We’re stranded. I’ve underestimated the difficulties of this river. We are at 63 58 37n, 124 22 07w known only to the neutral eyes of six GPS satellites. The wind has shifted and blows directly in our faces from the north. In the teeth of this blast there is little forward movement. My daughter Sara and I, together with our dog Emily, are forced ashore and now huddle behind scant protection. Last night was particularly uncomfortable. Several worries kept me on watch. We slept on the Alexander Mackenzie — anchored offshore as a precaution against the bears we’d spotted. The anchor dragged with the wind and the current. Floating debris came down the river — grotesque apparitions tossing irregularly like demons. With the spray and the driving rain most of our clothing is wet. Can’t paint. Can’t think properly. Want to work but it’s not possible. No painting today.
The day before yesterday was different. We made progress. We painted 11 x 14’s while the other ran the helm. It was balmy and windless — Arctic terns were our companions. Some days are better than others, I’ve often noted, and this was one of the great ones.
The Mackenzie is harsh and also gentle — it seems a massive and almost undiscovered theme park. On better days we see one or two natives coming or going in boats with cardboard boxes filled with moose parts. Bears gather berries on the banks or swim in the river; they growl and grunt when we come near. Other than that it’s the sky and the interminable river, the living erosion of the banks, the relentless grip of weather and season. We are seeing it in its short green brilliance.
Freeze-up begins in a couple of months. But now we wait. We wait for the wind to lessen, our clothes to dry, the cold to go out of our toes and fingers.
PS: “I like what is in work-the chance to find yourself. Your own reality, for yourself, not for others. What no other can ever know.” (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)
Esoterica: In 1789 Mackenzie called it “River of Disappointment” because it kept turning north. His men were disillusioned and fearful, his native guides deceitful. Unseen rocks bashed the canoe which had to be repaired nightly. Mackenzie was amazed by the brutal variety in the weather.
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing.
Waiting for the picture
by Steve Bloom, UK
Hang in there! These frustrating experiences can, in an obscure way, be quite productive. As a wildlife photographer I know how the forces of nature seem to conspire against us, yet great images can somehow emerge from those experiences.
I’m working on a series of pictures of the Great Migration, where a million zebras and wildebeest cross the crocodile-infested Mara River in search of water and grazing land. Last time I photographed it in Kenya I worked with a Masai guide and driver named Tomanka Ole Selempo. He taught me an immense amount about the correct spiritual approach to photography. It is essential to strike a perfect balance between extreme patience, frantic action and dogged persistence in the face of negative natural elements.
On one occasion we waited on a riverbank for nine days before finally achieving a potent picture of zebras and wildebeest racing across the river. Our long period of extreme boredom and discomfort ended abruptly in a state of frenzied activity and blind panic as the herd frantically, and without warning, stampeded through the river towards us. Whenever I look at the picture I realise that those nine days of inactivity were among the most creatively productive of my life.
I am going back there in a couple of weeks. I am nervous and apprehensive that there may be no spectacular river crossings. Yet I have to put myself in that situation and take those chances, otherwise I will definitely end up with no more pictures of this wonderful and energetic event.
As someone once said, “A life without adventure is no life at all.”
I hope that by the time you read this, the weather will have improved for you and you’re enjoying all the positive aspects of your journey.
by Anne O’Connor
I was very excited to read your letter this morning. I live in Sault Ste. Marie surrounded (I feel) by the subjects of the group of Seven. The experience of being right in the bush with the canvas and paint is thrilling. Add the adventure of boats, water and weather and that is about enough tension to make it perfect! I canoed 200 km. on Lake Superior some years ago along the route that is in Bill Mason’s movie Waterwalker. In the film he paints Cascade falls and then throws the painting in the campfire… I groan every time I see that.
Discomfort of it all
by Corinne McIntyre, Ocean Point, East Boothbay, Maine, USA
I just got back from painting on the rocks by the ocean. I went out at 6:30 this morning and it was overcast… It was great because I didn’t have to be concerned about the sun’s direction. After a couple of hours and a little more I had a good painting and I was ready to pack up (I open my gallery at 9 in the summer). A gentle rain arrived and it was heavenly… I love walking in the rain. However I was using up my water-based oils because I don’t really like them and when I arrived home the white paint had run all down over the painting. (One more reason for me to dislike water-based oils.) I was feeling frustrated until I went to my computer to check the e-mails and read your saga of the cold wet Alexander MacKenzie with the bears on the bank and the wind and the debris and the fear and sheer discomfort of it all… and I suddenly felt relieved that all I had was a runny ruined canvas. I am sure in the times to come you will look on this miserable day and night as an adventure to tell your grandchildren. Plein air painting has rewards above and beyond just getting a good painting.
