Me and Arthur Lismer

Arthur Lismer first visited me in Algonquin Park in May of 1914. I met Arthur at the Canoe Lake Station. It was about ten o’clock in the evening when the train rolled into the station. After nine stuffy hours in the train, Arthur revelled in the fresh and cold air, invigorating his body and forgetting about the city left behind.

It was a cold spring night, the frogs were piping as we drove through the bush to the Fraser’s at Mowat Lodge. The glorious moon was coming over the spruce tops shedding a yellow and mysterious light on everything. The air was tang and I could see that Arthur was anticipating every bump – he did not know what to expect – this was an alien land to him.The days I had together with Arthur were simply grand. I had the pleasure of introducing Arthur to the North Country. I could see it in his eyes. Arthur was eager to learn and in the days we were together I introduced him to the trails, paddling, how to make camp and most importantly how to fish. He was enthralled to see the North in its rugged beauty and design. We portaged, sketched and moved over what Arthur kept calling the magic land.

We went from one lake to another and I showed Arthur the trails I had made in the previous year. He couldn’t see them but I could. A matter of perception I reckon. Despite it being mid-May there was still snow in the woods – deep in the woods. In the late spring, I liked to hunt for snow, like it was wild animal. It was a reward for me when I could find the last vestige of snow of winter, especially when the leaves were beginning to come out.

I showed Arthur that every day in spring was an urgency for colour. What seemed like dead birches one day, would burst into a vibrant yellow-green overnight. We watched the wildlife take on a new sense of urgency, or rather a new vigour for life. We saw the beaver, the cries of the Canada geese still heading northward. Arthur loved it and he was thrilled to part of my spring.

It was cold in the evenings, and the temperature about midnight to early in the morning was below the freezing point. Any water left in the camp pails was frozen hard. But the sun came up and everything responded to its glow and warmth.

We revelled in what Arthur called the glamorous North. He never experienced anything like it. It was a wonderful time, when everything was on the very edge of rebirth with a peculiar intensity that can’t be described but it can be painted.

Late Summer 1916

1916 Bateaux

August 9, 1916

It’s good to be sketching again as I’ve hardly done anything all summer. The rains have come so Ed and I aren’t needed until it dries up again.

July 21, 1916

Stopped off at Pembroke. Stayed overnight. Next day made a sketch on the Ottawa River. Windy. Left at Sisters’ to dry up. Evening back on duty.

Summer of 1916.

We were given two weeks off. We were to report back at the station to see if we were need for the fall. We were both hoping to get fired so I could start making my way back to Canoe Lake and Ned back to his regular Park Ranger duties. There was lots to do. The Park boundaries had been expanded 1915. Eight new townships on the south and the east side had been added and the regulation forbade anyone to settle, or occupy any of the new territory unless approved by Park Superintendent George Bartlett. Bartlett was intent on keeping the Park as a top notch operation and wanted to make sure the poachers, moonshiners and Indians were driven out. That included the hermit that Bartlett intended on hunting down and locking up in an asylum. He had been sighted by the G.T.R. constables who had orders to arrest him, if they could catch him.

The summer of 1916 had been the hottest and driest on record. After the big fire in Matheson where over 200 perished, fires were the greatest fear in the Park. The  railroaders were vigilant in keeps the tracks through the Park clean from brush and our job was to follow the  lumber crews during the log drives. The logs, put in during spring break-up were still making their way down the river. The cutting lines were further and higher up, near Cedar and it took longer to make it to the mills. . The crews that followed cleared the jams and worked the logs through the chutes near the falls. Ned and I followed along, making sure the fires were out and nothing was started. We’d climb trees to make sightings to be sure there were no fires that could be whipped by the wind into big ones.


I got hired on for fire-ranging in May and was to report for duty on the first day of June..  I had given my application in April before I went on a trip with Lawren Harris and Dr. MacCallum. When we returned to Brent, a telegram was waiting for me to report for duty in Achray.

The summer had been dry, the threat of fire was constant and the fire ranging was difficult. I had no time for sketching. I hoped to do some boards but I had to leave my sketching outfit in Achray because there was no room in the canoe with our packs and fire-ranging gear.  

