Mary is flat on her back, ill with something I cannot figure out. I have a nasty cold; she has that and something else. I left her sleeping in a room at the Toad River Lodge and headed back to Muncho Lake to paint.
Northwest Canada and Alaska rivers and lakes are often strangely-colored—milk chocolate brown, ivory, or turquoise. This is caused by rock flour, which is a substance of fine-grained particles of rock ground off bedrock by glacial erosion. Because the silt is so fine, it ends up suspended in glacial meltwater, creating cloudy water sometimes called glacial milk.
Lake Louise in Alberta is the most famous of these rock flour lakes, but they occur anywhere there’s glaciation. West of Toad River there are great dumps of till that look for all the world like glacial moraines. We haven’t seen a true glacier in hundreds of miles, but there are permanent snow caps here.
Mary’s illness gave me the opportunity to paint rock-flour water. Muncho Lake is about 50 km west of Toad River community, so I backtracked there, first to paint the Toad River along an avalanche path, then to paint the lake itself in the afternoon sun.
The Toad was named for the enormous toads found there by Hudson’s Bay Company explorers. “I have seen some which weighed upwards of a pound, and the Indians inform me there are some to be seen of a much larger size,” wrote John McLeod in 1831.
It is so much easier to paint something commonplace than something unusual. Get the general shape of a teapot and your viewers will understand it to be a teapot. Hit the color of rock-flour water almost perfectly and it looks absurd.
I’ve thought a great deal about Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven painters while on this trip. There is something fantastical about their paintings that the American viewer sees as romanticism, or, to put it bluntly, exaggeration for effect. In fact, it turns out to be literal truth-telling. Thomson’s famous Jack Pine may be stylized, but it’s also a tremendously accurate drawing, particularly of the squat black mountains in the background.
Can a viewer in the east understand that a western black spruce might rise like a stick in the air and sends out a bulb of branches at its tip, oddly reminiscent of a fiddlehead fern? Or that some wildfires kill, and other wildfires seem to simply prune, the trees sending out shoots from their blackened trunks?
If you see struggle in these two paintings, you’re looking at them correctly. The colors here are so otherworldly that I’m having trouble committing them to canvas.
I returned to Toad River in the early evening to find that Mary still hadn’t stirred. At this point, my husband took over as long-distance logistician. He has us moving in slow stages over the next few days so that she can rest and recover—and above all, not camp. I’m alright with that, since the temperatures in Jasper and Banff National Parks are well below freezing at night. Even better, there is a clinic in Fort Nelson, and one at Dawson City. If she isn’t perkier today, she’s going to see a doctor.