March 31, 1917 Birches

March 31, 1917

1917 Birches

I could feel spring in the air. The temperature was warmer – it really felt like spring, but I had a chill that wouldn’t leave my body. Winter wouldn’t leave me today. But the sun was strong – brilliant actually – and its ever strengthening force was making the snow go away fast. The snow was mostly gone from the south-facing hills. As for the north-facing hills, the snow will stay into May. That’s what I predict.

I had walked a lot yesterday and I was tired. That’s why I felt chilled. The snowshoes weren’t suited for some parts of my trip, so I ended up post-holing my way through parts of the bush. I didn’t notice but my socks and boots were soaked until I got back. I set them out by the fire to dry. I didn’t think much of it, but yesterday’s wet-footed venture must have put the chill in me today.

Earlier in the morning I went out to the storage shed. It’s the second and southerly part of Mowat Lodge. It’s a separate but joined structure. It was a separate lease, but Shannon took it over in 1914 when he expanded his operation. There are more rooms there, but there is there is a large storage area and an outbuilding that Shannon uses as a stable for the horses and the cow. He doesn’t keep the animals in the barn up the road. It’s too far away for tending the animals, but he stores the hay there, the beaver grass, that’s cut and brought in early July. Shannon spends a lot of time in the back grooming and taking care of the horses. He takes pride in his horses. He also drinks back there. Ever since the Prohibition, Annie’s not comfortable having liquor in the ‘proper part of the house’ as she calls it, so Shannon is forced to drink out of doors or with the horses.

Shannon wasn’t there this morning. I don’t know where he was. The horses were there though. I guess he decided not to take the horses out for a sap run because the temperature didn’t go down enough and there wouldn’t be anything to bring in. I cut some more boards from the stack that Shannon set aside for me. The orange crates are good because they are light and flimsy. They’re meant to make the trip only once from California and they’re made with few nails and some wire. The panels I can make are about 5″  x 7″ wide. Depending on the condition of the wood, I can get about four to eight panels from each box. Although they are the size of a glorified post card, I can’t complain. If I use these boards as quick studies or sketches, I can save my better panels when I find a really good scene.

After lunch (Shannon didn’t appear for lunch) I was still feeling a bit under the weather, so I didn’t go far. I walked a short distance down Gilmour Road to Whisky Jack Bay. It’s a small inlet due south of Mowat Lodge. The dump for Mowat Lodge is around there too.  I saw the gray jays and they saw me too. Whisky Jack bay got its name from the gray jays that live around there. The Indian name for gray jay sounds like Whisky Jack so the name stuck. The gray jays stay all winter and do their nesting before the other birds come. They hide their food in the trees and you can see them flying about in the fall, hiding it in the trees, in crevasses, under flakes of bark and in holes left behind by woodpeckers. They’re smart birds, they remember everything they hide. They’re very territorial too, they keep an eye on you. If you’re in their territory, they know who you are, and dive-bomb if they don’t like you. I didn’t get dive-bombed today. I learned from my Uncle Brodie that most of the gray jays die when they’re young. It’s a cruel family life. They’re forced to fight each other to see who gets to stay in the territory. The “leavers” move on and try to take another territory, and the “stayer” (if the parents choose to let a younger one stay) sticks around for another year to help raise the next generation of young of its parents. But then, when the time comes, it  starts all over, another fight to the death over territory. When you observe what the gray jays have to do to survive, it makes you think that maybe the fight to the death in Europe could be the natural course of things. Love, honour and morality is only a figment of our imagination. Survival at all cost is the only thing that matters. Embrace the gray jay way.

I saw another stand of birches down in a low lying area at the edge of the bay. Together, they gave a nice composition being in the foreground, so I got up close and painted them. When I was finished, I went back and I still wasn’t feeling good. I had the chills and read the papers. It looks like the U.S. is going to declare war any day now.

I was quiet at dinner. Shannon had reappeared and I could tell he had been drinking all day. Probably at George or Lowrie’s place. Everyone knew well enough to leave me alone.

