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Blog no. 21 Saturday July 2nd, 2011.

Inspired By the Land 8

In early February of 1988 I headed east to Manitoba for what was to be my first winter geophysics experience. After working up til now in camps of at least a dozen or more, this time out would be much different. There would be only two of us living and working in a tent for 4 - 5 weeks in the back country east of Flin Flon. I had previously worked in the area during the summer and fall so I knew what to expect as far as the terrain - northern mixed forest covering the rugged low elevation rock of the Canadian shield. Also dotted throughout this very challenging working environment were many lakes and beaver ponds. What I had no previous experience working in however, was the snow and intense cold of a northern Canadian winter.

After gathering our provisions and loading them into an old single engine Otter equipped with skis, we took off out of Flin Flon in clear skies for an early morning 50 km flight to Brunne Lake. From the air you really got a sense of just how rugged and relentless the landscape is in this part of Canada. After landing on the snow covered frozen lake (a first for me) and unloading all our gear the pilot wished us luck and took to the air once again. I’ll never forget that moment - the sound of only the wind and drifting snow, the deep sense of isolation I felt, along with the realization that by the end of the day the temperature would likely be -30 degrees or colder. We quickly went to work setting up our tent and stove and started cutting firewood. Before too long we had a warm tent and directed our attention to setting up the generator for our computer and lights and then chainsawing through the very thick lake ice to get access to water.

By noon we had secured the essentials and my work mate Tim decided to take our snowmobile out to try and locate the area we would be working in first. “I won’t be long," he said. I stayed in camp to continue to unpack our gear and gather more firewood. Several hours passed and he still had not returned. “He should have been back by now,” I thought and started to get a little worried. It would very soon be dark and cold, and he was not prepared to spend a night out. I remember feeling a sense of panic at that moment as I realized that I really had no idea where he had gone and would not be able to help him if he was in trouble. I started to scramble to set up the one thing we had yet to unpack - our radio phone.

Find out next week what happened to Tim. I’ll also talk about how this winter geophysics experience challenged me like no other and ultimately became a pivotal moment in my art career.

 

Blog no. 22  Saturday July 9th, 2011

Inspired By the Land 9

With the light now starting to fade and the temperature plummeting I was beginning to really worry that something had gone terribly wrong for my work mate Tim. I scrambled to set up our radio phone so that I would be able to send out a request for help. As I worked, I constantly scanned the horizon across the lake in the direction that he had gone. Suddenly I got a faint glimpse of a lone figure walking toward me from the far end of the lake. It was Tim struggling through the deep snow without our snowmobile. Eventually, as darkness descended, he stumbled into camp, cold and exhausted. Evidently, he had ridden the snowmobile into a patch of water that had spilled onto the lake from a crack in the ice. These patches are hidden under the snow and impossible to detect until your snowmobile has started to sink within it. Once sunk, it is virtually impossible for one person on the open lake to pull the machine onto firm snow. After struggling for some time, he finally gave up and started walking.

Now without a snowmobile and with our work schedule on hold we contacted our company and informed them of our predicament. They would have to fly out another person and a second snowmobile. A couple of days later our saviour (Tyler) arrived by plane with another machine. He would also be staying with us for the duration, to help complete our work on schedule. Our original snowmobile was now frozen solid in the ice and had to be chipped out with chainsaw and chisel. This incident was to be a reminder of how harsh and unforgiving the conditions could be. It also became an omen for what challenges lay ahead.

Eventually we got back on schedule and began to collect the data we had come so far to get. We were performing a survey called EDA (electromagnetic data acquisition.) Each of us was equipped with a mobile backpack computer, and receiver staff and would be measuring variances in VLF waves. At several points around the world there are stations that emit VLF (very low frequency) waves that are used primarily for submarine navigation. Our instruments would measure the conductivity of the ground below our feet by detecting changes in these VLF waves - thus indicating the possibility of mineral deposits.

After snowmobiling for various distances out of camp, we would separate and be on our own all day to travel  kilometer long previously cut lines . This was all done on snow shoes, which was a new experience for me. It took a day or two for me to get the hang of them but eventually I became proficient and was able to move over the snow quite quickly. What was really challenging was navigating the cut lines and the endless cut brush poking through the snow that would catch on the mesh of our snow shoes. It became quite an art to avoid constantly catching these and falling. The lines were also previously surveyed (by others) and cut very straight regardless of the terrain, taking us up hill, over cliffs, through swamp and onto lakes (thus the reason for working in winter.) As long as you kept moving - you were warm. Stopping for long was not an option. Any accumulated sweat would immediately start to cool the body. This of course would increase the possible risk of frostbite or hypothermia.

