June 30, 1917 Letter to Winnie

June 30, 1917

Dear Winnie,

I could not make the reservation at Billie Bear Lodge. We must meet in South River instead. I’ve sent some of my gear to the Wattie family and we can leave from there. I am planning to be at the New Queen’s Hotel on Saturday, July 14th. I plan to leave from Mowat Lodge on Sunday the 8th by canoe and make my way to South River. You can take the train early Saturday and meet me there. On Sunday, we can take the train to North Bay or to the Soo to catch a lake steamer.

Affectionately,

Tom

June 30, 1917 Summer Arrivals

June 30, 1917

It was a busy day at the train stations today. Canoe Lake, Joe Lake and Algonquin Park Stations. The No, 52 First Class East Bound arrived at 12:23pm and the passenger coach was full. Shannon Fraser was there with his hearse. Martin Blecher was there with his putt-putt boat and I went up too, mainly for curiosity, but also to see if any mail came in.

Six guests for Mowat Lodge disembarked. Two guests from Toronto and four from Buffalo, New York. The Howland family got off too. The Dr., his wife and young daughter. They were staying on Little Wap Island at the Statten cabin. Mark Robinson was on the train too with his family, but he’d be getting off at Joe Lake Station, another three minutes journey. Mark stepped out for a moment.”Good to see you, Tom,” Mark smiled as he greeted me. “I got the whole family in the car, got to get back in, see you soon.”

“Hello, Mark,” I replied, “Good to see you too. By the way your berm is done. Your daughters won’t roll into the lake now.”

Mark smiled, tipped his had and got back on the train. After the hubbub of unloading the luggage, it started to steam forward again. Judging by the remaining passengers, it looked like a good twenty passengers or so were heading to Algonquin Hotel or to the Highland Inn.

There was no sign of the Trainors. They might be coming on the Third Class later in the afternoon, but somehow I doubted that they’d be coming at all after what happened in Huntsville. I had written a letter to Winnie, and I would give it to Lowrie to deliver when I was doubly sure they weren’t coming.

Shannon quickly determined that he could not carry all of the passengers with their luggage so he enlisted the aid of Martin Blecher to bring the luggage down Potter Creek. Martin had expected this to happen, so he was ready. It was quite a spectacle to see the luggage go sliding down the chute towards the water. One guest shrieked as she saw her trunk disappear into what appeared to be deep water. The chute was steep and you couldn’t see the dock and Martin’s boat unless you peered over the edge. Shannon liked to shock his guests by tossing their luggage down the chute. It made for a good laugh on his part but I was never sure if it was a wise thing to do with first time guests. First impressions, good or bad always stick. Despite my good and bad dealings with Shannon, I always remember that first time I was in Algonquin back in 1912 with my friend Ben Jackson. We had just arrived, keen and eager and  ready to canoe into a late afternoon storm. Shannon advised that we stay the night and we did. And I’m glad we did. The storm turned out to be minor gale and we would have been in deep trouble, if not in dire distress. Instead, we spent the night with a fine dinner from Annie, and stories from Shannon. We set off the next day in good weather. It was this initial hospitality that I always gave Shannon the benefit of the doubt – on his good days and his bad days.

Martin loaded the luggage into his boat. He also took the Howlands. He’d ferry them over to Little Wap Island after he dropped the luggage off at Mowat Dock. He brought the Stattens over yesterday morning, so their canoe was still on the island. I must admit, that despite his unpleasant character and mannerisms, Martin was always willing to help out when needed. I think that comes from his father’s side, certainly not from his mother’s.

The infusion of the new guests into Mowat Lodge put the whole place into good cheer. There was a general excitement as tomorrow was Dominion Day and it was Canada’s Fiftieth Birthday. Some were saying that we were now becoming a real country, not just another British colony. After the success of Vimy Ridge and Borden’s trip to England, Canada was starting to have some say in the War Effort. Until now, Canada had nothing to say in the War except to fulfil its obligations for men and material. Most of us who were born here thought of ourselves as nothing more than distant British subjects. It was Lismer who made me appreciate that we were different than the British, not simply inferior as they would have us to believe. Lismer said that harshness of the seasons and climate made Canadians more part of nature and its landscape. This wasn’t the case in Britain, where the landscape was secondary to traditions and culture built up over the millennia. Unlike the British, Canadians had more opportunity to be honest with who they are and did not have to hemmed in by dead movements or dead traditions. Unfortunately, Lismer said that most Canadians were unaware of the opportunities they had and were more worried about making a dollar.

