I have three Grey Squirrels that have suddenly started showing up when I park the tractor for a coffee break. They appear to be older individuals. Besides a peanut or two, they seem to enjoy conversation.
I have just published a sequence of poems set in Algonquin Park, coincidental with the Park’s 125th anniversary.
The poems are based on my almost sixty years of exploring the Park.
This September, 2018, we drove up to spend a few days on Rock Lake on Algonquin’s southeast side. However, our plans were derailed by intense storms that had just wracked the area. Power outages and other hazardous conditions had closed many of the Park’s facilities.
We detoured to Canisbay Campground, the only one still open in the Park. As it happened, I had last been in Canisbay more than fifty years ago, camping with parents and sisters. This recent stay provided time for reflection, and became the inspiration for this set of poems.
The tract has been hand-assembled into ‘chapbook’ form (forest-sustainable paper and stitched with vintage Irish thread), and also eBook. It is the first installment in what will be a series relating to Algonquin Park. A second, longer volume, “Into The Interior,” is underway.
I dropped a couple of copies off at the Algonquin Art Center. There is no set cost, although a donation to the Center would be appreciated (if you can find a copy). Otherwise drop a line to email@example.com
Also available as an eBook, free, yes free, for the duration of Algonquin Park’s 125th anniversary.
November 1. Part 2 of my Algonquin Park series, “Into The Interior,” is now available as an eBook. A printed chapbook edition will be out shortly.
This second poem sequence focuses on a solo 1980’s canoe trip into the Crow River area of Algonquin Park.
When the pizza-delivery man didn’t want to leave, I knew it was time to get this book underway. He made the delivery, then hesitated, apparently surprised and entranced. He gazed around at wild meadows, tall trees, rural hills that surround the farmhouse where my family and I have resided as tenants for the past thirty years. Perhaps, too, he was hearing the burbling of Cold Creek, close-by. After all, it was a hot summer day. In any case, he took his time leaving, slowly driving away down our lane, back into the City from whence he’d just emerged, like a time-traveler popping-in through some Sci-Fi worm-hole.
In retrospect, such reactions are not uncommon. Over the years, tradesmen, curious visitors, even a fireman… all mopped city-weary faces and were ready to steal a little ‘country time’ here.
Many people dream of a place like this. The idea of a small house set within a thousand-acres of fields, forest, wetlands and working farmland, perched improbably on the City’s edge. Of course, those dreamers may not know the half. The risks as well as the rewards of making such a dream come true. Dreamers are beautiful people, but…
They may not know, although sense something of, the countless other life-forms that share this place with its human residents. And of the bonds that grow among species, across what might seem to be unbridgeable gulfs of strangeness, multiplying the possibilities of love, and also loss. How those bonds, strong as they can be, are broken when the City carelessly pushes closer to the edge.
They may not know that by merely stepping out from their vehicle to touch a wildflower here, they risk acquiring a hitchhiking, disease-carrying blacklegged tick. Or being pricked by a West-Nile infected mosquito.
With the pace of change quickening day by day – a major arterial road is being widened along the Reserve’s south border, and city-sized subdivisions are currently rising on the north side, within Ontario’s supposedly protected “Green Belt” – it’s time now to take up the pen and share this place, which has become an informal “Nature Reserve On The City’s Edge.” To communicate something of the reality of this nature/urban dream, at once richer than can be imagined, but also risky and uncommonly perilous. To do so before it fades further in the face of the City’s relentless expansion… before this living dream, and its secrets, are lost forever.
July, 2018. My new book, “NATURE RESERVE ON THE CITY’S EDGE,” is now available in hard-copy format. This book is Book 2 in my NATURAL YEARS SERIES, of which “THE ROUGE RIVER VALLEY, AN URBAN WILDERNESS” is Book 1.
Note, both books are also available as Kobo eBooks.
Specs: 8.5×11 pb format. 161 pages. Approx 24 BW and 12 colour photos. Index.
To order a signed, personalized copy(s) of “NATURE RESERVE ON THE CITY’S EDGE, ” (book is $20.00+$5.00 shipping and handling), send expression of interest to, firstname.lastname@example.org
September, 2018. Encouraged that ‘On Nature’ has expressed interest in the book, and in perhaps sharing it with their thousands of members.
