I recently realized that my whole reason for painting is that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Most landscape painting is a pale copy of God’s creation, but it’s a way of sharing the natural world with others.
It is, in some ways, more factual than photography. Photographs are accurate in the minute, but they don’t really capture the impression of space. That comes from the flickering, moving, stereoscopic, subjective nature of human vision. The more I paint, the less interested I am in taking pictures, which is why I no longer worry about carrying a ‘good’ camera. Still, there’s a time and place for plein air painting, and the deck of a rapidly moving boat isn’t it.
As with Denali, people visiting Kenai Fjords National Park seemed more interested in the marine mammals and birds than I was (although they’re certainly fascinating). I was there to see the land forms and glaciers and to glimpse an iceberg if I could.
This obsession started with Rockwell Kent and Lawren Harris. Both of them painted icebergs so credibly that I feel the need to see some in the real world, for myself. Although I was in a general area of iceberg formation, it was the wrong season. What I found were more along the lines of large ice cubes, about the size of my car.
The greatest iceberg-watching space in the world is just a hop, skip and a jump from Maine. Well, it is actually more like a thousand miles by car and ferry, but compared to the 5200 miles we drove to get to the Bay of Alaska, that’s a mere bagatelle.
Just as I’ve been a failure at spotting moose in the north woods, I’ve never seen a whale from a boat in the Atlantic, either—not even from whale-watching boats. I saw many humpback whales on the Kenai Fjords boat trip.
I have seen whales from lighthouses and coastal cliffs in Maine, however, and this boat tour helped me understand why. The captain scouted the shallow waters near the shore, because that’s where he expected to see humpback whales.
Humpback whales are surprisingly acrobatic and graceful animals, considering they’re such behemoths. They are known for slapping their huge pectoral fins on the surface of the water. There lots of theories about why they do it. To me it looked a lot like the human behavior known as “splashing”, or what we also call “play.”
Likewise, it’s kind of sad to realize that sea otters sleep on their backs with their paws curled on their chests because they’re trying to stay warm. I prefer to think they do so as part of their generally adorable personality.
Just as Alaska’s humpback whales are much larger than North Atlantic minke whales, the white-sided ocean porpoises I saw were larger than Maine’s harbor porpoises. But they swim alongside boats and leap across the bow wave in the same exact manner. I’m sure scientists have an explanation for this as well, but I think it’s because chasing boats is fun.
Thus ends my two weeks of being a travel bore. I arrived in Rochester, bone-weary, on Saturday afternoon. Today I start an art project of an entirely different nature: prepping this house to go on the market.
I was skeptical when my daughter Mary suggested I really wanted to go to Alaska to paint, but I think she’s right. Next time, it will be with my full kit of oil painting supplies and the time and intention to work.