Journal of My Last Spring Timeline ebook

July 9, 1917

Hello everyone,

If you missed my tweets from earlier in November 1916, I’ve produced an ebook (Adobe PDF file) that has my tweets, including the links to my photos and journal entries. Please download and share. I hope you enjoy it.

Here is the link:  ttlastspring-timeline-Nov 2012-July 2013

As a small favour, I’d appreciate if you could answer the poll below. It will help me determine my next efforts.

Thank you for all of your support, it means a lot. May the story never end.

Affectionately,

‘Tom’

Epitaph of Canoe Lake

When I disappeared on July 8, 1917 I didn’t leave a lot behind. My room was nearly empty and the few items I left at the dock were of little value. My earthly possessions dwindled even further when Shannon Fraser sold what little I had for his own personal gain. And when they did find my canoe with its few provisions stashed under a rubber sheet in the bow, it too was sold off to settle my financial accounts. Despite months of searching the shorelines of Canoe Lake my paddle never reappeared. It met its fate either as firewood kindling or abandoned at the Highland Inn on Cache Lake.

My disappearance (or death as most would believe) was a mystery to all but a very few. I was an enigma, preferring to sit in the corner by the fireplace reading alone. I would disappear for days on end. ‘Tom’s gone fishing.’ was the standard answer to my spells of disappearance. No suspicions were ever raised at my sometimes erratic comings and goings. I liked it that way. It was freedom. Or it looked like freedom to others.

Many thought I couldn’t write. It may be a surprise that I kept a journal. I was known as an artist, not as a writer. As my few letters would attest,  never had much to say to others, in words that is.

My journal was unlike my letters. My journal wasn’t meant to be read by others. It was a record of sort. My mind was full of words but my outward expression was in images of sketches, canvases and drawings. No one knew I was keeping a journal. I was private, recording my thoughts, intending these thoughts to help me with my work. I never intended my journal to tell another story, until now. My sketches and paintings expressed what I felt, but my journal captured what I thought.

This is my daily journal from December 1916, the winter and spring of 1917 through to my disappearance in the summer of 1917. I never say ‘death’ because despite the overwhelming odds and evidence my ultimate fate was never truly known to anyone who knew me before July 8 1917.

In retrospect, it’s easier to look at your life once you’ve passed on. When you’re alive, time has a tendency only to march forward, much like those fresh-faced boys marching off to the Front for the first time. But when you are freed from the constraints of time, money and self-doubt about the future you can step back (or float back) to see your life in the larger picture. But when you are living your life en plein air that is not the case. Your thoughts and feelings are expressed from a very narrow view of self but the words put down and read nearly a hundred years later take on additional significance. I hope that you as a reader will see through the immediacy of the words, much like seeing through the crude strokes of my paintings as my critics would say.

A good story, they say, should have a beginning, middle and end. But the best stories, I say, are the ones that have no end. A good painting should be finished. But I knew that my better paintings were the ones left undone. I would let the wood show through. I let the canvas be exposed. When the right mood is captured, why bother to continue?

Sometimes I was compelled to completion despite my mood. But I soon discovered that the act of completion could be an act of destruction. If I tried too hard to complete something that shouldn’t have been, I destroyed it in the end and was back at the beginning. I lost count of the sketches I broke and left in the bush. And the meals I made with the fuel of my failed paintings could have fed a platoon.

People didn’t understand my art, but more deeply, I believe they were afraid to see something new. What they thought was hideous (a dead tree), I saw beauty. You see, in 1916 the world was falling apart before our very eyes. Like a gas attack or a shell killing all the boys and brothers of an Ontario village in some godforsaken trench in France, our world was being blown to bits and art was no exception. Canada being defined as a nation was the last thing on our minds as our men were piling up in the trenches and our women were being left alone on the farms during the long cold winters.

West Wind was never finished. Nor was the Jack Pine. I left them behind in the spring of 1917 and I’m glad I did. If I stayed any longer in the shack for the sake of completion, I would be preparing meals for yet another platoon. During the summer of my death, they remained in the shack, still on the easel and stacked against the wall. It’s good that Jim MacDonald and Dr. MacCallum took care of them. Because I would have taken care of them, in my own way.

I started my journal in late November 1916. Leading up to that I was too busy sketching in the spring, working as a fire ranger in the summer and sketching again in the fall. I returned to Toronto in late October and it took a few weeks to sort myself out.

