Friday, October 3, 2014

Athabasca Evening (oil on canvas 12 x 24 in.)

20 September 2014 finds me looking over the Athabasca River from the "highload bypass" of the Thickwood exit from Highway 63 in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  We checked this site out yesterday evening at dusk, our first day in Fort McMurray, and found a good parking spot for me to paint from against the guardrail on the broad plateau of the ramp that curves high above the Sandbar Willows which line the river.
Today we return as the late afternoon shadows purple the folds in the hills across the river, to start a painting of the river, the wide sweep of the Athabasca, with its graceful complexity of flats, bars, and islands. We are greeted by a scene of peace and open spaces, and then notice when our eyes become used to the distance and begin to notice details, that the scene before us is also being appreciated by tiny people with tiny trucks, cameras, dogs, and children - but thinly enough dispersed in space and time so that each party can feel as if they have the river flats almost to themselves.

Now as I sketch the shapes of the sand bars and islands into my blueish purple underpainting, a pair of photographers wander into view, positioning their tripods in various places. Then two trucks pick their way along the rutted track and out onto the firm mudflats. One spins its wheels a bit rambunctiously and I worry that they'll disturb the photographers and make noise and deep ruts all over the place. But after this initial expression of gusto, the tiny distant trucks park beside each other and proceeded to quietly enjoy an evening visit by the river. One of the men whistles for a brown dog who so enthusiastically splashes through the puddles and channels that it seems he'll never come back. The photographers have wandered farther down river and there's still lots of space for everyone. After a while I see two women at the trucks, and then a little child, running after the dog. Another couple appears, from farther down the river flats - miniature people throwing sticks for their speck of a yellow dog. I can now see Fred making his way along a path through the tall grass and Sandbar Willows below me. He stoops to collect a plant.

As I coax long streaks of sky reflection onto the canvas, Fred returns from his walk downriver, with collections of snailless drift and plants from the mudflats, including a little liverwort which he scraped off damp mud, and a list of all the tracks he'd seen - Mink, Beaver, Bear, and lots of deer. He found only one living Physa snail, a large Physa - and that's the only evidence of aquatic animate production that we've seen. He writes: "I tried to collect water-edge drifted material, but the drift here seems to be reprocessed after having been buried for months or more likely years under 30-80 cm of encasing clay and eroded out of scarps that expose this buried material. - so snails would be expected to, however initially sparse, dissolve away. I saw many Deer tracks out on the flats, a few Black Bear prints, a few clear prints of Mink, and lots of Beaver tracks going back and forth from the water to the shore. The texture of the mud is variable, and in places where it supported me it had formerly failed to support others, or mired down their vehicles. No drift or shells found except a very few isolated feathers."

Three Great Blue Herons squawk and fly upriver in the gathering dusk. The trucks drive away, and the huge flock of gulls that has been loafing all evening along the edge of a distant bar is now rising up in fifties and hundreds to fly down-river for the night. Now most of the pattern of Aspens, Poplars, and Spruce on the hills beyond the river is represented on my canvas, but the bright reflections of the sky on the water are no longer what they were, so I decide to return tomorrow for another plein air session in the brief period of perfect evening light. Three Great Blue Herons rise from the storm water pond we investigated this morning and fly croaking as black silhouettes upriver.

It is truly dusk now, but activity continues along the river. A truck carefully parks a little off the main track below us, and as it gets too dark to see what its people are doing we hear them hauling things out and carrying them away across the flats. A woman says something about "lots of clean sand here" so that's where they light their fire. It casts a dull orange glow far across the flats from the blaze, picking out the stones. And around the flickering fire itself shine the faces of four adults. One holds a child, and another an infant.

The aurora is green in the sky when our field notes are written and we're ready to leave. The North Star is as high as one would expect here, farther north than we've ever driven before.

Dear supporters and patrons of my art,

This 12 x 24 inch oil painting is available for $650 from Art Etc at the Art Gallery of Burlington.   
For more information, contact Rhonda Bullock,
Art Sales and Rental Coordinator, (905) 632-7796 #301

Sales of my paintings support our research and conservation work,

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