Sunday, June 26, 2016

BAD DOG! – And Other Things to Say When Training a Bear

With the recent anniversary of the death of my amazing friend, Babak (Armi) Armajani, I’m reminded of the many wilderness canoe trips he and I shared in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Among our countless adventures, a few provided stories that are especially memorable. This is one of them.

                                                *          *          *

We were several days out on trail, paddling down a long, narrow lake toward our next portage. It was about 4:30—plenty of daylight left, but we always tried to claim a campsite early. According to the map, there were several on this side of the lake, but we’d already seen one other paddling group, so we grabbed the first decent site we came to.

Over the years, the various tasks of setting up camp had settled into a comfortable yet efficient routine for us. Some of us start unpacking tents and cooking gear; others venture out in the forest for firewood; and a couple of guys start looking for the perfect tree from which to hang the food pack overnight, out of reach of bears.

Now, any one of us could have hung the food pack, but Armi, well, this was one of his many specialties; he fancied himself a food pack virtuoso. First off, it had to be just the right tree—the best ones are a ways off from the cooking area and tents, and have one rather isolated, horizontal limb, about 15 above the ground. A rock with a strong rope attached is thrown over the limb at least six feet away from the trunk. One end of the line is tied to the pack; the other end pulled to lift the pack up at least ten feet and then tied off on a nearby tree.


That’s about as far as most folks’ thinking about food pack hanging went. But Armi felt he understood bears; he thought like a bear. So he would ply his art one step further. There had to be a complicated way, after the pack was hoisted, to tie off the rope. Like a special knot; like wrapping it around two adjacent trees instead of the customary one; or adding a dummy rope to cut even the cleverest bear’s chances of untying our pack to 50/50.

While Armi and I perfected the apparatus, our cohorts were busy pitching the tents, cutting and piling the firewood and collecting water from the lake. Before long, our personal gear was in the tents and dinner was on. All was good.

      Someone—or some thing—was emerging 
      from the lake and coming ashore just 25 
      yards from our tents.


About an hour after we’d hoisted the food pack and turned in—just as my exhaustion was finally starting to get the better of my discomfort—I heard a curious sound coming from down at the landing. Water splashing…dripping…the being noisily shaken off. Someone—or some thing—was emerging from the lake and coming ashore just 25 yards from our tents.

I knew right away it was a bear. A few seconds later I heard it snuffling around over where the food pack was. I felt around for my flashlight and slipped out of the tent as quietly as I could. Armi had beat me to it. He grabbed the frying pan and a big spoon from the cook kit; I, a mug and a plate; and we ventured out to meet our adversary.

By this time everyone was up and “armed,” right on our heels. The rather large black bear was standing up on its hind legs right under our food pack, intent on smells seeping through the canvas that I’m sure conjured a bear smorgasbord. We unleashed a cacophony of aluminum-on-aluminum percussion, and the 500-pound animal, barely bothered, turned, considered us for a moment, and then ambled back down to the landing and swam away.

            If that bear thought it had gotten 
            the better of us, it didn’t know Armi.

Ten minutes later, back in our sleeping bags and just coming down off the adrenaline high, we heard, from the next campsite down the shore a few hundred yards, a familiar dull-metallic clanking and shouts of “Shoo!” and “Hey, get out of here!” We all hoped those poor folks couldn't hear our laughter.

But we weren't out of the woods; ten minutes later, incredibly, the determined bear was back with us. This time, though, it seemed to have learned a new trick. For instead of standing frustrated under our food pack, it knew to follow the rope down to where we'd tied it off—twice—and started clawing at the knots. Smart bear.

But if that bear thought it had gotten the better of us, it didn’t know Armi. This time, amid everyone else’s impassioned arm-waving and clanking of pots and pans, he’d evidently had enough. He took a couple of bold steps toward the intruder, which turned toward him and roared. Armi, undeterred, raised his right hand and, shaking his index finger at the massive carnivore, shouted at the top of his lungs, “Bad dog!  BAD DOG!!

At this—no lie—the bear turned in shame and slunk away toward the water. We never saw it again.

Thanks for the memories, Armi!

Monday, June 6, 2016

DOGGIES AND DUNGEONS – A Brush With Harry Potter Illustrator Mary GrandPré

A few years back, when I still had my graphic designer’s shingle out, one of my clients was a humane society organization. I was writing, designing and producing marketing communications materials for their capital campaign.

As often happened with my clients, the project eventually grew from simply creating a printed campaign “case statement” to encompass a range of other communications tools, including a comprehensive communications plan.

One of the needs that plan suggested was an evocative graphic—perhaps a piece of commissioned art—that would go beyond the rather dry bricks-and-mortar case and tap into prospective donors’ deep emotional attachment to animals. Given the competitive nature of the Twin Cities area’s philanthropic “marketplace,” it would have to be something really special.

To assert the art’s value, we would reserve its use for special donor appeals and recognitions, among them presenting a high-quality, limited-edition giclée print—perhaps signed by the artist—in appreciation of major gifts and pledges.

         Instead of the polite refusal for which
         I’d steeled myself, she began asking 
         a few questions.

It was up to me to find the artist. Indeed, I’d had many occasions to commission talented photographers and illustrators for my work with clients over the years.
But I felt strongly that in this case talent alone would not do.

I recalled a local Minneapolis illustrator whose work, many years ago, had been represented by one of the artists’ reps who called on me. Mary GrandPré’s portfolio had long since disappeared from the reps’ books; I heard she’d moved away and hit it big with a plum assignment: illustrating all the Harry Potter books.

Nothing ventured, I figured, and set about to track Mary down. It took a while, but I found her; she lived in Sarasota and, fortunately, had not (yet) had reason to delist her phone number.

To my delight, Mary got my voicemail and returned the call. She could not have been nicer. And, instead of the polite refusal for which I’d steeled myself, she began asking a few questions about me, my client and the project.

Turns out Ms. GrandPré is a huge fan of humane animal organizations, having found her own beautiful, aging yellow lab, Chopper, at one. When I described my client’s work and the campaign’s goals, Mary agreed to work with me—pro bono.

Mary GrandPré

Our first hurdle was Mary’s trying to find the time; she’d just started on Rowlings’ next title in the Harry Potter series and would be swamped for months.

I’m so glad my client was patient, because the project was beset by one stumbling block after another. After she finished with the Potter book, Mary encountered several overwhelming personal challenges, including a major, life-saving surgery and adopting a child from China.

    A ragtag band of companion animals emerges 
    from a dark, threatening forest to catch sight 
    of the welcoming lights of home.

But we both stuck with it; I was walking a fine line between compassion and coercion. I’d already sent her my rough concept of how I wanted the composition to look. True to her word, a few months later she returned a full-poster-sized charcoal sketch. I tweaked that and, after a couple more halting rounds back and forth, it was done.

It had taken well over a year, but I know Mary and I are both proud of the finished product. Rendered in arrestingly deep, rich pastels, a ragtag band of companion animals, lost at night, emerges from a dark, threatening forest to catch sight, just over the next hill, of the welcoming lights of home.

Faithful Friends – Keeping the Promise ©2006 Mary GrandPré

When it was all over, I learned of yet another emotional hurdle Mary had faced. She explained that the beautiful golden lab leading the other animals in her illustration was modeled on her beloved Chopper, who’d died as she was working on the project.

A signed giclée, with a personal note from Mary, hangs in my office. The original, whose return GrandPré has refused, is preserved in my archives—its powdery pastels far more fragile than my memories.
For more information, or to engage Mary GrandPré, visit her website,