April 29, 1917 Sunday Best

April 29, 1917

Today is Sunday, a day of rest. Or it is supposed to be a day of rest. Sunday doesn’t make too much of difference to me, except I notice that everyone is a little better-smelling and cleaner from the Saturday night baths.

The walking paths are drying up. That means the women are getting a little more adventuresome in their walks, especially Daphne Crombie. She convinced Annie to go for a walk up to Hotel Algonquin for a 11 a.m. lay service that Ed Colson was holding for the guests. Ed is a former Sunday school teacher and a lay preacher. He said that if anyone ever needed to be married or buried in Mowat Village, he was the one to provide the service. Trouble is that the population of Mowat Village is hard pressed to support a marriage (you need at least two people). As for burial, you never know when you’ll need someone for a ceremony.  8 year-old Alexander Hayhurst passed away in 1915. He died of diptheria. Molly Colson, when she was still working at the Highland Inn, came by a couple of times to tend to his illness, and it was Ed who ultimately committed Alexander’s soul to God and his earthly remains to the Cemetery up on the hill.

I was sketching from a knoll overlooking Potter Creek. The ice was out near the shore and around to Joe Lake Dam. There is still lots of ice in Canoe Lake: it is not officially iced-out, according to our criteria established a few days ago). I had a nice view of Lowrie Dickson’s shack. It is close the shore. The birches are submerged in the high water which is less than two feet from his door.

As I was sketching, lo and behold, who strolls into view? Annie and Daphne in their Sunday best. Annie had a red coat and a pink hat on, and Daphne had on her blue coat and white hat. I shouted for them to stop. I raised my paintbrush and they knew exactly why I issued the order. They stopped to be my studies and enjoy the view. I mixed up the colours of their coats and painted their figures. It can take me an hour to paint a single tree, but it took me less than a minute to paint two women into my sketch.

When I was done, I waved my hand and let them on their way. I was pleased with the sketch. With the strength of the sun now, the leaves will be coming out soon. The trees are looking less like skeletons and more like living things. The stripped canopies are returning to a body of green. The buds are getting ready, ready to explode into leaves. And then one day, unannounced, spring will be no more.

April 28, 1917 Guide License

April 28, 1917

I got my Guide License today.

To get the license, I had to go to the Park Headquarters at Cache Lake and have an interview with Park Superintendent George Bartlett. Bartlett didn’t like me but Mark put in a good word for me. Mark said that the less I said to him, the better because Bartlett didn’t like men talking back to him.  If necessary, he’d put up a fight. Bartlett was a fighter when he needed to be. He got his reputation when he had to put a lumber camp back into order. He just asked that his back was covered and he took on thirty men at the camp. After a half-dozen were knocked silly, he had the camp back in order. No one ever challenged his authority after that.

Algonquin Park in its early years was a disgrace to the Province. When Queen’s Park appointed Bartlett they gave him almost absolute authority over everything and everyone and that included the guides. He had a strict code to be followed that included no drinking while guiding. One guide went on a bit of a bender, and the next day he had his license taken away.

I met with Bartlett in the early afternoon. I flagged a freight train from Canoe Lake Station and rode the eight miles to Algonquin Station. The train slowed and the engineers let me ride by the engine. It was fine ride, especially over the trestle bridge near Cache Lake. I could see the guards on both ends. Guards were stationed twenty -four hours a day, and whenever a train passed by, they were ordered to traverse the bridge, crossing each other in the middle. Their job was to inspect for burning embers or anything that could set the trestle on fire. At the middle, there was a small platform just big enough to hold two men. After each train passed, it was a race to the middle. A brief rest, and then a race to the other side. The trains were  frequent sometimes, so the two men would wait in the middle for the next train to pass before racing to the other side. Some said it was good soldier training – sheer boredom, interrupted occasionally by sheer terror.

Bartlett looked me over, and I could tell he wasn’t convinced that I should get a license. But he had Mark’s good word and gave it to me anyway. I had the license put under Mowat’s Lodge name. Shannon would expect me to work for him, not the Colsons.

I spent the afternoon hanging around the Highland Inn. They were getting ready for the tourists. I visited Tom Salmon who was in charge of the outfitting store there. We talked about fly fishing. His father was a champion fly caster in England. He showed me his father’s rod and some flies that he’d been working on. I also met this kid, Ralph Bice. He was about seventeen years old and working the rails, clearing the brush and cutting wood. He said he was going to get his guide’s license too. His father is a Park Ranger and I recognized Ralph from a few years back. He has grown up, but I wouldn’t quite call him a man yet. I could tell by his mannerisms he didn’t think much of me. The feeling was mutual.

I took the train back the same way I came. I could see those two poor souls getting ready to run the bridge. The trestle might survive the war, but I have my doubts that these guards will.

