An Urgent Telegram

June 6, 1917

We broke camp not that early in the morning. I made breakfast: bacon, biscuits with marmalade and oatmeal. I made coffee for the guests and tea for myself. We packed up wet. We were supposed to be staying for another night but judging by their demeanour I wasn’t sure if they wanted to return as soon as possible.

We made it back into Smoke Lake later in the morning and then they saw Nominigan Camp on the lake shore. The camp is a nice looking outfit. It looked especially inviting to my two bedraggled guests who suggested that we stop there for lunch and dry off a bit more. We canoed near to the main lodge, disembarked and went to the dining room.

“We’ll have lunch here,” John said.

“That’ll be fine,” I said, “I’ll tend to the gear and canoes. Take your time. I’ll see you outside when you’re done.”

“Come with us for lunch.” Etienne said with his French-Canadian accent. But I could tell he was trained in an English school.

“No. The guides generally don’t eat with the guests.” It was a white lie. I could if I wanted to, but I didn’t want them to pay for my lunch which would have been two days of guide’s wages. I was friendly with the guests when guiding but I preferred to maintain a separation. I saw it too often where a guide started to think he was part of the vacation party and a brouhaha would erupt. With guests, guides were always on the losing end if something went wrong or an untoward word was spoken.

“Jolly, then. See you outside.” John began to navigate between the tables and sat down. Etienne followed suit.

I went outside when I saw Lowrie Dickson, madly paddling in the distance. Judging by his trajectory he was heading straight for me. He must have asked at Mowat Lodge where I was. He only need the name of a lake or two, after which I was pretty easy to find by the colour of my canoe.

When he was to shore, I pulled him up. He was out of breath, but he asked, “Where are your guests? I have an urgent telegram.”

“Inside. Want me to give it to them?”

“Sure, Tom.”, Lawrie looked grateful. He never really liked dealing with Visitors, as he called them.

I brought in the telegram and handed it to John. He looked surprised.

“Pony express from Mowat Lodge,” I said.

He smiled and tore open the envelope. Shannon made sure to seal all telegrams in an envelope after Annie had a chance to read them.

“Well it looks like its over. Laurier rejected Borden outright last night. Etienne, it looks like all we have to do now is drink whisky.” John threw the telegram of the table. “Tom, join us for a bottle of whisky. And tell your Pony Express gentleman to come join us, too. We have nothing better to do.”

With the prospect of whisky, my rules went out the window. I got Lowrie to join us. He was reluctant, but so too, the prospect of whisky paid by Park visitors was incentive enough.

So all this mysterious activity had to do with conscription. I had heard Borden was trying to form a new government with Laurier to see out the War.  But never in my wildest dreams did I expect any of that activity to touch us in the Park. We learned that John and Etienne decided to get away from the hubbub of Ottawa to discuss what the Coalition Government might look like. They wanted to do this without distraction, so John suggested a canoe trip.

By evening’s end we went through two and a half bottles of whisky. The hotel price of whisky, at my guide’s wage was a month’s worth. “No problem,” John said, “We have a special government fund for secret projects and whisky.”

“Speaking of secret projects, what’s the interest in Sims Pit?” I asked.

“Oh, that.” John replied. The whisky loosened up his tongue. “We caught wind that Sam Hughes started up another hare-brained weaponry project. He’s working on a high capacity flame-thrower apparatus that fits on a train engine. He had heard the Brits tried to do something at Somme.”

“Be as successful as the Ross Rifle.” I replied wryly.

“Even more successful! Once you build the train tracks across no-man’s land.” We had a good laugh on that one.

In the end, we never made it out of Camp Nominigan. When John and Etienne discovered they could take a stage to Algonquin Station in the morning and catch the first class to Ottawa they decided to stay the night. Lowrie and I set up camp just off the main lodge.

As we were getting ready for the night, Larry said suddenly, “Tom I should’ve brought it too!”

“What?” I said.

