Time was running out. The light skipping across Hecate Strait had faded and the summer’s sun was dangerously close to the string of islands’ cedar crowns. Chili Thom didn’t have his “eureka” as the sailboat cut through the water headed for port.
The Great Bear Rainforest flooded Thom’s imagination, leaving him adrift in a soup of creative fodder. The coastline’s ruggedness, the rusty-coloured seaweed that clung to the rocks, the parade of creatures going about their days — sea lions, whales, eagles, bears — an infinite selection of subject matter clogged his thoughts.
Then it cleared. A confluence at the mouth of a river pulled back the algae curtain, exposing a kelp forest that rippled with the ocean’s movement.
“Stop the boat,” Thom yelled.
With no time to put on a wetsuit, Thom leaped from the boat. The water’s icy chill stole his breath. But Thom was on a mission. He needed a shot.
Thom was one of 50 artists invited to journey up the coastline in an initiative taking aim at Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. The group’s goal was to raise awareness and protect the 70,000-square-kilometre temperate rainforest, the home of the Kermode “spirit” bear — famous for its recessive white coat.
Thom has explored much of B.C.’s wilderness. Yet last June marked his first time to the area that’s now the subject of heated public debate. What struck him was the “ridiculous” amount of wildlife, followed by his thought of its devastation that would result from a major spill from oil tankers travelling the waterway.
It’s a fragile area, Thom said, while sitting in his Squamish studio, across from the acrylic painting composed from various images collected on the trip. The wake alone from the tankers going to fill on with oil pumped 1,177 kilometres from Alberta, would threaten fish spawning grounds, he said.
“There were so many inter-connected things,” Thom said.
Thom and some Canada’s most renowned artists — Robert Bateman, Carol Evans, Alison Watt — set out to capture the area’s delicate magic. Their artwork is now on auction, with the money going toward the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Oil-Free Coast campaign.
It’s a cause about which Thom is passionate. While growing up in Chilliwack, Thom would go on canoeing and camping trips with his father. The family spent time at a cabin at 100 Mile House. After a brief stint at the University of British Columbia studying fine art, Thom’s passion for the outdoors was kicked into high gear when he moved to Whistler. For six years, Thom worked as a wilderness guide, landing himself a TV show called Wild at Heart.
The province’s big backyard is Thom’s playground — he skis, snowboards and surfs. B.C.’s tall mountains and rain-washed coastline are also his muse. Nature is truly real, Thom said. It’s the one thing that humans haven’t screwed up.
“There are 30-year-olds that never been in anything but a park,” Thom said, noting apathy toward the environment will be its death.
Through his vivid images of alpine meadows and snow-packed peaks and valleys, Thom aims to reconnect people with the great outdoors. From his work, Thom hopes they’ll gain at least a small measure of his respect for nature’s beauty.
“There is always something to look at and you don’t have to think about anything else,” he said with a smile.