So spirits were up at Mowat Lodge. The weather had turned toward the better and the sun came out for the afternoon. The good weather gave me a chance to dry out my canvas tent. I decided to set myself up for a challenge. After catching no fish with Charlie yesterday, I decided to up the ante and try to catch the big one down below Joe Lake Dam. We knew it was down there – at least a twenty-pounder. If I could catch the big trout on Dominion Day, it would be cause for a real celebration.

June 29, 1917 Letter to Lismer

Mowat Letterhead-640Algonquin Park June 29, 1917

Dear Arthur,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I have done no sketching since the flies started. I have been doing some guiding but not as much as I would like. I had some Americans a couple of weeks ago and I have had some political men from Ottawa. There’s word that the Province might allow deer hunting to feed the troops at the front. There’s lots of deer, some are calling it an infestation, like the wolves, better to be eliminated for good of mankind, they say. I’m not sure of that. I get along with the wildlife quite well.

I am getting along with folks here at Canoe Lake. Shannon Fraser is up to his shenanigans, but Annie keeps him in line. With the Temperance Act it is hard to get liquor unless a doctor prescribes, but Shannon seems to know where to get a good supply. I am sure Mark Robinson knows, but he has been away since mid June and turns a blind eye if there’s no trouble. It’s Martin Blecher not Shannon that’s the trouble. Always fighting with his sister, and is always looking to throw a punch at you if you say something untoward.

I am considering going out West later this summer. I received word that John McRuer is terribly sick and might not last out the year. Terrible shame. Later July, early August I am planning a trip to Temagami with Tom Wattie. I’ve sent him some equipment.  I may not return to Canoe Lake but instead go to Ottawa for a few days. I may go visit my folks in Owen Sound. I didn’t see them this Spring.

The War is going on and I don’t like the talk of conscription. Maybe it’s time to move on.

Give my regards to your family.

Yours Truly,

Tom Thomson

June 28, 1917 Day on the Lake with Charlie

June 28, 1917

I spent the day on the lake with Charlie Scrim. Like my friend John McRuer, Charlie has the consumption. Things aren’t looking good for him either. I just assumed he had gone away for a few days excursion but he said that he went back to Ottawa to get checked by the doctor. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctor told him to go back to Mowat Lodge and enjoy the time that he had left. There was nothing more that the doctor could do – it was now in the hands of God and Nature.

Yesterday, when I came by Mowat Lodge, Charlie was alone on the verandah. He was in a sorry state. He was coughing but more worrying was the expression in his eyes. He seems to have given up hope. To lift his spirits, I said I would take him out fishing today, which I did.

We went out in the morning. I canoed over from my campsite, left my canoe at the Mowat dock (close to the Trainors and the Blechers) and fetched Charlie. He was finishing breakfast, so I had a cup of tea while he was getting ready. We were out for a good two hours before he got tired out. We were trawling in the middle of the lake with the copper line and lures, but we didn’t catch anything.

“Looks like the fish aren’t cooperating today,” Charlie looked at me with a wry smile. It was his smile that made the whole effort worth it. I didn’t really care about the fish in this circumstance.

“Well, Charlie. Sometime fishing’s not about catching the fish,” I said.

“I don’t think I have too much time left, Tom.”

“That makes two of us, Charlie,” I replied, “I don’t think time is on either of our sides.”

“What do you mean, Tom?” Charlie looked puzzled.

“Conscription. I heard it’s going to be law by the end of the summer.”

Charlie nodded and we continued to fish in silence. Neither of us needed to say anything more on the topic. I brought Charlie back to the Lodge by noon. Annie invited me for lunch. I obliged. Shannon was there too. He didn’t have much to say. I knew that Annie’s invitation for lunch would end up being a charge on my account.

