March 23, 1917 Up North

March 23, 1917

The trip went well. I left from Union Station around noon and got to Canoe Lake by 7:15pm.

Last night Florence came to visit and we went to see the pictures. She said that she will visit me sometime in late April or early May.

The packing in morning was easy; it was like breaking camp. I had everything together by late afternoon yesterday. I didn’t have much to bring. I could easily carry it all walking – my rucksack containing my sketch box and paints, my rolled-up blankets, and my canvas dunnage bag. Jim MacDonald came by to visit one last time. He was sad to see me go so soon. I saw the nervous exhaustion in his eyes. Money troubles and marriage obligations. I can relate to the former and am glad to be free of the latter.

I could have walked to Union Station, but I decide to take the Yonge streetcar instead. It was an awkward affair when I tried to board. I was hoping that if I waited long enough, an empty car would come along that wasn’t crowded but I was wrong. When I boarded, a passenger helped me bring my stuff on board.  The way he looked at me, I am sure he thought I was travelling to enlist, or to run away. He didn’t ask anything. I was glad for that. I didn’t need the attention from the other passengers thinking the same thing. I just wanted to leave.

I was in an older Pullman car. This car, judging by its condition, is from late last century. The faded emerald green ceiling, the painted-over oak panels and the uneven springs in the cushions signal its age.  I’m sure this car has seen all of Canada and most of the U. S. Maybe a Duke or Duchess has travelled in this car, or a famous author, like Conan Doyle. Grand Trunk uses the older equipment early in the season. When the weather gets warmer and the tourists start coming from Buffalo and New York, they switch to the newer stuff: the first class drawing room and sleeping cars. They keep the best equipment for the Americans, they’re still holidaying in decent numbers. Earlier in the year, it’s mostly miners going up North to Porcupine for silver.

I’m glad to be leaving Toronto. Before the war, it was a happy place. Upon declaration of war (I was up North at the time in August 1914) , the happiness rose to a state of ecstasy. Marching bands, dances, parades, and the grand send-offs. But the spirit of exuberance and enthusiasm began to disappear by the winter of 1915 when the mothers and wives of  recruits began to receive the telegrams telling that their loved ones were to never to return. When the wounded and broken men came back, the spirit disappeared entirely. The clubs are empty, the colleges are vacant; it feels that the city has lost its soul.

The train crawled along the lakeshore. It veered north past the munitions factories, through the cattle stockyards and the slums to make its exit out of the city. Up into the hills, into the uplands. We touched the shore of Lake Simcoe; I could see on the opposite shore, the town of Barrie, nestling in a comfortable setting of English-style villas. The lake was still frozen, another month of ice at least. Kempenfeld Bay, Muskoka Lake. A pale-faced passenger gets off – a consumptive as I could tell.

Huntsville. I was going to stop for a few hours to visit Winnie but I decided to go through because I’d miss the connection.

Scotia Junction: If any place along the line that showed that the Grand Trunk was having difficulties, it was Scotia Junction. The station used to have a pretty little tower, with two-tone decorating wood-siding and ample room for travellers and separate facilities for crews and section-men. But the station burned down in 1912 and the replacement was a simple single storey structure where the crew and the travellers shared the facilities. The spittoons never seemed to be emptied, giving rise to a reeking sour smoky smell.

Kearney, Ravensworth, Rainy Lake. Nerve-wracking on the line into the Park. One of the crew had to get out and put more sand on the rails forr traction. The puffing, screeching and creaking made for a terrible crescendo surmounting the highest point in the Park. I knew the train crew. I’ve hitched rides with them last summer so I wasn’t worried. They knew this line. I was nervous on the crossing of the Cashman Creek trestle – it’s 500 feet long and 80 feet high. The section men keep a close eye on this one so there’s little chance of a German saboteur.

The final leg of train ride wasn’t too full, but there there were a number of people. There were other consumptives going to the Highland Inn. They didn’t talk. There were others that didn’t look too happy. At first I thought they were miners or prospectors, but they’d be going up further North, not through the Park. I think these men were part of a work gang going to the east end of the Park. There’s rumours that there’s still labour camps out there.I didn’t ask questions.

Canoe Lake. With the new moon, it was dark when I arrived. But Shannon was there to pick me up. “Tom, you made it, you son of gun!”

I smiled. I was tired. “Yeah, Shan, I made it.”

