March 26, 1917 Early Spring

March 26, 1917


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.

After a hike in the bush, I climbed the hill to Mowat Cemetery and I got in a good sketch. I was at a good height that gave a good view of the far hills across Canoe. Mowat Lodge was down below, but the angle from where I was sketching from, I could not see its buildings. Further east, toward the near shore, I could see the square dots of cottages, ragged spruces, and a dark line of melt and runoff making a division between the land and water, of what was, only a few days ago, a white expanse of winter snow. A good picture.

I didn’t get back to Mowat Lodge before 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. I was in pretty good spirits, but regardless, I let Shannon down. I was hoping my good disposition would rub off on him.

Anyway, Shannon had Lowrie 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 Canoe Lake labour market is limited and they’re assured of regular employment with Shannon, whatever the foul-up. As for me, the 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.

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 was good enough for us. So long as 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 Lowrie 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 Lowrie and George. They live in the shacks on the mill property. Lowrie managed to get himself a Victrola so it’s worth the visit. He said it was a gift, but I suspect there was an alternate means of acquisition. I’ll never question. Never look a gift Victrola in the mouth.

March 25, 1917 Mowat Lodge

March 25, 1917

Last night, I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I came in through the front door. I dropped my gear and carried only my pack sack to my room. I lay down, I wrote the last entry, and fell asleep. I didn’t see Annie and I never heard Shannon coming in after settling the horses for the night. That’s okay. We’ll see each other tomorrow and enough of each other until summer.

When I finally awoke, it was 9:30am.  I wound my watch, still on my wrist. I forgot to take it off the night before.

I missed breakfast time but I knew that Annie would have set something aside for me. A basin and pitcher of water were on the dresser. I didn’t remember seeing it last night. Annie must have brought it in while I was asleep. My coat was on the hook, and my shirt and trousers were neatly folded and placed on the  seat of the chair.

I washed myself, put on my clothes, and went downstairs. I stepped out to the privy before I presented myself in the kitchen.

“Tom! It’s so lovely to have you back!” Annie stopped stirring her soup on the stove, came over and gave me a hug. 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. After having a good night’s sleep and full recovery from the train ride, it was time to venture out.

I made my way across the chipyard. It’s a spongy mess of wood chips and slabs 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 scrap, 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 had acquired the lease to the old mill hand kitchen and boarding house and was in the process of transitioning 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 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 sign, 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 still 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 of the day.

Just before noon I found the perfect place to sketch. The angle of the sun was perfect. The light couldn’t be better. Annie had packed me a sandwich so there was no rush to get back to the lodge. Looking behind I saw the scene. I could see the snow-covered ice of 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.

March 24, 1917 Arrival

March 24, 1917

Mowat Lodge. I’m finally here. I’ll write some more before I go down for breakfast.

Last night, Shannon was waiting for me with his horses. I was the only passenger to get off the train.

I thought I’d be alone but Shannon was there to pick me up. “Tom, you made it, you son of a gun!”

I smiled. I was tired. “Yeah, Shan, I made it.”

“I got your letter, but I didn’t have a chance to write back.” Shannon left out the key nugget that it was Annie who wrote the letters, not him. Annie’s the one to write the letters. Annie’s the one who keeps the entire operation together. Shannon’s best at minding the horses, and making trips to the station in the hope that guests might arrive. But I wasn’t a guest, I was more like family, even though I paid my fair share. I felt I was coming home.

Shannon was still using the sled. Once my bags were loaded up, the horses started, with the cold, they needed no snap of the reins. They knew the business of retrieving guests from the station and they wanted to get back to the stable with no delay. Unlike the city, the night was silent. The only things interrupting the silence were the sleigh bells, the snorting of the horses, and Shannon saying, “Gid up, girls,” and, “Easy, girls.”  Columns of mist unfurled upward from their nostrils but disappeared before there was a chance to obscure a star in the night sky. Until late spring, the sleigh is the only way to go. It’ll be another month before the road to the lodge will be navigable by wagon. By starlight, the snow looks deep and the Farmer’s Almanac says the spring will be long and cold.

The road runs on top of the old spur line, torn up years ago. Ahead, I could see shadow of its path in the snow, illuminated by the stars shining brightly in the clear sky overhead. Despite it being spring (according to the Almanac), the chill of the air still said it was winter. The only warmth now was our breath, Shannon’s suffused by a strong whiff of whisky. I could tell in his eyes he was excited to have me back, though he’d never admit as much. “One more man in the household to bring it back into proper balance!” I’m not sure what he meant by that.