I went back to my campsite in the afternoon. Although the sun had been out a few times, the days had been mostly rainy and damp. The tent canvas never dried properly and started to smell. If the sun wasn’t out tomorrow, I’d have to build a fire to dry the canvas out. If I waited any longer, the canvas would be ruined. Another situation where time was not on my side.

I had to finalize my plan with Winnie. I needed to write her a letter and get Lowrie to deliver it. I was too tired tonight, maybe tomorrow I’d write it. I noticed that there were no voices coming from Little Wap Island tonight. There were no lights either. The Stattens must be gone. I’m sure the Howlands would be arriving tomorrow.  I’m sure the Robinsons would be arriving tomorrow too.

June 27, 1917 Keeping Promises

June 27, 1917

It was getting near the end of the month and Mark Robinson would be returning any day now with his family. School would be done this week, so he’d be packing up the wife and kids to spend the summer with him. When he left earlier in June, I had promised to finish up the berm for him at the shelter house. I’m a person to keep promises so I thought I’d better go up today and finish the job.

The shelter house at Joe Lake is a pretty respectable outfit. It has two separate rooms and when the summer kitchen is in operation there’s more than enough room for a family of five. The verandah out front counts as much as a room when the mosquito screens are up. On a pleasant summer evening, the verandah is the best room in the house to be in.

Before going to the shelter house I made a stop at Mowat Lodge. The main reason was to check for any mail. Annie got my mail. I had three letters: a short note from Dr. MacCallum – he had sold another sketch of mine, a bank account statement forwarded to Mowat P.O. and a letter from my sister out west. More importantly, I had not received anything from Billie Bear Lodge, so I just assumed that they were full on the dates that I requested. But I also began to suspect that they might not be interested in my business. Some of the other lodges, worried about the gaining the reputation of impropriety, required that newlyweds produce their marriage certificate before renting a room. The hotels in the cities and larger towns had a seedy reputation that the lodges tried hard not to be brushed with. So nothing in the mail from Billie Bear meant that the plan that Winnie and I would rendezvous at Bella Lake was effectively dead. That meant the other alternative, the New Queen’s hotel in South River is where Winnie I would need to meet.

I pondered my options going up to the shelter house. I decided to focus on the task at hand. Mark had already put the pine logs in place, so the remainder of the project was a matter of elbow grease and gravel. Judging by the amount, it was a three hour job – if I had a wheelbarrow. And there was none in sight. That’s when I decided to go over to George Rowe to ask for one. George is just on the other side of Joe Lake. It wasn’t too far away, but far enough that it meant it would be a social call as well.

“George, do you have a wheelbarrow I can use?” George didn’t need a friendly greeting. We were good friends already.

“Sure thing, Tom. Just over there.” George pointed to one at the side of his cabin, ” What do you need it for?”

“I need to finish Mark’s berm,” I replied.

“I’ll come help you, but a whisky first”

I couldn’t refuse the offer. After a perfunctory imbibement, we both headed over to the shelter house.

“Say, Tom. I can’t help but say that things aren’t going so well over at Shannon’s place. He hasn’t paid me for the last few jobs.”

“George, you need to finish them first.” I was trying to be humorous, but I knew the seriousness of the situation. Business wasn’t so good this year. That’s why Shannon was keen to take money from my account and then not pay George. He must be having trouble to make ends meet.

“Both me and Lowrie are having a hard time too. Work’s pretty short around the Lake.”

The conversation on hardships continued until we got to the shelter house. After an hour’s honest effort aided by the wheelbarrow, we finished the berm. Mark now had some level ground for his twin daughters to play on without rolling into the lake. A promise I made, fulfilled with the help of George.

“George, are you going to Huntsville any time soon? I need someone to deliver a message for me”

“Not me personally, Tom. But I think Lowrie might want to go. What’s your business?”

“I need to get a letter to Winnie. I can’t send it by mail because it’ll be taken by her parents.” I was confiding in George. He was someone I could trust.

“I’ll talk to Lowrie. He might be up for a trip to Huntsville too.” George wiped his brow with his handkerchief. I think the sweat was coming from the whisky we had. I noticed that in older men. When they drank whisky, they would sweat it off. I knew the smell of whisky-sweat – I had more than my share of that smell of canoe guiding trips. The whisky drank in the evening to take the edge of the hard day’s work would make the blankets in the tents reek in the morning. The only way to lessen the smell was to air them out in the sun, and smoke a pipeful of tobacco. I’m afraid George was of the whisky-sweat-smell age. I wasn’t there yet, thank goodness. I still had a few sweet-smelling years ahead of me.