“Your letter from Winnie. Shannon said it came in yesterday”

I didn’t know whether it was the whisky, but I suddenly got numb all over. My future is in that letter.

Too Tired to Write

June 5, 1917

A long day of guiding today. Flies and rain are never the best companies especially when the company you’re with is not too friendly. They dumped the canoe and got everything wet. Had to go to the shore and try to dry things out but not possible in the rain. It’ll be a wet night with unhappy campers. The camp site we found is close to sand so it is getting into everything but the breeze is good to keep the bugs away.  The camp site has a good view of the sunset and should a have good view of the sunrise. There’s some deer not to far away, I saw them in the bush.

Despite the upsets, rain and poor company I prefer to do this than being inside. I should have asked Lawrie Dickson to come with me. I would have happily split the pay with him for the good company.

They’re asking about Sims Pit again. We’ll go by there tomorrow but it won’t be at night like they wanted.

I am wondering about Winnie. Wondering if she has sent a letter. I won’t know until I get back to the lodge. That’s it for tonight. I have to finish cleaning up. I hope to be able to have a smoke with my pipe in peace.



Some Guiding Work

June 4, 1917

I had to prepare for the guiding work this morning. The guests from Ottawa were coming in on the afternoon train and they wanted to leave right after. That gave me a few hours to prepare. It was just me as the guide and the two of them, so two canoes were needed: mine and another. Shannon would rent them one.

In the lobby, as I was getting ready, I came across a poetry book left behind by one of the guests. It was a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poems. I leafed through the book (I was thinking about taking it along for the trip) I came across the poem, “Secret of the Machines.” The poem was haunting because I remember writing in a letter once that Jackson was in the machine. The War machine. And here was Kipling glorifying these machines that have made the sacrifice of men an automated affair.

Shannon went up to the Station to pick the guests up. They came in on the No. 47 First Class Westbound from Ottawa. Shannon had got the mail which had come in from the Eastbound and when he returned I asked if there were any letters for me.

“None from, Winnie.” was the reply.

The guests were polite enough, but it seemed they were preoccupied with something that we weren’t supposed to privy to. They only offered their first names to us, John and Etienne and they wanted to get going as soon as possible. I asked them how their canoeing paddling was. The reply was rather curt, “Fine. We’ll take the one canoe, and you will go with the supplies in the other.”

That settled the arrangement.

Annie wanted them to stay for dinner, but they were insistent on going, so Shannon helped us get on our way. I’ve seen this before, from Americans who want to rush into a canoe as soon as they arrived, but these two men were Canadian: Upper and Lower as far as I could gather. A canoe should have been less of novelty to them, and the rush into Nature less urgent.

We got under way around shortly after 5pm. It was cool and there was a brisk wind coming in from the west. My canoe, as it was loaded down with supplies was fairly steady in the water, but when I watched the guests in the canoe, they were unstable and zig-zagging in a not-so-straight direction.

We got onto Smoke Lake and I did some fishing for dinner. They kept the canoe out of my earshot most of the time. That was fine with me. I caught three trout and signalled to them that we’d better set for camp soon.

We landed and set up camp. Or, I set up camp. Again they were out of earshot of me in intense discussion. My guess it was something about Government business, I just had a sense it was. From Ottawa, and keeping quiet with one another. Putting two and two together, I figured it was Government.

I cleaned the trout and used the reflector oven to cook them by campfire. For dessert, I made some biscuits with raisins which we had with tea. With the shortages, I had trouble getting coffee, but they were tea drinkers so it wasn’t a problem. The whisky came out, they brought a bottle. That wasn’t a problem, either.

Then the conversation came started to come more freely. I learned that they weren’t Government men but Party me. One was with Borden and the other with Laurier. They came on this trip to discuss some differences that they could try to agree on. It was too hard to do in Ottawa so they decided to leave town and go on a canoe trip. I also discovered that the their trip was more than just settling differences, they came here looking for something.

“Where’s Sims Pit?”

