The View from Here

Chillin on the north shore
February 21, 2009, 2:34 am
Filed under: Adventures

(Since I first posted this story, I was named 2009 Artist In Residence for Pictured Rocks. More on this later)

A view from the cliff tops, looking north.

A view from the cliff tops, looking north

 To be more accurate, it’s actually the south shore of Lake Superior. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to be more specific. It’s also the place where I learned to appreciate northern landscapes. For a long time, I felt almost obligated to go somewhere warm and exotic when I traveled. Why head north where the reptiles thin out into a few grey or brown species?  Deserts and jungles seemed to be my preferred landscapes.  I equated the northern latitudes with boring nature films about sea birds. I wanted to see the episodes with vipers or giant crocodiles.  

Maybe it was my maturing taste in landscapes, in it purely for the beauty, or maybe it was my decreasing tolerance of extreme heat and humidity.  In late August,  the Ohio Valley feels like an extra-hot version of the Amazon. The cool breezes, deep blue skies and ripe blueberries beckon from the north. There are also some incredibly beautiful landscapes up there, you betcha.  Even a few interesting herps.

A view of Little Beaver Lake from our campsite

A view of Little Beaver Lake from our campsite






We like to camp in Pictured Rocks NLS at Little Beaver campground.  There are only about 8 sites next to little Beaver Lake, so you have to time your arrival well to claim a site.  Our favorite sites give you a place to beach a canoe and a view of the night sky.  It’s about 1.5 miles to hike through the pine forest to Lake Superior and its white sand beach.  There are many miles of trails, the most spectacular of which take you along the 200 foot high cliffs along the shore. Secluded coves break up the cliff line. 

Lake Superior is like a coldwater version of the Caribbean. Tuorqoise water, white sand beaches, but… no shells. Instead, there are sand-polished pebbles of granite, schist, agate and quartzite. They are fragments of the Canadian Shield, a 2.5 billion year old piece of crust, carried down to the Upper Peninsula by the great glaciers of the last ice age. beach-pebbles

It’s easy to spend hours sifting through piles of interesting stones.  Those stones have inspired a series of paintings, one of which is the masthead for this blog.  beach-agatesThe stone paintings are about as close as I’ve come to doing abstracts. However, there’s more for me in the stones than pretty colors and patterns… the stones I paint are just like the real ones. They have stories to tell about their creation, so long ago that the only life on earth were some bacterial mats in puddles.

Pebbles under the clear water of Lake Superior

Pebbles under the clear water of Lake Superior



Life in the park these days is pretty dang spectacular compared to those bacterial mats.  While the northern, not-quite-boreal forest on the Upper Peninsula still can’t hold a candle to the diversity of a tropical rainforest, it is full of life. The birds are the most obvious creatures, with impressive raptors like eagles and falcons hanging around, and lots of waterfowl of various kinds.  We are reminded of Florida at times, with the big wading birds and dark, tanin-stained water.   

Sitting in one spot quietly for a long while is a good way to see what  is really going on in an area. Painting is one way I do that.  I sat in my kayak painting for a couple of hours, and was visited by otter, beaver and a Bald Eagle.  Cormorants and merganzers fished the lake in front of me.  It was hard to pay attention to my work at times.painting-in-the-rubber-duck

Doing plein air at Pictured Rocks can be really pleasurable, but one needs to time it well. Wait until after mid summer when the black flies are done and the mosquitoes start to thin out. How late into fall you can work depends on your cold tolerance, but since I work in a water-based medium, I pretty much have to cut it off at 33F.   I seem to be able to find paintings everywhere I look at Pictured Rocks.  My favorite subjects seem to be landscapes with water.






I always try to use the local water, part of the scene as it were, to thin my acrylics. It appeals to the sentimentalist in me to incorporate part of the actual place right into the paint.  My memories are embedded in the paint as well.  Each painting recalls the feel of the breezes, the animals that passed by while I was working, and the number of mosquito bites I got.


little-beaver-lakeI once sat in a canoe for a couple of hours working on a watercolor intensely. When I became aware of a tug on my brush, I noticed a that grass spider had made a web tying the brush to the canoe. I guess I’m not a very active painter. 

The paintings really do tie me to a place in a way that photography or simple experiential memories cannot.  I think it is the intensity of the seeing that gives it a special place in the memory banks. I look intensely at a scene for hours, deconstructing and reconstructing it all, detail by detail. 


Then, after a hard day at the easel, I like to enjoy the night sky. On Little Beaver lake ,on a mirror-still night, the Milky Way extends around your canoe 360 degrees.  In our late summer trips, we have intersected with the Perseid Meteor shower several times, once with the added bonus of the Aurora borealis. 


Stars over Little Beaver Lake

Stars over Little Beaver Lake, a 30 second exposure


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