The last boards I made were in April, but I did make a couple sketches in Pembroke. I had a few days off and stayed in downtown hotel. It was a  busy town. There were two sawmills in full operation, the Pembroke Lumbering Company and the Colonial Lumber Company. Both sawmills were going since spring, fed by the booms brought in by the alligators.

Like the town itself, the river was busy too. I counted five steam-powered boats on the Petawawa.  A passenger side-wheeler boat called the Victoria made regular runs. It left Pembroke every morning and went to Swisha. There were the tugboats the Brunswick and the Powell . Then the Pollux and the Castor, the smaller tugboats.  The boats boomed the logs, sorted them out and shot them into the Pembroke sawmills in Pembroke. The Booth and Eddy logs  would go all the way down the Ottawa to Hull and Ottawa.

It was on a Saturday when the high winds off the Ottawa were nothing like I had ever seen. My gear was back at the camp  so  I borrowed a  sketching equipment from the Grey Sisters Convent. When I returned, I asked the Sisters to set out the boards and once they were dry, to ship them to Dr. MacCallum. The Sisters did not know what to make of me, an “artist-lumberman” as they called me. I gave the Sisters five dollars and said they could do with the rest of the money whatever they pleased.

As with any small lumbering town, any excuse for a concert was good enough. The “Broom Drill” was playing at the Town Hall, and with my curiosity set, and nothing better to do that evening, I went. I was horrified by what I saw. Twelve young women, immaculately dressed in maid’s costumes were performing rifle drill marches with their straw brooms. I had always thought these drills were pointless with the men and their rifle, but when I saw these girls whipping up patriotic fervour with their brooms, I couldn’t take it any further and left during the intermission. Another reason, why I left early – I was the only single man attending that was not in uniform. Camp Petawawa was not far away and many of the soldiers came into town to go to a concert or to a house dance. I did not want to have any uncomfortable conversations.

On Sunday, the town was still awash with soldiers in full military dress going to church. I decided to leave in the morning before all of the soldiers. I knew that they’d be all invited for dinner after church and I wanted to be well on my way.

The internment camp at Camp Petawawa was closed down in the spring and the prisoners sent up to North Bay. Many of these men worked in lumber camps during the winter. They had little choice and there was no means of escape. But in the springtime it was more difficult to contain them and there was always one or two on the loose. Someone made the decision that enough was enough sending the prisons to an even more remote location further north.

It was a hazardous undertaking driving the logs down the tributary rivers, in the the Petawawa and eventually down into the Ottawa. You always need to be aware of the dangers of the river. With break-up in May, the swollen streams would make their rampage down into the rivers. The lumbermen, journeying at the rate the rivers would allow, would camp wherever they found themselves at dark. When the dams were opened, the logs would swirl and make horrific spins. On the lakes the logs were slow business and had to be gathered into booms pulled by alligator.  A primitive-looking contraption, an alligator had a cable on the front of it, a drum and a steam engine. It had an anchor, weighing five hundred pounds and when dropped in the water,it could hold a hold a big spur.

On many occasions, I would watch an alligator as it slowly made its way across the lake. With thirty thousand logs in tow, all boomed around with boom timber being pulled together. On top, jumping like fleas off the back of a dog, were the men handling and sorting the logs with a peavey, an iron-pointed lever with a hinged hooked. When the logs were on the lake, they were sorted as best they could into the different lumber companies before they were sent down another section the river. Once completing its task, the alligator winched in the cable, to get ready for the next boom, or haul itself up onto the land to make its way to the next lake.

In the winter, every lumber camp had about eighty to a hundred men and each lumber company had five or six camps. There used to be upwards to two thousand men living in camps along the Petawawa, but now I estimated, less than a thousand due to the depleted timber stands and the men going overseas.

Being in the bush was the best part of life for these men. Everybody worked to do the most and the best, (and) without harming themselves or each other. At night in the camps, everyone was jolly, singing and sharing stories. The troubles would start outside of the camps, in the hotels of the towns, when season was finally over and the men became drunk with their pay. The gangs would  go into the bush in the middle of September to build a set of camps. They’d live in tents until the middle of October and cut up until Christmas or a little after. The men were happy in the camps during the winter. They made their own fun at night and there was always a fiddler. Square-dancing, with the men with tied handkerchiefs on their arms being the girls. After Christmas, the haul would start. Everybody concentrated on the log haul because they had to get out of the bush before the snow went. They were drawn out and dumped on the lake in a boom.

