May 8, 1917 Letter to Dr MacCallum

May 8, 1917

Mowat Lodge P.O.

Dr. MacCallum,

Dear Sir,

Could you not stop off at Canoe Lake on your way up. It is eight miles this side of the Highland Inn and is the best starting point going either north or south. If you wanted to see the outfit at Cache Lake would you come back to Canoe Lake on the afternoon train which leaves there at about 2:30 pm and you would be back here in about 20 minutes otherwise I would have to pack the outfit over about 2 or 3 miles portage and we would have it back again where we could see the same place from Smoke Lake going light.

You can get any extra blankets or stuff from Fraser and I have all the supplies including:

1 gallon maple syrup, pail of jam, plenty bacon, potatoes, Bread tea, sugar, all kinds of canned stuff, tents, canoes cooking outfit plates etc. I tried to get some chocolate and failed have no Klim, & no coffee. That I think is everything we need for two or three weeks including Williamson. The weather for the last two days has been fine and warm.

Will expect you either Friday or Saturday and will not go over to Highland Inn unless you want specially to start out from there.

If the weather is bad, we may arrange to get in one of the Rangers Shelter Huts.

Yours Truly

Tom Thomson

May 7, 1917 Chocolate, Evaporated Milk, Bacon and Ham

May 7, 1917

The morning  mail brought a letter from Dr. MacCallum. He is planning to come up with his son, Arthur to do a canoe trip. He’s asked me to organize some of the details and write him back. My proposal is the Friday or Saturday before Victoria Day (around the 19th) and go for a three or four day canoe trip. I haven’t yet told him of my intention to have an art show on Victoria Day. Anything more than a week’s trip would be a bit too ambitious for him. I’m sure I can convince him that three or four days will suffice.

The canoes are fine. I have my own and the Doctor will rent one from the Frasers. He is coming with his son. To even the company out, I’ll ask Charlie Scrim to come along. We’ll be two to each canoe. Charlie is not a hundred percent fit (TB), but his canoeing is quite good so we’ll be able to switch parties between the four of us with no combination having a big disadvantage. The trout fishing should be good, so we don’t need to take too much bacon or ham.  I’ll need bread, tea, sugar, plus canned stuff. Chocolate is hard to get. So is coffee and the evaporated milk (canned is rare, but I may be able to get the powder). He is not sure about staying at Mowat Lodge, prefers the Highland Inn instead. I mentioned that to Shannon, and he said it’s easier to start the Canoe trip here instead of hauling everything to Cache Lake. I’ll write in my reply to convince him to stay at Mowat Lodge.

The later the spring is, the harder it is to sketch. When it’s cold and wintry, it’s yourself, the isolation and the resolve to paint. Later in the spring, everyone and everything is curious about what you’re doing. I was sketching when three deer came up looking for something to eat. The Colsons have made it a habit to feed the deer by the Hotel and they’re becoming tamer by the day. First they come to the Hotel and then they wander down to the Lodge looking for more. I feel sorry for these deer because when the deer-kill starts, they’ll be the first to go. The gnats and ants have also taken an interest in my sketching. It’s either the smell or the crumbs left in my pockets that they’re attracted to.

Shannon got a letter from the Trainors that they will be coming on the 18th. Hugh asked Shannon to check the cottage out and make any minor repairs so they won’t have any surprises when they come. Usually cottage neighbours do this for each other, but the Blechers have made a point of being so unfriendly, there is not a bone of reciprocity left between them and everyone else near Mowat Lodge. I’m not sure what it is, but I think the rich American tourist attitude has rubbed off on them. They’re quite willing to pay for services rendered, but it’s beneath their pride to think of Park employees or residents as equals who help each other out in times of need.

I’ll help Shannon out with getting the Trainor cottage ready. There shouldn’t be any issues. The biggest problem with cottages around these parts are wildlife (squirrels and chipmunks) getting in and making a mess, or poachers breaking in and stealing any useful stuff that’s not nailed down to the wall. Every once in awhile, a closed up cottage burns up during winter. The only possibility is a poacher that was careless or wants to cover his tracks once he’s stolen everything he needs. I’ll also help clear up the shore in front of the cottage. After the spring flooding it’s a mess of logs branches, rotten bark, left high on the shore. It makes the shore look like hell, but after a solid couple hours of work, I’ll have consolidated enough for a spectacular bonfire. After a couple more days of drying, it’ll be ready for burning. For me, it’s the lighting of shore bonfire that marks the beginning of a new season. Once the bonfire is lit, it will no longer be spring.

