April 23, 1917 Dark Waters

April 23, 1917

1917 Dark Waters

I wrote a letter to my brother-in-law this morning and decided to take a long hike up along the creek to Potter Lake.

The creek is swollen and the current is running fast. In the summertime I can canoe a good portion of this creek  but I wouldn’t even try any of it now. The clear sections of the creek are easy to canoe, but right now the current is so fast that you wouldn’t have a chance to stop yourself before you hit the rocks. The water is high, reaching to the roots of the pine trees on the rocks. I’m amazed how tenacious these trees are. Wherever there is a hint of soil or something to grab onto, a pine is sure to grow.

Writing the letter to my brother-in-law made me think about my plans this summer. I’ll guide for the first part of summer. I plan to get my license this Saturday. I’m sure George Bartlett will be back from one of his Park excursions. He likes to be at the Headquarters on the weekend because that’s when the guests arrive at the Highland Inn or leave. The weekend is the best time to attend to Park business: issuing fishing licenses, keeping bank drafts for safekeeping, etc.

I’ve resolved not to do fire-ranging this summer. It’s a job that takes away from everything else. Last year’s drought made the job really tough. When you’re a guide, you’re welcome company. But when you’re a fire-ranger, you’re the last person anyone wants to see. Lumbermen don’t like to be chummy with the fire-rangers. There were some bad fires last year. A few bad ones in the Park, but a really bad fire up by Cochrane. That fire wiped clean of the face of the earth, complete towns and townships.

On my way back, I walked by the bridge over Potter Creek. I took the shortcut by the schoolhouse (the door still looked broken). I made my around the chipyard and finally back to the Lodge. Along my way, I saw six deer were staring at me. I knew they were coming back from the Algonquin Hotel looking for a handout. The hotel guests were feeding them last summer. Those memories must have stayed with the herd over the winter, so they’re back. They’ve lost their fear of people. That’ll change when the deer-kill starts.

April 23, 1917 Letter to Tom Harkness

Mowat P.O.
 Algonquin Park

April 23, 1917

Dear Tom,

I have been here over three weeks and have done considerable work for that length of time.

I got a copy of the O.S. Sun and it seemed to be well filled with bunk, however the foolishness of newspaper matter is well known and I knew nothing about it in time to have it stopped.

I have been talking to the people here at the Post office about pigs. Have been advising them to get about 6 or 8 small ones and keep them till fall, which they could do without much expense and hang them up for the winter.

Supposing they decide to try it out, what would they have to pay for the pigs and where would be the place to send for them-and could they be shipped by express or freight any distance.

Am staying at the P.O. until the ice goes out of the lakes which I expect it to do sometime this week then I will be camping again for the rest of the summer. I have not applied for the fire rangers job this year as it interferes with sketching to the point of stopping it all together so in my case it does not pay. In other words I can have a much better time sketching and fishing and be further ahead in the end.

I may possibly go out on the Canadian Northern this summer to paint the Rockies but have not made all the arrangements yet. If I go it will be in July and August.

We still have a foot or two of snow on the north side of the hills yet but another week we’ll see the end of it, and we have nearly another month before my friends the black flies are here. The leaves do not come here before May 24th and often not until on in June.

Well I will get this started towards Annan.  Hoping you are all well there. I remain

your aff. Brother,

Tom Thomson


April 22, 1917 Things Come in Threes

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.

April 21, 1917 Washing the Blankets

April 21, 1917

The ice is still on the lakes but it’s flooding everywhere else. Especially by Potter Creek. Below Canoe Lake Station the creek turns into a narrow channel that drains into the lake and it’s this channel where the ice breaks first. Both Potter Creek and Joe Lake drain into Canoe Lake. Joe Lake Dam keeps the water lower but with Tea Lake Dam holding it back and the flow from Potter, the water level rises considerably. The island in the lake, Big Wap, Little Wap, Gilmour and Cook used to be peninsulas.

