Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ghosts from the Past

I finished one of my finest paintings in the dawning years of the 1970s.  It captured a significant moment in my budding romance with Alaska.  The piece depicted a herd of caribou migrating single file across a wintery mountainside.  It spoke of wild places, the rugged north and the endurance of one of my favorite animals. 

Its inspiration came in October, 1965.  Several forces had converged to bring me to Alaska and hunting ranked high on the list.  Driving down from Fairbanks we spent the day along the Denali Highway, a 135 mile gravel road on the south side of the Alaska Range.  We filled the short daylight hours glassing mountain slopes and valleys and hiking across the frozen tundra.  All we found were the sinuous trails of migrating caribou in a world made white by earlier snows.  Now another storm took aim at the Denali. 

Finally, as the snow -- that would close the highway for the winter that night -- began in earnest, as dusk descended to enclose our world in the cocoon of our old Nash Rambler, we began our own migration home.  That’s when we saw them -- near enough to thrill yet too far to reach before darkness.  It was a surreal scene -- the caribou herd trudging single file across that naked mountainside, the white manes of the bulls and the arching curves of their antlers almost lost in the blowing snow.  Here was everything Alaska stood for -- a barren seemingly dead world suddenly teeming with life.  A place where surprise and awe could be just around any corner.  America  may have lost the vast herds of free-roaming bison, but we still have the caribou.  Their future is in our hands.

That image etched itself in my heart, an image I finally captured on canvas that long-ago day we lived in Anchorage.  As my finest accomplishment I wanted to give it to my mother for Christmas -- to thank her for the gift she had given me -- one I treasure to this day -- a simple wooden easel, really just a box, filled with oil painting supplies.  Mom lived in upstate New York so I packed the painting up for the postal service and with a prayer, insured my creation.

I called mom on Christmas, “how did you like your gift?”   “I loved it,” came her reply.  Now, my mom had countless virtues and one bad habit.  She told you what she thought you wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth.  In reality she never received that painting.  Months later I visited her and looking around her apartment asked where it was.  “What painting?”  Alas, I found that I could only track insured mail for a year.  That year had passed.  

                         Spring Comes to the High Country    18 x 24 inches    Alkyd on canvas

This past winter I painted Spring Comes to the High Country, an abstracted piece completed by playing with shapes and patterns in an earlier plein air painting.  I painted the original a couple of years ago while camped on top of a knob in southcentral Alaska.  With the memory of that day so long ago still yearning to come out, I gave the new version one last touch -- a herd of caribou marching across a ridge -- much farther away than in the original painting, certainly not the main subject, but still a tiny ghost from my past.

                                            Spring Comes to the High Country Detail

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Karen and the Pine Siskins

Looking at our deck these days, you could imagine you were looking at a bunch of whirligig beetles in the shadow of a pier in a Wisconsin lake.  Or perhaps a “herd “of sand fleas when you overturn a log on a beach.  Careful Don, you’re about to digress from Pine Siskins to whirligig beetles or sand fleas and you don’t know anything about them.  For that matter you don’t know much about Pine Siskins, except they are not invertebrates.  That, and, we are currently in the middle of an irruption of these tiny birds ranking somewhere between a hummingbird and sparrow in size.  They’re a species of finch and they love Karen’s sunflower seeds.

                            The brightest color on a Pine Siskin is the yellow bar on it's wings.

                            Seen from above, the yellow coloration makes a striding pattern.

Pine Siskins must give stray cats great joy because they are anything but wary.  We can step out onto our deck and while most of the flock will take off in a crescendo of wing beats, a few will just hop around at our feet, still pecking at stray sunflower seeds -- kind of like my behavior when Karen asks a  meaningful question like “do you remember the day we met?”  Scatter seeds around Niko and soon the flock will gather around her, more aware of the seeds than the snoozing dog who never even sees them.

                                       Niko sleeps through the Pine Siskin feeding frenzy.