As the afternoon went on, the breeze stopped and the air became dead and heavy. From the south I could see an angry set of purple storm clouds approaching. I knew a downpour was in short order because the clouds took over the whole sky with a vengeance. I managed to get back to my canoe and onto the lake and I could see the rain approaching. It was like the south part of the lake had turned into a boil. The boil was approaching northward and would overtake me before I got to my campsite. And sure enough it got me, 200 yards from my destination. I could see my laundry, once dry in the late afternoon, now soaked as if it had been just thrown in the lake. My bake-kettle was full of water, and my reflector oven was glistening. They weren’t damaged but I was cursing myself that I hadn’t put them away properly. I violated one of the cardinal rules of camping – if you leave your site, put away your stuff properly, no matter how short your departure might be. You never know if the weather will turn. You need to be ready for that. I thought of this rule and decided another one was in order. Whenever you decide to leave, no matter how long or short, make sure all of your promises you made are settled, because you might never come back.

The rain stopped as quickly as it started. The boiling surface of the lake changed to a deep black hue with no end. No sounds. Silence. Nothing but the dripping sounds  from my tent. I laid down on my blankets. They did smell like whisky. I lit up my pipe and smoked. That would take the smell away. Cover it, at the least.

June 25, 1917 Denizens of the Deep

June 25, 1917

I was talking to Ed and Molly Colson this morning. They had a large number of guests coming in from Buffalo tomorrow and they wanted to serve the fresh caught trout. Unfortunately, they had little luck catching anything and Ed asked me if could try tonight. I said it would be my pleasure and they would have a dozen fresh trout by tomorrow.

Trout in Canoe Lake are difficult to catch this time of year, either by angling or trawling. Catching by fly is a non-starter too. The only way to catch trout is by means of a night-line.

The first thing  I had to do was to catch a couple of dozen of minnows. This was easy enough to do with bread crumbs and a few tiny pieces of pork. Within the course of a quarter-hour I had a pail full of minnows and I was ready for the next stage of the venture.

I used my long trawling line – the copper wire. I unwound the wire and every five or six feet I put a line of three feet with a hook on the end. I put a fourteen lines in total. I knew of a good spot where the trout were I took with me a half dozen short cedar logs, about eight-inches each. These would act as floats. I attached a line of about thirty feet to the end of the trawling line and secured this one with a stone. I unwound the line and with each hook-line I baited with a minnow. Every five or six feet I attached a cedar log to act as a float. When I was finished unwinding the trawling line, I attached another 30 foot line with a stone. And there it was in the lake, the entire contraption – the night line.

I went back about 6 o’clock this morning, and sure enough the cedar logs were twirling and dancing like water striders. I pulled up the the trawling line and I had trout on twelve of the fourteen hooks. Two were lucky to have gotten away but the caught ones were a nice size. The largest almost two and half feet long. I put the dozen trout on a line and delivered to them Molly. She was most gracious and said she would arrange a credit for me at Annie Colsons outfitting store.

June 24, 1917 Rules of Ouija Board

June 24, 1917

It rained today.  I was at my campsite and I could tell it was the type of rain that was going to last all day. The rain started lightly in the early morning but by the later morning it was steady and harder. The rain made bubbles on the surface of the lake water. When you see bubbles on the water you know it’s going to rain steady for a long time. I’d have no choice but to be holed up in my tent so I packed up my gear and set out for Mowat Lodge in my canoe. Most likely I’d be staying there for the next couple of days, judging by the weather. I could stay here, but to be truthful, no matter the resolve of an outdoorsman, if there’s a prospect of a roof and a reasonably soft bed nearby in weather like this, it is the better option taken.

I set out onto the water.  The surface on Canoe Lake was as smooth as could be, save for the millions of bubbles made by the millions of raindrops coming down. Everything was quiet, save for incessant tapping noise of the raindrops that permeated everything. My bailing tin (an empty Chum Tobacco tin ), joined in on the chorus of tapping but its performance was short-lived because I needed it to bail out the rainwater.

