One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

21 January 2014

Being There

by Lyn StClair

It is 4:47 AM and I have been sitting and contemplating the composition of a sketch for a new painting of a polar bear and ross's gulls that is coming together on the 24"x48" stretched linen on my easel.  As I stare at the piece, I am reminded of the trip when I saw my first white bears and pink gulls…

Several years ago, my friend Cathy joined me on a trip to Barrow, Alaska to visit my friend Donald and try to see polar bears.  We arrived in Barrow in October, in the middle of whaling season.  

Barrow is about as North as you can get.  One of Donald's nieces described it best in a call to him shortly after he started working there:  "Uncle Donald, we looked you up on the globe…you're really close to the screw!!"  Yup, that about sums it up…

We managed to rent an SUV from a local hotel and proceeded to troll the limited roads of Barrow in search of polar bears.  

Toward one end of our route , a whale carcass was being dismembered by the townspeople while whaling crews continued their hunt.  

Near the other end was a beautiful cemetery in the snow with white markers and colorful plastic flowers.

Big trucks loaded with one sort of detritus or another rumbled from one end of the road to the other (there is no road out of Barrow).

Grey-green waves crashed on the beach and a cold wind whipped the landscape.
There was no sign of bears on the first day…no sign of much of anything.  The arctic fox we saw in the distance saw us and ran like lightning the opposite direction (they hunt them, here…they hunt everything here).  

One morning, Cathy was feeling a wee bit stressed that she'd used precious vacation time for this...and no bears.
So, I offered a suggestion…in my very best (which was very bad) Jacques Cousteau accent, I said:
"Ho-kay, tew-day ees dee day zat vee speak vis zee varra bad French accents…and ZAT eees how vee find da polar baars."
Cathy groaned "Zee mud, but ahll zere ees, ees  MUD!"
and I replied:  "And zee sheet haulers, zhey haul zee sheet in zee mud from wan end to da other"
Thus it began…

We became our own comic relief…and we couldn't seem to stop the silly accent thing (much to the dismay of our dear host, Donald, a speech pathologist).  

We weren't finding much to shoot...but we were laughing so hard our faces hurt...

Then slowly, we began to find wildlife.... discovering the snowy owls that sat in the cemetery, posted on fences and hunted the tundra on the ends of town.  We found a Jaeger cruising a frozen pond.
We tried to sort out unfamiliar gulls and eiders. 

We'd been told to look for the pink gulls, which brought a wide-eyed look of wonder at one another…Ross's gulls!  A holy grail for birders!  

So, we'd sit on the beach and scan the birds with binos, looking for the "faint wash of pink"…
"Oh, that one has pink…could it be…?!"  

Back and forth we went, scanning for bears and shooting whatever we could find.  In the long stretches between seeing wildlife, on top of the silly "French" accents, we invented the Wide World of Arctic Sports:  dead bird leaping, wind jumping…

Basically, we did what Cathy and I do best:  

we played.

One day, on the way to the cemetary, we discovered a "stink" whale that had washed ashore.  This is a whale that had been harpooned, but escaped being brought in by the whaling party.  They die at sea, then wash ashore too late to be used for food.  We visited the stink whale often, hoping for a bear…and sadly mourning its terrible fate and the waste of a beautiful life.

We trolled and searched the tundra until our eyes hurt...

We even tried doing bear dances on the beach.

 Locals suggested looking for bears in the middle of the night (it started to get dark about 4 PM and didn't get light until nearly 10 AM)…so we began cruising in the deep of the night and the wee hours of the morning.
One night we brought Donald and his partner, Mick…who rolled their eyes at the accents (Donald whispering to Mick: "make them stop"), then fell asleep in blankets in the back seat while we looked for bears.

We found a lot of bear tracks...seemed we just missed them several times...

Then, late one night we were leaving the stink whale when we saw them…a sow polar bear and her nearly grown twins.  They were ambling up the road ahead of us.  Cathy was driving and carefully tried to sneak up as close as possible so I could, at least, get a record shot with the camera.  

They were MAGNIFICENT!  Cathy and I have been very close to many grizzlies over the years we've known one another…these white bears make grizzlies look small!  As we crept closer, I aimed…and "click"…the flash bounced off the windshield.  

The sow stopped and turned with a menacing look that pretty much said "do that again and I will open that thing like a sardine can and feed you one piece at a time to my kids!"  

Cathy whispered:  "Oh sheet, she eesa verra, verra beeg!" and we were lost in a paroxysm of laughter.  

We followed at a more respectful distance as the three bears ambled on and disappeared into the night.  We giggled like leetle girls the rest of the trip over Cathy's reaction to the bear.
One morning before we left, we were scanning the beach as usual when we saw them.  A flock of Ross's gulls hunting the surf and skimming the beach.  Our jaws dropped.  

Whatever we had seen before, it was not Ross's.  The "faint wash of pink" description in the bird book could not have prepared us for these gorgeous salmon and grey gulls hunting the green-grey surf.  Spectacular.

As I work on this painting, it comes to life with memories of Barrow, of the personal experiences with these two species and the laughter shared with my friends.  

My paintings are not just a portrait of a certain animal....they are stories of places I've been, things I have learned, people I have loved and homages to the beautiful creatures that I have been so very privileged to have seen.
As an artist, I cannot paint something I have not seen in the wild, in it's natural habitat. 

Photos mean nothing...the experience is EVERYTHING. 

There is always something new to be discovered…and there is simply NO substitute for being there…

So, as I tweak the sketch and prepare to start painting, I remind myself:  

She eesa verra, verra beeg…
...and zhey vere a verra, verra PEENK!