Sunday, May 31, 2009

Alaska Calling! Part 2: Exploring Hope and Gull Rock

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”~Albert Einstein

I think that experiences needs to ferment, to distill within your mind, until suddenly you appreciate them again with a fresh and renewed energy that only comes with the passage of time. I am still turning over journeys from months ago in my subconscious. Only now can I start to assimilate the variables together to see how it might manifest in a creative capacity through paintings or writings. I suppose the key is to not rush this but simply let it happen of its own accord. After spending some important time outdoors, in the elements, I can feel that influence starting to seep into my paintings, yet it is not fully articulated yet. I am not sure how it will transpire, but the Newfoundland exhibition of paintings will be a good indicator in this litmus test of sorts. 

The day after climbing Bird Ridge near Anchorage we set out to hike to Gull Rock, a small and isolated campground at the end of a mostly flat 5.5 mile hike near the town of Hope. It is about 2.5 hours from Anchorage to Hope I believe, but we stopped to photograph moose, fast flowing rivers and other panoramas en route so that time might be a bit inaccurate.  

A typical scene in Alaska but one that never ceases to catch your breath.

On our way we stopped to have a look down at this frigid, clear river with the mountains
 peering over our shoulders of course

At this time of year in Alaska you have a lot of flexibility in terms of when you reach your destination. The sun goes down around 11:30pm so you can arrive later in the day and still accomplish everything you set out to do. Such was the case this day when we arrived in Hope to have a look around at about 4pm. It was quiet, with a few people walking up the main street, some RVs parked in some angled spaces nearby, some quaint shops, a little art gallery, a pub, a coffee shop. We didn't stay long as we wanted to get hiking but it was a nice little rest stop on the way. I have learned quickly in Alaska that if you don't have a supply of soy milk with you, you're out of luck. Powdered soy milk was the one thing I had forgotten to buy in Burlington before departing for Anchorage. Never underestimate the smallest creature comfort! 

The town of Hope

It wasn't a long drive from Hope to reach the trailhead. We shouldered our packs and set out. On the way we wrote in a little register that logs who walks in, when they walk out and any other observations such as bear sightings. We didn't see anything too ominous on there and signed in. In a moment of fear I imagined some nasty bear confrontation after which I wouldn't be signing out of the ledger but that moment quickly passed. There were a lot of people near the trailhead: campers at their campsites, a couple on a bike, hikers and their dogs. It was busier than we thought it would be but I relished the company for the time being knowing that we were venturing into some heavily trafficked bear areas. 

Some rather foreboding signs at the trailhead
Hey, knowledge is power and I read each one.

Compared to Bird Ridge the day before, the hike out to Gull Rock was like night and day. We had 35lb packs on on this hike compared to day packs so that made it a bit more challenging but overall the hike was absolutely beautiful with an almost continual view of those gorgeous tidal flats out on the Turnigain Arm area of the Cook Inlet. The trail was perched along a steep drop off toward the water on the right and climbed sharply upwards on the left. There were a few downed trees that had been chainsawed fairly recently and other than a few minor obstacles such as roots and rocks it was pretty flat and easy going. 

Across Turnigain Arm is Bird Ridge, the peak I clambered up the day before. You can't tell from this photo but the Seward Highway runs along the edge of the water at the base of those mountains opposite our position. 

The hike in took about 2.5 hours as I wanted to take lots of pictures along the way and just stand in the quiet and listen to that beautiful silence for a brief time. I admit my nerves were on edge a bit knowing bears were around and every stick that snapped made my head spin in concern. However, my apprehension receded as we neared Gull Rock with the promise of a great view. We met a few people on the trail, including the couple who were negotiating it on their bikes. They indicated that there were some people firing a gun out at the point, right where we were headed. This knowledge reignited my wariness but we figured we'd investigate when we got there and see what was going on.

Don't be fooled by this photo. This rock fall dropped sharply downward and gave me a bit of vertigo frankly as I stepped along the trail that bisected the seemingly precipitous slope. 

Check out that view! I need no further proof that this place is magical from looking at this shot. There was a stillness to the water, surprisingly little wind when we reached the point and just a feeling of an energy humming below the surface of the land. Maybe it was the fresh air making me feel light-headed but to be in the midst of this place with the world opening up like that was simply amazing. 

The trail was springy underfoot with natural vegetation and decomposing matter providing a cushion to the hike. There weren't many bugs, especially out at the point where the breeze kept them at bay, but they were there on the periphery. Even a cloud of them would not have kept me from enjoying each moment to the fullest.

Along the trail near Gull Rock there were the remnants of some cabins from decades ago. They were barely visible through the trees. Some intrepid souls surely had their work cut out for them out here. 

