In Katmai National Park, Alaska
In late August I joined my husband on an eight-day fishing trip to Katmai National Park in Alaska. He fished, I painted! If you are going to paint outside in Alaska, the first thing you need is a body guard. I had not arranged for one, but the boat captain from Naknek River Camp where we stayed, who was told he could just drop me off on a certain island to paint, insisted on staying and guarding me. I am so glad he did. There were 15 grizzlies fishing behind me that day while I painted! One was close enough that I could hear him chomping on fish! The reason I was not facing them was because that area was fogged in when we arrived. When I finished my morning painting I turned around and painted facing the bears. A mother bear arrived with four cubs! The cubs played on the shore like puppies while their Mom stood in deep water catching and eating salmon.
Occasionally I heard what sounded like boulders plunging through water. I’d look up from painting to see Momma bear charging through chest-deep water with remarkable speed toward her cubs. She had spotted an approaching male grizzly. They will kill cubs to bring the mother into heat sooner. Mother bear herded her cubs into the woods to hide. Later they would return. Just think of all this Momma bear had to watch for: peering through the water for salmon to catch, keeping an eye on her four cubs on the beach while watching for male grizzlies which could come from any direction. She was heroic! She was also the leanest grizzly I saw on this trip.
Most of the grizzlies were solely interested in catching and eating salmon. However, the second day I painted on this gravel-bar-island I heard an explosion of seagulls from the beach. I glanced up to see a grizzly approaching the island. Tom Johnson, my guard, stood firm, booming “No!”, pointing his whole arm to the right. The grizzly shook his head, and kept coming. A rock flew. It did not faze him. He reached the island beach. Another rock zinged. The bear dodged this way and that, trying to avoid my stalwart guard. Finally, the bear galloped off in a huff along another sand bar, plunged into a pool, caught a salmon and ate. Seagulls settled; the paint flowed. All was well.
My closest bear encounter happened along the shore of Brooks Lake. I was painting on a slim sandy beach where the Brooks River flows out of the lake. Across the river, a grizzly walked right into the scene I was painting! (I left a space for him and painted the bear at home from my photo, since he didn’t pose quite long enough.) Occasionally, Tom would see other bears walking towards us on the lakeshore. When they got too close Tom would tap his metal water bottle, making it ring, and the bears would disappear into the woods. I carried on painting. One adolescent went back and forth three times, curious. Tom did something to discourage him. Then, way up the beach, an enormous bear approached us. Tom thought he weighed 1000 pounds. Every time Tom looked up the bear was much closer than he expected him to be. He seemed to be ambling along, but his stride was long. When he got too close, Tom rang his bottle, the bear melted into the woods, and so did Tom. A few minutes later Tom reappeared, smiling with relief, and said “He’s past”.
It was soon time to go. I had to work on a pretty tight schedule, since the boat captain was my guard. I knew you didn’t tell a group of fishermen to stop fishing and return to the boat at 3 and keep the boat captain away. But that, and the fickle weather, made me much more spontaneous in my painting. I dashed off the waves in the foreground, packed my gear and we started back. We couldn’t follow the beach back to the trailhead because the wind had stiffened and waves covered the beach, so we followed the little bear trail through the woods. I asked Tom “Was this the trail the bears took when they left the beach?” “Yes” Tom said. “What was that, ten feet behind me?” “Maybe nine” he replied. “A 1000 pound bear was nine feet from me?” Yikes! “I never heard him!” “They can walk very quietly in the woods.” Tom said. I let that sink in for a while as we hiked. Then it hit me. I asked Tom “Where were you?” He looked surprised and said “You don’t think I’d let a 1000-pound bear get within nine feet of you without standing between you!” “So, you were standing about 5 feet from a 1000-pound bear!” “Yep.” And probably he was standing there when every other bear passed behind me that day, about eight trips, bear spray at the ready.
I painted seven plein air paintings that week. Most of them would not have been possible without the courage of Tom Johnson. I am so grateful for his vigilance. And I thank God for protecting Tom! I also thank God for the weather we had. It had rained at Naknek River Camp for most of two months prior. They had had 1 ½ sunny days in the last two months. But I had only one completely rainy day there, during which I picked and painted this brilliant fireweed, indoors.
The other days I was able to go out and enjoy and paint all that wild beauty! It was a feast for my soul! I think I love wild splendor so much because it makes me feel closer to the One who made it. It fills me with awe and wonder, and makes me thankful! I hope it has that effect on you, and that you catch some of that in my work.
At Brooks Falls, where grizzlies do their best to catch leaping salmon, there are two viewing platforms, the upper, which is quite close to the action, and quite crowded, and the lower, which shows you the whole falls. The lower platform was nearly empty, so I was able to paint from it, and the bears hold pretty still while they wait for salmon, so I could paint them in place. Over the distant roar of the falls I could sometimes hear the rumbling growls of bears having a tiff under the platform.
Believe it or not, I met a woman and her little daughter at my opening reception in Quincy, CA, who saw me painting the above watercolor! Yarrow and her husband, Danny, are fishing guides in Alaska. She brought guests to the lower viewing platform the day I was there! What a small world!
All 8 of my Alaska watercolors are on display for October, 2022, at Main Street Artists Gallery, in Quincy, CA, as well as local landscapes and paintings from Montana. Come see, if you’re in Quincy!