Paddle your own canoe
Now I feel silly. (I envy the person who has the partner to go with!!) I thought at the ripe “old” age of 52 going out and buying a 50 litre daypack thinking I might take on a trek to Algonquin Park by myself was a huge step. It’s the bear part that makes me nervous, and rattlers. However the first time I drove 5 hours cross country to the cottage I thought I was the bravest woman in the world. Its never too late to start is it? Another “no sales ” show behind us here in Muskoka. We ask ourselves why bother, what are the answers and decide that the market has changed. The hub of the commercial activity is moving and if there was a bright idea this year, it probably will not hold till next year. My husband asks me, Why bother? — you only get discouraged. Simple answer, I have to. Maybe I can learn to paddle my own canoe.
by Ifthikar Cader, Sri Lanka
Although I admire you and Sara’s adventurous spirit and enjoy the thrill of the wilderness, I certainly do not envy your predicament for one moment! Hey, those bears can be dangerous, so watch it. It must be glorious scenery when it’s calm and sunny and plenty of opportunities for painting. I too enjoy sojourns in the jungles though these are few and far between now after our three children married and went their different ways. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was not too long ago, is still a paradise for the wildlife enthusiast. Your letter reminded me of Horton Plains a unique wilderness of rolling plains high up in the mountain plateau. Seven thousand feet above sea level the surrounding mountains offer breath-taking views and mountain streams tumble down to the dry lowlands in spectacular waterfalls before ending up as mighty rivers. Such a river is the great Mahaweli, which winds its way for nearly 150 miles down to the sea at Trincomalee in the northeast coast. Horton Plains was once the home of the elephant and leopard but they were almost wiped out by hunters with high-powered rifles and sought safer sanctuary in the humid, scrub jungles of the dry lowlands. Sadly, the inevitable struggle of man versus animals in the wild has continued to take its toll and the extinction of the elephant and leopard is immanent. The fast dwindling jungles however still abound with wild boar, black bear, sambaur, and their smaller cousins, the spotted deer.
Opportunity during an inconvenience
by Jeffrey Howard
Film crew — 1978, Mackenzie Delta, NWT. Buster Kalick (Inuit) and family summer camp — out there among the willows somewhere. Shot scenes after midnight to catch the best sun angle. Glorious light. It was June 20, summer smiled upon us like a birthday cake but left a frosting of dense fog atop the hill outside of Inuvik where the airport baggage room held our equipment in anticipation of going back to Edmonton. The crew glared at the fog for four more days. I explained things to clients in Edmonton and Ottawa via telephone for the same period while watching anticipated profits dissolving in the fog.
Wandering around Inuvik after midnight, our perceptions shifted from resentment for our situation to taking advantage of the opportunities we were being afforded. I grabbed the Bolex with its 100 ft. daylight loads, I gave in to the camera man’s weedling and out came the Eclair with its 400 ft capacity. The production assistant / grip began to examine in extreme closeup the potential of boreal flora with his trusty Pentax. The two-man sound crew fiddled with recording ambience tracks that I am sure are used today in other films.
Our discussions ran to how to dry Arctic Char. We did a five minute piece on this subject and even now the colour renderings hold up onscreen. With city pressures absent from our lives and without a shred of guilt, we shot a small film that, in retrospect was more about us and Buster Kalick’s family than it was about drying fish. Our senses sharpened and we realized that we were not isolated or alone at all. We could hear far-off generators popping, planes of every description droning to far horizons and more than once we were taken by surprise by a twelve-foot aluminum boat with its “kicker” churning the water into spray.
Your present circumstances are priceless. There are those who would trade their air-cushioned executive chairs for the feel of a hull or riverbank beneath their feet. Not a great many perhaps but those with vision and an ingrained passion for the great Canadian legacy you are in touch with will surely benefit from what you bring back from your trek. Be of good heart and paint on. Do you think that perhaps something gets into the paint en plien air that isn’t in the studio? (I’m not talking blackflies and mosquitoes.)
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” (Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890)
Cold and wet
by Isobel McCreight
I could not work when in these conditions. I can turn away from bad conditions and make an island for myself and then work, but only in conditions that are almost habitable. I have escaped the terrors of the dentist etc., with my escape techniques and it works most times but not where I’m cold and wet. I will go and have a cup of tea and wish you well.
You may be interested to know that artists from 70 countries have visited these sites since March 30, 2000.
That includes Gerald Lui who wrote simply, “Go south Bob. I am in Alberta.”