The sun is strong today and it’s warmer than its been for awhile. There’s a bit of snow left but that’ll be gone today or tomorrow. There’s only snow left in the hills now.

I wrote a letter to Dr. MacCallum and then I walked up to Joe Lake Dam. The water is a sight to behold there. There’s ice out in the lake but it’s all broken up by the dam and the water’s pouring through with a thunder. The dam is holding its own but another year or two, it’ll need repair or it’ll be swept away.

I saw a beaver dam. It looked pretty active with fresh cut wood. A wolf was in the distance no doubt scared away when I came. It’s looking for a meal of beavers. The birds are coming back in full force. The Gray Jays are pretty much quiet now because they are nesting. Some geese and ducks are back and they are looking for open water. Potter Creek and Joe Lake dam are the only two open spots so they are congregating there. No wonder the wolves are hanging out.

The wildflowers are starting to come. I see green shooits but nothing in bloom yet. If I see something I’ll bring them back to Daphne. She’ll be happy about that.

I could see some activity at Algonquin Hotel. They’re washing the blankets and they’re hanging outside to dry. Mostly red blankets, but a few grey ones too. Makes for a nice set of colours against the hotel. They should be ready to be open by May 1. Annie will be washing the blankets soon and I need to get my camping blankets washed. It’s a two day affair to do the blankets so I’ll probably help her out.

Mark Robinson told me that more men and materiel will be coming through the Park. Mostly grain from out West but also some munitions and parts shipped in from the Lakes. My guess parts will be coming in from the Kennedy Foundry in Owen Sound too. Mark said the Battalions are coming in from all parts of the Dominion to be shipped out overseas in June. Bartlett’s going to have his hands full making sure the trains get through. No more deaths in the Park I hope.

April 21, 1917 Letter to Dr. MacCallum

Mowat P.O.
Apr 21, 1917

Dear Dr:

I have been here for over three weeks and they have gone very quickly. For the last two or three days the weather has been fairly warm and last night we had quite a heavy thunder storm and the snow is pretty well cleared off.  Just patches in the bush on the north side of the hills and in the swamps so now I will have to hunt for places to sketch when I want snow. However the ice is still on the lakes but it is very thin this year on account of deep snow over it through the winter so it will not last very long.

If you come up here this spring I would suggest that you come some time around the 10th of May as the flies are not going properly until about the 24th.

It is likely the ice will be out sometime this month.

Have made quite a few sketches this spring. have scraped quite a few and think that some that I have kept should go the same way. however I keep on making them

Yours truly
Tom Thomson

April 20, 1917 An Unnecessary Inquest

April 20, 1917

Today, I heard someone died in the Park. Joey Kehoe. He was only seventeen. I heard the news from Mark Robinson. He came down the the lodge this evening and he was visibly upset. We did some small talk first, and when all of the other guests went to bed he did some more talking.

Joey’s death happened on Thursday – two days ago. It happened by Islet Lake, near the rail bridge. Nobody was sure exactly what happened, but he was found dead beside the tracks two hours after the train went through. The train was no regular train, it was a troop train. The troop trains came this way because it was the quickest way to Ottawa. The recruits from out West would come in by steamship at Depot Harbour, and when there was a good load of them, they would go on the Grand Trunk Line to Arnprior, to Ottawa and then to Montreal and Halifax where they were shipped overseas.

Whenever a troop train came through the Park, George Bartlett would get a telegram from Ottawa to make sure the rail lines were safe through the Park. Several Park sections were tricky, but more importantly, the government was worried that enemy aliens would sabotage the lines. It’s bad enough to have a rail bridge or trestle blown up, but it’s infinitely worse to have a load of troops hurtle to their deaths.

Mark Robinson said that Bartlett got the telegram on Wednesday afternoon, and he needed to muster his men to guard the rails for Thursday morning. Now I understood why all of the shelter houses had telephones. Bartlett needed the ability to mobilize the Park Rangers at short notice.

