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.

Trouble with the Sketches

July 4, 1917

Today is Independence Day – for the Americans, that is. The Blechers decided to celebrate in full patriotic glory and in contravention with the Park and Provincial regulations – flying the American Flag above the Red Ensign. The Blechers have done this before. Regulations state that flags of other countries can’t fly above the Canadian or Ontario Red Ensign. But that was the case right now. It was most likely Martin Blecher Jr.’s doing. He liked to instigate conflict for the sake of it. Mark Robinson had warned him of an earlier infraction in the spring. Another time when Martin had done it, I obliged him by removing the flag in the middle of the night and put it in the cage of his pet groundhog. As for today, the flying of the American flag flying could be sign of patriotism or an instigation for yet another conflict. I suspected the latter. It also wouldn’t surprise me that Louisa, Martin Jr.’s mother would make a proclamation that the Blecher leasehold was U.S. territory and U.S. laws and justice would be applied. For the Blechers, the saying goes, “Like Mother, Like Son.” Martin Sr. and Bessie are pleasant, it’s the mother and son that always seem to be the problem.

Someone must have told Mark Robinson about the flag (it wasn’t me) because he wandered down in the morning. That wasn’t part of his usual routine. I saw him coming as I was sitting on the verandah. I was fixing a shirt of mine. I also had to darn a couple of holes in my socks. I preferred doing this type of work outside because the light’s better out. From my vantage point I could see Mark check the Trainor cottage and then walk over to the Blechers. There was brief yelling and screaming (Martin Jr. and/or Louisa) and once that subside, Mark reappeared into view. He walked up the path and stepped up onto the verandah.

“Can you believe those folks?” Mark shook his head. He took off his hat, wiped his brow and sat down beside me. The air was oppressive today. It wasn’t hot, but the humidity was at saturation that you couldn’t do anything without breaking into sweat. It was these days, when your clothes hung on you like a damp washcloth and your hair felt like a greased rope. There wasn’t anything you could do about it except endure it. At the camp site you have option of stripping down to your drawers, but the unwritten lodge decorum dictates being fully-clothing and long-sleeve when there are women around. Men are also supposed to wear a tie at all times. I’m glad that Shannon enforce that point of the dress code, otherwise I would have been gone long ago.

“Mark, I’ll take care of the flag tonight,” I said.

“Tom, don’t you be taking the law into your own hands!” Mark replied, “If it’s still there tomorrow, I’ll write a note to Bartlett. He’ll scare them by saying they’re violating the terms of their leasehold.”  That was the end of the flag discussion.

“What were you checking up on at the Trainor cottage?”

“Nothing much,” Mark said. “I heard the Trainors haven’t been up as much as regularly as they normally are. Just checking to see if anything’s amiss. Say, Tom, your sketches are still there.”

“Indeed, they are. I haven’t looked at them since Victoria Day. Are they still on the porch?” I asked.

“No, they’re just inside the front door. What are you going to do with them? Aren’t you worried they’ll be stolen?”

“Given the circumstances, they’re in the safest place right now. If I had them at the lodge, I probably would have thrown them in the fire or Shannon would have lifted a few to sell to his guests.”

“OK, Tom, but you’d better do something soon.” Mark had a worried look. He was worried I’d lose them.

“I might send the lot down to Toronto and Dr. MacCallum to deal with them,” I replied. Normally I’d take them back with me in the Fall, but I wasn’t going back to Toronto. Mark didn’t know this part of the plan yet. Nor did he know I was leaving within days.

I looked directly at Mark, “I need you to do a favour for me. If circumstances don’t permit, can you make sure they get sent to Toronto?”

“I’m not sure I can do that, Tom.” Mark lowered his eyes and took a draw from his pipe. “Right now they’re in the possession of the Trainors. Wouldn’t be right for me to go in and take them.”

“Mark, if something does happen, can I count on you?”

“Tom, I don’t know what you’re getting at. Sounds like you’re trying to wind up your affairs here.”

I realized I might have gone too far with the request, “No worries, Mark. Things will sort themselves out. I’m going away for a few days fishing trip. Just keep an eye on Shannon.”

“That I can do Tom,” Mark smiled. He knew what Shannon could do in the dishonourable department. “I’ll keep your back. How’s the Big Trout up at Joe Lake Dam? Is he still smarter than you?”

I smiled, “Well let’s find out.” I had my gear on the verandah and was planning to go up there shortly. So I grabbed it and Mark and I walked up together and I fished for a couple of hours but with no luck. So the Big Trout is still smarter than me – for today, that is.