Our final destination: Mowat Lodge loomed in the distance ahead. A light shining through a frosted windowpane was evidence that a human dwelling was nigh. It conveyed a feeling of  being at the end of a fortune lost and the beginning of  a new fortune found. Further north on the shore, stand sawmill foundations and a scatter  of abandoned and half-lived-in tarpaper shacks. Mowat Village, if you could still call it that, was named after the Premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat, in the hopes of gaining some stature. That failed. Mowat Village did have a short burst of growth; it grew quickly and at its apex, about 500 souls lived here. Mowat Lodge was full of mill workers, there was a hospital on the hill, and several barns back from the shore where the land was flat, had more soil, and could support a crop of hay.

But fortune was brief for Mowat Lodge. By 1900, the Gilmour Lumber company was insolvent. The company failed in its scheme to ship out logs by the Trent River system. The logs had to be raised over the watershed, and by the time they got to market two years later, even the best of them were rotten. Then the Booth Railway line came through and gave the village a second chance. Canoe Lake station was built, a spur line brought down to the mill, but despite this, the whole venture floundered and the receivers were brought in to wind things up.

Since Mark Robinson first directed me to Mowat Lodge in  1912, I had become a regular guest each year and they treated me like family. The jingling of the harness bells on the horses began to lull me into a trance but the lurching  stop of the sled in front of the lodge brought me back into the crisp evening air of Canoe Lake, spiced with the cheap tobacco odour from Shannon’s pipe.  I stepped off, pulled my gear off the back of the sled and set it on the first step verandah stairway, underneath the MOWAT LODGE sign I made back in 1914. Since  I wasn’t a regular guest, Shannon didn’t dismount to help me. I didn’t mind because he had to get the horses back into the barn and settled for the night. I appreciated that he waited for me at the station; on my own I would have had to pick my way along the trail through the deep snow.

March 23, 1917 Up North

March 23, 1917

Union Station: I’m waiting on the platform. My packing was quick; like breaking camp. I had everything together by late in the morning. I didn’t have much to bring so I could easily carry it all. My rucksack containing my sketchbox and paints, my rolled-up blankets, and my canvas dunnage bag. Jim MacDonald came by to visit one last time. He was sad to see me go so soon. I saw the exhaustion in his eyes. Nerves, money troubles and marriage obligations. Poor Jim. I bid him goodbye and promised him a letter once I got settled in.

I could have walked to Union Station, but I decided to take the Yonge streetcar. It was an awkward affair when I tried to board. I was hoping that if I waited long enough, an empty car would come along but I was wrong. Another passenger helped me bring my stuff on board.  The way he looked at me, I am sure he thought I was travelling to enlist, or to run away. He didn’t ask anything. I was glad for that. I didn’t need the attention from the other passengers thinking the same thing. I just wanted to leave.

The train is coming into the station…

I am in an older Pullman car. This car, judging by its condition, is from the last century. The faded emerald green ceiling, the painted-over oak panels and the uneven springs in the cushions signal its age.  I’m sure this car has seen all of Canada and most of the U. S. Maybe a Duke or Duchess has travelled in this car, or a famous author, like Conan Doyle. He and his wife travelled through Canada in 1914 and visited Algonquin Park.

Grand Trunk uses the older equipment early in the season. When the weather gets warmer and the tourists start coming from Buffalo and New York, they switch to the newer stuff: the first class drawing room and sleeping cars. They keep the best equipment for the Americans, they’re still holidaying in decent numbers. Earlier in the year, it’s mostly miners going up North to Porcupine for the silver.

I’m glad leaving Toronto. Before the war, it was a happy place. Upon declaration of war (I was up North at the time in August 1914), the happiness rose to a state of ecstasy. Marching bands, dances, parades, and the grand send-offs. But the spirit of exuberance and enthusiasm began to disappear by the winter of 1915 when the mothers and wives of  recruits began to receive the telegrams telling that their loved ones were to never to return. When the wounded and broken men came back, the spirit disappeared entirely. The clubs are empty, the colleges are vacant; the city has lost its soul.

The train is crawling along the lakeshore. It is veering north past the munitions factories, through the cattle stockyards and the slums to make its exit out of the city.

Up into the hills, into the uplands. I’ll try to get some sleep.

We touch the shore of Lake Simcoe.  I can see on the opposite shore, the town of Barrie, nestling in a comfortable setting of English-style villas. The lake is still frozen, another month of ice at least.

Kempenfelt Bay, Muskoka Lake.  A pale-faced passenger gets off. A consumptive as far I can tell, seeking the cool clean air.

Huntsville. I could stop for a few hours to visit Winnie but I decide to go through because I don’t want to miss the connection at Scotia Junction.

Scotia Junction: If any place along the line that shows that the Grand Trunk was having difficulties, it’s Scotia Junction. The station used to have a pretty little tower, with two-tone decorative wood-siding and ample room for travellers and separate facilities for crews and section-men. But the station burned down in 1912 and the replacement is a simple single storey structure where the crew and the travellers share the facilities. The spittoons never seem to be emptied, giving rise to an unredemptive reeking sour smoky smell.