This experience was definitely challenging my stamina and resolve more than any other. Once in the field there was not a lot of room for error. A lack of judgement could lead to over exertion, fatigue, a fall or injury. The cold made these possibilities much more dangerous and I was aware everyday of how close to edge we sometimes came. After a few weeks, the cold, the isolation and the living conditions began to make me pine for home. There was little time or energy for thoughts of sketching or taking photos as each day was filled with both work and providing the essentials for survival. I was definitely starting to count the days.

Next week I will conclude this experience, talk about the unforeseen challenge that befell us and it’s influence on my artistic ambitions.

 

Blog no. 23  Sunday July 17th, 2011

Inspired By the Land 10

Even though the Manitoba winter conditions and our isolation were beginning to make me pine for home, I was still enjoying the overall experience. Perhaps it’s my Nordic blood but I loved working outside in the cold.  I also reveled in being alone all day snowshoeing through the wilderness, especially on the many sunny days we had. Each day was a true test of my stamina and I was always glad to get back to camp in the afternoon to eat, get warm and rest. Despite our close quarter living and the lack of privacy Tim, Tyler and I got along very well. We shared the cooking, cleaning, wood gathering and stove stuffing as well as water gathering and keeping the generator going. In the evenings we would download all the data we had been collecting onto floppy disks and planned our schedule for the next day.

Over our time there that winter we had a few days of blizzard conditions where the temperature dropped below -40 and the wind howled. On these days we did not work but stayed in our tent huddled around the wood stove. I made use of this time by doing a little sketching and enjoyed listening to Tim play his guitar. Before we went to sleep each evening we would fill up the stove with wood and dampen it down so that it would slowly chug away all night. It was still very cold in our tent and I slept in my clothes, toque on my head and with just my nose sticking out of my drawn up cold weather sleeping bag. In the morning, before we climbed out of our bags, one of us would reach for a long stick and open the damper on the stove. It would immediately start up again and then we would stay put until the tent warmed.

On the day we completed the last of our surveying I was the last one back to camp and arrived to find that Tim and Tyler had already packed up most of our gear. I had only to pack up my personal stuff. Once complete we sat down to await the arrival of our plane. Suddenly Tyler started to act very strange, digging through his bag and then others. There was a floppy disk containing data missing. We frantically scoured every piece of our equipment, even rolling out the tent again. No sign of the disk. There was only one place left to look - the fire pit. To our collective horror we watched as Tyler fished out the smoldering remnant of the missing disk. The expletives that followed echoed down the lake. We were stunned. Tyler went berserk, kicking snow and punching trees. That disk represented about ten days work. We would have to do it all over again.

We managed to complete the resurveying fairly speedily and easily because having already walked it once the lines were somewhat packed down by our snowshoes. There was one area however, that was farther away from everything else and originally took the three of us three days to complete. This time there would only be Tyler and I and we would try and complete it in a single day. Instead of using the snowmobile, this time we would be traveling to the grid on foot, a distance of about 10 km and would be picked up by plane at the end of the day. This was not going to be easy. As we traveled to the grid in the early morning we passed the wreckage of a small aircraft - a reminder of how difficult landings and takeoffs can be on lakes covered with drifted snow. Upon reaching the grid and discussing how difficult our task would be, Tyler and I split up and worked all day with a level of desperation that the situation called for.

By late afternoon, as we neared completion the weather began to take a turn for the worst. Once our work was completed we traveled In a howling wind and blowing snow to a nearby lake to await the arrival of our plane. We were both totally exhausted and growing somewhat worried that perhaps the weather would prevent our pickup. The prearranged time of our departure came and went. It seemed as though our gamble was not going to pay off. With the light now fading and conditions deteriorating we were looking at spending the night out with no shelter. We started to gather branches to make a shelter and wood to make a fire. I had a small amount of newspaper for fire starter and as I separated the pages I read a few of the headlines. I came across a story about an up and coming musician who had studied at the David Thompson University Centre in Nelson. His name was Stephen Fearing and I remembered him well, having enjoyed seeing him perform as a student. I had even designed a poster for him and his band. I remember thinking at that moment, what am I doing here? I felt an overwhelming urge to be working on my own art career. This was the first of many times over the next few years where I told myself It’s time to get working toward your original goal - to be an artist. While these thoughts ran through my head we heard through the howling of the wind, the unmistakable sound of an airplane.