This year’s irruption started somewhere around mid winter.  In Canada researchers have correlated irruptions of another finch, the Common Redpoll, with food -- birch catkins (seed) production.  Around here Siskins normally feed on alder catkins (a similarity with Redpolls since alders are related to birch trees) as well as hemlock and spruce seeds.  The literature indicates they eat a lot of other foods, too, but I don’t even know what sweetgum is and elms don’t grow in Alaska.  Ah, but we do have sunflower seeds in our bird feeders.

Pine Siskins make lousy neighbors for their fellow Siskins.  Invariably a male (why is it always the males?) will stake out a pile of seeds and insist they’re all his, even if the pile of seeds is bigger that he is.  Of course defending his pile prevents him from indulging in his cache.  You’d think these stressed out males would be starving amidst all this plenty.

Karen has been enjoying this irruption of Pine Siskins.  During the morning feeding frenzy, those lower in the peck order, the snatchers, bring their prize up onto a branch by our bedroom window to indulge (stress free) in their morsel -- out of range of some bully down below.  They’re oblivious to Karen sitting a couple of feet away.  When we added on to our house a couple of years ago, I never realized we were just building a big blind for photographing birds.  Judging from Karen’s photos I’d say it was worth it.

                                  A Pine Siskin finishes off the last of another sunflower seed.

                       A pair of Pine Siskins on a hemlock branch outside out bedroom window.

If you want to know more about these avian balls of fluff, check out:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Old Beaver Pond

Our 1963-vintage aluminum Grumman canoe has reasons for being dented and leaky.   In it’s infanthood, it plowed furrows through too many shallow gravel bars, scraped too many rocks as we wildly careened down Vermont Creeks swollen with spring runoff.  We didn’t always make it.  Once we hiked out to a road to get ropes -- to wrench the canoe off a rock where the roaring current pinned it like Wily Coyote under a boulder.  The bend in the bottom of our canoe persists to this day.  I have a photo of my arm -- the only part of me above water -- clutching a paddle after an unsuccessful attempt to make it over a waterfall.  That day turned out to be good practice for the time I found myself sitting in the canoe in the middle of a lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula a week after the ice went out.  The only glitch  -- the canoe was upside down.  Lesson learned -- kneel in canoes.  Forget the seat.

Now, living here on Mitkof Island, this beat up craft may not be the most suitable water conveyance.  Our island lacks whitewater rivers that aren’t full of wind-thrown logs.  The nearest qualifier is the tide rip at the mouth of Wrangell Narrows.  There a dunking would be a high likelihood.  Survival a much lower likelihood.  We’ll pass. 

One local place conducive to safe canoeing, though, is Blind Slough.  There, the channel that flows out of Blind River, the route of many a migrating salmon, continually beckons.  Launching the canoe from the Blind Slough picnic area it’s about a half mile up that channel to a subtle side tributary.  Exploring that channel many years ago we found it lead to a massive beaver pond stretching behind a massive beaver dam. 

More recently we set off to explore that pond.  Our intent -- push the canoe up that subtle channel, with detours dragging it over logs and through brush lining the creek.  The pseudo-portage wasn’t easy., but we made it...only to find the beavers gone, the pond drained and replaced by an extensive meadow. 

I hope someday the beavers return to rerun nature’s cycle.  Meanwhile I remembered one rainy-day photograph I took of that pond years ago.  That moment in time needed to be painted.  

                                   The Old Beaver Pond    18 X 24 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

Part way through, before I added the standing snags (dead trees) that had died when the beavers first flooded the forest, I froze.  I liked the painting just that way.  Should I press on?  I consulted my chief art critics, Karen and John McCabe.  John suggested it was finished -- that if I chose to press on -- in his immortal words, “Don’t screw it up.”  I stopped.  It’s an artists prerogative.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Day at the Slough

A friend lured Karen out the road this past week.  The bait -- swans.  A small flock of Trumpeter Swans overwinter in Blind Slough every year, moving up and down the slough as ice advances and retreats according to the whims of the weather.  This month they’ll depart as they head north to their breeding grounds.  If she wanted a good photo, more delays were not an option. 