Bartlett ordered the Rangers to get section men to guard the bridges throughout the Park. In the eastern part, the Blue Lake section gang was ordered to watch the bridge at Islet Lake, and it was Joey Kehoe’s turn. He’d have to stay the night and they’d pick him up the next morning. When they came, they found him dead. When Bartlett heard the news he ordered the Rangers to come to Park Headquarters this morning. Mark Robinson went to Cache Lake were he met with other Park Rangers, seven in total to discuss Kehoe’s death. After a brief discussion Bartlett decided that it was an accident and there was no need to discuss the issue any further. Tom McCormick thought an inquest should be held but Bartlett would have nothing of it.  He ordered that Kehoe be sent back to his family on the next train possible.

I could tell by Mark Robinson’s recounting of the story that he agreed with Tom McCormick’s position and that he felt that Bartlett’s handling of the affair was too abrupt and cursory. But Mark’s a good soldier, and he said that what he saw overseas would make your hair curl, and its best to follow orders without question. I believe that’s why Bartlett asked for Robinson to be in the Park back so soon after his service overseas – not because he was a good man (that counted) but that he would follow orders. I think the other Park Rangers, especially McCormick, got the message, that if they didn’t stay in line, then they could go to the Front instead.

So Mark and I sat by the fireplace for a good while. Shannon came over too, and we talked some more. No whisky was in sight because Mark wasn’t a drinker and Shannon knew well enough that he needed Mark’s goodwill in times of need.

As for sketching today. I did go out but not for long. The wind was biting cold this morning and it was strange weather. A thunderstorm last night, rain, and then snow pellets.

As for Joey Kehoe, I feel sorry for him and his family. Mark told me that his father died the year before and Joey was the sole support for his mother and two younger siblings. You think there would be compensation for the families in these situations, but you never hear of it. The Park is silent about these things.

April 19,1917 Thinking

April 19, 1917

I spent a lot of time thinking today. What am I really doing? I don’t know but I’m sketching every day. Is what I’m doing a true urgency of mission or am I doing it because my energies need to be put into something whatever that is.

We try not to talk about the War that much. It’s supposed to be so far away, but the newspapers come in everyday with stories of Germay’s impending defeat. Every day, slightly different narratives, but the same stories, nothing changes. Like the story about the two brothers, who hadn’t seen each other for seven years. They had enlisted in different parts of the country without each other’s knowledge (I don’t think they were close to begin with). And then they unexpectedly meet each other in the trenches in France. A feel-good story for the newspapers. Until two weeks later one of them gets killed. I wonder why the newspapers don’t write the story about the poor mother in Dorset who lost her three sons over the course of eighteen hours in battle. No, that wouldn’t make it into the paper.

We talk about the war, but we’re careful. Someone said in a newspaper editorial that ‘any difference of opinion should be employed fighting the enemy. There’s no need to waste fighting here’

So what am I doing. I’m sketching. I’m drawing. I’m painting. I find it distressing that we’re fighting the very ones I drew inspiration from. The German Expressionist, their insistence on bold strong colour and harsh depictions. The North lends itself to these techniques and it was me who introduced the rest to what was here. If I hadn’t, they’d still be painting scenes of farmhouse, bland countrysides and maidens sitting on the beach.

It’s good to have a plan, but sometime it’s better to live day by day and catch the moment when it’s appropriate. I just remember when Lismer came up to visit me for the first time, how he was shocked by the contrast of the Park to what he had known of the countryside in England. I knew that too, but maybe not as intensely. The landscape where I grew up in Leith was pleasing but not so inspiring with intensity with what I see here.

Once I finish this series of sketches I think I’ll move on. The sketching should be good until later May before the bugs get too bad. It’s been a cold spring, so that should mean a couple more weeks of bug-free weather. I’ll get some guiding work for May and June and starting thinking about moving on. Most likely out to the Rockies.