Gull Rock is the small piece of land jutting out near the left hand horizon. That was our destination.  I have a small digital recorder that I regretted not having with me. It could serve to help bring back memories, ideas for paintings or just to recall that time, yet I had also forgotten that back in Ontario. Live and learn!

We made it to the campsite area on Gull Rock around 7:30pm or so. Searching the area, we soon located the source of the gunfire: three young men and a women told us they were "hunting squirrel for dinner". The one boy had what looked like a .44 Magnum "for bears" on his side and he brandished a pistol that presumably was for acquiring dinner. They invited us down to the beach for a campfire but we did not join them. The shooting subsided after awhile and we reckoned they had either been successful or given up the hunt.

We set up camp pretty quickly in time to have some dinner and watch one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen. The campsite was also pretty amazing, with snow capped mountains off in the distance and nothing but the opportunity to experience the slow ebbing of time and temperature into the evening's coolness. 

Sitting by the campfire as the sun was going down. Unfiltered gorgeousness.

The beginning of the amazing sunset

Which continued...

And continued...

Until finally...
Was finished. A new light was left in its place. A softer, cooler light that framed the far off mountains. These mountains have not been mapped or climbed, and are, essentially, unexplored. I forget their names but it sounds Tolkienesque and haunting to me. I'll find out and add in that information later. I found that knowledge of their wild status to be comforting, knowing humans haven't traipsed around there very much, if at all.

The campfire kept the mosquitoes at bay fortunately
I love the colours that exist in the burning coals of the fire. Cool blues and hot reds co-exist. The colours remind me of Mary Pratt's artwork. Pratt paints colour like nobody's business. I have never seen light and colour on canvas and here is a good example. She has some beautiful paintings of fire that I cannot seem to find reference of but these coals reminded me of those works in particular.

The night was cool with the constant buzz of mosquitoes but I slept a dreamless and sound sleep, undeterred by their relentless pecking at the tent. The somnolence you experience in the wilderness after a good hike is like a blanket of sweet fatigue that covers you entirely and I woke refreshed the next morning.

The lookout near our camp at Gull Rock provided a unbelievable view out to Turnigain Arm

After breaking camp  we made good time back along the trail, returning to the trailhead in just over two hours. I signed out of the ledger, happily bear-free, filled with more amazing memories and the urge to see even more of glorious Alaska the following day. The beauty all around was almost too much to absorb, hence the protracted infusion of great feelings, observations and memories. I know that they will continue to have an effect on my work, mindset and desire to spend a lot more time in the North.  

“Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.” ~Emily Dickinson

Monday, May 25, 2009

Alaska Calling! Part 1: Anchorage and Bird Ridge

Sitting on Bird Ridge, looking down Cook Inlet

“Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which Nature herself is animated.” ~Auguste Rodin

Sometimes you just have to be impulsive. Now, there's a huge difference between impulsiveness and recklessness but, much is to be said for taking a carefully placed step into the unknown. 

When the opportunity arose quickly last month to visit Alaska I jumped at the chance. Although I was gone less than a week I packed a lot into those few days. I visited Anchorage, Hope and Seward, camping at the latter two places under a fresh and clear sky each night. Along the way I climbed 2.5 hours up a mountain ridge, visited Exit glacier and caught glimpses of unsurpassed sunsets, bobbing seals and tidal flats that seemed endless. Talk about recharging your creative batteries! I am back in the studio reinvigorated and the paint is flying while I recover from the cold I caught while flying back to Ontario. 

A view of Anchorage from across the bay

I had never been to Anchorage before and this was the starting point of this Alaskan adventure. Anchorage is very different from Fairbanks but I like each city for their own unique qualities. Within twenty minutes of landing I was face to face with a moose by the side of the road! I had never been so close to one before. They tower expertly, stare at you implacably,  and I respect them unequivocally. 

News flash: Alaska is filled with mountains. I get it. I love them. I crave their stolid beauty, always watching us scurrying below, always seeming to have a knowledge that we ants do not seem to possess. However, never had I been witness to the splendor of peak after peak while driving hundreds of miles over five days. Most of my time was spend on or around the Kenai Peninsula and the drive from Hope to Seward is one of the most picturesque journeys by car that I have ever experienced.

A view of the Seward Highway as well as the vast
 tidal flats that occur all around the Cook Inlet

On my first day there I hiked up Bird Ridge, an entirely uphill hike which, I kid you not, many people RUN up....I was not one of them. Very quickly the wheat was separated from the chaff and I knew I had my work cut out for me, but I was up to the challenge. My friend Michael accompanied me and we managed to climb 85 percent of the way up the ridge in 2.5 hours. We could have reached the summit but the light was fading and by the time we descended it would be quite late (sunset is around 11:30pm this time of year in Alaska). 