While I was fishing, I was watching the clouds – big clouds. The humidity of the day was being drawn up by the heat, forming huge clouds. They were big enough to hid a flotilla of Zeppelins. Judging the the colours of the clouds, it was a sure thing that it would rain like the Dickens tonight. I’ll stay at the lodge again tonight because Shannon has pretty much made me paid for my stay. I was also thinking of what to do with the sketches. I’m glad I asked Mark to take care of them on my behalf, if need be. I couldn’t trust Shannon and I certainly couldn’t expect the Trainors to honour any of my wishes, especially if I was gone with Winnie. Everyone respected Mark, and he was a Park authority. If things ever turned sour, I knew I could rely on Mark to settle things for me the fairest way possible.

A Year’s Wage Gone

July 3, 1917

I’m planning to leave this Sunday. At Winnie’s urging I needed to settle my accounts with Shannon this week. We had agreed on rates back in April and by mid-July I would be getting about $100 on my loan. Since I was going to leave a week earlier than I had planned I thought it fair just to ask for $100 and not worry about the week. I had $13 in cash and $37 in the bank. So the total sum I had was $150- about a year’s wage for a worker. At $150 I could easily live on for a year, even supporting a wife and child. I recall Lismer saying that when he came to Canada, he only had enough for his fare and $5 left over. He quickly found a job, bought a suit on credit and he was on his way to being established in the New World. I was feeling good about the whole situation until I talked to Shannon.

“Tom, things have changed since we talked last April. I’m afraid the rate’s has gone up to $2 per day.” I was dumbfounded. A quick calculation revealed that by Shannon’s new terms, instead of receiving $100, I’d be owing Shannon $12.

“Shannon, that wasn’t the deal we made back in April,” I tried not to show my exasperation.

“Sorry Tom, those are the new terms. You can’t exactly leave it, so you’ll have to take it.” Shannon shrugged. I’m pretty sure he knew exactly the situation I was in, and I wasn’t in a position to bargain.

“Shannon, I need the loan settled. I’m planning to leave for out west mid-July.” I lied, I was going to leave a week earlier. I wanted to be out of the country before the bloodhounds got onto our track.

“Okay, Tom. I’ll cut you a deal. I’ll settle for $25 and get the money to you next week.”

I hated dealing with money, “Shannon, can you get it for me on Sunday?”

“I’l try, Tom. Cash is short around here.”

I felt betrayed. I don’t care that much about the money. It was the going back on the deal we had made in the spring. But I hate conflicts too. I was never that good at dealing with my own financial affairs – not that I was incompetent. I just didn’t care that much. My older brother George managed my affairs when I was out West, and back in Toronto, Lawren Harris and Dr. MacCallum did it for me. I know the man of the household is supposed to take care of these things, but I fully expect Winnie to manage our accounts. She’s trained in such things and I believe that is the success of our relationship. She worries about the numbers and I worry about the art. And we meet in the middle with fishing. I can’t think of a better arrangement with a woman than what I’ll have with Winnie.

After that episode with Shannon, all I could think about was fishing at Joe Lake Dam. I got my gear and went out back through the summer kitchen. Annie was in the kitchen making blueberry pies. The blueberries were in, and Mildred had gone out in the morning and picked a few pints.

“Tom, you going out fishing?” Annie asked.

“Yes, Annie,” I replied.

“Well say hi to Annie Colson while you’re up there, ” Annie said. “Please tell her I’ll be needing some baking supplies: sugar, baking powder, flour and some molasses. I’ll send Shannon to pick them up when the next train comes in.”

There was no reason for Annie to tell me this detail. The only reason I could fathom is that she sensed the tension and the only way to cut it was to talk about something mundane and trivial. That was such a Victorian way of dealing with personal crises. Much like a sergeant serving tea to a soldier shot in the stomach. Medically, it was the worst thing you could do, but the act of courtesy was really a shrouded act of denial awaiting the inevitable outcome. Annie realized I would be leaving soon. Unlike an anonymous and impersonal enemy bullet, the results of her actions (inappropriate, I might add) were driving an inevitable outcome.

I spent the afternoon at Joe Lake and caught nothing. Mark Robinson dropped by and watched me for a while. Mark’s son, Jack also came along and I showed him a few casts and how to tie a lure. I talked about the “Big Trout” I was trying to catch. I told him that “Big Trout” was starting to get the reputation that he was smarter than the local artist. We fished for a while longer and from where we were fishing we could see the berm by the Shelter House. I told Mark that if the berm prevented either of his daughters from rolling into the lake then I had truly served my purpose here in the Park.