This week I’ve been painting a Canadian icon. No, I haven’t been working on a portrait of a celebrity; I’ve been painting a canoe paddle!
I’ve traded in my usual canvas for a wooden paddle as part of a fundraiser to support arts programs in Muskoka. The fundraiser is being hosted by Algonquin Outfitters, who will hold an online auction and live event in September. Their goal is to auction at least 100 paddles, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Tom Thompson in Algonquin Park.
I love to paddle, and of course I love to paint, so the opportunity to combine the two and paint on a paddle was irresistible. The only question was what to paint. I wanted to design something simple and elegant that would complement the shape of the paddle, and eventually I decided on a gray jay, also known as a Canada jay or a whiskeyjack.
Whiskeyjack is an English corruption of the Algonquian name “Wisakedjack,” a kind of mischievous, trickster spirit in First Nation’s lore. If you’ve ever met a gray jay, you’ll understand why it has earned that name. They are known for seeking out people in the hopes of getting some food to cache, and sometimes even stealing it from unsuspecting campers. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society endorsed it as Canada’s national bird in part because “it has been known for centuries as a companion to Indigenous Peoples, early explorers and outdoor enthusiasts. Its chattering and whistles are considered an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are stories of Gwich’in guides in the Yukon who tell of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost hunter home.”
Gray jays are remarkable birds, but not just because of their smarts and personality. Gray jays don’t migrate; they spend their winters here in Canada, unlike those overrated geese! (Why, by the way, is there a parka named after a goose that spends its winters in the south?) To survive the winter, gray jays cache their food behind bits of bark or in rock crevices, and somehow, they remember how to find those thousands of caches again to feed themselves and their young. They even nest in the winter, incubating their eggs in the frigid temperatures of the boreal forest in March. (Photo credit: Dan Strickland)
All these are good reasons why the gray jay should be out national bird, but they are not the reasons why I chose to paint a whiskeyjack on my paddle. My reason is much more personal.
The first time that I saw gray jays was the day that my brother died. My brother fought a long and brave battle with amyloidosis, a rare disease that attacks the internal organs. I had been visiting him and had spent the night in a motel near Algonquin Park. In the morning, after I got the heartbreaking news, I went hiking in the park to try to calm myself before the long drive home. As I walked down a trail, two gray jays started to follow me. At first, I thought I was imagining things, so to reassure myself of my sanity, I stopped walking. The birds landed in a bush about an arm’s length away, and waited. And waited. When I walked forward, they flew to the next bush. We repeated that a few times, until I could feel sure that I wasn’t cracking up—they really were following me! They stayed within arm’s reach of me for at least 30 minutes.
As the morning progressed, I encountered two separate groups of birders who were out looking for gray jays. Both groups had been looking for several hours but neither had seen any birds. When I told them about my encounter, they replied rather off-handedly that the birds followed me because they wanted food. While that could have some truth to it, I don’t believe it. After all, the birds didn’t follow any of those other hikers—just me. Wisakedjack is a trickster, but a wise and benevolent one. I think those Wisakedjacks knew I needed some company that morning.
A brush with life
I love the smell of art supplies in the morning! This space is to share info about the materials and techniques that I am trying, as well as some pictures of my work in progress.
Copyright Jennifer Foster