April 3, 1917 Heading for the Hills

April 3, 1917

1917 Winter Thaw

There’s still lots of snow on the north side of the hills. That’s where I decided to go today.

“Heading for the hills?” Shannon asked me as I was going out the door.

“Yes, heading for the hills,” I replied.  Shannon had a grin of his face because he knew that was a loaded phrase. It’s used a lot in those serial newspaper stories to describe criminals and, more recently, shirkers trying to escape serving overseas. Since Mowat Lodge was already in the hills here in the Park, it was a pretty apt phrase.

During breakfast, we got to talking about the Rockies. One of the guests had a tourist book that had a chapter on Jasper Park. The railways had figured out these attractions were good for business and Grand Trunk Pacific was building hotels out west like the Chateau Laurier and the Highland Inn. I’ve been thinking that it would be a good idea to go out to the Rockies. I passed through the Rockies when I went out to Seattle and when I returned back home. I never stopped to paint but I should have. Three years ago in 1914, Alex Jackson and Bill Beatty got a commission from the railways to paint the Rockies while they were laying new tracks. Alex said he was excited at first, but railway wouldn’t let him paint too far from the tracks and it became a bore. When he returned in fall, Alex told me that mountain painting wasn’t in his line.

So, heading for the hills, I walked along Potter Creek, I crossed the tracks at Canoe Lake Station, kept north along Joe Lake shore until I was nearly at Tepee Lake. On the north side of a hill I found a small ridge with birch trees casting shadows on the snow and earth. The different colours caught my eye, the reddish rock, damp earlier in the morning, was not freshly dried in the sun. There was a patch of wet earth and the deep blue shadows of the trees cast on the snow. These shadows are a mystic deep blue. You only see these types of shadows in the spring. It’s an illusion of dispersion. From what I can tell, the blue comes from within the tiny crystals that make up the snow that has been beaten up by the strong spring light. It’s similar to the blue from the sky, scattered light, and it’s like the blue of blue jay feathers. Up close, their feathers are gray, but from far off, they’re blue because the feathers scatter the light. Colours. Illusion or reality. Is there any difference?

Behind these illusions I could see a wedge of another blue in the distance – behind the birches in the foreground. It was the open water between Joe and Teepee Lake, at a narrow point where the water was running fast, reflecting the warm blue of the sky and turning the lake a fearful cold blue . If you fell into that water, you’d be pulled under the ice and be dead in a minute. It’s springtime, we’ll soon be hearing word of those types of deaths in the Park, usually from the lumber camps. And a month after that, when the ice is all gone and the water back down, the bodies will appear, either caught above a dam, or found in the lake below.

When I finished, I felt good about this sketch. I liked it.  This was going to be a solid addition to the growing series of sketches I laid out in the Mowat Lodge dining room. I packed up and wiped down my brushes. This sketch was the regular size, so I slide it back into my sketch box. My box can hold 3 sketches, with the grooves spaced to hold them apart. I have a cigar box that I use for my smaller-sized sketches, but it can only hold one.

Upon my return, I found a letter on my dresser in my room. It was from Florence. Hand-delivered by Annie, to my room. Thankfully, it hadn’t been opened, as far as I could tell. I once told Annie, observing her aghast expression, that the censors were no longer opening mail bound to Algonquin Park. Needless to say, I still had to hide my letters, so they weren’t subjected to a post-opening perusal.

I read Florence’s letter before I changed out of my painting clothes. She’s planning visit me here  on May 4th for the weekend.  She’s asked me to arrange a room for her. She also wrote that her exhibition in Toronto went very well and she is going to Ottawa afterwards and stay with family. I realized that Winnie might be up that weekend too and it would be terribly awkward to have both of them around.  I’ll have to write them both so the plans don’t clash.

After supper, I tried to play a game of chess with Shannon. It wasn’t much fun, because he doesn’t reason out his  moves and he leaves his pieces hanging. Five minutes into the game he was down a Rook and two Knights for a pawn. I made short work of his material disadvantage, captured his Queen and checkmate two moves later. Shannon, with a big grin on his face, blithely kept digging the hole deeper hole. I must say that Shannon can lose with great grace.

After the game, we reconciled my victory and his defeat with two shots of whisky each. Moving outside onto the veranda, we proceeded to have a good smoke with our pipes. Through the haze of smoke, and in the failing light, we observed the chip yard, and beyond, the final remains of the Gilmour sawmill. Dead tree stumps, piles of creosote rail ties, and torn up spurs, punctuate the landscape; a spectacle and monument to bygone glory days and vanished optimism. The evening light failed into a beautiful sheen of Indian yellow deep.  It can be said that the view from Mowat Lodge is at its best when the light has failed.

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