“Three minutes east of Joe Lake Station. Two more stops and you would have been there.”

“We don’t want to go there by train. Can you bring us there by another way?”

“Indeed I can. By canoe and by foot. But it will have to wait until tomorrow.”

“Not during the day, we want to go there tomorrow night after dark.”

With that peculiar request, they turned in for the night. They looked tired but they  look guarded. This was certainly not a holiday for them. There was something going on. Some deal to be made or some escapade to be stopped. Whatever it was, it would have to wait for morning.

The camp fire is getting low now. It’s difficult to write now as the light is too dim.I did bring some sketching paper but the mood hasn’t touched me to compose anything. The temperature has dropped into the low forties. The wind is still brisk at this late time in the evening. The wind is a blessing because it has kept the black flies at bay. It should be a comfortable sleep tonight.




Secret of the Machines

June 4, 1917

I came across this poem by Rudyard Kipling. It was in one of the poetry books left behind by a guest. It reads like a William Blake poem on steam and electrical power. It’s a weird but captivating antithesis to Nature. I had to copy it my journal.

The Secret of the Machines

BY Rudyard Kipling


We were taken from the ore-bed and the mine,
   We were melted in the furnace and the pit—
We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,
   We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.
Some water, coal, and oil is all we ask,
   And a thousandth of an inch to give us play:
And now, if you will set us to our task,
   We will serve you four and twenty hours a day!
      We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,
      We can print and plough and weave and heat and light,
      We can run and race and swim and fly and dive,
      We can see and hear and count and read and write!
Would you call a friend from half across the world?
   If you’ll let us have his name and town and state,
You shall see and hear your crackling question hurled
   Across the arch of heaven while you wait.
Has he answered? Does he need you at his side?
   You can start this very evening if you choose,
And take the Western Ocean in the stride
   Of seventy thousand horses and some screws!
      The boat-express is waiting your command!
      You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
      Till her captain turns the lever ’neath his hand,
      And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.
Do you wish to make the mountains bare their head
   And lay their new-cut forests at your feet?
Do you want to turn a river in its bed,
   Or plant a barren wilderness with wheat?
Shall we pipe aloft and bring you water down
   From the never-failing cisterns of the snows,
To work the mills and tramways in your town,
   And irrigate your orchards as it flows?
      It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
      Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake
      As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
      And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.
But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
   We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
   If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
   Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
   We are everything on earth—except The Gods!
      Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
      It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
      Because, for all our power and weight and size,
      We are nothing more than children of your brain!


Sovereign Sunday

June 3, 1917

Saturday’s newspaper came by train last night. Shannon, as he was wont to do at times, had to read me a sensational story on the front page. No, it wasn’t the headline about the labour strike was about to paralyse the country, it was a story entitled, “Chased Husband Across Canada.”

“This is why  Protestants shouldn’t marry Catholics.” I looked at him puzzled. I didn’t understand his introduction to the story.

Shannon continued,“Listen here, ”

‘Domestic trouble ensued between, Mr. Brennan, who is a Roman Catholic, and his wife, who is a Protestant. Following a quarrel in Winnipeg, Mrs. Brennan surreptitiously left with her daughter and journeyed to Stratford, Ontario. Mr. Brennan pursued her to Stratford and managed to prevail upon the police authorities to regain custody of his daughter. But Mrs. Brennan, using the services of two private detectives managed to seize back her daughter while he was on his way to Toronto.’ 

I now understood his logic. Catholics shouldn’t marry Protestants. Domestic strife would inevitably ensue. If the wife was Protestant, according to Shannon, she would be the guilty party.

“How about Anglicans marrying Presbyterians, Shannon?”, I asked.

“It’s all right, I guess. So long as they don’t get married in a Catholic church.”

I failed to see Shannon’s brilliance in the matter, so I decided not to pursue the topic any further. At Mowat Lodge, Shannon’s point of view is the rule of law.