So what you have here is my story, a good story I believe. This story is like an unfinished sketch and the wood shows through in places. I may cover these pieces of wood over time and then again I might not. Don’t expect a story of mythology. There is no myth here. Just a story about an Ontario farm boy who disappeared one summer day and a girl he got in trouble with. And the story doesn’t end there.

I’ve tried to create my daily journal as best I can. But I found that on its own, it is rather dry reading, so I added some colour and texture in places where needed. Think of my journal as a sketch, and this book as the canvas. Then you’ll know what I mean.

Affectionately,

Tom

Dockside Farewell

July 8, 1917 12:45pm

A final note before I leave. I doubt I’ll have time to write much over the next few weeks so this might be my last entry for a while.

Shannon came down with the supplies I needed. He also came down with $35. That’s all he said he had to give me for now. I took it and packed it away. I didn’t tell him, but he knew that this might be the last time he’d ever see me again. I had a reputation of disappearing without notice and showing up unannounced. I left last fall without saying a decent goodbye, so this wouldn’t be anything new.

I asked Shannon about the sketches. They’re still at the Trainors. Intact for now. Once I got the canoe packed up, I would paddle over and fetch them. I’d take them with me, and where it was possible, I would ship them down to Dr. MacCallum in Toronto. I could probably ship them from Dwight or Lake of Bays. I can’t trust Shannon to do this for me.

It started to rain as I packed up. Shannon said he had to get out of the rain or he’d have to change his suit. I bid him goodbye and he started back towards the lodge. I got into my canoe. It wasn’t completely laden down, so it rode a bit higher than usual and was less stable.

Off I go.

Aftermath

July 8, 1917

It’s 4:30 in the morning. It was a rooster’s crow that woke me. I heard it across from across or down the lake. Sound travels farther at night. The sun wouldn’t be rising for another hour, but the light was already in the eastern sky. I couldn’t see the morning star – Phosphorous was nowhere to be seen.

It was quite a night last night. A party at George Rowe’s with all the men with fists. We   started the evening with George Rowe’s special concoction. Shannon Fraser showed up later with several mason jars of whisky (or something like it). The evening ended in an argument about conscription and Martin Blecher Jr. ended up on the wrong side of my fists. George and Shannon held me back. Martin yelled at me, said something like, “Don’t get in my way if you know what’s good for you!” Martin won’t have to worry about me getting in his way, I’ll be leaving tomorrow.

I need to take care of a few things tomorrow. My sketches are still at the Trainor cottage. I’ll need to retrieve them and when I get to South River, I’ll need to send them down to Dr. MacCallum. Shannon mentioned last night that Hugh Trainor might get rid of them, so I need to get them out. Shannon also said that he managed to get some money together for me. He would give it to me tomorrow.

I plan to leave quietly. I am go canoe the Oxtongue River and make it to the Lake of Bays. There are a number of lodges there, so I shouldn’t have a problem selling my canoe. After that I’ll make my way to South River by the July 14th.

It’s getting lighter and my mood is getting darker. I’ll make it back to my room and sleep the rest of the night off.

Letter to Dr. James MacCallum

Mowat P. O. July 7, 1917

Dear Sir:

I am still around Frasers and have not done any sketching since the flies started. The weather has been wet and cold all spring and the flies and mosquitoes much worse than I have seen them any year and the fly dope doesn’t have any effect on them. This however is the second warm day we have had this year and another day or so like this will finish them. Will send my winter sketches down in a day or two and have every intention of making some more but it has been almost impossible lately. Have done some guiding this spring and will have some other trips this month and next with probably sketching in between.

Yours truly
Tom Thomson

What this War has Wrought

July 6, 1917

The word came in this morning. Conscription, after an all-night sitting by Parliament, was affirmed. Shannon heard the news from the Station Master at Canoe Lake. It hadn’t been printed in the papers yet, but once the vote was passed at 5 o’clock this morning, the news raced like wildfire through the town. The Canoe Lake Station telegraph received the message: “Jul-06, Conscription affirmed by Parl. 5am”, but the stories came in by train. Someone said that after the vote, they sang “God Save the King” and the many of the members retired to the Chateau Laurier to a hearty breakfast to celebrate the occasion. Some celebration. I also couldn’t help to think of the irony. The very room in the Victoria Memorial Museum where the vote was made is the very same room where my painting once stood when it was the National Gallery.