“I got yer letter, but I didn’t have a chance to write back.” Shannon left out the key piece of information, it was Annie who wrote the letters, not him. Annie’s the one to write the letters.  Annie’s the one who keeps the entire operation together. Shannon’s best at minding the horses, and making trips to the station in the hope that guest might arrive. But I wasn’t a guest, I was more like family, even though I paid my share. I felt like I was coming home.

Shannon was still using the sled. Once my bags were loaded up, the horses started, needing no snap of the reins. They knew the business of retrieving guests from the station and they wanted to get back to the stable with no delay. Unlike the city, the night was silent. The only things interrupting the silence were the sleigh bells, the snorting of the horses, and Shannon saying, “Giddy up, girls.” and “Easy, girls.”  Columns of mist unfurled upward from their nostrils but disappeared before there was a chance to obscure a star in the night sky. The sleigh is the way to go now. It’ll be another month and half before the road to lodge will be passable by wagon. By the starlight, the snow looks deep and the Farmer’s Almanac says the spring will be long and cold.

We took tote rode parallel to the old spur lines. The stars were shining brightly in the clear sky overhead. Despite it being spring (according to the Almanac), the coldness of air still said it was winter. The only warmth now was our breath, suffused by a strong whiff of whisky from Shannon. I could tell in his eyes he was excited to have me back, though he’d never admit as much. “One more man in the household to bring it back into proper balance!” I’m not sure what he meant by that logic.

Our final destination: Mowat Lodge. Only a place like Mowat Lodge could convey the feeling of  being at the end of a fortune lost or at the beginning of  a new fortune found. On the shores of Canoe Lake, south of the train station. about mile and a half stands Mowat Lodge. A short spur line runs down to  the sawmill and scattered on each side is a sorry array of abandon and half-lived-in tar paper shacks. Mowat Village, if you could still call it that was named after the Premier of Ontario , Oliver Mowat in the hopes of gaining some stature. That failed. Mowat Village did have a short burst of growth; it grew quickly and at its apex, about 500 souls lived here. Mowat Lodge was full of mill workers, there was a hospital on the hill, and several barns back from the shore where the land was flat, had more soil, and could support a crop of hay.

But fortune was brief for Mowat Lodge, By 1900, the Gilmour Lumber company was insolvent. The company failed its scheme to ship out logs by the Trent River system. The logs had to be raised over the watershed, and by the time they got to market two years later, even the best of the logs were rotten. Then the Booth Railway line came through and gave the village a second chance. Canoe Lake station was built, a spur line brought down to the mill, but despite this second chance, the whole venture floundered and the receivers were brought in to wind things up.

That’s what brought Shannon and Annie Fraser to Mowat Village. Shannon’s job was to oversee the dismantling of the mill. They first stayed in the old hospital and in 1913 they bought the lease for two-storey bunkhouse which they first called “Camp Mowat” the quickly renamed it to “Mowat Lodge” for a more dignified air.  As the logging fortunes were winding down, the tourist fortune began to wind up. This was mostly due to the Grand Trunk bring more visitors into the Park who discovered that the Highland Inn or Hotel Algonquin were either full or too expensive, as I did in 1912. The visitors began to trickle down the spur line and stayed with the Frasers. Before they realized it, Shannon and Annie were in the tourist business. It was my belief it was the reputation of Annie’s cooking , not the dignified air of Mowat Lodge, that attracted the tourists. The fact that  Mowat Lodge was cheap compared to the railway hotels and  Annie’s good cooking more than offset Shannon’s sustained mismanagement and poor business acumen. When Mark Robinson first directed me to Mowat Lodge in the 1912, I had become a regular guest each year and they treated me like family.

My introspective recollection of history stopped short when we pulled in front of the lodge. I pulled my gear off the sled and set it on the verandah steps. I wasn’t a regular guest, so Shannon didn’t dismount to help me. I didn’t mind because he had to get the horses back into the barn and settled for the night. I appreciated that he waited for me at the station, as I would have had to pick my way along the trail through the deep snow.

I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I came in through the front door. I dropped my gear and carried only my pack sack to my room. I lay down, I wrote this entry, and fell asleep. I didn’t see Annie and I never heard Shannon coming in after settling the horses for the night. That’s okay. We’ll see each other tomorrow and enough of each other until summer.

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