After several unsuccessful attempts to land the plane in the unfavourable conditions the aircraft finally landed and Tyler and I raced towards it. To our surprise, it was not our usual pilot behind the controls but a 19 year old rookie with very little flying experience under his belt. The weather conditions would challenge even the most experienced pilot, how would this rookie handle it. As he powered up and we began to gather speed the plane bounced violently through the many drifts of snow. The aircraft wreckage we saw that morning flashed through my mind and for a moment I really feared the worst. My heart pounded as suddenly we hit a large drift and the plane lurched hard to the left, our wingtip carving slightly into the snow. Then inexplicably we straightened and promptly took off. What an incredible relief it was to be in the air, our job finally finished. I told myself during that flight, that my time working in the bush was over. I had used up my luck in the air. I had gained the experience and the glimpse at the soul of nature that I had so strongly desired. It was time to get back on the track to having the art career that I had long dreamed of.

Next week I will talk about the importance of my time working in the bush, how it has influenced my art career and how it still inspires me to this day.

 

Blog no. 24  Saturday July 23rd, 2011

Inspired By the Land 11

Although the time I spent in Manitoba that winter of 1988 was not the last time I worked in Geophysics, it was certainly the beginning of the end. I remember thinking during that harrowing final flight in Manitoba - if I could only work as hard for myself as I did for someone else, I knew I could have a career as an artist. This is what I began to do, working hard at my craft when home and returning to it with vigour when I came back from the bush. I never flew again in small aircraft after that winter flight, sticking to work in B.C. that was vehicle accessed. I had a chance to see more of back country B.C. - working in the Okanagan, (north to south) and the Caribou. In the end, the months of being on the road, of living in lonely motel rooms, visiting smokey bars and eating in greasy restaurants began to take their toll on me. I worked my last job in the bush in 1991.  

The journey that was borne out of a desire to experience more of nature, to understand more of its secrets, had come full circle. Beyond this grounding in nature, these years were also a voyage of self discovery, a test of mind, body, soul and of my dedication to my art. Would the lure of money in another profession pull me from my intended path or would the dream of being an artist be deep enough and strong enough to prevail. To me there was never any doubt - it was just a matter of time until my goal was realized. I never, ever lost sight of that.

My years working in the wild, in both tree planting and mining exploration were some of the most interesting and exciting times of my life. They gave me a chance to experience nature on a level I had only dreamed of beforehand. They gave me an inside look at two of our major resource industries - forestry and mining and how they have impacted the land. They gave me a confidence in myself and my abilities. These years have also been a consistent source of heightened memories - feeding my soul and my art with a heartfelt reverence for our natural world. It was always my hope that by being “inspired by the wild” I could vitalize my soul and infuse my art with a depth and breadth of feeling - that would give them wings.

 

Blog No. 25  Monday August 1st, 2011.

Inspired by the land 12

When I started this “Inspired By the Land“ series of blogs I did not think there would be this many posts. The more I wrote - the more I uncovered from my memory. The more I uncovered - the deeper I began to re-assess my long held inner desire for an increased immersion in the natural world. It reaffirmed to me how this desire has been a pervasive force in my life, how it has informed my life and how it has become a part of how I define myself and my artistic practice. I don’t claim to hold some special or unique connection to nature. Of course, as is most often the case, the more one discovers and claims to know - the more one realizes how much more they don't know and likely never will. That is why the quest continues and why the wild continues to inspire.

Perhaps it is only fitting that my quest to touch the soul of nature has led me to where I am today - away from the built up world, living surrounded by the wild, in the mountains of southern B.C. with my wonderful family. I feel truly blessed to live close to nature and live my life by it’s daily rhythms. In the 25 years I have lived on the land here I have encountered black bear, cougar, bobcat, coyote, deer, skunk, raccoon, weasel, otter, beaver, raven, hawk, osprey, eagle, owl, heron, kingfisher, brown bat, lizard, the rare pacific giant salamander, the endangered pacific water shrew and more birds and insects that I ever thought possible. As a boy growing up in suburbia I only dreamed of one day experiencing nature as I do on nearly a daily basis now. Even so, I try to never take it for granted. I only need to take a short drive down into the urban sprawl of the Fraser Valley to remind me of how lucky I am.

One of my favourite spots on the land here is the beaver ponds - an area rich in life of all kinds. The ponds are full of trout, crayfish, salamanders, frogs and visited by otter, beaver, geese, ducks, heron, osprey, kingfisher as well as many other birds. I love to occasionally sit unseen behind cover and witness the comings and goings of all the wildlife. Over the years I have had to maintain the water level in these ponds and the extent to which they flood the property. If the beavers had their way the entire property would be underwater and the mosquito population would be unbearable. This interaction with the beavers has given me somewhat of a reputation with family and friends and has seen me endure a fair share of good natured ribbing and joking. I find all this interaction with Canada’s official animal - simply fascinating.