Since the better part of the day was for business, I didn’t have much time to sketch. When I got back to Mowat Lodge, I set up on the veranda and did a quick sketch of the lake. I’ll probably scrape it later. Daphne was asking me questions while I was sketching. I answered politely, but I wasn’t really engaged in the conversation. The sketch suffered from the lack of my full concentration. Another reason to scrape it.

Someone brought a book on the Colorado and the Grand Canyon. I learned there was a direct route from Chicago. It would be easy to get there – steamships were quite frequent from Depot Harbour to Chicago, the grain ships going to and from the west. My good friend John McRuer lives in Colorado. I could visit him. A possible adventure if things don’t turn out here.

April 27, 1917 Bouquet of Trilliums

April 27, 1917

As I had promised Daphne, the wildflowers had started to come out. She and Annie went for a walk this morning and they came across a patch of purple and painted trilliums. Daphne had picked herself a bouquet consisting of about dozen Trilliums. I tried not show my horror, as the point of the Park was to protect these flowers, not pick them. Most people, Daphne among them, don’t realize that the Park was established to protect species and give them another chance to survive. Instead, most see the Park as an extension of their backyard and a playground for them to do as they wish. I can’t begin to count the number of campsites left behind with all of the trees hacked down and garbage strewn about. Opened tin cans and rotting fish. When the fish bite, instead of taking what they need for a meal, they fish and fish, stringing up, for a photograph, dozens of fish, which they immediately throw aside once the photograph is taken. I’ve seen it done with ducks, geese and beaver too. Killed for a photograph then thrown aside. I’m afraid that Daphne had the same attitude about her trilliums.

Then there was the issue of finding a proper receptacle to give the condemned flowers some justice. Nothing could be found except a Mason jar. So I whipped out my paints and painted a nice pattern of snow and pussy willows. Although it wasn’t dry, we set the jar in the middle of the dining room table and put in the Trilliums. It made a fine sight, and Daphne was quite pleased at her contribution to the indoor of the Lodge (which is not much to look at).

Daphne’s husband, Robin, was in much better spirits too. The cold fresh air seemed to be doing him some good, and his disposition had improved to the point that he dressed in his uniform before appearing for the day. Why he did not wear his civilian clothes, I don’t know, but I suspect the uniform gave him back some manner of manhood that he’s felt he’s lost because of the consumption. In the evening, just before dinner, he was attempting an officer’s ramrod-straight pose. It looked like aChaplin routine and I smiled.

“Lt. Crombie! Attention!” I grabbed one of my boards and with my pencil I quickly sketched his profile. His uniform seemed bigger than him as he struggled to fill it. It only took me a two or three minutes to sketch him. I gave it to him, expecting a smile. Everyone likes a cartoon of himself. Lismer and I made cartoons of each other and of our friends, always for a great laugh. Well, Lt. Crombie did not like it. One glance and he scowled disapproval. I was put back and without a thought of deliberation, I grabbed sketch back, scribbled over the caricature and was about to toss it into the fireplace when Daphne intervened.

“Tom, don’t do that! I’ll take it” Daphne took it from me.

“Do with it what you like, I’ve done enough for the day.” I gathered my things and went to my room.  Enough of trying to please people today.

April 26, 1917 Temple Blue

April 26, 1917

I spent most of the day outside and alone. I walked far away from everyone. I wanted to be with my own thoughts and with what nature had to tell me. The spring landscape is changing faster and faster every day. A scene to paint can suddenly appear and then disappear forever. The trees are beginning to bud out, but the cold nights are still holding them back and one day the leaves will burst out, like they’ve been there forever. But forever is an illusion of the present. Everything changes, nothing is forever. Open water is appearing at the shores. One day the lake is covered in ice and the next day it’s completely free. Like the ice was never there. You never know when things are going to change but you know it’s never for forever.

Right now, the lakes and streams are high. The sound of rushing water is everywhere. It’s in my head. I can feel it in my bones. But I hear other notes and rhythms of spring. I hear chirps of the songbirds, the taps of woodpeckers, and a strange drumming sound. It sounds like a plane starting up in a distant flying exposition. I learned from Mark Robinson that it’s a ruffed grouse beating its wings, but the aeroplane-like sound brought back memories of aeroplanes. It brings back memories of meeting Orville Wright last fall. The drumming sound stops. Thoughts of planes and world adventures fly away into the distance and the honking of the landed geese brings me back to where I am now.