I should also add that all of the snow is gone now. I looked hard earlier today in the bush and in the northern facing hills. All that remains of winter are the snowmelt lakes (glorified ponds) that will turn into marshy spots. The peepers love these little lakes and they try to do their thing and procreate before it dries up and they have to move on. There’s no other creature (besides a spring-sketching artist) that is governed by the sensitive timing of spring. Things too early or things too late can be a disaster either way. But so far, everything is timing quite well.

The floor in the bush is still brown with the leaves of the previous fall. The trilliums and wildflowers are pushing out everywhere and there are the occasional shoots of grass. The flowers have to quickly take advantage of the light before the trees leaf out and there’s no light left. As I wrote earlier, in springtime, everything is sensitive to timing and rhythm. That applies to trees, peepers and wildflowers. I explained the importance of timing and rhythm to Daphne. And that’s why I’m glad of the timing that Florence is off to Ottawa, and it’s another week before the Trainors and Winnie arriving.

May 6, 1917 Florence Leaves

May 6, 1917

Today was fine and warm. The first real warm day of spring. Today was also the day that Florence left for Ottawa. She took the morning train. I brought her up with Shannon’s wagon. The road is still a bit muddy, so Shannon didn’t want me to use his ‘luxury coach’ (a decommissioned hearse, actually). I saw Florence off. She is planning to stay with relatives in Ottawa and visit the National Gallery. She plans to see Eric Brown, the director of the Gallery. After Ottawa, she’ll go back to Whitby and is doubtful whether she’ll go back to Toronto for the next foreseeable while.

Because I was so busy, I didn’t write that much these past few days. I was spending all my time with Florence. It was her first time up North so she wanted to see the sights around the Lodge and the Hotel. She thought that Shannon was a rather odd character, and she felt a bit awkward with Annie, who seemed to be keeping an eye on her every moment. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the rustic feel of the place and said it had a similar feeling to some of the artist colonies that she stayed with while she was in Europe. I laughed, because I was the only so-called artist at this art colony, and I probably wouldn’t be there for long.

We went out sketching several times and she was quite surprised and pleased with the plein-air techniques I had been developing. I told her that, with the cold and fast changing light, once a sketch was started, there was always a feeling of urgency to complete before the scene disappeared. You needed to ignore the detail to capture the essence. She did a couple of sketches herself, which she attempted with a palette knife only (no brushes). It was quite the experiment. We didn’t keep the boards, we scraped them, and I’ll use them later on.

We talked about my paintings I left in the shack back in Toronto. We agreed that despite me saying that I was painting what I saw there was a considerable decorative aspect to the canvases. I was studying numerous Tiffany stained glass works at the time, and I admitted that I wanted to convey similar effects on the canvas by combining two dimensional foreground figure with a background composed as I had seen it. She was right. I wasn’t here to record spring as daily record. I was here to convey my feelings about spring as a daily record.

As I was waiting with her for the train, she gave me an invitation card to her next show. Mark Robinson arrived at the station to the meet the train, so I introduced Florence. Mark was very cordial and  genuinely interested in having a conversation, but the train arrived and he left to attend to the arriving passengers.

I bid Florence goodbye. I helped her with her luggage and before boarding the the train, she turned and gave me a hug and a light kiss on my cheek. She was mindful that the others on the platform were watching, and likely little Rosie from the second floor of the station. I can’t deny that it didn’t cross my mind that I should go with Florence to Ottawa. But we both knew better because of the circumstances.

When I returned my room, I put Florence’s invitation in my sketch box. I’ll keep it close at hand to remind me what I have learned from her.

May 5, 1917 A Few Sentences

May 5, 1917

Just a few sentences before I turn in for the night. Busy all day with Florence. We sketched in the morning in front of the Lodge. In the afternoon we went for a walk in the paths behind the Lodge. Shannon was gone all day. No idea where he was. Annie was worried, but not enough to ask me to look. He’ll turn up.

Sketches are piling up. I have over 40 at last count. In prior years I usually sell a good number of boards to tourists, but none so far this year.  Since I have so many, Florence says it is a good idea to have an exhibition. She’s having one when she gets back to Toronto. Annie gave Florence’s dress back. It took the night to dry on the kitchen line.

May 4, 1917 Cloisonnism

May 4, 1917

Florence and I spent most of our time outside today. The sun was out and it was well into the fifties. We didn’t stray too far from the Lodge but we were far enough away to not be bothered.

