July 5, 1917
Tom Thomson Swimming
“I’ll get it,” I said, with a faux humility in my voice. I could see the canoe bobbing in the distance, up and down on top of the wave crests.
I was with Charlie, so it wasn’t a big deal. My mistake. I had let the canoe float away from the rocks on where we had landed. Had this happened when I was guiding I would most certainly have lost my guide’s license. Park Superintendent Bartlett had no tolerance for those sort of things, especially if the report came to him by Tourist.
Without further word, I started to strip down. Not naked. I kept my drawers on. I didn’t like swimming naked. I still remember, as a kid, the fish biting at my toes in the pool underneath the Keefer Creek Falls. If I had skinny-dipped, another appendage would have been fair game for the fish. I swore that never would happen in my lifetime. I only skinny-dipped once, in north Georgian Bay, where I was absolutely sure those fish hadn’t followed me.
I looked out from the point where we had landed. Due south, the canoe was making a good distance from us. Aided by the wind from the north and the indiscernible current, it would be in Bonita Lake before afternoon was out. I could leave it be and fetch it the next day, but Charlie and I would have to hike it through the bush to the tote road and walk the rail line to Canoe Lake Station. Charlie was in rough shape (consumption) so this was a pretty bad alternative. And I didn’t want word to get out that I lost my canoe. I’d never hear the end of it from Shannon.
I dove into the waves.
Charlie watched me. He had his knees drawn to his chest and rested his back against the incline of a large rock. I knew his insides were rebelling, first the coughing fit, then the vomiting, and finally the need to heed the second call of nature. That’s why we rushed to the shore. He ran into the bush. I got out, and as my attention and worry was on him, my canoe gave me the slip.
Water all around me. It’s the first contact with water that’s the shocker. I felt my blood recoil from my extremities and the skin on my chest become taut.
I was considered an anomaly at Canoe Lake. Not because I was an artist, but that I could actually swim. Not a dog-paddle or thrash-about swim. Not the lumberman swimmer but a real swimmer. Despite being around lakes all their lives, most men of the Park had no inkling of how to swim. I could understand why. The accepted way of learning how to swim was the ‘sink or swim’ method: the unexpected toss of a child into deep water by a father, followed by a stern holler, ‘Sink or Swim!!!’ The usual outcome was a sinking, followed by a rescue, and a traumatized child who would never try to swimming again in their life.
I made the first few strokes, a front crawl. Every few strokes I would look up and sight the canoe and correct my course. I figured it would take me ten minutes to reach the canoe – if the wind didn’t pick up first.
I was fortunate not learn to swim by trauma. Where I grew up in Leith, there was a sandy beach by the river in the village. The beach was a fine sand. In the summer when it was hot, I’d come down with my sisters, lay in the sun on the hot sand and play in the waves. At first, I’d pretend I was swimming with my hands planted on the sandy bottom with my body floating. But it was very soon I didn’t have to pretend. I could actually swim. Gradually I’d venture out into deeper water until the feeling of the panic of not touching bottom became less and less. Then one day, I didn’t care about the bottom anymore, and I declared to myself, ‘I can really swim!’
The water is cold, but not cold enough to die in. It was a cold spring, the water was cooler than usual. I figured I could fetch the canoe and bring it back to where I left Charlie without trouble. That was the plan at least.
I remember diving for golf balls. But we’d have to steal them first. This was an activity you didn’t do with your sisters, but only with a brother you had a secret pact with, or could threaten. I did this with my younger brother, Fraser, nine years my junior. We’d take the shortcut to the beach from our farm. The shortcut took us right through the Leith Golf Course which we knew like the back of our hands. We knew the best places to search for lost golf balls. But what we took more delight in was stealing them off the fairway when they were in play. We’d lie in wait in the bush as a party teed up for Hole 3. The struck balls had to traverse the creek, over an embankment, and land on the fairway out of view from the tee. A perfect place for stealing. When the balls came over we’d rush out like hell-children and snatch them. Usually, we’d score a perfect four, but sometimes only two or three, if a bad golfer was in the party. One time a golfer, teeing up on Hole 4, gave us chase. We had to tear ourselves out of a set of angry clutching, club-wielding hands.
After the snatch, we’d dash off through the bush like wildfire. We’d scurry along a little used trail that would bring us to out the beach. Without missing a beat, we’d hurl the balls as far as we could into the water, strip down, run in, dive and retrieve them. Most times they were easy to find, sitting like pearls on the sandy bottom, but other times they sunk into the bottom muck of rotten bark that mysteriously appeared, usually after a heavy storm. It was from these stolen golf balls that I not only learned to swim well, but to dive, deep and long.
The canoe was closer now. But the wind was picking up as it does in the late afternoon. The afternoon wind is unpredictable, making the waters unsuspectingly dangerous on an otherwise fine sunny, calm day.
Swimming. We’d race too. From the shore of the beach, we’d swim out to the end of Leith Pier, a pier long enough for the big steamers. My oldest brother George (not a swimmer), would walk out to the end, raise a white handkerchief and when he dropped his hand, the race was on. I’d race against the other village boys, the Mitchell and McKeen boys or whoever happened to be at the beach. By the time we reached the end of the pier, it was crazy deep, over 30 feet, but you didn’t care, because you were racing. The depths back home are nothing like the depths of the lakes here. There, the water was clear, clear, and you could make out the sand and stones on the bottom. Here, the lakes are murky and nothing can be seen of the deep.
I got hold of the canoe. The wind was now strong and the water rough. No way I could get in without capsizing.. I had to tow it back, or push it from behind. With a canoe in tow, the joy and elegance of swimming was gone. The memories of my swimming childhood were pushed out by the slap slap of the waves against the hull. The low howl of the wind began to raise in pitch.
It took me over an hour to get the canoe back. Charlie was still against the rock with his knees still drawn up to his chest.
‘Tom, thank God, you’re safe!’
I smiled. Never for a moment did I think I was in danger. I could swim.