Like the logs during spring break-up,  the men too would come down the river in gangs of twenty to fifty men. They swept the river, bringing the logs into booms, pulling the smaller booms into the larger booms and pushing the booms toward the dams and the slides. Many times, the different gangs of the companies would help each other out, especially when there was a lost man on the river. First a frantic search, then when hope of rescue lost, a sombre lookout as everybody returned to their duties. When the body eventually appeared (many times it did not), it was brought to the next campsite and a burial was made. Rarely was a body brought back to Pembroke. The wooden crosses made to mark the graves, rarely lasted through season but there were enough in view from the shore to remind us of the dangers of the river and the untold stories of grief. The lumberman made songs about these stories, like the one about a French-Canadian shantyman who never returned to his sweetheart.

During those past months, I had little time to think. The days were long and hard, filled endlessly with little jobs and duties. Climbing trees, scouting up hills, checking camps, to see if there was any sign of fire. Near to the end, there was some heavy rain and we were caught in our tents. Then I had a chance to think and the sadness started. The spring was the last I saw of Lawren. After we departed, he reported to Camp Borden. I got word in July that Alex Jackson had been wounded at Maple Copse and was recuperating in England. Arthur Lismer had moved to Halifax. I was feeling abandoned, not by my chums, but by the world that was forcing us all apart.

That trip in the spring was a fine time together. Despite the war, the year was going well for me. The National Gallery in Ottawa had purchased a canvas of mine for three hundred dollars. When I went up to Mowat Lodge, I loaned Shannon Fraser two hundred and fifty dollars so he could buy some canoes. In return I could stay at the lodge for free and he’d pay me back by the end of the summer season. Some say I should have been wiser, but  getting money out of bank while up North was not worth the trouble, so I kept the cash instead. When Shannon found out I had the money, he said he could be my Bank of the North so we made a deal. He ordered three canoes and two canvas boats with sails.

It was the four of us – myself, Lawren, his cousin Chester and Dr MacCallum. One afternoon we were on the shore of Little Cauchon Lake when a thunderstorm suddenly whipped up. There was a rushing sound from across the lake. We  heard the rush from within the abandoned cabin where we had made camp. I grabbed my sketch box, ran outside, and squatted behind a big stump and began to paint. Lawren was dumbfounded that I went out into such weather to sketch, but I knew if I didn’t the moment would never be captured. The wind became stronger and stronger, the clouds in the sky became a deep purple, and the water on the lake was a frothing cauldron. I could barely keep myself together on the lee-side of the stump when the retort of a big crash struck me down. I picked myself up to discover that the very tree I was painting was struck over by the wind. I raised my hand and signalled to my chums that I was ok.  I was pleased with my sketch. I was also pleased with my tenacity because my sketch captured a tree that was now no more. Had I stayed in the cabin, this sketch would have never been made.

On our first night, Ned set up camp, which my job was to find fish for dinner. Some lumbermen had set up about a half mile upriver. We could have set up camp with them,  but  we wanted time to ourselves away from everyone. Much as the lumbermen liked us, they acted toward us like we were policemen watching their every move. In a way we were, even though we were now fired from the job.

I didn’t go far before I found a good place for fishing. A small waterfall, fast running water but a deep pool beneath.  That’s where the fish were hiding and that’s where I started. I brought my steel rod pole with me on the trip as I didn’t expect to do any fly fishing and left my split bamboo back at Canoe Lake along with my other things. I’d be going back there upon my return to Toronto but I’d probably leave it there for the next spring.  The light of the late afternoon was still strong when I started, but it was fading into the evening colours which have been spectacular these past few weeks. The big fire in Matheson had thrown enough smoke into the skies to waft across the province making for sunsets and evening skies of never before seen colours. Even Ned had told me he had never seen colours like this before, and the lumbermen, knowing that I was an artist would be moved to grunt an observation, “Some colour. You going to paint that?”