I needed a new scene. I walked up to Baby Joe Lake, near Burnt Island Lake and this is the scene I found. Painting on a rock by the rapids is different than in the woods. You’re perched in the open and the sounds of the rapids drown out all your thinking. It was a good escape for me. I needed to get away from my thoughts for awhile and paint, just paint. The talk with Mark yesterday was still haunting me. Mark said, there’s not many men back from the front that talk so the stories about what’s really happened no one knows. Mark told me about the soldiers that weren’t wounded in the physical sense, but had what the doctors called ‘shell shock’ – jibbering, running around, eyes bulging out, and limbs flailing. The British officers had a cure for shell shock – a bullet in the brain. Mark said he saw an officer summarily execute eighteen soldiers in less than three minutes, three of them from Mark’s own battalion. The officers were especially ruthless with the colonials, slapping them on the side of the head, saying they were a disgrace to the Empire before administering the bullet. Mark said he remembered them screaming for their mothers. Adding to the injustice, Mark had to write the letters home for the dispatched men. The censorship and the propaganda officers meant that Mark could only write things about being brave and glorious, and they didn’t die in vain. There was no glory, it was in vain, and every letter that Mark wrote took away part of his soul, he said. That’s why he is still frail.

Before the conversation with Mark, I had been indifferent about enlisting and although I was anxious, I was accepting of my eventual fate. I tried to enlist before, like most men did, but I was rejected. Had I been subjected to enough persuasion, even two months ago, I would have probably tried again, but there was no way I would now. With conscription being a near certainty, I needed to think of ways to avoid the service. There was talk that bachelors up to age forty-five would be conscripted. That meant I had only two options before me – disappear or get married. The second option didn’t necessarily exempt me from service, unless there was a child.

With warmer weather more people are starting to arrive in the Park – mostly American visitors. But now that the Americans have declared war, they might not come up in the numbers of previous years. The Blechers from Buffalo should be here soon. They come in early May. Martin Blecher Sr. is retired. He comes with his wife, Louisa, for the summer. Their children, Martin and Bessie, come as well. By their age, they’re adults, but by their behaviour, that’s another matter. Martin Sr. is friendly, but the mother and children, they’re an odd lot. Not too friendly, Louisa likes to chase people off their leasehold, Martin makes a show of cleaning his guns in the boathouse, and Bessie screams louder than any creature that lives on Canoe Lake.

When I returned to Mowat Lodge, I entered through the back kitchen. Only Annie was there. She gave me a mischievous look, came close to me, with a wet cloth.

“Tom, you have a streak of paint on you. If it were any other colour than blue it’d look like someone smacked you on the side of your head! Let me take care of that.” Annie began to raise the cloth. Her touch through the cloth was gentle. As she wiped the paint off, I could feel the cloth’s warmth along the side of my left temple.

April 25, 1917 No Use Fighting

April 25, 1917

I made my sketched not too far from the Lodge today.  I was looking away from the lake. You can see the skeletons of a few dead pines from an afterburn and the groves of small birches. It’s the birches that always come in first.

I spent a long time talking to Mark Robinson today. We spent time together walking along the rails to clear any brush that might catch fire and to check on the bridges and trestles. No problems yet, the flood waters are starting to recede a little, but he’s still following orders by Bartlett to check the rails, bridges and trestles twice daily.

A troop train passed through and I could see Mark’s face cringe with sadness. I asked him about the War and said he was lucky to make his way back. Since he was one of the older men (almost 50 years) he was ordered to stay behind and let the younger ones fight. It was terrible to behold he said. He didn’t like talking about it, but he said one thing that really shook me. He said the deaths were completely useless. It accomplished nothing. He said it was the old men at home who started the war, while the young men would fight and die. And it was the old men who lived to glorify what the young men had sacrificed.

Mark told me (in confidence) that there was simply no use fighting. The British had no regard for the Dominion and Colonials. When the British ordered an attack it gave the German machine gunners straightforward work. Indeed you could see the disbelief in machine gunners’ eyes when the British sent wave over wave of young men to their deaths. If it wasn’t the German machine gun bullets that killed the men, it was British chlorine gas. A breeze in the wrong direction took out a whole regiment, killing one half, and blinding the other.

He said that when he took the shrapnel, it was a relief. Although wounded he knew he’d come back alive, and he did. The young fresh faces he saw going in the other direction, he knew they weren’t coming back. His view of the war had certainly changed. Mark didn’t really talk to anyone about his opinions and beliefs especially with George Bartlett. Mark respected authority and kept his mouth shut. But with me he was open and honest. He said, ‘Tom, get out while you have a chance’

I may pay a visit to Lowrie Dickson tonight. He has the only whisky in the Park.

April 24, 1917 Lead White

April 24, 1917

I took a walk this morning down Gilmour Road towards Gill Lake and then to Bonita Lake. This is the south end of the Canoe Lake that flows into Bonita and the start of the Oxtongue River. Because of Tea Lake Dam the water level is higher and connects the two lakes. I walked to below Tea Lake Dam when the Oxtongue River starts in earnest and I found a good place to paint. There was still some snow on the sides and the water level was high, but the flow was so furious that it was rapids without sight of any rocks. I was surprised at the amount of snow remaining. There’s nothing left out in the open by the lodge, but I keep discovering different parts of the Park can have different climates. Between two lakes, there can be a half season’s difference in the weather.

