July 8th, 2017 Canoe With The Ghost of Tom Thomson 100 Years On

On July 8th,2017 celebrate Tom Thomson’s limitless legacy by paddling in the path of Canada’s most celebrated painter during his final hours in 1917, 100 years later.

I have been invited by the Portage Store to accompany their experienced guide who will give an orientation talk about Algonquin Park and provide thorough instructions on canoeing. I will tell the story of Tom’s last days as we trace his final hours to the very location he was last seen 100 years ago. I will tell you of the mystery, including a new theory on how Tom may have met his demise on that gloomy, rainy day on July 8th, 1917.

We’ll start at the docks, 10 am, along the way, we will break for a tasty shoreline lunch and then paddle our way back. The trip finishes back at The Portage Store at 3:30 pm.

If you wish to come along, please visit this page for further details and to confirm your reservation.

affectionately,

‘Tom’

June 30, 1917 Letter to Winnie Trainor

June 30, 1917

Mowat P.O.

Winnie Trainor, Huntsville

Dear Winnie,

I could not make the reservation at Billie Bear Lodge. We must meet in South River instead. I’ve sent some of my gear to the Wattie family and we can leave from there. I am planning to be at the New Queen’s Hotel on Saturday, July 14th. I plan to leave from Mowat Lodge on Sunday the 8th by canoe and make my way to South River. You can take the train early Saturday and meet me there. On Sunday, we can take the train to North Bay or to the Soo to catch a lake steamer.

Affectionately,

Tom

June 29, 1917 Letter to Arthur Lismer

June 29, 1917

Mowat Lodge P.O
Arthur Lismer, Halifax

Dear Arthur,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I have done no sketching since the flies started. I have been doing some guiding but not as much as I would like. I had some Americans a couple of weeks ago and I have had some political men from Ottawa. There’s word that the Province might allow deer hunting to feed the troops at the front. There’s lots of deer, some are calling it an infestation, like the wolves, better eliminated for good of mankind, they say. I’m not sure of that. I get along with the wildlife quite well.

I am getting along with folks here at Canoe Lake. Shannon Fraser is up to his shenanigans, but Annie keeps him in line. With the Temperance Act it is hard to get liquor unless a doctor prescribes, but Shannon seems to know where to get a good supply. I am sure Mark Robinson knows, but he has been away since mid June and turns a blind eye if there’s no trouble. It’s Martin Blecher not Shannon that’s the trouble. Always fighting with his sister, and is always looking to throw a punch at you if you say something a little untoward.

I am considering going out West later this summer. I received word that John McRuer is terribly sick and might not last out the year. Terrible shame. Later July, early August I am planning a trip to Temagami with Tom Wattie. I’ve sent him some equipment.  I may not return to Canoe Lake but instead go to Ottawa for a few days. I may go visit my folks in Owen Sound. I didn’t see them this Spring.

The War is going on and on and I don’t like the talk of conscription. Maybe it’s time to move on.

Give my regards to your family.

Yours Truly,

Tom Thomson

June 28, 1917 Day on the Lake with Charlie Scrim

June 28, 1917

I spent the day on the lake with Charlie Scrim. Like my friend John McRuer, Charlie has the consumption. Things aren’t looking good for him either. I just assumed he had gone away for a few days excursion but he said that he went back to Ottawa to get checked by the doctor. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctor told him to go back to Mowat Lodge and enjoy the time that he had left. There is nothing more that the doctor can do – it is now in the hands of God and Nature.

Yesterday, when I came by Mowat Lodge, Charlie was alone on the verandah. He was in a sorry state. He was coughing, but more worrying was the expression in his eyes. He seems to have given up hope. To lift his spirits, I said I would take him out fishing today.

We went out in the morning. I canoed over from my campsite, left my canoe at the Mowat dock, close to the Trainors and the Blechers, and fetched Charlie. He was finishing breakfast, so I had a cup of tea while he was getting ready. We were out for a good two hours before he got tired out. We were trawling in the middle of the lake with the copper line and lures, but we didn’t catch anything.

“Looks like the fish aren’t cooperating today.” Charlie looked at me with a wry smile. It was his smile that made the whole effort worth it. I didn’t really care about the fish in this circumstance.

“Well, Charlie. Sometime fishing’s not about catching the fish,” I said.

“I don’t think I have too much time left, Tom.”

“That makes two of us, Charlie,” I replied, “I don’t think time is on either of our sides.”

“What do you mean, Tom?” Charlie looked puzzled.

“Conscription. I heard it’s going to be law by the end of the summer.”

