I knew I probably should have packed up and gone back to camp a little earlier. I have painted into the dark many times before, but this was Lake Superior, a beautiful but very unpredictable place, especially in the fall.
I had come out to this island a little earlier that evening to get a view looking back to the mainland, hoping the sun might cast a nice glow over the rock faces just north of Old Woman Bay. With any luck, the old lady’s face would also receive some setting rays in the background at the same time.
However, you can never count on these things when painting in the outdoors, so I turned my attention to exploring the island when the clouds decided not to share the sun with me. When at last I started on a panel, I was facing the lake, where I had found a really interesting tree with some incredible lichen covered rounded rock in the background, all being fused together by the sound of the waves washing up against the island. As I began work of the piece, racing against the now oncoming darkness, the sky at last gave in a little and enchanted me with a few moments of magenta hues and even a glimpse of the setting sun before closing back up again. It’s moments like these that really make working out in the field so worthwhile. Had I only taken a few photos and left, I would have missed this closing ceremony to the day, which was just the element needed to complete my composition.
Of course there is sometimes a price to pay. While I was busy painting, not only was my light dissipating quickly, but the fog had crept in slowly at the same time. When I lifted my eyes from the panel, I realized that I had better get a move on – and quickly. Although the gap that I had crossed was not very large, I had to paddle through some nice rollers to get there in the first place, and I had left my compass back at camp (never again!).
After packing my gear, I made my way carefully down the now slippery rocks back to the canoe. Waves were washing into the little cove pretty heavily as I began my paddle back. Our campsite was hidden behind a point that would have blocked the view at any time of day, and the conditions didn’t make things any better.
I pressed on knowing that I would soon be leaving the comfort of this island shore to cross the open water – in darkness. It’s been said before that when you lose one of your senses, the others become stronger. Well, this seemed to be true, because I could hear those waves pounding the far shore very loud and clear and they traveled through the thick air. As I was about to get into the open, I spotted small orange light on the distance shore.
Sure enough, Janet and the girls were thinking about me. Realizing the predicament that I might be in, they had made a small fire out on the rocks to help guide me back. It reminded me of stories I had read about the wives of sailors leaving a lantern in the window at night to guide their men home.
Using my flashlight, I gave a couple of quick bursts of light in their direction. They immediately flashed back. It was quite reassuring. The waves were not quite as big as they had been earlier, and after getting past a large flat rock – which I located by sound before sight – the rest of the way was clear.
While I pulled the canoe up on the shore, I joined Janet and the kids around the little fire and we chatted for a while. By the time the girls turned in to our comfortable Eureka tent for the night, the moon had risen, and it’s light danced on the water through the fog. The little fire’s embers were still glowing, and the imagery was just too good to miss. I grabbed my painting gear again, and by the light of my headlight, developed a painting that will certainly bring back memories for years to come.
MONTREAL RIVER HARBOUR
We left Lake Superior Provincial Park in the fog, but in daylight so we could still see the shore, and made it back with little trouble, other than some uncomfortably rough paddling around the main point turning back into Old Woman Bay.
Our next stop was at Montreal River Harbour where we spent a couple of days exploring the fall colours. It was here that I was fortunate to meet Shaun Parent who is intimate with the more mountainous areas around Lake Superior. Shaun makes his living climbing the mountains, especially in the winter. It’s his business to introduce people from around the world to the sport of ice climbing. His guide business is called The North of Superior Climbing Company, and he has written guidebooks on the subject.
I introduced myself to him with the hopes that he might direct me to some of the more elevated views of the coast, and within a short while we were out hiking up to a couple of vistas. The views were incredible, and the fall foliage went on for miles and miles, with Lake Superior in the distance. As we spoke, he pointed out a nearby hill that had big old dead pine trees gracing the top, burnt out from an old fire in the area. With maps in hand, I was prepared to head out the next afternoon to find and paint this scene.
After a morning paddle and paint session up the Montreal River (past the first dam), I entered the woods fully loaded, focussed on finding these old pines on the hill.
There were no trails here, and so to be safe (I was more cautious after the foggy night incident), I took a reading off my compass and struck out. After 30 minutes or so, I began to climb, and it wasn’t long before the overhead canopy began to thin out. Sure enough, there they were, these immense pines standing against the sky, being circled by a host of ravens.
I climbed further, and higher, onto the exposed rock and turned around. It was breathtaking. Words cannot describe, and photographs cannot depict, the feeling one gets when being up there. It’s not that it is the highest peak in the land, because it’s not. Its getting to see the world from the raven’s perspective, overlooking Lake Superior for miles, soaking in the incredible array of fall hues being struck by the setting sun and standing next to these old dead pines which have been here for who knows how long. Let’s just say it was very inspiring.
It was one of those scenes that just demanded to be painted big. The little panels that I had brought along just would not do and besides, the setting sun would leave no light to get back off the rocks’ steep slope. With the image seared deep into my mind, I headed back off the hill, to later find my way through the dark forest below by headlight and my trusty compass. I hope this amazing scene back to life in the studio in a large oil painting I hope that I can do some degree of justice to this wonderful piece of geography.
TO GEORGIAN BAY AND KILLARNEY
As many before us, and many to come, we arrived and set up camp at Killarney Provincial Park in George Lake campground. I normally do not stay in campgrounds for too long, preferring the backcountry, but winds on Georgian Bay and a short time frame kept us there.
I must confess, however, that those comfort stations were kind of nice, and the layout of the campsites allowed for plenty of space. Also, when I left the lights on the truck too long one night and needed a boost, I was real glad to have a camper nearby to help out.
Winds did die down enough to give me a chance to paddle out one evening to the big water and explore the coast and set to canvas an image of one of the more alluring islands.
Killarney is known for its quartz filled mountain chain, and from this vantage point, one can get a great view of the coast of Georgian Bay. So Janet and the girls and I set out one afternoon to have a look. The trail we took led to a well-known spot called “The Crack”, and is about a one-and-a-half hour hike one way. Well, it’s 90 minutes unless you are traveling with children.
Andie, who is six years old did well, hiking the whole way there and back, but Sydney, our two-and-half-year-old not quite being able to hike for long and had to be carried most of the way. That made for a great deal more work, but it was worth it.
Unfortunately, our jaunt here was far too short. I am looking forward to coming back on other parts of our future trips, especially in the winter, to paint and spend some time camping up in those mountains.
FRENCH RIVER PROVINCIAL PARK
By no means would I consider myself a voyageur, but you can’t help but think of these men who passed through and used the French River on their journeys. Today things are a lot easier, including the boat ride that we got to kick-start our trip here. We met up with Ed Chevrette, who works with the park and had been in this area for most of his life, loaded our gear and the kayak into his boat, and headed out down the Key River. An hour or so later, we were waving goodbye and setting up camp on a beautiful windswept island, from where we would be working our way back. And the wind blew, and blew. As a matter of fact, it’s still blowing.