March 30, 1917 An Ice-Covered Lake

March 30, 1917

1917 An Ice-Covered Lake

Canoe Lake is still frozen solid, but the edges are melting away. The small streams feeding into the lake and Potter Creek are open and running. Shannon needed to finish his ice-block operation today because it would become too dangerous as the weather warms up each day. This morning I helped him get the last blocks in. Neither George or Lowrie showed up to help. I’m sure they had a bit too much to drink last night. Today was the last day Shannon’s horses went on the lake. That’s a relief for me, because I’ve become attached to his horses and if we lost them it would be like losing a member of the family.

After I finished my duties with Shannon, I cut some boards from the crates he kept for me. Although I brought a fair number of boards with me, I needed to stretch out my supply. The ones cut from the crates are only 6 inches by 8 inches, smaller than the regular 10 1/2 by 8 1/2 boards. I like to bring a couple of these smaller ones, in case I need to do a sketch quickly.

Today, I ventured a bit further than I did yesterday. I went north from the lodge and then to the eastern shore. In the summer, there’s a beach and this was a camp site for the Indians. This is where Canoe Lake got its name, because they made birch bark canoes here – before the railways and lumbermen made them move on.

I did my sketch on near the shore of the lake. There’s lots of birch here. They like the low land near the shore , when the pines were all cut and the high water levels from the dams drowned everything else, the birches moved right in. The beavers like that too and there’s a healthy population. They’ve dammed the stream that comes down from March Hare lake. It was once a tiny lake, but its bigger now. There’s a beaver dam about a mile away – that’s where March Hare Lake and there is another one here, just before it drains in Canoe Lake. Because all of the water is dammed upstream there’s only a pond’s worth of water behind this one. Since it’s not close to anyone, it hasn’t been dynamited. From my recollection, the beaver dam is considerably larger than last year and the pond is much larger. Only a matter of time before someone notices and dynamites it.

I had a nice view back across the lake to Mowat Lodge and I could see in the distance the hill from where I painted several days ago. Another stand of birches presented themselves well in the foreground so I decided to paint this scene. I sat myself near a stand of young maples. Second growth too. When the pines are gone and before the soil washes away into the lake, all bets are off of who’s going to be successful. I see there are willows here too. They like being right at the water’s edge.

It was a stronger eastern wind when I was painting. The wind was coming down from the hills and blowing onto lake. The wind did not have its usual bitter cold, but it didn’t have any warmth either. The wind was heavy, laden with moisture, and it felt like a harbinger of bad things to come. Winds from the east brought bad things with them. My eyes were watering, and the dampness of the cold was downright unpleasant. I decided I do a smaller sketch today. After I finished I started back across the lake.

As part of my regular kit,I carry a line and a lure. A small axe too, which I wrap up in my burlap bag. On the way back, I decided to give ice-fishing a try. The wind had died down and the sun was starting to come out. I chopped a hole starting at one of the cracks. The ice is still thick, about a foot where I cut, but it was getting rotten so it was easy to get through. If the weather stays cold, the ice will be here another month. I didn’t catch anything.

When I got to the shore I saw some wolf tracks. They’ve been venturing closer lately. Shannon told me that there’s lots of deer and it’s attracting the wolves. The deer hang out close to the Algonquin Hotel (the guests feed them during the summer) and the wolves are following. Shannon said the the Province is thinking about having deer-kill in the spring and shipping the meat to Toronto. He heard that from George Bartlett, the Park Superintendent.

When I got back I set my sketch in the dining room to dry. I had to scrub my hands with sand and then with soap, warm warm water and a bristle brush. We had a fine dinner and Annie made custard for dessert. After dinner, I suggested that we play some cards or crokinole. When I was looking for the crokinole board, I asked where the Ouija board was (we played with it last summer). Shannon said that Annie forced him to throw the Ouija board out. She didn’t want any unwelcome spirits in the lodge. They still have the chess board I brought up in 1914. That fall, I played chess most everyday with the boys. I could beat everyone, except for this kid that came down everyday just to play. He learned from the  station master at Brule Lake. To pass the time, the station masters play chess using the telegraph. The boy’s family lived close to the school house, but they moved away in 1915. After that, I was once again the reigning chess champion of Mowat Lodge.