This area of Alaska has huge tides, upwards of 30 feet. It is impossible for large ships to get into the harbor so smaller vessels are the only option to avoid being trapped by the ever changing water levels. The tidal flats which are seen when the water is at low tide were quite hypnotizing. I loved their organic shapes and undulating patterns. It reminded me of a larger example of the human body's circulatory system: a braided filigree of veins and arteries that were echoed here before us in this unique ecosystem. 

Here you see the trail up the ridge, as well as the tidal flats and Cook Inlet below

A view of our route up the ridge. I think this was about the time 
I had a mini panic attack but I calmed down after a minute and
 looked right in front of me instead of on either side!

An eagle surveyed us as he spiraled around on the thermals rising up the side of the ridge

The overcast sky cleared as we climbed and the rest of the weekend remained cloudless and rain-free. I wouldn't have cared if it had poured, but the climb would have been even more challenging in slick conditions. There was a moment on the climb when I really had some anxiety as I have issues around heights. What better opportunity to confront those fears by climbing up the side of a mountain? I can't think of a better form of exposure therapy. After watching the runners stride upwards past us we carefully chose our route and had some amazing views in store for us where we stopped near the summit. 

This view is deceiving. The summit is farther away than it looks.
 It was strange to walk on snow in May

The sun was setting as we turned around to descend back down the ridge. I felt such a swell of gratitude while standing there, a glimpse into how small we really are and how beauty is impossibly infinite. At that moment I knew that I could easily devote my artistic career to trying to echo that beauty by devoting myself to landscape paintings. Fortunately I love the figure and the human form as much as any wispy cornice or craggy cliff so there's no danger of that happening anytime soon. 

We were literally in the clouds looking across to other peaks and down
 into the passes between the mountains. We thought about how many bears were wandering around down there and were thankful to be above the treeline! We descended quickly, reaching the bottom of the trail in just under an hour. There was a great view of the Seward Highway, surrounding snow-capped mountains, and those lovely veins of water on the mudflats below us.

I had never climbed like that before, yet the few brave souls around us practically skipped up and down the ridge. Proof that all experience is relative to each of us, it certainly whetted my appetite to get back out and try the climb again, preferably sooner rather than later. Living 6,300km away won't deter me. But this was just the beginning of a great adventure in one of the countless, lovely areas of the 49th State. The next day was a trek out to camp overnight at Gull Rock in Hope!

Heading back to Anchorage along the Seward Highway

“Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting points and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.” ~Albert Einstein

Here again are the details for my solo exhibition about Newfoundland. I hope to see you at the opening on November 6th!

Have a beautiful evening, wherever you are!


Newfoundland Portraits
November 5-22nd, 2009
Abbozzo Gallery, Oakville, Ontario
Opening Reception November 6th, 7-10pm

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Visiting Halifax: Pema Chodron, Peggy's Cove and The Order Of The Good Time

"It's also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that's sitting right here right now... with its aches and it pleasures... is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive." ~Pema Chodron

Recently I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia for the first time. My good friend Corinne had generously enabled me to travel to see her and attend a lecture by Pema Chodron, a buddhist nun and author who lives and teaches at Gampo Abbey on the Cape Breton coast. The weekend was filled with good friends, misty landscapes and the knowledge that I cannot stay away long from such a special place. 

My first impressions of Nova Scotia is how similar in temperament and topography it has to certain areas of Newfoundland. The people are warm and open, laugh and love with their entire being and would give you the shirts off of their backs. They possess a vivaciousness and I found that I shed a bit of my Ontario reserve while I was there. Their enthusiasm is infectious! Corinne and I met up with some of her good friends and en masse we made our way down to Dalhousie University for Pema Chodron's lecture Friday evening. 

Sorry for the blurry quality here but I didn't want to use flash!

The lecture hall was packed. Standing room only. I would guess that there were about 350 people there. Pema rarely lectures and this evening served as a fundraiser for the abbey that is perched at the end of the world on the beautiful cliffs of Cape Breton. There was a great assortment of attendees from ordained monks to lay people.

I have a small collection of books that Pema Chodron has written. They are little touchstones of wisdom that I can easily reach in a time of challenge, anxiety or uncertainty. One does not have to be a buddhist to listen to and practice their tenets. After some words from the abbey director Pema came out and spoke beautifully for over an hour, after which she took questions from the audience. The evenings lecture was on Wakefulness and Fearlessness. Pema explained that often our habitual nature keeps us in ruts, that we need to open our minds and beings to experiencing every moment as it is, being receptive to it, and only then can we show compassion and love for the world and everything in it. To be afraid, to be anxious, is human. However, we can practice courage and walk into that which terrifies us. This will help us through it, will help us accept it for what it is, observe it, and learn from it. I took away a lot from her talk. I know my friends did as well. Pema emitted an energy that was quite palpable throughout the auditorium. Her words are inspirational and comforting too. Her words are tools which we can equip ourselves to deal with the trials and tribulations that happen in our lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh says "the most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers." If you haven't readhis book Peace Is Every Step, I highly recommend it. 