I tied to the line one of my homemade lures. An old steel teaspoon that I hammered flat and cut off the handle. I used a nail to puncture a hole. The irregular surface made for reflections that I knew would pique the curiosity of the trout. In the more regular fishing spots the trout became the wiser for these lures, making more difficult to catch, but this spot, I doubt had ever made its acquaintance with a rod and lure and fishing should be easy. I was right and in a matter of minutes I caught three three-pounders, more than enough to serve us for dinner that night. I  put them in a small sugar sack and tied it closed with a piece of twine. I kept the bag in the water to keep them fresh. I’d clean them when I got back to camp. In this heat you don’t want to keep your catch out long so keeping it in the water was good idea.

I started working as a fire ranger in May. That spring I was up in Kiosk and Brent, on Cedar Lake with Dr. MacCallum and Lawren Harris. I was already at Canoe Lake and they wanted to come to the Park for one last time before Lawren reported fo duty. We decided to start out a Brent, taking the rail there. They hadn’t been in that part of the Park before. Lawren want to paint some snow so we decided to Brent because the snow stays around a few weeks longer than at Canoe Lake. I met them at Scotia Junction, we took the Canadian Northern across the Northern part of the Park.

I packed up my gear. Before I got back into the canoe, I did my business further out from the shoreline. I discovered a carcass of a moose. It had recently died, only one or two days as I could tell. It must be disease as it was a mangy looking thing. The moose are not as numerous as they used to be. Despite the protections of the Park, poachers still got a good number, the Indians hunted their share, and this year there seems to be a die-off. This wasn’t the first carcass we found. A moose kill by wolves, leaves little or nothing behind.


I recall Hugh Trainor, Winnie Trainor’s father, telling me how he started out in the lumber business. His first job, at twelve, was to help the scaler measure logs right in where the cutters were. He watched them fell the trees, cut them into logs and skidded them down the skidways and piled them up ready for the spring haul. The first thing he learned was to scale lumber as the tally boy to the head scaler. The tally boy sits on a pile of lumber , wherever they are loading lumber. The scaler is there too. He measures the boards, calls the contents, and you call it back and make a tally a wherever the length of the board is. The tally card has all of the measured boards on the boxcar. Once you got the scaler job figured out, you’d move on to grading. It’s one, two or three, judging by the face of the board. For a white pine, you go by the knots – no knots, a one; a small knot, a two. But three or four knots, that’s a three.

When Booth put in the line, the trains took over moving the supplies to the camps. Before that it was all moved by horses and sleighs put the rivers and across the lakes. Convoys of twenty five teams would cross the lake, each load with forty or fifty hundredweight of hay, oats, pork and flour.

May 1916 reports to Achray South Branch of Petawawa

August 1916 Canoe down south branch of Petawawa to Barron Canyon then Canoe up North branch to Lake Traverse.

I remember going to a banquet at Depot Harbor at Booth’s Hall across the village square from the “Red Onion”, as the railwaymen called the Island Hotel. The hotel was the home for the weekly guests and the monthly boarders. Workers for the railway, customs officials from both countries, a Presbyterian minister and his family, and the occasional Methodist minister. Practical jokers were alway in the midst. The men would rise in the morning to find their boots nailed to the floor or worse, filled with tobacco juice collected from the spittoons set out overnight. The nearby telegraph office, the nerve-centre of the town provided everyone with the latest news and the latest jokes. During the federal and provincial elections, everyone  gathered in Booth’s hall, organized into cheering sections, and as the announcements came in by telegraph booed or cheered accordingly. The writing of poetry and limericks was a popular pastime. It was so popular that students and adults composed poems by the score and the best of the limericks were telegraphed up and down the lines.

I had heard about the bell at the Childerhose Church, but I had to go see it with my very own eyes. The bell, installed in 1914, was 1,200 pounds. it had the inscription, “That ye love one another as I have loved you.” The Presbyterian congregation, only twenty two souls was wrestling with the union of Methodist and Congregational churches, but it was not to be.