Charlie nodded and we continued to fish in silence. Neither of us needed to say anything more on the topic. I brought Charlie back to the Lodge by noon. Annie invited me for lunch. I obliged. Shannon was there too. He didn’t have much to say. I knew that Annie’s invitation for lunch would end up being a charge on my account.

I went back to my campsite in the afternoon. Although the sun had been out a few times, the days had been mostly rainy and damp. The tent canvas never dried properly and started to smell. If the sun wasn’t out tomorrow, I’d have to build a fire to dry the canvas out. If I waited any longer, the canvas would be ruined. Another situation where time was not on my side.

I had to finalize my plan with Winnie. I needed to write her a letter and get Lowrie to deliver it. I am too tired tonight, maybe tomorrow I’ll write it. I notice that there are no voices coming from Little Wap Island tonight. No lights either. The Stattens must be gone. I’m sure the Howlands will be arriving tomorrow.  The Robinsons too.

June 26, 1917 Timber Everywhere

June 26, 1917

I woke up at daybreak. I was awakened by the howling of wolves in the hills not too far from my camp. It started with a few short yelps, followed by a lengthy and dismal howl. Usually, it’s only at night that the wolves can be heard. My only thought was that the pups are starting to get more adventurous and one of them might have gotten lost and the mother was looking for it. When the pups get older, they are taken out of the den and put into a ‘playpen’ a low lying open area where they stay while the older ones hunt. It’s not unusual for one of them to wander off. I’ve come across a few pups around this time of year. It’s better to leave them alone because sooner or later the mother will catch up to them. The yelps and howls went for another few minutes and then they stopped.

I decided to make a venture up through Joe Lake again today. I went into Little Joe when I heard a loud whack on the water. I knew exactly what that was, a beaver warning everyone within a quarter mile that danger was present. The beavers never dive without a warning, making a noise for everyone to hear.

There is timber everywhere. The rapids are choked with timber and one cannot canoe without the constant danger of encountering a deadhead or a sharp broken trunk ready to puncture anything that comes in its way. There are several spots between the lakes and on the rivers where the knots of driftwood and timber are so thick that you need to portage around them.

I find myself paying close attention to all this detail in nature. Minutiae as most would say, but it keeps my mind off other affairs. The present industry of the beaver on the lakes has much significance to me than the battles overseas. A dam that makes the water levels rise has more meaning than a trench dug into some foreign soil.

I make my way back to Joe Lake Dam. Despite my success in catching all those trout on Canoe Lake for the Colsons. I am determined to catch the big trout that inhabit the deep waters below the dam at Joe Lake. It’s a battle of wits, patience and cunning.

June 25, 1917 Difficult Trout

June 25, 1917

I was talking to Ed and Molly Colson this morning. They had a large number of guests coming in from Buffalo tomorrow and they wanted to serve them fresh caught trout. Unfortunately, they had little luck catching anything and Ed asked me if could try tonight. I said it would be my pleasure and they would have a dozen fresh trout by tomorrow.

Trout in Canoe Lake are difficult to catch at this time of year, either by angling or trawling. Catching by fly is a non-starter too. The only way to catch trout is with a night line.

The first thing  I had to do was to catch a couple of dozen minnows. This was easy enough to do with bread crumbs and a few tiny pieces of pork. Within the course of a quarter-hour I had a pail full of minnows and I was ready for the next stage of the venture.

I used my long trawling line – the copper wire. I unwound the wire and every five or six feet I put a line of three feet with a hook on the end. I put on fourteen lines in total. I knew of a good spot for trout. I took with me a half dozen short cedar logs, about eight-inches each. These would act as floats. I attached a line of about thirty feet to the end of the trawling line and secured this one with a stone. I unwound the line and  baited each hook-line with a minnow. Every five or six feet I attached a cedar log to act as a float. When I was finished unwinding the trawl line, I attached another 30 foot line to a stone. And there it was in the lake, the entire contraption – the night line.

I went back about 6 o’clock this morning, and sure enough the cedar logs were twirling and dancing like water striders. I pulled up the the trawling line and I had trout on twelve of the fourteen hooks. Two were lucky to have gotten away but the caught ones were a nice size. The largest almost two and half feet long. I put the dozen trout on a line and delivered to them Molly. She was most gracious and said she would arrange a credit for me at Annie Colson’s outfitting store.