In those regions where our swans are headed, they’re one of the first species of waterfowl to arrive in the spring.  When I lived on the shores of Wasilla Lake, north of Anchorage, it seemed like the minute a hole opened up at the lake’s inlet in March, trumpeter swans dropped in.  How they knew that, over those thousands and thousands of square miles of frozen land and water, this one tiny hole in the ice would be there when they arrived, will forever amaze me.  What if it wasn’t?......Today a road runs over a massive fill directly over that spot, the inlet to the lake diverted through a culvert.

Similarly, although a few ducks find open water in which to overwinter in Alaska, most waterfowl migrate south.  Of those, swans seem to be the last to leave.  I remember one October night when I lived in downtown Anchorage.  The first big freeze of winter had just settled in.  I hadn’t thought about it, but that meant the last open water on the Susitna Flats (an extensive marsh on the shores of Cook Inlet west of Anchorage) would be turning to ice. 

Stepping outside for my evening walk, totally surrounded by urban America, I was treated to one of the most thrilling wildlife sightings of my life.  Fog, which arrives with cold temperatures along Cook Inlet in the fall shrouded the city.  For some reason I glanced skyward.  There, in the black of night. liked winged ghosts, Tundra Swans illuminated by the city lights silently flew southward directly overhead.  Forced low by the fog each one glowed a warm gold against the black sky as flock after flock passed.  It felt  like all the swans in the world hovered just out of reach over my head that night.

Now, almost a half century later, Karen came back from her foray, elated even though she failed to come up with the ultimate swan photograph.  Perhaps it was the snapping of branches as she “silently”  stalked her quarry, maybe they caught the glint of a big “eye” -- her camera lens.   No matter, there’s a plus side failure.  She still has a good reason to try again -- another excuse for a day at the slough.  Besides, the photos she took of the forest while she stalked the swans proved to be my favorites of the day.  I’ve already begun a painting based on one of them.

The Setting -- Blind Slough, an extensive intertidal estuary surrounded by our coastal temperate rainforest,

                                                    Just sneak through these trees

                                    Drat, water to cross between Karen and the swans

                                                         Oh oh, where did they go?

                                     At last, two trumpeter swans with a flock of mallards.

After this foray, Karen bought a camouflage shirt from our local Salvation Army Thrift Store.  She's getting ready for some serious stalking.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Breakup on Portage Lake

During the 1970s when I lived in Anchorage and Palmer, Alaska, we got serious about skiing in March .  Firm snow and long sunny days lured us off on adventures nearly every weekend.  One of my favorites (you’ll probably hear those words often if you follow this blog) was Portage Lake at the head of Turnagain Arm southeast of Anchorage.  Back then you could see Portage Glacier from the parking lot where the US Forest Service visitor center now resides.  Without having to slog through deep soft snow it felt like we almost skated up the lake.  Tunnels in deep blue icebergs that had calved off the glacier before freeze up, and now frozen in time, provided wayside attractions along our route.  I “burned through” so much film those days that I was sure I was single-handedly supporting Kodak.  Upon reaching our goal, we’d climb around on the face of the glacier before wearily wending our way back to the car.

One summer day at Portage Lake we paused for lunch in the parking lot.  The lake had thawed and icebergs vied for space along the lake shore.  From the car parked next to ours out popped a frisky lass and her camera-laden companion  She took one look around, then, without a moments hesitation, stripped to just the wind on her skin.  With that, she dashed for the lake and dove in among the icebergs.  She didn’t linger. 

In June, 2011 I visited Portage Lake for the first time in many years.  It has changed.  Around 1984 the glacier retreated around a bend and is no longer visible from the more recently constructed observatory.  Back in the 70s Portage Lake was the end of the line unless you took a train through a tunnel to Whittier in Prince William Sound.  Today you can drive around part of the lake, pay a toll and drive through the railroad tunnel to Whittier.  However, the view is still world class.  

