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Reproduced courtesy Torstar Syndication Services

Published in The Toronto Star, Monday, April 24, 2006


Capturing the call of the wild - Dan Gibson shared his love of nature with the world

By Catherine Dunphy

 

         He's the man who brought the loon into your living room.  

         Among other things.

         Simply put - and simply put was how Dan Gibson liked things to be - he was a man who loved nature, the experience of it, the look of it and, especially, the sound of it.

         At a time - the early '60s - when nature films were accompanied by soundtracks of overwrought stringed instruments or worse, he came up with the simplest of ideas. Make it real.

         And so he went deep into Algonquin Park, the part of the world he loved the best, and recorded the sounds himself. He was the man in the canoe, head cocked, wearing headphones, dipping his paddle into the quiet lake, alert and listening to the sounds picked up by the parabolic microphone he'd adapted for nature sound recording.

         He made it out of transparent plastic to enhance its capabilities to capture low-frequency sounds, changed the direction of the microphone to face into the concave dish to pick up a fuller, richer sound and eliminate any extraneous noises.

         The patented black-handled Dan Gibson Parabolic Microphone is still used at NFL and CFL games as well as in major league baseball, a source of pride to the athletic Gibson.

         He also possessed one of the largest sound collections in the world, clips of which were used in many movies, including the wolf call in Any Given Sunday.  

         "We know Dan's wolf calls," said his daughter, Holly Stewart. She can do them too - all his children can. He also taught them the call of the loon, the sound of a moose in heat and what to do when confronted by a bear.

         "We were afraid of the bears and so he lined us up and marched us to the dump where there were four bears," Holly recalled. Gibson ran right at the animals, roaring and waving his arms; all four bears leapt up into the balsam trees, which could account for his nickname.

         In the early days Dan "Bear" Gibson would pack up the family - there were four kids, Mary Jane or Kirkie, Holly, Dan Jr. and Gordon - along with mounds of unwieldy sound equipment in the station wagon and drive to their cottage on fabled Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. He had met his wife, Helen, not far from there when both were counsellors at Taylor Statten camps.

         They had honeymooned in the summer of 1946 in the shack he and some friends built from trees felled for the hydro lines that became the family cottage that grew into a family compound. Nothing could keep him away from the park.

         "He'd fill the Suburban to the brim," said his son, Gordon. "He was at the cottage all summer making films and recording sounds."

         Gibson was a photographer, who made nearly 200 films and television episodes - many for the Audubon Wildlife Theatre, all celebrating nature and/or wildlife. He was the first man to train or imprint Canada geese goslings using a radio-controlled model airplane as documented in Wings in the Wilderness , his award-winning 1979 film that thrilled audiences with the first shots of the geese taken from a camera mounted on that model airplane.

         And then in 1981, when he was 59, he started Solitudes, a company that produced a dozen albums of nature sounds, that had Gibson out listening and recording everywhere from the Florida swamps to Australian deserts. His timing was perfect - it was the beginning of the green movement, the days when New Age sensibility was on the rise - and Gibson's soothing sounds struck harried nerves all over North America. His records sold and sold, and then some, but especially after 1986 when Gordon joined the firm.

         Gibson loved music but his son had to convince him that it would complement not compete with the sounds of nature.

         Harmony was the first title in what became a series called Exploring Nature with Music that has been heard around the world. The company is now called Somerset Entertainment. Gordon runs it with a friend and it employs 150 people.

         Not bad for a Montreal-born city slicker who grew up on a fruit farm in Grimsby.

         Early on in his career, he founded Dan Gibson Productions, which focussed on the Algonquin Park he had discovered during summers at Ahmek, the camp where he was a camper, then counsellor.

         When war broke out, he had enlisted but was honourably discharged when he contracted rheumatic fever. He recuperated at camp, teaching some of the boys photography and taking them on photo trips.

         Gibson spent about 10 weeks every year at the cottage. Neighbours told Holly Stewart they never felt the season had really started until they saw Gibson on the lake in his battered 50-year-old metal boat, sitting on an overturned old wire milk crate.

         He filmed Wings in the Wilderness at the cottage; Gordon was the small boy running along the beach yelling "C'mon geese, fly." The imprinting experiment had started with three gosling which Gibson brought to their Forest Hill home in 1972. They swam in a big galvanized iron tub in the backyard and the boys walked them up and down the sidewalk in front of the house but it was Gibson whom they considered their "mother."

         Two years later he brought a dozen of the baby geese up to the cottage to ultimately make cinematic history. "No one had filmed geese from above," said his son, Dan. The film opened at the Manulife Centre, where it ran for six weeks. Children wept at the cinematic fate of one of the geese but Gibson was already onto a new project.

         He loved skiing, ice-boat racing, sailing. His knees gave out about 10 years ago, about the time he received his Order of Canada, but he still rigged up a switch beside a bed to turn on a digital tape recorder attached to the parabola he'd set up on the roof of the cabin whenever he heard a loon. Four years ago, at 80, he began composing music.

         He'd been planning another season at the lake when he died March 18.

 

 

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