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

April 22, 1917 Northern Lights

April 22, 1917

I sketched the Northern Lights at Mark Robinson’s shelter house last night.

At Mowat Lodge later in the evening, I looked outside and saw the Northern Lights were starting. It was close to a new moon, the skies were clear and the stars were out as brightly as they could be. I could see the Lights starting on the Northern horizon, so I grabbed my sketch box and headed up toward Joe Lake.

As I walked up, looking at the lights, I was thinking about other things too. Since Charlie Scrim has come back, we’ve renewed our friendship. I fear that he’s not going to be that long for this world so I think I’ll stick close by, at least for the better part of the summer. I don’t think he’s going last out the summer. I don’t plan to go Fire Ranging this summer (a thankless job) but instead I’ll take out a Guide’s License and stay close by. But I don’t want Charlie to think I am doing this on his account.

The Lights were getting more brilliant by the minute. First, I was walking, but by the time I reached Mark Robinson’s house, I was in a full run. I banged on the door and bolted inside.

Mark jumped off his bunk. “Tom, what are you doing here?”  Mark looked a frail shadow of himself. The War took a lot out of him. I wasn’t sure if it was wise of George Bartlett to bring him back to the Park so soon after serving. I saw another figure in the shadows. “Tom, this is Mr. Gordon. He’s stationed with me until I fully get back on my feet.” Mr. Gordon came out of the shadows to shake my hand. He looked old too. All the old men are in the Park because the young ones are away fighting. I was the exception.

I shrugged and barely murmured an acknowledgement, “Look at the sky!” I paced back and forth, glaring at Mark. “Black spruce, Mark! Ragged tops. I want the raggedest looking tops to paint against that sky. Where’ll I get them?”

Mark knows all the trees around here, not just the species of each tree, but each  tree. “You’re looking for ugly ones, the ugliest looking trees, Tom?” I smiled. Mark knew exactly what I wanted. “Down where you came from, by the school, opposite side the of the creek. There’s some spruce with regular tops, but there are three with irregular tops, ragged as you like. The irregular ones always seem to come in threes.”

I got what I wanted. No need to thank Mark. He doesn’t like being thanked. I grabbed my paints and ran back out the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a puzzled Mr. Gordon. The last thing he expected to see was a driven artist dashing in and out the door in the night. I rushed down by the school and crossed the bridge over the creek (the ice was all gone now). It didn’t take me long to find the the trees against the sky that Mark was talking about. By the time I was finally settled in for sketching, it had turned really cold. What should have been an hour’s of effort turned about to be three. Irregular things do come in threes. Despite the starlight, and the Northern Lights, I didn’t have enough light to see my palette and colours in the box so I had to go back, break into schoolhouse by jimmying open the door to borrow a kerosene lantern. When I was done, I returned the lantern and noticed I had wrecked the door. I propped a plank against the door so the animals couldn’t get in at least. I’ll fix it it tomorrow.

I could see by the lights at the shelter house that Mark was still up. When I got there he had the stove going on full.

“I knew you’d be back, but I didn’t think I would take that long.” Mark was by the stove, Mr. Gordon, had gone to bed long ago. I could see that he had pulled a blanket across his bunk to keep out the light, more likely so he wouldn’t catch another glimpse of me when I returned.

“Let me see what you got, Tom.” Mark liked my boards, and I was always happy to show them to him.

“Mark, let me warm up first.” I put my hands by the fire. My fingers were stiff and numb. By the fire and lantern light, I could see they were covered in paint.

Out from behind his blanket came Mr. Gordon. I must have woken him, or he was still awake, curious about  me. I didn’t say anything to him, but as I was showing my board to Mark, he remarked, “Oh, it would make you freeze to look at it!” I was pleasantly taken aback and smiled. Mr. Gordon paid me the best compliment ever. I know I’ve done things right, when I convey the right feeling to people that know nothing about painting.

So I’m pleased with this board. I used one of my larger panels that I scraped off earlier. Underneath, you can see the suggestions of an earlier sketch, but it adds to the effect rather than detracts. It’s like the unexpected result from some of the double exposures I take with my camera. The result, surprising and in some cases, surreal.