Corinne, myself and her friends had a great weekend visiting vegetarian restaurants socializing, exploring and spending quality time together. Corinne and I went to the Farmer's Market Saturday morning. She mentioned that it has been going since the 1700's! It was a vibrant scene with lots of fiddlers, vendors and people buying local produce and crafts. Below is a picture of the building in which the market takes place. 

We made a trip out to Peggy's Cove after the market and some lunch. Peggy's Cove is one of the more popular spots for visitors to stop at and I can understand why. The day was misty and cool, which cast a slightly melancholic air over the day, but not in a bad way, in an introspective way perhaps. Below you see some of the waves that were hitting the shore. These are small compared to when it is quite windy. We stayed well back as a few unfortunate people have been swept out to sea when they stood too close to the water!

It was misty and I was surprised to see so many umbrellas. This young woman's rainbow umbrella stood out to me in particular as a nice contrast with the weather. 

I love the shape and texture of these rocks along the coats. They were so thoroughly organic and unique, they appeared to be liquid but were the first thing from it. 

There were quite a few people there by the lighthouse, arriving in buses and visiting the gift shop, ambling around the rocks and taking pictures, but it never seemed crowded. We were left with our thoughts for the most part and the smell of the salt in the air was so evocative and resonated with some primeval part of me. I can understand why so many have been hypnotized by the ocean. 

From Peggy's Cove Corinne and I drove a short distance to one of two memorials to  Swissair Flight 111. 

You can see the memorial site off to the far right in this picture

229 people lost their lives in the tragedy that occurred in 1998 and the people of Nova Scotia jumped to help in the wake of the aftermath. We walked around the memorial for some time and gazed out at the ocean. A rather somber moment and we were quite moved by it. The memorial sits almost right on the water, surrounded by a wash of burnt-coloured vegetation, craggy rocks and seabirds skimming the shore. 

Once back in Halifax Corinne had a few friends over in the evening. She had also purchased one of my paintings a few months ago and the "unveiling" happened that night. Usually I am not present when people who buy my work see it for the first time, but "Through The Glass" had come from Toronto and I was so thrilled to participate in the moment when Corinne saw it for the first time in person! It is a particularly poignant painting for her and it was a special moment that we all shared. The house was filled with laughter and merriment, new friends and great connections were made. These are the moments that stand out when we look back on our lives and take an inventory of love given and received. 

During the evening Corinne brought an envelope out for me. Inside was a certificate indicating that I had been formally accepted into the oldest social order in Canada: The Order Of The Good Time. In November of 1606, Samuel De Champlain, in order to maintain the morale of those enduring the hardship of the winters in the north. There are no initiation fees, no annual dues and no formal meetings. The members simply must: have a good time, remember Nova Scotians pleasantly, speak of us kindly and make sure to return. I was so touched by this gesture. I will frame the certificate and endeavor to uphold the responsibilities that have been placed upon me. I will do so enthusiastically! 

The Order Of The Good Time certificate

Sunday was exciting because we were able to visit Point Pleasant Park, a very special park that Corinne has visited all of her life. A few years ago there was a hurricane that did a lot of damage within the park and its effects are still seen and felt all around. I think it was difficult for Corinne to see such beauty destroyed but I pointed out that perhaps we could concentrate on the cycle of renewal that is taking place: new plants are growing, small ones have been given a chance to thrive and more sunlight can reach the ground to nurture another turn of the earth in the park. The mist created another haunting day as runners glided past us and disappeared down winding paths as we explored historic buildings and listened to the silence. 

A view down the main trail through the park
The trees in many places were like beautiful skeletons.

You can see where the hurricane left its mark after it swept through the park

I left Halifax that evening after meeting my new friend Jay from Cape Breton. What a fantastic person, one in a million and the salt of the earth. We have both been moved in a profound way by Chris McCandless' story and wanted to meet. Geography, when faced with passion for a cause, reason, or goal, ceases to be an obstacle! We talked about perhaps taking a journey to many of the places that Chris traveled so that I can shoot reference for paintings that I will be working on later this year and next. 

I am so appreciative of Corinne's generosity that allowed me to see another pocket of this gorgeous country. Halifax and the people there made a great impression upon me. It is only a matter of time before I return!

"We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend". ~Robert Louis Stevenson