The track from Depot Harbor was unforgiving for the smaller engines. Over 1000 vertical feet in the 85 miles between the lake port and the Algonquin watershed between Rainy and Brule Lakes. The struggle began just east of Depot Harbor to Sprucedale. At Scotia Junction a 7 degree curve and another climb to Kearney would force the engines to the wayside stations to replenish their fuel and water.

Where I made my campsite was in clearing surrounded by dense and damp spruce and fir. It was perfectly dark, except for the fire that was beginning to burn low. I fell asleep, exhausted from the day, but awoke in the night with a start. It was an owl from deep in the forest or a loon from a distance over the lake. I got up to relieve myself and observed the fire had ceased to burn, but an elliptical ring of light, about six inches in diameter was glowing as bright as if the fire was fully ablaze. It was odd, it was bright, not reddish or scarlet like  a coal or ember, but a steady white light, like a glow-worm. Phosphorescent wood. I had heard tales of it from the lumbermen but dismissed it as an exaggeration or outright lie. But now I witnessed something I never believed. A piece of dead moose-wood, which I had cut sections in a slanting direction earlier in the evening glowing in the spent fire. . I pulled it out. It was cool to the touch, and with my knife I discovered that the light emanated from the sap immediately underneath the bark. I pared off the bark and the glow was all along the log. I cut out some chips and put into the cup of my hand. They chips remained aglow, showing the lines of my hands, and they appeared to be like coals of raised to the temperature of a white hot fire. I looked around and noticed a decayed stump, a few feet from the fire, glowing from underneath its bark a brightness of equal intensity. I was unsure of the cause of the glowing. Coral-striped maple


The late summer and early fall was a glorious time. I spent a lot of time canoeing with Ed Godin, “Ned” as I often would call him. We discussed many things ranging from the War and where to find the best pipe tobacco.  Even though we were alone for weeks and remote within the Park,  the shadow of the War still loomed large. But despite the shadows I did some of my brightest and best boards of my career.

Like many others early in the war, it was not hard to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm to enlist. Indeed, I had attempted to enlist in the Boer War but was rejected on account of a medical condition I had in my youth. Early in the War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was choosey.  They had their pick of eager recruits. But as the War dragged on, they became less choosy in the quality of their recruits. At the beginning of the War, I had little enthusiasm. Three years later my sparse enthusiasm had turned to downright disillusionment and disdain. In the City, It seemed whenever the topic came up, the question of “one’s duty to the War” was the answer. I was bothered that everyone was looking at me whether I would join up and I soon tired of the incessant War talk. Even in the Park, each time a train passed by, mostly filled with grain, but occasionally filled with troops, it was a cue to start talking about the War and “one’s duty”. The trip with Ed was a blessed escape. We could share our thoughts without putting on the airs of doing “one’s duty”

More recently, there was talk of conscription and I decided that the best way for me serve, if it came to that, would be in some capacity as a Fire or Park Ranger. Mark Robinson had shipped overseas in 1915 and there was no telling whether he would return. Soldiers going overseas were leaving vacancies at home.

During August and September we travelled by canoe down the Petawawa River and to Lake Travers. After sketching very little during the summer, I sketched a lot during this trip. Mostly in the early morning when the light was good and before we would begin to break camp. The evenings had good light too, but often I was too tired by the end of the day.  Up North, the fall colours would start subtly but earnestly. The leaves of summer were still green but lacked the vitality of the earlier months. As the leaves began to turn, the light of the early morning or early evening offered a new menu of colours each day. The sun becoming lower in the sky brought different angles of light bringing, as I would say to Ed, two magic moments each day: one in the morning and one in the evening. I tried to work our daily routine around these ‘magic moments’. Ed would smile when I was preoccupied with getting out my sketch box to catch the magic moment and he would tell me we had the whole night to set up camp and the whole day to get going.

Aside from the trees, the rocks were marvelous. 300 feet of sheer cliff face towering above the river. It made a man feel small and vulnerable, especially if he was in a canoe. But despite our remoteness, we would see the occasional military patrol or guards by the railway trestles. We had heard from other folks in the park that a prison camp was nearby and if you encountered someone who couldn’t speak English you were to shoot them.