March 29, 1917 Woods in Winter

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I walked to Potter Creek today. To Joe Lake Dam, then to Joe Lake itself. I passed by the Algonquin Hotel. It’s part of the Grand Trunk Railway outfit. It’s one of the outpost of the Highland Inn that includes Nominigan, and Minnesing. It’s shuttered up tight. It only open after the best of bug season. Around late June.

Today I was looking for a scene in the woods. With the sun getting stronger and the snow melting, the trees cast interesting shadows in the woods. Each day the snow disappears more and more. The nights going below freezing and the days into the fifties makes the snow take on rough and uneven texture. The spring light makes the snow look like a bed of crystals. I guess they are crystal, ice crystals.

Shannon is on a maple sugaring venture. He got the idea from the Highland Inn where they have a sugar bush celebration every year. I remember tapping the sugar maples back home in Leith. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but my father insisted that we try it. Well we collected the sap but didn’t have a proper boiler. We used an old kerosene tank as a boiler. We scrubbed it and scrubbed it. We thought it was clean, but the maple syrup still tasted like kerosene in the end. I never liked maple syrup from that point on. When offered maple syrup or a lump of brown sugar, I always took the sugar.

Dinner was fine tonight. Annie is the saving grace of this institution that they call Mowat Lodge. We ate in the dining room with the fireplace in full fury. It was another chilly night. Below freezing, meaning that it will be another good day for sap tomorrow.

March 28, 1917 Early Spring, Canoe Lake

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March 28, 1917

I helped Shannon again this morning. We finished getting the ice blocks from the lake and moved them into the cellar. The worst part of the job is being the cellarman. The cellarman is the one who has to stack the blocks in the cellar and cover them with sawdust. Dusty, dim, and backbreaking work. Moving those ice blocks can be hazardous. They weigh up to a hundred pounds apiece and one slip could mean a broken limb. Shannon likes being the sledman, driving the horses. Lawrie and I were the icemen, the ones who sawed the ice out of the lake.

As always, George volunteered to do the dirtiest and least glamorous work. George joked that nothing in the Park has killed him so far, and it certainly won’t be an ice block in a cellar. George often jokes about death in the Park. I think it’s his way of dealing with the real deaths he’s experienced. Lawrie Dickson is like a son to George because of death. Lawrie’s real father died in a lumberyard accident before he was born. His mother died of dysentery when he was four. And his stepfather drowned in Rosebary Lake when he was six. With no family left, George adopted him as his own, and Lawrie’s been with him ever since. I don’t think he’s ever been out of the Park except for a few trips to Huntsville. He’s always with George.

These deaths also reveal a darker side of the Park. What few people know and really don’t want to know, a deathtrap for lumbermen and labourers. Hardly a week went by without some news of death – drowning, fire, accident. Death is not good for tourism.

George Bartlett, Park Superintendent, and chief cheerleader for Provincial tourism, likes to deal with Park deaths as expeditiously as possible. ‘Hurts tourism if we make too much fuss about what was inevitable in the first place’.

The lumber companies like to keep the deaths at a low profile too. There was too much money to be made. Eggs do get broken for omelettes we want.

After the morning’s labour exploits (and no deaths by ice blocks)
I hiked up to the highest point on this side of the lake. It’s about two miles from the lodge. The condition of the snow was such that it was terrible for snowshoeing and even worse for walking. I was thinking about using skis, but learned that Shannon had inexplicably lost the skis that he had acquired the previous years. It turned out those skis came from some Highland Inn guests that got stranded at Mowat Lodge. Shannon safely returned the guests, but neglected to return the skis. The manager at the Highland Inn caught on and demanded the return of the skis last fall. Hence, according to Shannon, the inexplicable loss of the skis.