                            Breakup on Portage Lake    18 X 24 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

I painted “Breakup on Portage Lake” from a photo I took on that glorious June day.  The winter ice cover had recently departed and only small icebergs bobbed around in the lake.  Since the painting was a somewhat abstracted piece, I initially painted an abstracted line of brush in the foreground.  It looked good in the photo, so I figured it would look good in the painting.  No.  Karen thought it looked more like a cross between a hedgehog with a moderate case of mange and the toothbrush we use to clean the unidentified stuff between our bathroom faucet and the backsplash.  So, on her suggestion, I took the painting back a few days in time -- back to breakup as the ice went out.  I disappeared the brush and replaced it with the considerably abstracted ice floes.  Maybe I should try a painting of a hedgehog next.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Harbor Life

After a frequently rainy January and February we finally got some well-earned sun.  The clouds parted over Petersburg revealing those sorely missed colors of the season.  Perhaps the brightest spots in town are in the harbors where boats painted every color of paint sold in ship stores festoon the waterfront -- spreading their shimmering reflections across the sheltered waters.  While the variety of commercial fishing boats proves to be a major attraction, the variety of wildlife that finds its way among the boats in winter is what most excites Karen and me.

Petersburg’s harbor lies at the north end of Wrangell Narrows.  Here tidal fluctuations can exceed 24 feet in just 6 1/2 hours.   The resulting currents carry rich nutrients that work their way through the food chain making this a haven for over-wintering waterfowl including several thousand sea ducks.  From our deck or down by the shore, we love to watch  flock after flock fly out of the Narrows every evening as they head out into Frederick Sound for the night.  During the summer nesting season these same birds will disperse through Alaska, the Yukon and beyond.  Of course, every fall we look forward to their return.

And so, Karen took advantage of those sunny days to see if she could capture some images for future paintings.  The harbor delivered.  She returned with decent shots of ten species of ducks plus eagles, crows, gulls, ravens, a great blue heron and a sea lion.

Here’s a sampling of the fruits of her labor.

                   A pair of male surf scoters, one of three species of scoters that overwinter here. 

A pair of male long-tailed ducks pass a boat.   This species was formerly known as Oldsquaw, but their more colorful name was changed to be more politically correct.

                                        A male Barrow's Goldeneye pops up after a dive....

                        While a White-winged scoter heads into the depths to find it's next meal.

Sea lions can be found in our harbor year-round.  Several years ago one big male sent several of us plein air painters scurrying for safety.  We didn't really want to share the float with a wet and smelly 1500 pound "art aficionado."

Perhaps some of these images will inspire Karen's future paintingsIt's always exciting to see what that right brain of hers harbors.

Friday, March 8, 2013

In the Shadow of Denali

In the mid 1960’s, before the Parks Highway connected Anchorage and Fairbanks, a trip to Mt. McKinley National Park took a full day, a portion of which included 165 miles of rough gravel road just to reach the edge of the Park.  From there it was another 33 miles of gravel road to reach the Igloo Creek Ranger cabin where I spent two summers.  Back then relatively few visitors made it to McKinley.  Those that made the trek didn’t need to take a shuttle bus into the park nor did they need permits to go backpacking.  We were so much freer back then.

In June, 1966, two of us indulged in that freedom to set off for an overnight hike in the shadow of Mt. McKinley -- more affectionately known as Denali.  After an icy crossing of a glacial river and a frigid night camped on the rock-strewn Muldrow Glacier we were ready to head up.  Our hearts swelled with anticipation.  I was a mountain hiker not a mountain climber yet there we were on a ascent with no major obstacles remaining between us and the great one -- unless you count more glaciers filled with crevasses, rock walls and avalanches.  The few climbers who attack Denali from the north side “hike” up Muldrow Glacier so we were off that track -- explorers in uncharted territory.  All we had to do was ascend the ridge and there it would be -- a full frontal view of the Great One.”  

Excitedly we almost floated up the next ridges we encountered.  Tundra vegetation gave way to barren slopes as we climbed higher and higher while the top of the ridge continued to outpace us.  It was an area seemingly devoid of all wildlife except a few birds such as snow buntings when -- we heard something scrambling on the rocks above us.  What the?   Like something out of a dream, we found ourselves staring up at a flock of Dall Sheep ewes back lit by the sun.  This wasn’t sheep country.  What were they doing at this elevation?   Never mind, out came my camera to document as beautiful a wildlife sighting as I have ever experienced.