Ned and I accompanied the lumbermen by canoe. They used the bigger boats called the batteau. The batteau is a mongrel of a boat – a cross between a canoe and a rowboat. Used to navigate between and over the logs, the batteaus  flat-bottomed, narrow and double-ended, so it didn’t matter which direction is forward. They’re built with oak crooks and planked  with sawn pine boards.  The crew that we were with had about 20 boats. Once was a fifty- foot batteaux that had the camp cook and gear. In earlier days, the cook and his gear would come down on crib of squared timber, but the trees weren’t as big anymore and were no longer squared in the bush. Earlier in the drive, three batteaux were dashed in the rapids and one man was lost. His body was never found, caught in the deep in the swirl of the river.





Aug 11, 1917 Winnifred Trainor Letter to T. J. Harkness

Huntsville, Ont.


Aug 11, 1917

Dear Mr. Harkness,

Yours received yesterday and contents carefully noted. This is Saturday my very busy day, so thought I better answer. Five weeks ago to-day I wrote to Tom – but he did not receive it. He also wrote to me – & our letters crossed & to-night a sad note to his brother-in-law. It seems to me almost unbeleivable. And I’m so sorry and words are so thin.

I called to see the undertaker Mr. Churchill and he wished is name not to be used. So I know these remarks will be treated strictly confidential. I know nearly everyone for miles around and I’m not refused anything I try. So I asked him plain questions

I acted on the strength of the telegram of instructions which was found waiting at the train time 6.p-m. I had quite a hard struggle to even see it and got straight replys. He is a very consientious man. I cant write all to-night but he said the bill was steep. Flavelle is only a furniture dealer and undertaker not an embalmer so took an embalmer along from Sprucedale near Parry Sound. So that was double expense instead of acting a man and pass the order on. That is from the money side. even if had no heart. I’m sorry I did not go up the day before – I suggested things at Canoe Lake, but was refused. If I see you I can tell you all. However Mr. Churchill said to act as per your letter. They include here everything with the price of the casket. The one from Kearney was not any better. & Rough box was not painted & I don’t think it had handles on. Mr. Churchill always pays his own keep when out. He says it is not right as he would have to pay for it while home. A copper lining costs more than the casket itself. So you see he is billing a good rate. I would suggest to use your own judgement as you know the contents of the first telegram. Thought [illegible] composed – and you know the tangle now that has to be unravelled – owing to the thoughtlessness of not having a sealed casket – which anyone knows is needed in a case of that kind and also required by law. If you knew Mr. Fraser I think you would use your own judgement. This is strictly confidential as the Frasers are alright in their way. I certainly would love to visit the grave at some future date. So perhaps may see you then, if I should not write again.

Please excuse pencil as my time is limited this eve, so I thought I could make better time with my scribbling. After I got ans. to what was going on at Canoe Lake – I did all in my power to get things righted. I was told there it could not be done, but I thought I’d have a try and I knew that time was precious. When I got to Scotia arriving at 730p.m. the wires were down between Hville and Scotia. So then I looked up the agent & sent out message after message to Hville all free of charge, & perfectly lovely about it all. I had to wait there till nearly 3. am.

We are friends with the Frasers, as we have a swell House at Canoe Lake, where each summer it has been our custom to Holiday there. But I could explain better if you knew them.

Yours truly
Winnifred Trainor

August 6, 1917 JS Fraser, Letter to T J Harkness

Mowat Letterhead-640Aug 6, 1917

Dear Sir

Your letter just came to hand Mr Flavelle sent me the bill i am sending it to you i was just going to pay it he had pretty hard work up here with tom body so I thought it would of been more we got so excited we diden know what to do so we did the best we could do. the Body was in a offel state so we had to hurry and it rained all day all the other man had to do was change boxes so sute yours self about the bill but i to him i would stan good before he came i would do any thing for tom he was like one of the family i seen the Rangers and they said the canoes was worth $10.00 dollars a peace they leak pretty bad they are Pretty old canoes and full of holes so they said that was all they are worth.

i hope Mr. & Mrs Thomson are well i give George row $5.00 and L Dickson $3.50 for looking for tom Mr rowe and Dickson found him i if that Price is all right for the canoes please let me know and i will send the money down right away

hope this litter finds you all well

Yours truly
J S Fraser