After a good hike, I got a good sketch. I was at the highest point that gives a great view. I was so high, that I could not see Mowat Lodge as it was down below, beneath and behind the trees. I could barely make out the Trainor and Blecher cottages, but I had a fine view of Canoe Lake and could see the melt and runoff by the shore. A good picture.

It was fairly warm too. Sketching wasn’t a problem and I finished it in under an hour.

March 27, 1917 Canoe Lake

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March 27, 1917 Canoe Lake

This sketch is looking southwards on Canoe Lake. That’s Big Wapomeo Island in the middle. Gilmour and Cook Islands are right behind but in the light today the islands blend together and look as one. I finished this sketch later in the afternoon, just as the clouds started to roll in.

I walked out to the islands earlier in the afternoon. I had my snowshoes. I needed them because the snow is deep on the ice, but I like to be safe and spread my weight. This time of year, you never know when and where the ice is rotten. Last year a team of horses went through on Burnt Island Lake. No man was lost but the horses and wagon were goners. Down to the bottom of the lake.. They tried to fish the wagon out two months later in May, but gave up when someone said it should rest in peace like the Titanic.

When I was out there I looked around for a picture. Maybe the light wasn’t right, but I didn’t see anything. I tramped around Big Wapomeo Gilmour and Cook Islands. Didn’t see anything inspiring. On the way back I passed Little Wapomeo Island. I saw the fireplace chimney I helped make for Taylor Statten last year.

I was about to give up on the lake and go inshore into the bush until I looked back. There it was. The low clouds were rolling in from the southeast making their way over the lake. I was almost at the same place I was earlier, by the Trainor and Blecher cottages. I sat down and started sketching immediately because I knew the scene wasn’t going to last.

Fourth day in the North and four good sketches. The birds are coming back. I saw a few chickadees and a blue jay.

March 26, 1917 Shannon and his Ice-Blocks

March 26, 1917:

Wood Interior Winter

I went deep into the bush today. Shannon said he wanted to get the ice blocks before the lake ice got too rotten. I said I’d paint in the morning and come back by noon to help out. Turned out I didn’t get back until 2pm. I didn’t pack a lunch and returned hungrier than a bear. Annie had some stew on the stove for me and after a bear’s filling, I needed to take a nap. I wasn’t out there to help Shannon much before 4pm.

But I got a good sketch in and was in pretty good spirits. Regardless, I let Shannon down, but I was hoping my good disposition would rub off on him.

Anyway, Shannon had Lawrie Dickson and George Rowe already to help him out. They needed the money, and more importantly, the booze. Despite the booze they’re good fellows and I get along with them well. They’ve made their reputation with Shannon. He hires and fires them regularly. But the extent of the Canoe Lake labour market is limited and they’re assured of regular employment by Shannon, whatever the foul-up. As for me, the occasional itinerant and mostly unreliable artist with little money. I have the dubious distinction of being both guest and labourer.

Shannon’s a few years younger than me. He’s thirty-four and Annie is thirty-two. They married young – Shannon was twenty and Annie was eighteen. They have a daughter Mildred, she’s thirteen now. She’s one of the few children here in Mowat. She’s in Grade 8, one of ten students at the school by Potter Creek. If she wants to go to high school Shannon and Annie will have to send her to Kingston. On the weekends she helps with the chores, boiling and washing the guest linens.

Shannon came here a few years ago to help wind down the lumber village of Mowat. The lumber was pretty much gone and the equipment was taken and moved elsewhere. The hospital closed down and Shannon saw the opportunity to turn it into a resort and a post office. The Grand Trunk Railway had just opened the Highland Inn, Nominigan, Minnesing, and just up by Joe Lake, Algonquin Hotel.

We artists discovered Mowat Lodge in 1912. Before Shannon could shake a stick at us to shoo us off, he had more artists staying at the lodge than he could bear. Truth be told, he enjoyed our company because we weren’t very discerning about the lodgings. We joked that whatever wasn’t good enough for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he stayed at the Highland in 1914) was good enough for us. So long we had a place away from the bugs at night we were happy. But the real gem of Mowat Lodge had nothing to do with Shannon’s charms and the rustic experience, it was Annie’s cooking.

