Thursday, October 9, 2014

Distant Bluffs on the Red Deer (oil on canvas 6 x 12 in.)

7 October 2014 finds me sitting behind the guard rail in a camp chair, at the bridge over the Red Deer River, 3 kilometres northwest of where the Transcanada pipeline crosses it at Bindloss, Alberta.  We came here past the village of Bindloss, which is a compact island of treed buildings in an oceanic expanse of prairie. There at the top of the bluffs, the prairie appears vast and slightly rolling, hiding its creeks and rivers in the creases of the landscape. Coming to the bridge we find the Red Deer River again, and I'm taken by the way the evening sun guilds the edges of the distant bluffs that wall this valley. 

As soon as we arrive, Fred explores under the bridge on the north shore, finding the clay bank thoroughly cattle-trampled, but picking up a single heavy "Fat Mucket" valve, our first mussel shell from the Red Deer River. Then he helps me set up to paint on the slope with my foot braced against the guardrail. and heads downstream on this side of the river, to see what he can find.

After about an our of quiet painting, hearing only occasional bouts of mooing from distant cattle, I hear footsteps in the willows, echoing below the bridge, then a brief mammal voice that I can't identify. Surrounded and covered by my painting gear, I feel no inclination to get up to investigate, so I just keep on painting and listening.

Some time later a dark movement catches my eye on the opposite bank, and there is a full size Moose stepping carefully along the narrow river bank and stopping to reach up among the willow withes, waving and jerking her head to break them off. She doesn't seem to hear the clicks my camera makes, nor does she smell me because I'm downwind of her.

But soon she stops and stands as still as a statue, facing downstream. I resume painting as dusk descends. I have lost my light but there are a few parts of the painting I can still work on. 

Before I have a chance to worry about Fred not being back before dusk, he appears, making his way through the long grass and up to the road. This is what the Moose had been so attentively listening to as she stood still for so long. As he approaches me and begins to speak, the Moose startles, loping gracefully up the bank and pausing. I grab my camera again, but it's too dark to take one more picture - of her standing among the willows - with the dark shape of a 3/4 grown calf behind her. It must have risen from its bed among the willows just as she reached it. Then they both go back under the bridge and up the bank out of sight. 

As I pack up my paints Fred reports having walked along the grassy field above a high cobble bluff. I'd asked him to check what appeared from a distance to be swallow nest holes, but he hadn't been able to see the wall of the bluff from its overhanging brink. Then he came to a mowed path that turned out eventually to be associated with a municipal campground, and descended to a steep muddy shore on his way to a mudflat, looking for shells. At the downstream end of the mudflat he encountered four Mule Deer which retreated without panic to a willow thicket. From their tracks he could see that they'd been slipping on the clay of the flat as much as he did. A tracery of bird tracks (Greater Yellowlegs, Peeps, and Great Blue Heron) suggested that this is a more productive flat than those around our previous camp. Many more tracks showed that Cattle and Moose had also slipped there.

Although there was little Beaver cutting in the willow thickets along this shore, the mud was cluttered with both old and freshly peeled Beaver sticks from upstream. Upstream of the flat, on his way back, he collected fairly rich drift including small aquatic and land snails. This recent drift, only a foot or so above the current water level is one of the things that we'd anticipated being able to sample after a wet summer, and Fred's finding that it's present here just as a thin skim of material on the sand or mud of these prairie river shores. He also found a single big Fat Mucket with both valves. As he hands it to me, I am amazed at its weight. These are incredibly heavy compared to the paper-thin shells of the same species in the calcium poor rivers of northern Ontario. When Fred put it in my hand I exclaimed, "This must weigh a pound!" but he tempered that to an estimate of about 400 grams. 

Dear supporters and patrons of my art,

This 6 x 12 inch oil painting is available by e-mail auction to support our independent survey of the Energy East Pipeline. The starting price is $425 and bidding will close at midnight on 16 October. If you would like to purchase it, please contact Aleta   

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