I board the eastbound 580 2nd Class. Kearney, Ravensworth, Rainy Lake. This section of line climbing into the Park is nerve-wracking. One of the crew has to get out and pour sand on the rails for traction. The puffing, screeching and creaking make for a terrible racket as the train attacks  the highest point in the Park. I know the train crew. I hitched rides with them last summer so I’m not worried. They know this line. But I was nervous when we crossed of the Cashman Creek trestle — it’s 500 feet long and 80 feet high. The section men keep a close eye on this one so there’s little chance of German sabotage.

The final leg of my ride is empty of passengers, save for me and two others with deep frowns on their faces.  First I thought they were miners or prospectors, but they’d be going up past North Bay, not through the Park. They must be part of a work  gang going to the east end of the Park. There’s rumours that there’s still alien camps out near Petawawa.

I arrive at Canoe Lake. New moon, pitch dark, save for a single lantern on the platform. Well I’ll be. It’s Shannon. He’s here to pick me up. Train is stopping. More tomorrow.

March 22, 1917 Visitors

March 22, 1917

I had visitors from Owen Sound today. Tom Harkness, my brother-in-law, and his associate Walter Davidson are in Toronto for business.  Tom’s niece, Louise Julian, came too, with her school friend, Miss Andrews.

I asked Tom how my sister Elizabeth was doing and how things were going at the farm. Tom said the bairns are growing faster than the weeds. Elizabeth is staying in Owen Sound to help with Father. He’s been sick and bit of a handful for Mother and Aunt Henrietta. Everyone was worried that it was consumption but it turned out to be a nasty bout of pneumonia. Father’s on the mend now.

Louise was happy to see me again.  After the Christmas holidays, Louise and I came back  together on the train. She’s taking an art course at the College. I was supposed to call on her but I never did.

After their visit, we took the Yonge streetcar to King St. and had lunch at the hotel (Tom paid). We retrieved their luggage from the hotel and took a carriage to Union Station, as Tom and Walter had to catch the one o’clock train to Owen Sound. I said I wouldn’t make it up this spring but I might visit later in the summer.  Once I saw them off, I walked back up by Church. I didn’t want to pass by the soldiers making trouble at the Employment Office.

March 21, 1917 Green-Eye Monster

March 21, 1917

Today, I got called (once again) a slacker. It happened as I passed by the employment office on Bay St. Three soldiers were standing in front with grins on their faces that were anything but friendly. I could tell that they knew I should be signing up. The recruiting efforts have been turning in poor numbers and the talk of conscription has started in earnest. The soldiers are calling it the “Revenge of the Green-Eye Monster” rounding up the slackers to fight overseas. I was no longer looking at the three soldiers; I was staring the Green-Eye Monster in the face. It’s time to leave.

March 18, 1917 Last Canvas on the Easel

March 18, 1917

Last canvas is on the easel. West Wind. I’m not finished with it but it’s finished with me. If I can live with it until the week is out, I promise I won’t touch it unless it touches me first.  Its greatest danger is me being around. If I do, I can wreak a god-like wrath on my creation. Complete destruction, or a worse fate, an abandoned disfigurement, like the men who’ve returned from the war, suffering and refusing to tell their stories.

Not much here that’s mine. I’m a man of few means. I’ve given away more than my share, which makes the ordinary church tithe look shameful, except none of it ever went to a church. Never take more with you than what you can portage. On the Grand Trunk, don’t take so much that they charge you extra. But you still end giving a tip to the porter, so keep it to what you can carry yourself.

Always have two fishing poles: one split bamboo, the other a steel rod. Take with you the flies of the summer months (no need for the winter flies, the ice is frozen), but always carry  lures with you, like my home-made lures, made from Annie’s old spoons found in the pile of peelings out back. I bring these back to the City. I bring them to the place of my childhood and will be bringing them, once again, up North. They never leave me. They will probably go with me to the depths of the lake.

There are four seasons in the world, but there are only two in my mind – painting and no-painting. Or the season in the City and the season to be out of the damned place. As Lismer once said, ‘Toronto is a good place – to get out of!’ I miss him.  I miss Jackson. The machine has torn our world apart, and it’s looking for more to tear apart: families, photos of loved ones (struck through by a bullet) and the bodies of young men. Factories for farm implements now churn out munitions and ordnance that rumble out on the daily trains to Montreal, Halifax and then overseas to battle, if they aren’t sunk by U-boats. Battles can be regaled in romantic poems of glory. But there is no appropriate verse for unrestricted warfare; it requires the deaths of another five million men or the strafing of souls left to sink in the North Atlantic to discover the glory of a new verse.

What is painting, then? A useless act? ‘Leave your paintbrushes and take up a rifle in the trenches.’ When all is dead and done in No Man’s Land, the poppies still grow. Why fight? Why win? When enemies pray to the same god before fighting to the death, who gets turned away at the gates?