Then the War hit, and things took a turn for the worse. Tourism dried up. Grand Trunk Railway got into financial trouble. Camp Minnesing after only two seasons was shut down. It was empty once again last summer. The way the War is I doubt it will open this summer. And to top it off, Prohibition was passed. Prohibition hasn’t yet stopped Shannon, George, or Lawrie from imbibing without prescription. Mail order liquor shipments from Montreal are still the way to go.

I’ll have to make a point of visiting Lawrie and George. They live in the shacks on the mill property. Lawrie managed to get himself a Victrola so it’s worth the visit. He said it was a gift, but I was suspicious that there was an alternate means of acquisition. I’ll never question. One should never look a gift Victrola in the mouth.

March 25, 1917 Early Spring Algonquin Park

March 25, 1917

Early Spring, Algonquin Park

Sunday morning, day of rest. But I felt rejuvenated. I didn’t need to rest today. To observe Sunday, we read a few verses from the bible and sang a hymn. Annie is the religious force in the household and Shannon knows better than to let things lapse.

After breakfast I decided to snowshoe in the hills behind Mowat Lodge. I was quite pleased with my sketch yesterday. After having a good night’s sleep and full recovery from the train ride, I decided to venture out into the hills behind Mowat Lodge.

I made my way across the chipyard. It’s a spongy mess of lumber covered covered with snow. You have to carefully pick yourself the way across. It once was a marshy inlet but after years of being the recipient of castoff lumber, it has transformed into an ugly inhospitable land mass. Thirty acres of nothing here.

It was the wind up of Gilmour Lumber company when it went bankrupt. that brought Shannon here in 1907. He and Annie (along with his daughter and mother) lived in the old Gilmour hospital and his job was to tear the place down. Annie discovered that she had the knack of running a household with boarders, and the word got around the lake that this was the place to stay. When everything was finally wound up, Annie and Shannon decided to stay and try their luck at the tourist trade. The Highland Inn, built by the Grand Trunk, was attracting tourists and so too was the Algonquin Hotel. As the tourist business grew, ‘Camp Mowat” became known as the ‘solid third choice at half the price’. I first met Shannon in 1912 on my first visit to the Park. When I returned in 1913, Shannon acquired the lease to the old mill hand kitchen and boarding house and was in the process of transition his operation to the new quarters. Over the summer I helped him to get the place in shape. By the early fall of 1913, ‘Camp Mowat’ had transformed into the more regal “Mowat Lodge”. To mark the occasion I painted the ‘MOWAT LODGE’  sign which we erected with much pomp and ceremony over the front porch staircase. For years afterwards, I always got a spooky feeling when I walked under that sign to enter into the lodge. I felt like I was going through a portal to enter another time and dimension. I attribute it to the fun I had helping them set up. 1913 was an exciting time. The Park was becoming known and the tourists were coming in from everywhere. That was before 1914, of course. This year, I didn’t get the spooky feeling going under the sigh, but strangely I got a feeling of relief and escape. Deep down I know that this year is different than the other years at the lodge. This year I’m escaping everything that I felt in the city. I’m escaping the War too.

I carried my snowshoes and sketch box across the chip yard. I walked along the spur line then went westward into the bush.  The snow was well over two feet underneath the trees. The melt and freeze had put a light crust on the top. I could walk on top with no snowshoes, but if I fell through I’d go right up to my hips. Snowshoes were the order for the day

Just before noon before I found the perfect place to sketch. The angle of the sun was perfect too. The light couldn’t be better. Annie packed me a sandwich so there was no rush to get back to the lodge. Looking behind I saw the scene. I could see could see the snow and ice-covered Canoe Lake as a sliver that broke through the spruce trees. The view of the lake was obstructed by a few mangy alders. The loggers had taken all of the pines and the second growth was coming back with a vengeance.

I got in a good sketch.