Annie, on Shannon’s behalf, apologized about Florence getting her skirt muddy (we had to walk back through the mud yesterday because Shannon got the wagon stuck) She offered to launder it in the morning. As the sun would be out with a drying wind, it would be back to its clean state by this afternoon. I could see that Annie was quite gracious about setting right yesterday’s incident and making Florence feel comfortable as a guest. Unlike Shannon, Annie has a keen sense when things feel wrong and knows what to do make things feel right. She’s the counterbalance to Shannon and Mowat Lodge’s secret to success.

After breakfast, Florence looked through my sketches . I had over a dozen set about in the dining room. Some were sitting in the window sills, others were propped atop the wainscoting, or against the wall in the corner where the reading chair was.

Florence looked closely at the northern lights sketch, “Tom, did you use a palette knife on this one?”

I reached over and with my fingers traced over the lines I painted, “No, I used a filbert. It was cold, in the low teens, the paint was stiff. A palette knife might have done a better job.”

“Oh no!” I could hear the delight in her voice, “A frozen filbert brush has done the job nicely. It’s a good effect.”

I admire Florence. Despite her time in Paris, she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a painter here. She could have stayed there and become a European painter, like so many other artists from here, but she decided to come back.

“The weather’s good now. No telling when it’s going to turn. Let’s get our paints and go out.” And we went out into the sunshine and wind.

Before we did any sketching, we walked to get the feel and sense of the place. We walked up to Lowrie Dickson’s place – the road was dry to there. Then we came back and set up by the old mill foundation. We were on a rocky outcropping that made for a good view. I was considering bringing Florence in the canoe but the water was still too cold and treacherous. I had only been out for one excursion and I needed to be sure of my sense in the water before I took on passengers, especially women. A heavy winter dress in cold water is a sure death sentence at this time of year. I didn’t want to take that chance.

We both made sketches using the smaller boards I cut from the orange crates. I painted a stand of birches. She painted the far shore to the east.

“Cloisonnism. A good scene for that, Tom.”

I knew exactly what Florence meant. Bold colours, compartmented, decorative. Like stained glass. Like Gaugin and his painting “The Yellow Christ.” Symbolism, bold colours, flat planes. Deliberately crude and simplified. Heresy to many, but a depiction more truthful than anything before. I learned all that from Florence.

We spent that afternoon painting and on our way back, we picked a wildflower bouquet. Dinner was better and friendlier. We played some cards and checkers in the evening. Shannon kept us entertained with his story of extracting his wagon out of the mud. George Rowe had helped him out. Shannon left out the best part of the story – that he ended up at Lowrie Dickson’s shack for the better part of the afternoon drinking with the boys. That’s why he was late for dinner yesterday and why Shannon’s family decided to eat separately in the kitchen –  because he was drunk.

When the evening was done, Florence made sure that she went to her room on her own. I waited awhile before I went up. My timing, my ascent, and my footsteps on the upper floor were most certainly monitored by Annie. I went to my own room, making a loud noise closing my door. Certain that Annie can ascertain my precise whereabouts – for the first part of night, at least.

May 3, 1917 Florence Arrives

May 3, 1917

Florence arrived on the train this afternoon. She’s spending a few days here at Mowat Lodge and then continuing on to Ottawa to stay with relatives.

I went with Shannon to pick her up at the station. The ground has dried enough that he can drive his wagon up to the station but the road is still muddy and we got stuck on the way back. I carried Florence’s luggage but she had to walk through the mud and her skirt was a muddy affair by the time she reached the Lodge.

Florence got a room upstairs near the middle. The Crombies are at the far end, and Charlie Scrim is in between. Her room is closer to mine than Annie had intended but far enough in her mind to guarantee that no untoward activities would happen during the night.

Dinner was a rather awkward affair. The Frasers decided to have their dinner in the kitchen and serve the ‘guests’ in the dining room: Florence, Daphne, Robin, Charlie and me. The consumptives were served in their rooms.

Daphne and Robin left promptly for their room after dinner. That left me, Florence and Charlie to sit by the fireplace for the rest of the evening. Annie came out to clear away the dishes. I could tell she was agitated. She broke the vase I painted for Daphne. I believe it was intentional.

Tomorrow I will show Florence around the place, but tonight it is a matter of making her feel comfortable and welcome.

May 2, 1917 Brook Trout

May 2, 1917

Brook trout are God’s best fish. Anglers have a saying that after God practiced on other fish he made brook trout. I caught three today – two four-pounders and a fiver.