Ahead the ridge continued to rise.  We pushed as far as we dared until our watches said turn around or spend another night out, miss work the next day and sheepishly apologize to the search party that would come looking for us.  With a last yearning look in the direction of the elusive ridge top, we turned around vowing to return.  Neither of us ever did.

                                          High Refuge    16 X 20 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

Now, it has taken me 47 years to finally scan the surviving photo from a slide and put the image on canvas.  In so doing I  added one sheep to the foreground.  The "importee" migrated into my painting from a winter photo I took a number of years later on Sheep Mountain between Palmer and Glennallen.  Surely it’s the only time the ewe made the trip.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First Signs of Spring

Spring seems to be forgetting it's supposed to be winter in this corner of Southeast Alaska.  While the lower 48 states are seeing blizzards and frigid temperatures, we're watching crocuses and rhubarb poke their heads up to take a look around.   Of course these conditions make it hard for Karen and me to paint in our studios.  So I thought I'd share some of Karen's efforts to document the season.  Naturally, I've chosen images that, for residents of more southerly climes, look about as much like spring as flour tastes like sugar  but, the sun made an appearance, the weather was warm, grasses were coming up around Karen's feet as she composed her images and there was a spring in her steps.

Blind Slough -- and yes, grass was really coming up in snow-free areas.  During other years we foundered in deep snow at this same place as much as a month later.

Buds are already swelling on our alders, a tree that some people think is birch or aspen.  While alders are related to birch, the white color comes from lichens growing on the bark.

                                  A close look at lichens and mosses growing on the alders.

              Fresh "spring" snow lingers on higher slopes while lowlands shed their winter plumage.

                  A closer look at those upper slopes on the north side of a ridge above Petersburg.

                     OK, Spring is still a few days off at higher elevations, but we feel it in our souls.

Friday, March 1, 2013


One of the joys of living in  Alaska is the proximity of snow.  While many local “snowbirds “migrate” southward during winter, I find the colors of snow, especially on a sunny day, more appealing than “seas” of green.  It’s the icing on the triple-layer, double-chocolate fudge cake, the seasoning on the fresh-caught, charcoal-grilled King Salmon.

I have been snowed on every month of the year in this state -- even July.  We can view thick deposits of ice and snow on local mountains year round.  OK, nearly year-round.  We can’t see the “icing on our cake” when the seemingly endless parade of winter storms marching across the Gulf of Alaska pile onto our shores making this look like flat-topped mesa country.  However, my best guess is the snow remains between viewings, even if it has been a week since we could see it.

Not all snow is created equal.  This makes Petersburg’s annual 97 inch average somewhat misleading.  I have seen it snow all day long with the snow melting as it hit the ground.  At the end of the day, maybe an inch remained.  So, how much fell?   In these situations, weather observers measure the amount of liquid precipitation that has fallen and calculate ten inches of snow for every inch of water.  That day we recorded 1.8 inches of precipitation which equated to 18 inches of snow -- and I never even raised a shovel.  Under dry conditions you can get one inch of liquid water in 30 inches of snow.  We don’t see those conditions.

Several Christmas’ ago our daughter, Amanda (Mandy), came to visit.  She wanted snow and she got it, day after day.  While large urban centers in the lower 48 states would declare states of emergency, around here we call it just another winter day.  At such times we save our backs by clearing our walkways and driveway every few hours.  On one such day, as big, juicy, thirst-quenching flakes descended for hour after hour, Mandy took one of the “shifts.”  She’s always a good painting subject so I photographed her as she paused for a break while the flakes continued to pile up on top of her.  That photo served as my reference for “Losing Battle.”

                                        Losing Battle    18 X 24 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

Not long after completing the painting I saw an announcement for a contest.  The National Weather Center Biennale in Norman, Oklahoma was looking for art works depicting the “impact of weather on the human experience.”  Looking around my studio I figured since Mandy is human and the weather was impacting her experience, this painting qualified.  Sure enough “Losing Battle” was accepted and will be on display at the National Weather Center from April 22nd to June 2nd.