June 24, 1917 Rules of the Ouija Board

June 24, 1917

It rained today.  I was still at my campsite and I could tell it was the type of rain that was going to last all day. The rain started lightly in the early morning but by the later morning it was steady and harder. The rain made bubbles on the surface of the lake. When you see bubbles on the water you know it’s going to rain steady for a long time. I’d have to spend the day holed up in my tent so I packed up my gear and set out for Mowat Lodge in my canoe. Most likely I’ll be staying here for the next couple of days, judging by the weather. I could stay in my camp, but to be truthful, no matter the resolve of an outdoorsman, if there’s a prospect of a roof and a reasonably soft bed nearby in weather like this, it is the better option to take.

I set out onto the water.  The surface on Canoe Lake was as smooth as could be, save for the millions of bubbles made by the millions of raindrops coming down. Everything was quiet, save for incessant tapping noise of the raindrops that permeated everything. My bailing tin (a Chum Tobacco tin) joined in the chorus but its performance was short-lived because I needed it to bail out the rainwater.

My destination was Mowat Lodge, but I decided to go to Lowrie Dickson’s place first. Not sure what prompted the change in  plans but I sensed that I had some unfinished business to attend to. Or I needed some whisky.

The rain came down harder and harder. The rain clouds descended from the sky and hung low over the water. It was hard to see through the rain and clouds and it felt like the distinction between heaven and earth had disappeared leaving only an amorphous expanse of gray. My only connection to this world was the sound of my paddle dipping and slicing through the water. I imagined that this was the first day of Creation, before the Light.  It could have been the afterlife too. Perhaps the essence of life is about colours and anything before and after is just a mass expanse of gray – just like the trenches in Europe. I didn’t like the line of thinking I was falling into. ‘Live the colours as long as you can,” I thought to myself.

When I arrived at Lowrie’s shack, I shook myself out of my thoughts. The rain was dripping furiously off the brim of my felt hat and my mackinaw trousers were soaked through. I had on my canvas shoes with the rubber bottoms; the once-white uppers are now a dingy gray. More gray. But I was I was thankful I wasn’t wearing my shoepacks because they’d stink to high heaven.

There was a light on inside and Lowrie Dickson came out to greet me.

“G’day, Tom”

“G’morning, Lowrie,” I replied.

“C’mon in. What brings you here?”

I explained that I was headed to Mowat Lodge because of the rain, but decided to drop by for a social call first. We went inside. Without missing a beat, Lowrie produced two tin cups on the table with a lick of whisky in each.

“Here’s to a rainy afternoon!” I bowed to Lowrie’s toast and another two licks of whisky were in the cups.

Lowrie said that after we had our Ouija board session a couple of weeks ago, he decided to look into the rules. A guest at Hotel Algonquin wrote them down for Lowrie. The guest warned him that the spirits got downright ornery if the rules weren’t followed.

Lowrie showed me the piece of paper. There were five of them.

Rule 1: Never play the Ouija board alone. As I recall there were at least three of us, Lowrie, George Rowe and me. We had a lot of whisky to drink I remember.

Check.

Rule 2: Do not allow the planchette to count down through the numbers or backwards through the alphabet. I don’t remember anything of the sort. I remember some numbers being counted out: 7 and 8. That’s counting forward by my numbering system.

Check.

Rule 3: Always place a silver object upon the Ouija board. I knew you were supposed to do this, but I did not know it was a cardinal rule. I had a lure in my pocket which I set out. I made it from one of Annie’s discarded spoons (I found it in the pile of potato peelings out back). Originally came from the Highland Inn, it was silver to be sure.

Check.

Rule 4: Never ever mention ‘God’.  We were good on that one too. Lowrie and George make a practice of only mentioning the lower-cased ‘god’ in conjunction with ‘damned’ or ‘forsaken’. I don’t recall any religious rites or swearing on that evening.

Check

Rule 5: When you’re done playing, say ‘goodbye.’ I think we did, but I wasn’t sure.

Lowrie looked at me. He had fear in his eyes. I looked back at him.

“Lowrie, it’s a parlour game. You think the spirits are going to come after us?”

At that very moment, a blinding flash of light came through the window. Less than a second later, a hideous crack of thunder shook the cabin. .Another flash – out the window, lightning struck the lake, where I had been in my canoe, not more than an hour ago. This time the crack of thunder was piercing and deafening. It was simultaneous with the lightning. The thunderstorm was on top of of us. What I wouldn’t give to have my paints now. I’d be outside painting in the storm. If the storm took me, so be it.

After a few minutes, the storm had passed, but the fear was still in Lowrie’s eyes.

“A storm like that is going to take me to my grave.”

“Lowrie, don’t worry the damn spirits of the Ouija board. I’m sure the both of us will be around for a long time. Let’s have another whisky.”