Next week I will talk more about the beaver ponds here and some of the interesting experiences that I’ve had over the years.

 

Blog no. 26  Monday August 8th, 2011

Beaver Dam Tales 1

Never would I have imagined that I would have become somewhat of an authority on the large amphibious rodent known as the beaver. In the 25 years of living on our property here at Cultus lake, I have developed a love/hate relationship with Canada’s national animal (Castor canadensis.) We border a fairly large area of wetland and the beavers are constantly trying to enlarge this by flooding more and more land. I am the one standing in their way and it has become somewhat of a battle of wills as to who will control the property. Before me, the job was done by dynamiting the dams and draining the ponds but as this method is not amongst my skill set, I do it the manual way - pulling dams apart by hand and with a small garden rake. I don’t drain the pond but control the level with an exit I have made with beaver sticks. Over the years I have come to know the beavers patterns of behavior and have grown to admire their ingenuity, and determination. I have also grown to love the immense richness of life that is the wetland ecosystem.

Most of the year, except the hot days of summer, the beavers are actively dam building. In mid fall when the rainy days become more frequent and temperature begins to slide downward the beavers ramp up their efforts to flood new areas. This provides them easy and safe access to the alder, willow, vine maple and sedges that are their favourite foods. I have learned that the only way to keep them from flooding more land is to check the pond level and bust down the main dam on a daily basis. They put all their efforts into rebuilding this dam instead of moving ahead and building several more further up the creek.

Over the years I have removed an immense amount of material from the exit to the dam. The beavers have  cut and dredged this material from the edges and bottom of the pond resulting in a significant enlargement of open water space. Early on I used to simply throw the debris randomly to the side. Then perhaps twenty years ago I began to think like a beaver and take the material and build with it - creating two large platforms on either side of the exit. It has become a long term earth art project. I am constantly adding to these platforms and have also lined them with a fence woven with beaver sticks. I can lean on this fence and peer over the edge into the water to see the schooling trout and crayfish lumbering along the bottom of the pond.

Now and again I will wander out to the pond at night to hopefully catch a glimpse of the largely nocturnal beavers. One time in particular I sat very quietly behind the fence and watched a beaver swim from across the pond and come to within three feet of me - practically nose to nose. Eventually it sensed I was there, slapped it’s large tail on the water (a warning to others) and disappeared beneath the surface.

Next week I will talk more about these pesky aquatic rodents.

Blog No. 27  Monday August 15th, 2011

Beaver Dam Tales 2

The only way I can prevent the beavers from overtaking the land here is to try and be as relentless as they are. That means checking dams and busting them down if need be, on a daily basis. The problem with this, beyond the obvious amount of time and energy required, is that - you can’t leave the land for any length of time. We have left the for short holidays of up to week and returned to find several massive dams built, large trees downed and acres of land flooded. On one such occasion we came to the conclusion that there were just too many beavers here and we would have to trap some of them out.

In years past we would have a trapper come every few years and remove a couple of beavers and take their pelts as payment. Now, the pelts are not worth enough and we would have to pay a hefty amount to bring in the trapper to do the job. After five or more years of no trapping, the beaver population was clearly reaching a point where I could no longer keep up with them. Each night huge dams were built and each day I would face a lot of work removing it all. The fact that we could not take a trip without returning to “Beaverville” was the last straw - I was going to trap them myself.

Now, I did not come to this decision lightly. Up until this point I had gown to have a healthy respect and admiration for my flat tailed opponents. So, on the day our mail order traps arrived, I somewhat reluctantly set out to try and learn how to use them. I got advice from someone with experience on how and where to set the traps for maximum effect. The next day when I wandered out to check the two traps that I had set, I was accompanied as usual by our two dogs. There were no beavers in either trap and as I turned to leave I suddenly heard a yelp. One of our dogs had stuck it’s head in a trap and was quickly suffocating. These traps are not easy to open in a hurry and despite my frantic efforts, I barely got it open before the dog was unconscious. After this stressful and embarrassing episode I almost gave up on the whole idea completely.

Not only was I (a professed lover of all things Canadian) actually trying to kill one of Canada’s national animals but - I had almost “taken out” the family pet in the process. After some fine tuning and more experience however, I finally figured it out and have been successful at reducing the beaver population to a manageable level since. In the end I have found the experience of learning a skill that early Canadians once used, very interesting, challenging and eye opening. It has given me a perspective on our past and present that I feel richer having known.

Next week I will conclude my experiences with Castor Canadensis by talking about perhaps my favourite time of year on the pond - winter.

 

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