The bill would gain royal assent in the beginning August. That would mean compulsory service for all unmarried men between twenty-five and forty-five who would be pressed into service. That meant I had less than three weeks to decide my own fate, otherwise my fate would be decided by the Empire and Dominion.

I was down at the dock this morning with my canoe. Another day of oppressive humidity and with no breeze. All the guests at the lodge were waving their paper fans, complaining about the heat and the humidity. I couldn’t bear it any more, so I went down by lake. I took my cup of tea along and sat on the dock and tried to enjoy the breeze from the lake.

Down at the lake, Mowat Lodge dock is a rustic affair Pretty much in keeping with the rest of the Mowat Lodge concept. It’s about six feet wide and twenty feet long. I helped Shannon put it out in early May. To get better depth beside the dock we lined it up to to be parallel with a rocky outcropping. To easily access the the dock we had to put down two pine planks that connected it to the shore. It had to be accessible by women in dresses – you can’t have them clamouring over rocks. There’s a primitive shed just up on the shore. It’s where the paddles and outfitting equipment is stored along with the canoes. Back in 1915, I help Shannon to build this too. It was only after that we built it, that we discovered it was poorly placed. It obstructed the view of the dock from the verandah back at Mowat Lodge. All that you could see while sitting on the verandah was the shed, it blocked the view of the dock and only the most southerly tip was visible. As such, you couldn’t see if anyone was on the dock itself. This made for a bit of an inconvenience because it was difficult to signal back up to the Lodge to indicate if you needed something. Shannon didn’t think this was much of a problem. He had heard that  wireless radios were coming soon. Maybe he could install one by the dock.

I felt lonely and forlorn today. I hadn’t heard anything from Winnie. Lowrie had told me that he had delivered the message to Winnie in Huntsville. Lowrie did not know the content of the message, not that it was difficult to surmise, but he told me that Winnie would do her best to do what I asked. That meant I should be seeing her in South River next Saturday. I was also thinking about my good friends and compatriots: Harris in Barrie, Lismer in Halifax, MacDonald in Toronto, and Jackson and Varley overseas. The war had torn our group apart, and now the machine was determined to get even more from us. The war was going to tear me apart.

I recall reading once from Thoreau that men lead lives of quiet desperation. The silence that now was on the lake was an expression of that quiet desperation. I stayed on the dock for the better part of the morning and then I took my canoe up Potter Creek. I went again to Joe Lake Dam to fish. If anything I wanted to catch the Big Trout before I never had a chance again.

What this War has wrought we’ll never know.

Swimming

July 5, 1917

Tom Thomson Swimming

“I’ll get it,” I said, with a faux humility in my voice. I could see the canoe bobbing in the distance, up and down on top of the wave crests.

I was with Charlie, so it wasn’t a big deal. My mistake. I had let the canoe float away from the rocks on where we had landed. Had this happened when I was guiding I would most certainly have lost my guide’s license. Park Superintendent Bartlett had no tolerance for those sort of things, especially if the report came to him by Tourist.

Without further word, I started to strip down. Not naked. I kept my drawers on. I didn’t like swimming naked.  I still remember, as a kid, the fish biting at my toes in the pool underneath the Keefer Creek Falls.  If I had skinny-dipped, another appendage would have been fair game for the fish. I swore that never would happen in my lifetime. I only skinny-dipped once, in north Georgian Bay, where I was absolutely sure those fish hadn’t followed me.

I looked out from the point where we had landed. Due south, the canoe was making a good distance from us. Aided by the wind from the north and the indiscernible current, it would be in Bonita Lake before afternoon was out. I could leave it be and fetch it the next day, but Charlie and I would have to hike it through the bush to the tote road and walk the rail line to Canoe Lake Station. Charlie was in rough shape (consumption) so this was a pretty bad alternative. And I didn’t want word to get out that I lost my canoe. I’d never hear the end of it from Shannon.

I dove into the waves.

Charlie watched me. He had his knees drawn to his chest and rested his back against the incline of a large rock. I knew his insides were rebelling, first the coughing fit, then the vomiting, and finally the need to heed the second call of nature. That’s why we rushed to the shore. He ran into the bush. I got out, and as my attention and worry was on him, my canoe gave me the slip.