My destination was Mowat Lodge, but then I decided to go to Lowrie Dickson’s place first. Not sure what prompted the change in  plans but I sensed that I had some unfinished business to attend to. Or I needed some whisky.

The rain came down harder and harder. The rain clouds descend from the sky and hung low over the water. It was hard to see through the rain and clouds and it felt like the distinction between heaven and earth had disappeared leaving only an amorphous expanse of gray. My only connection to this world was the sound of my paddle dipping and slicing through the water. I imagined to myself that this was like the first day of Creation, before the Light.  It could haven been the afterlife too. Perhaps the essence of life is about colours and anything before and after was just a mass expanse of gray – just like the trenches in Europe. I didn’t like the line of thinking I was falling into. ‘Live the colours as long as you can,” I thought to myself.

When I arrived at Lowrie’s shack, I shook myself out of my thoughts. The rain was dripping furiously of the brim of my felt hat and my mackinaw trousers were soaked through. I had on my canvas shoes with the rubber bottoms, the once-white uppers were now a dingy gray. Another sign of gray. But I was I was thankful I wasn’t wearing my shoepacks because they’d stink to high heaven.

There was a light on inside and Lowrie Dickson came out to greet me.

“G’day, Tom”

“G’morning, Lowrie,” I replied.

“C’mon in. What brings you here?”

I explained that I was headed to Mowat Lodge because of the rain, but decided to drop by for a social call first. We went inside. Without missing a beat, Lowrie produced two tin cups on the table with a lick of whisky in each.

“Here’s to a rainy afternoon!” I obliged to Lowrie’s toast and another two licks of whisky were in the cups.

Lowrie said that after we had our Ouija board session a couple of weeks ago, he decided to look into the rules. A guest at Hotel Algonquin knew the rules and wrote them down for Lowrie. The guest warned him that the spirits got downright ornery if the rules weren’t followed.

Lowrie showed me the piece of paper and we went through the rules. There were five of them.

Rule 1: Never play the Ouija board alone. As I recall there were at least three of us, Lowrie, George Rowe. We had a lot of whisky to drink I remember.

Check.

Rule 2: Do not allow the planchette to count down through the numbers or backwards through the alphabet. I don’t remember anything of the sort. I remember some numbers being counted out: 7 and 8. That’s counting forward by my numbering system.

Check.

Rule 3: Always place a silver object upon the Ouija board. I knew you were supposed to do this, but I did not know it was a cardinal rule. I had a lure in my pocket which I set out. I made it from one of Annie’s discarded spoons (I found it in the pile of potato peelings dumped out back). Originally came from the Highland Inn, it was silver to be sure..

Check.

Rule 4: Never ever mention ‘God’.  We were good on that one too. Lowrie and George make practice of only mentioning the lower-cased ‘god’ in conjunction with ‘damned’ or ‘forsaken’. I don’t recall any religious rites or swearing on that evening.

Check

Rule 5: When you’re done playing, say ‘goodbye.’ I think we did, but I wasn’t sure.

Lowrie looked at me. He had fear in his eyes. I looked back at him.

“Lowrie, it’s a parlour game. You think the spirits are going to after us?”

At that very moment, a blinding flash of light came through the window. Less than a second later, a hideous crack of thunder shook the cabin. . Another flash – out the window, lightning struck the lake, where I was with my canoe, not more than an hour ago. This time crack of thunder piercing and deafening. It was simultaneous with the lightning. The thunderstorm was on top of of us. What I wouldn’t give to have my paints now. I’d be outside painting in the storm. If the storm took me, so be it.

After a few minutes, the storm had passed, but the fear was still in Lowrie’s eyes.

“A storm like that is going to take me to my grave.”

“Lowrie, don’t worry the damn spirits of the Ouija board. I’m sure the both of us will be around for a long time. Let’s have another whisky.”

Author’s note: In 1918 Lowrie Dickson was gravely injured during a storm while canoeing on Canoe Lake with George Rowe. Because of the gravity of his injuries he was sent to Toronto Hospital for treatment. He died shortly after.