Pipestone Creek Marsh (oil on canvas 8 x 8 in.)

16 October 2014 found me astonished at the broad swath of cattail marsh that is Pipestone Creek, hemmed in by its forested valley wall, southwest of Broadview, Saskatchewan. The high sharp line of the flat prairie outside of this valley world is visible on the horizon though a gap in the trees. We are a little over a kilometre upstream of where the Transcanada pipeline crosses the Pipestone. We are past the places where we have the pipeline route mapped - so today we navigated by dead reckoning and were pleased to find signs for six parallel pipelines as they descend into the wide Pipestone valley, 17 kilometres southwest of
Broadview. Then we drove a kilometre north to find the creek itself where the road crosses it on a new embankment, with lots of open water upstream to the west, and marsh on the east.

At first I consider the composition for a painting of the upstream side, with the wind lashing the reeds and cattails and combing streaks toward us along the choppy surface of the open creek. This is a new road and a bit upstream is a bit of the old one with water burbling over the gap where the bridge was. 

Walking uphill along the road I change my mind about what I want to paint. Looking through a screen of Poplars I see the broad golden marsh and stand transfixed! The whole valley is full of tight-headed Narrow-leaved Cattail rather than the grey & fluff of Broad-leaved Cattail. 

After we've been waypointing the Broad-leaved Cattail, Typha latifolia so assiduously across Alberta and western Saskatchewan to allow documentation of invasion by Typha angustifolia the Narrow-leaved Cattail, with their hybrid Typha x glauca, and seeing the invasion as different heights and textures, it's sort of surprising to see a valley so uniformly inhabited by the invader - as far as we can see there's no Broad-leaved Cattail! 

As I settle down to paint through the open side window of the truck, Fred walks north along the road where one big culvert carries the open water of the Pipestone into its marsh, to visit a second patch of Phragmites reeds, and passes some Reed Canary Grass, looking like bright yellow shoots of the Phragmites but the reeds here have dead leaves. The soft gravel of the east side of the road is dotted with Fox tracks. A pair of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead, following the curves of the creek upstream. They have big long necks and immense white wings, and fly close and companionable.

Fred brings back a sample of both stands of reeds with their shiny bright red stems and dead leaves. The first stand still retains its leaves, while the second stand has lost most of its leaves, but many of last year's stems are still standing among the new ones. The second stand also has smaller seed heads. These native Phragmites are very diverse in their morphology and growth – and since they spread clonally after rare events of establishment through germination, you can see the differences between stands. Last week as we were coming into Saskatchewan along the Trans Canada Highway I noticed the strikingly still-green foliage of a dense stand of the invasive European subspecies of Phragmites, and stopped for Fred to collect a sample. That was the only invasive alien stand of the reed we've seen so far on this trip eastward from western Alberta.

As I paint the downstream marsh view of Pipestone Creek, Fred heads across to the abandoned road embankment, gathering drift from various situations around a Beaver dam that's being loosely constructed across the bridge gap in the old road causeway, leaving a one-metre-wide gap where the water is openly roaring through. Why has it taken Beavers so long to find this optimal site, and why are they so ineffective at building a dam? There are no signs of a previous dam here. Is the fact that they've gnawed at least 3 fenceposts (one cut at the old road, and one cut and another gnawed on the barbed wire fence along the new road) a sign that food is deficient (though there are plenty of Aspen trees on the slope to the south)? We wonder if they know how to use Narrow-leaved Cattail, which is generally regarded as Muskrat food. A few uprooted but uneaten Cattails are incorporated in the dam here. The causeway and surroundings are grazed and plopped by Cattle. Fred finds a small stand of the native Broad-leaved Cattail on the embankment, and from a mass of water plants dredged up to the dam by Beaver, he collects a nice specimen of Bladderwort that has balled its leaves up in preparation for winter.

My underpainting is burnt sienna, muted a little with blue and softened a bit with white, and after scratching a sketch into it, I paint each of the Poplars carefully, with their individual curves and kinks,  and the 'gold coin' leaves clinging to the tips of their upper branches. Then the sky goes across the top, and I begin to paint the rest of the landscape in, between the trunks and branches of the Poplars. It would seem to be more straightforward to paint all of the distant landscape first and overlay it with the foreground trees, but I persist in the tradition (which I observed in the sketches of the Group of Seven) of painting near objects directly onto the underpainting and inserting the distant scene into the spaces. This way the scene is integrated, rather than overlapping, and all the colours are more distinct and energetic. Fred reminds me that I do this in watercolour too, but on white paper rather than a coloured canvas. 

All of a sudden Fred tells me that the truck and trailer need to move so the municipality's tractor can run it's hugely-wide mower along the east side of the road. The operator says he'll be coming back on the other side of the road in twenty minutes - but the field around the campsite a little northwest of here must have been larger than he's reckoned, and at dusk we see his tractor parked there when we find our camp for the night, at a picnic site created for the Saskatchewan Centennial in 2005.

Dear supporters and patrons of my art,

This 8 x 8 inch oil painting is available, framed, for $400 from Art Etc at the Art Gallery of Burlington.   
For more information, contact Rhonda Bullock,
Art Sales and Rental Coordinator, (905) 632-7796 #301

Sales of my paintings support our research and conservation work,


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