By the time I got back I had walked a good ten miles. The sun is getting earlier and stronger every day. It rises at the inhumane hour of 5am but this is supposed to change with the switch to Daylight Savings Time. This is supposed to be the first year for it, but the railways are against the time change so I doubt it will make any difference in the Park. It’s the trains that run the clocks around here.

Word is that things are getting tough in Toronto. They want to send the kids away during summer to help on the farms. The gardening clubs are gearing up too. I’m sure that the Arts and Letters Club is having its first of many gardening committee meetings. Gardening, which everyone did without question on the farm has now turned into a fashionable patriotic duty for the city folk. Oh, that shovelling horse manure should become a patriotic duty too, but the men of arts and letters have to draw the line somewhere. There are plenty of Macedonians for that.

Back at Mowat Lodge, the big topic under heavy debate was predicting the ice-out date. With all the snow and the cold spring so far, this is turning out to be one of the later years. It’s been as early as April 14 (since the arrival of the Frasers in 1908) but this year it’s going to be late. Shannon’s got a pool going and I wagered that it would be May 1st. The current debate centred on the exact determination of what ice-out means. We decided that it means that no ice can be seen across the lake from Mowat Lodge to Hayhurst Point. Shannon wanted to bring the prediction to an exact hour and therefore our definition of ice-out need to be more precise. We decided that from the vantage point of a chair on the top of the steps, looking through the area beneath the Mowat Lodge and the two poles on either side, this prescribed area needed to be free of ice for a period of one hour. When asked who would perform the duty of ice-out observer, Daphne offered up the services of her husband, Lt. Crombie, as he was out the verandah for the better part of each day. We all agreed and we outfitted Lt. Crombie with field glasses and a dinner bell to ring once the ice-out determination was made.

Everyone is in good spirits. It’s getting warmer and I’m glad of my circumstances here. Annie is switching into spring cleaning mode and I’m helping with some of the more arduous tasks. She likes the windows to be cleaned on the outside in the spring and the fall, so I volunteered to climb on the roof of the verandah and clean the windows on the second floor. And I’ll kill two birds with one stone – I’ll fix the roof shingles for Shannon.

Before my walk in the morning, I wrote a letter to Tom, my brother-in-law. It went out with noon mail. In the afternoon mail I got a letter from Florence. I got a letter from Florence. Annie made sure I got it as soon as I got back. I’m sure Annie was worried that Florence’s letter, left unattended in the post office, might set other letters on fire. So she wanted it out of there as fast as could be. Florence confirmed that she’s coming in early May. She’s asked me to reserve a room for her at Mowat Lodge. She’s decided not to stay at the Algonquin Hotel. Too expensive, and she wants to be closer to me.

I also got a parcel from Jim MacDonald. Jim’s wife sent along a jar of preserves made from the garden, black currant jam. Jim sent me four tubes of white – twice as many as I asked for. I’m glad he did because the boards made from the crates are gobbling up more than their fair share of paint, especially lead white.

April 23, 1917 Letter to Tom Harkness

April 23, 1917

Mowat P.O. Algonquin Park

April 23, 1917
Tom Harkness
Aldersyde Farm, North of Anna

Dear Tom,

I have been here over three weeks and have done considerable work for that length of time.

I got a copy of the O.S. Sun and it seemed to be well filled with bunk, however the foolishness of newspaper matter is well known and I knew nothing about it in time to have it stopped.

I have been talking to the people here at the Post office about pigs. Have been advising them to get about 6 or 8 small ones and keep them till fall, which they could do without much expense and hang them up for the winter.

Supposing they decide to try it out, what would they have to pay for the pigs and where would be the place to send for them-and could they be shipped by express or freight any distance.

Am staying at the P.O. until the ice goes out of the lakes which I expect it to do sometime this week then I will be camping again for the rest of the summer. I have not applied for the fire rangers job this year as it interferes with sketching to the point of stopping it all together so in my case it does not pay. In other words I can have a much better time sketching and fishing and be further ahead in the end.

I may possibly go out on the Canadian Northern this summer to paint the Rockies but have not made all the arrangements yet. If I go it will be in July and August.

We still have a foot or two of snow on the north side of the hills yet but another week we’ll see the end of it, and we have nearly another month before my friends the black flies are here. The leaves do not come here before May 24th and often not until on in June.

Well I will get this started towards Annan.  Hoping you are all well there. I remain

your aff. brother,

Tom Thomson