Water all around me. It’s the first contact with water that’s the shocker. I felt my blood recoil from my extremities and the skin on my chest become taut.

I was considered an anomaly at Canoe Lake. Not because I was an artist, but that I could actually swim. Not a dog-paddle or thrash-about swim. Not the lumberman swimmer but a real swimmer. Despite being around lakes all their lives, most men of the Park had no inkling of how to swim. I could understand why. The accepted way of learning how to swim was the  ‘sink or swim’ method: the unexpected toss of a child into deep water by a father, followed by a stern holler, ‘Sink or Swim!!!’ The usual outcome was a sinking, followed by a rescue, and a traumatized child who would never try to swimming again in their life.

I made the first few strokes, a front crawl. Every few strokes I would look up and sight the canoe and correct my course. I figured it would take me ten minutes to reach the canoe – if the wind didn’t pick up first.

I was fortunate not learn to swim by trauma. Where I grew up in Leith, there was a sandy beach by the river in the village. The beach was a fine sand. In the summer when it was hot, I’d come down with my sisters, lay in the sun on the hot sand and play in the waves.  At first, I’d pretend I was swimming with my hands planted on the sandy bottom with my body floating. But it was very soon I didn’t have to pretend. I could actually swim. Gradually I’d venture out into deeper water until the feeling of the panic of not touching bottom became less and less. Then one day, I didn’t care about the bottom anymore, and I declared to myself, ‘I can really swim!’

The water is cold, but not cold enough to die in. It was a cold spring, the water was cooler than usual. I figured I could fetch the canoe and bring it back to where I left Charlie without trouble. That was the plan at least.

I remember diving for golf balls. But we’d have to steal them first. This was an activity you didn’t do with your sisters, but only with a brother you had a secret pact with, or could threaten. I did this with my younger brother, Fraser, nine years my junior.  We’d take the shortcut to the beach from our farm. The shortcut  took us right through the Leith Golf Course which we knew like the back of our hands. We knew the best places to search for lost golf balls. But what we took more delight in was stealing them off the fairway when they were in play. We’d lie in wait in the bush  as a party teed up for Hole 3. The struck balls had to traverse the creek, over an embankment, and land on the fairway out of view from the tee. A perfect place for stealing. When the balls came over we’d rush out like hell-children and snatch them.  Usually, we’d score a perfect four, but sometimes only two or three, if a bad golfer was in the party. One time a golfer, teeing up on Hole 4, gave us chase. We had to tear ourselves out of a set of angry clutching, club-wielding hands.

After the snatch, we’d dash off through the bush like wildfire. We’d scurry along  a little used trail that would bring us to out the beach. Without missing a beat, we’d hurl the balls as far as we could into the water, strip down, run in, dive and retrieve them. Most times they were easy to find, sitting like pearls on the sandy bottom, but other times they sunk into the bottom muck of rotten bark that mysteriously appeared, usually after a heavy storm. It was from these stolen golf balls that I not only learned to swim well, but to dive, deep and long.

The canoe was closer now. But the wind was picking up as it does in the late afternoon. The afternoon wind is unpredictable, making the waters unsuspectingly dangerous on an otherwise fine sunny, calm day.

Swimming. We’d race too. From the shore of the beach, we’d swim out to the end of Leith Pier, a pier long enough for the big steamers. My oldest brother George (not a swimmer), would walk out to the end, raise a white handkerchief and when he dropped his hand, the race was on. I’d race against the other village boys, the Mitchell and McKeen boys or whoever happened to be at the beach.  By the time we reached the end of the pier, it was crazy deep, over 30 feet, but you didn’t care, because you were racing. The depths back home are nothing like the depths of the lakes here. There, the water was clear, clear, and you could make out the sand and stones on the bottom. Here, the lakes are murky and nothing can be seen of the deep.

I got hold of the canoe. The wind was now strong and the water rough. No way I could get in without capsizing.. I had to tow it back, or push it from behind. With a canoe in tow, the joy and elegance of swimming was gone. The memories of my swimming childhood were pushed out by the slap slap of the waves against the hull.  The low howl of the wind began to raise in pitch.

It took me over an hour to get the canoe back. Charlie was still against the rock with his knees still drawn up to his chest.

‘Tom, thank God, you’re safe!’

I smiled. Never for a moment did I think I was in danger. I could swim.