I made my way back to Mowat Lodge and slept until about three in the afternoon. When I woke I was hungry so I went to the kitchen. Old Mrs. Fraser (Shannon’s mother) prepared me some leftovers. She’s particular about saying Grace, so even though it wasn’t a proper meal time I made the motions of saying a silent prayer (I didn’t pray about anything, I just thought about the Lights I saw). The prayer motion made her happy and I spent my time eating telling her about my painting adventure by Joe Creek. I could tell she was mystified by the whole endeavour, but also amused. Never in her life, did she dream of staying with her son in an abandoned lumber camp frequented by odd fellows of artists. Things turn out in odd ways, she said, but never odd enough not to be grateful for what life gives you.

I’m glad it was just the two of us talking, because if Annie came, it would have been three. And three’s a crowd.

April 21, 1917 Washing the Blankets

April 21, 1917

The ice is still on the lakes but it’s flooding everywhere else. Especially by Potter Creek. Below Canoe Lake Station the creek turns into a narrow channel that drains into the lake and it’s this channel where the ice breaks first. Both Potter Creek and Joe Lake drain into Canoe Lake. Joe Lake Dam keeps the water lower but with Tea Lake Dam holding it back and the flow from Potter, the water level rises considerably. The islands in the lake, Big Wap, Little Wap, Gilmour and Cook used to be peninsulas.

The sun is strong today and it’s warmer than it’s been for awhile. There’s a bit of snow left but that’ll be gone today or tomorrow. There’s only snow left in the hills now.

I wrote a letter to Dr. MacCallum and then I walked up to Joe Lake Dam. The water is a sight to behold there. There’s ice out in the lake but it’s all broken up by the dam and the water’s pouring through with a thunder. The dam is holding its own but another year or two, it’ll need repair or it’ll be swept away.

I saw a beaver dam. It looked active with fresh chewed-through wood.  I saw a wolf in the distance; no doubt scared away when I came. It’s looking for a meal of beavers. The birds are coming back in full force. The Gray Jays are quieter now because they are nesting. The geese and ducks are back and they are looking for open water. They are congregating near Potter Creek and Joe Lake dam the only two open spots of water. More than just beaver for dinner. It’s no wonder the wolves are hanging about.

The wildflowers are starting to come, too. I see green shoots in the bush but nothing in bloom yet. If I see something I’ll bring them back to Daphne. She’ll be happy about that.

I could see some activity at Algonquin Hotel. The Colsons are washing the blankets and hanging them outside to dry. Mostly red blankets, but a few grey ones too. Makes for a nice display of colour set against weather-beaten log exterior of  the hotel. Ed and Molly should be ready to be open by May 1. Back at Mowat Lodge, Annie will be washing the blankets soon and I need to get my camping blankets washed. It’s a two day affair to do the blankets spring washing so I’ll help her out. Shannon’s been promising one of those kerosene-powered washing machines from Eaton’s but my bet is that a Zeppelin will appear on the scene before the arrival of any domestic labour-saving device.

Mark Robinson said that more men and materiel will be coming through the Park. Mostly grain from out West but also some munitions and parts shipped in from the Lakes.  It’s my guess that some parts will be coming in from the Kennedy Foundry in Owen Sound. Mark said the Battalions are coming in from all parts of the Dominion to be shipped out overseas in early June. Bartlett’s going to have his hands full making sure the trains get through. No more deaths in the Park I hope.

In the evening I sat by myself reading in the corner. I am feeling pleased with myself, looking at the sketches set out around the dining room. I’ve been up for nearly a month and I’ve made a sketch every day. I’ve scraped some but made another right after. If I keep this up until Victoria Day, I’ll have over sixty sketches. If Dr. MacCallum comes up, I could have my own Spring Exhibition. It would be a good way to celebrate.

April 21, 1917 Letter to Dr. MacCallum

Mowat P.O.

Apr 21, 1917

Dear Dr:

I have been here for over three weeks and they have gone very quickly. For the last two or three days the weather has been fairly warm and last night we had quite a heavy thunderstorm and the snow is pretty well cleared off.  Just patches in the bush on the north side of the hills and in the swamps, so now I will have to hunt for places to sketch when I want snow. However the ice is still on the lakes but it is very thin this year on account of deep snow over it through the winter so it will not last very long.

If you come up here this spring I would suggest that you come some time around the 10th of May as the flies are not going properly until about the 24th.

It is likely the ice will be out sometime this month.

Have made quite a few sketches this spring. Have scraped quite a few and think that some that I have kept should go the same way. However I keep on making them

Yours truly

Tom Thomson