As soon as the ice breaks (that was yesterday) is when it’s the best time for brook trout. They like the cold, fast water and they’re near the shore in the spring looking for insects. With my fly rod and new flies I caught the trout by Joe Lake. I cast the fly, let it zig-zag a couple of times and let it drop on the surface. That’s when they usually strike. It’s a rarity for them to jump out and strike at your fly while it’s in motion but that’s what one of four-pounders did. There’s no better way to catch a fish.

It should be good fishing near the shore for the next couple of weeks, then the trout will be heading to deeper water. As summer moves in, the trout move deeper and that’s when you need to use copper trolling wire and the shiny lures. That type of fishing will come soon enough, but I am enjoying the catching right now.

I received a letter from Florence and she will be arriving on Friday staying at the Lodge. Annie’s got a room set out for her, on the other side of the building. It’s about the farthest room from my room. Although Florence is nothing more than a good friend of mine, I can see that Annie plans to keep it that way. I’m sure during the night she’ll set tripwires and bells.

The frogs are now making a racket. They call them Spring Peepers and they are loud. We’ll have to contend with the noise for the better part of the month.

May 1, 1917 Ice-Out

May 1, 1917

The ice went out today. There was a wind last night which broke up the big pieces and by the morning came around the ice had floated down the lake. There’s ice jammed up down toward Bonita Lake. When there’s jams near dwellings, the solution is to dynamite before it gets out of hand. Mark Robinson has been keeping a close eye on things and he doesn’t expect that he’ll need to dynamite anything anytime soon. With the open water, I’m getting myself ready to canoe. I got my canoe out of the storehouse and brought it down by the dock (or what’s left of it by the lake). Mowat Lodge is a good 250 yards from the shore, but the Frasers have a dock and a boat shed not too far from the Trainor cottage. I was tempted to go in the water today, but with ice just being broken and jams, the currents could be unpredictable. I still recall the news when my Uncle Brodie’s son died on the Assiniboine River near Winnipeg. His son (only son) was 19 at the time, doing field work with Ernest Thompson Seton, when his canoe capsized. He swam to the shore, but they didn’t have a rope to rescue him. When they came back with a rope, he was nowhere to be found and they found the body the next day. I think of that every spring, and pay good respect to the cold waters and currents. There’s at least one death every other year or so. I don’t want to be one of those.

As I was down by the dock, I noticed activity by the Blecher Cottage. I was surprised that they were here already. They usually don’t come until later in May. But with Martin Sr. being retired and his son Martin Jr. not being gainfully employed, they have the flexibility to come earlier. I’m wrong about Martin Jr., he is gainfully employed. The last I heard he was employed by one of those detective agencies, but I think his real job was to bust union heads when requested. I think the real reason they are here early, is so he can avoid the draft in the US. I never liked the man, and I doubt I will take a liking to him this summer. I don’t like his mother, either. Louisa Blecher is a territorial battle-axe. She chases anyone off their lease, and won’t let anyone land on the sandy shore to the south of their cottage. She can have her dream of a tinpot kingdom in the middle of Park. I’ll just stay well enough away. Bessie, the daughter, is here too. She’s a school teacher (substitute, mostly). I guess summer’s come early for her too. To sum up, the Blechers aren’t the most pleasant lot, but when they keep to themselves they are bearable. But the one thing that gets everyone up in arms is when they raise the US flag on their pole. Regulations are that the Provincial or Dominion flag must fly with the US flag and be the higher one. Mark Robinson has reminded them several times that this is the case. But they’re back doing the same thing again this year. Someone is agitating with a cause. It doesn’t help that they are of German background. It’s ironic, that since they are Americans, they have more rights than Germans here in Canada. That’s the strange justice of warring nations. Once I brought my canoe down to the Trainor cottage, I went back to the lodge to get my sketching gear. Upon my return to the dock, Daphne Crombie caught sight of me and came down to talk to me. I made sure I could see her husband from the corner of my eye. Although he was laid up on the porch, I could tell he was watching us closely, and I’m not sure he’s pleased with these encounters. Daphne asked me the usual questions about painting, art, etc., and then asked if it was time yet to go on the wildflower picking expedition. I smiled at her, but didn’t answer that question. I finished my sketch and was quite pleased with it. I’ll have enough for my own spring exhibition soon.

Our conversation was interrupted by a bell-ringing coming from the verandah. It was Lt. Crombie frantically ringing the bell. At first I thought he was ringing the bell to interrupt Daphne and me and head off any potential transgression. But then I realized the frantic bell-ringing indicated the ice-out.

Canoe Lake is officially ice-free.