Shannon began again “You were spending a lot of time with Winnie when she was up in May. You two should think of gettin’ married. Might get you out of conscription.”

I realized I subconsciously led him to the topic of marriage. I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He knew to stop the conversation, then and there and leave things unsaid. “I’d better be gettin’ out to the horses.” He disappeared into the back kitchen.

Marriage wasn’t foremost topic my mind. It was conscription. Actually, it was both. The other prominent article on the front page was Borden’s offer to Laurier to form a Coalition Government until  War’s end. In the article Borden had offered half of his Cabinet posts to Laurier in the hope that he could get the support from Quebecers  bitterly opposed to conscription. I didn’t really understand all of the politics and implications but it mean that conscription was coming closer and closer. The paper also had a big announcement for a mass meeting to discuss conscription at Queen’s Park. All the signs were pointing to the inevitability of conscription – or marriage.

It was shortly after ten, when Annie asked me to walk up with her to Hotel Algonquin. I had told her yesterday, that I managed to convince Taylor Statten to come and do a reading. She was grateful for my efforts. The lay service was at eleven. Ed did his reading and Taylor did his. I paid attention to neither. We concluded the service by singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” accompanied by Molly on the piano. The piano was in dire need of tuning after the winter as it made a proper Christian hymn sound like a saloon standard. It was rather comical, but I think I was the only one who saw the humour in the situation. We had some tea afterwards, chatted some, and I walked back to Mowat with Annie.

“Tom, I’m worried about you. Are you worried about this conscription?”


We arrived at Mowat without saying another word.

After lunch, I went fishing on the lake. It’s warmer now, so I have to go deeper and troll with copper. The fishing I did it as much to get away from the black flies as I did to seek solitude. Fishing is more restorative than any religious service I’ve gone to. As well, Shannon’s plans for a day-long pageant tomorrow turned out to be a bust, so I wasn’t needed for the preparations. Nobody was interested after George Bartlett put a damper on things. It wasn’t like in the US, where the Americans just joined the War and people still wanted celebrated sending their boys to War. That would change soon enough. Here, we didn’t celebrate that any more  Now we were just relieved and thankful when somebody came back. That was  the feeling around Canoe Lake when we heard that Mark Robinson was coming back.

When I got back Shannon said received a telegram in the late afternoon. Two guests were coming in from Ottawa. They’d be on the First Class train arriving at 3:30pm tomorrow. The instructions were to have them set up for a short canoe trip complete with guide and supplies.

“Tom, you got a guiding job, tomorrow.”

Indeed I did. But I had a funny feeling that these weren’t just any ordinary tourists coming in from Ottawa. I was wondering why they didn’t go to the Highland Inn instead. My guess was they wanted to be more discreet than rustic. I’d find out tomorrow.

Letter to Florence McGillivray

Mowat P.O.  Algonquin Park            June 3, 1917

Dear Florence,

I’m hoping this letter gets to you before your exhibition. I want to wish you the best. Your calling card stays in my sketch box for my good luck.The weather here has been poor. I managed to put in the garden for the Fraser’s but the time for sketching is pretty much over. I’m still at the Lodge. I’m hoping for some guiding work but the black flies and the War are keeping that business short.

Are you going to Ottawa later this summer? I may stop by there later this summer.I would like to visit the gallery but I hear that Parliament has taken over the building.Charlie Scrim plans to be back later and I thought it would be good of me to visit him and you too. I plan to be in the eastern part of the park in early August so mid-August might be the date. If you are there, I would like to stay for a few days because this might be my last stopping point in Ontario before I go west. I could stop in Toronto, but I don’t think I will.

With all that’s going on and the black flies, I haven’t had a mind for sketching. I have some guiding work, but it will be scarce this summer. The summer tourists don’t seem to be coming. With the war, I can see that.

I’m glad we learned something more than what Cruikshank taught. Van Gogh seems to be the better to follow along with the other French schools.  We seem to be doing the same thing here

All the best,

Tom Thomson