April 22, 1917
1917 Northern Lights
I sketched the Northern Lights at Mark Robinson’s shelter house last night.
At Mowat Lodge earlier in the evening, I looked outside and saw the Northern Lights were starting. It was close to a new moon, the skies were clear and the stars were out as brightly as they could be. I could see the Lights starting on the Northern horizon, so I grabbed my sketch box and headed up toward Joe Lake.
As I walked up, looking at the lights I was thinking about other things too. Since Charlie Scrim has come back, we’ve renewed our friendship. I fear that he’s not going to be that long for this world so I think I’ll stick close by, at least for the better part of the summer. I don’t think he’s going last out the summer. I don’t plan to go Fire Ranging this summer (a thankless job) but instead I’ll take out a Guide’s License and stay close by. But I don’t want Charlie to think I am doing this on his account.
The Lights were getting more brilliant by the minute. First, I was walking, but by the time I reached Mark Robinson’s house, I was in a full run. I banged on the door and bolted inside.
Mark jumped off his bunk. “Tom, what are you doing here?” Mark looked a frail shadow of himself. The War took a lot out of him. I wasn’t sure if it was wise of George Bartlett to bring him back to the Park so soon after serving. I saw another figure in the shadows. “Tom, this is Mr. Gordon. He’s stationed with me until I fully get back on my feet.” Mr. Gordon came out of the shadows to shake my hand. He looked old too. All the old men are in the Park because the young ones are away fighting. I was the exception.
I shrugged and barely murmured an acknowledgement, “Look at the sky!” I paced back and forth, glaring at Mark. “Black spruce, Mark! Ragged tops. I want the raggest looking tops to paint against that sky. Where I’ll get them?”
Mark knows all the trees around here, not just the species of each tree, but each tree. “You’re looking for ugly ones, the ugliest looking trees, Tom?” I smiled. Mark knew exactly what I wanted. “Down where you came from, by the school, opposite side the of the creek. There’s some spruce with regular tops, but there are three with irregular tops, ragged as you like. The irregular ones always seem come in threes.”
I got what I wanted. No need to thank Mark. He doesn’t like being thanked. I grabbed my paints and ran back out the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a puzzled Mr. Gordon. The last thing he expected to see a driven artist dashing in and out the door during night time. I rushed down by the school and crossed the bridge over the creek (the ice was all gone now). It didn’t take me long to find the the trees against the sky that Mark was talking about. By the time I was finally settled in for sketching, it had turned really cold. What should have been an hour’s of effort turned about to be three. Irregular things do come in threes. Despite the starlight, and the Northern Lights, I didn’t have enough light to see my palette and colours in the box so I had to go back, break into schoolhouse by jimmying open the door to borrow a kerosene lantern. When I was done, I returned the lantern and noticed I had wrecked the door. I propped a plank against the door so the animals couldn’t get in at least. I promised to myself that I’d fix it it tomorrow.
I could see by the lights at the shelter house that Mark was still up. When I got there he had the stove going on full.
“I knew you’d be back, but I didn’t think I would take that long.” Mark was by the stove, Mr. Gordon, had gone to bed long ago. I could see that pulled a blanket across his bunk to keep out the light, more likely so he wouldn’t catch another glimpse of me when I returned.
“Let me see what you got, Tom.” Mark liked my boards, and I was always happy to show them to him.
“Mark, let me warm up first.” I put my hands by the fire. My fingers were stiff and numb. By the fire and lantern light, I could see they were covered in paint.
Out from behind his blanket came Mr. Gordon. I must have woken him, or he was still awake, curious about me. I didn’t say anything to him, but as I was showing my board to Mark. he remarked, “Oh, it would make you freeze to look at it!” I was pleasantly taken aback and smiled. Mr. Gordon paid me the best compliment ever. I know I’ve done things right, when I convey the right feeling to people that know nothing about painting.
So I’m pleased with this board. I used one of my larger panels that I scraped off earlier. Underneath, you can see the suggestions of an earlier sketch, but it adds to the effect rather than detract. It’s like the unexpected result from some of the double exposures I took with my camera. The result, unexpected and in some cases, surreal.
I made my way back to Mowat Lodge and slept until about three in the afternoon. When I woke and was hungry so I went to the kitchen. Old Mrs. Fraser (Shannon’s mother) prepared me some leftovers. She’s particular about saying Grace, so even though it wasn’t a proper mealtime I made the motions of saying a silent prayer (I didn’t pray about anything, I just thought about the Lights I saw). The prayer motion made her happy and I spent my time eating telling her about my painting adventure by Joe Creek. I could tell she was mystified by the whole endeavour, but also amused. Never in her life, did she dream of staying with her son in an abandoned lumber camp frequented by odd fellows of artists. Things turn out in odd ways, she said, but never odd enough not to be grateful for what life gives you.
I’m glad it was just the two of us talking, because if Annie came, it would have been three. And three’s a crowd.