it exciting.  Great light just does it for me.

I found myself looking at some of the portraits and techniques, asking myself, how would I paint that light?  What would I do differently? How could I replicate that photography technique in a painting?

Art is supposed to be about expanding your horizons, not limiting them.  While there are other art forms I do want to try, sculpting being one of them, I’ve never been bitten by the photography bug, which is probably a good thing, considering how much money they spend on gear.  Hanging around with photographers for a number of years, however, has taught me just as much about my own medium as it has about theirs.