September 15, 2018. I am looking at issuing a special, limited edition of “Nature Reserve On The City’s Edge.” It will be Smyth-sewn, hardcover. All photos will be in colour. In addition, I will tip-in a unique, original 8×10 b&w hand-tinted large-format photo taken on site. This collector’s edition will be limited to twenty copies. Cost will be $60.00/ copy. In order to proceed, I will need pre-orders of ten copies. Of course, with this tiny number they could be gone quickly. Drop me an email to reserve yours.
November 17, 2016.
Hello, thanks for visiting. Since you’ve asked, a little background:
I’ve been active in photography for about fifty years. Most of that time, of course, involved old-fashioned film photography. I had the full range of equipment, from junk snap+shoot ‘brownies’, to range-finders, and finally SLR cameras in both 35mm and medium formats. I did all my own black & white darkroom work, often with makeshift arrangements (ie. closet). I also took countless 35mm colour slides, principally of outdoor nature in areas of the Scarborough Bluffs, Lake Ontario, Haliburton and many more remote locals in Ontario.
I sold and used some of these photos in various publications (including my 2000 book about the Rouge Valley). As important (for me), I’ve used them to illustrate numerous presentations I’ve made to various groups over the years. I presently have several projects on the go that will make further use of these photos, including a book about the Scarborough Bluffs and Lake Ontario.
I watched bemused as the whole film photography scene seemed to disappear with the quick emergence of digital imagery. I adapted and now dapple in digital photography, mostly with cell phone cameras. But I have found that computers play too large a role in digital imagery. I’ve also found – as have many other people – that more and easier imagery does not equal better or more valuable imagery.
I do recognize and value the undeniable strengths of digital photography, particularly for scientific purposes.
A main desirable quality from my viewpoint, is the widely-touted role that digital processes have played in reducing environmental impacts of old-fashioned photography, largely by eliminating film-processing chemicals and water-wastage. Yet even here I question the actual net gain: Over a complete life-cycle analysis, is digital still environmentally more desirable, especially when you consider the warehouses and dumps already full of obsolete digital equipment?
Furthermore, art is an human endeavour. And the proliferation of automated tools and techniques on the digital side, does not seem, at least to me, to equate with what might be hoped for in terms of a new, widespread artistic renaissance.
I’ve been encouraged recently by film-photography’s tenacity. Similar to other aspects of the so-called old-fashioned analog era (say, vacuum tubes in top-end music gear), film imagery is growing into a more than niche activity. The neat thing too, is that tons of what was originally prohibitively expensive gear is presently available to the careful haunter of second-hand shops.
Careful use of modern chemistry, washing aids, resin-coated paper; and, especially, film photography’s greatly downsized reality, all help to minimize its environmental footprint today. Furthermore, small quantities of spent photo-chemicals can be retained on-site until they oxidize and are thus rendered inert.
Anyone getting back(?) into film should have a specific focus in mind, otherwise obstacles along the way will defeat you. For myself, that means embracing the strengths and what were once thought of as weaknesses, of film photography.
By taking advantage of the used marketplace, I’ve managed to get into Large Format 4×5 b&w photography, once an out-of-reach fantasy. I found a 1947 Crown Graphic camera, and a Beseler 45 mxcr enlarger. The Graphic is a great field camera. It’s possible to forego darkroom printing entirely by purchasing a high-tech scanner/printer and digitizing the negatives – a kind of new/old hybrid approach.
In Large Format, a single exposure (resulting in a b&w negative) can take an hour or more of work in the field, and I usually only carry four 4×5 films. Several more hours of close attention in the darkroom, developing and printing, is followed by additional time spent hand-colouring each print (if such is desired)
I have not attempted Large Format colour films, as there are no sources of material or processing in my area. I’ve always preferred the control b&w allows. I should say, however, that a new start-up, New55film, is producing Large Format films; including, apparently, colour Polaroid. Looks interesting. Time will tell.
The time spent obtaining each large-format photo cultivates an attentive mode of procedure that is quite different from the ‘take as many as possible’ and ‘photo-shop later’ modus operandi of too much digital imagery. You want to get it right the first time.
The pay-off, too, resides in the technical capabilities of Large Format films themselves. Depending on the type of emulsion, a single old-fashioned 4×5 negative can contain far more information – more impressions of that elusive First Light – than the most powerful digital sensor commonly available. Resolution, and the nuances of tone and shading, are all potentially far beyond digital capabilities.
Large Format cameras themselves beat out their digital brethren in everything but speed and convenience. Lens and bed ‘movements’ provide subtle perspective adjustments that allow a photographer to capture a scene on-the-spot, as first visualized. In addition, the peculiar properties of relatively long-focus lenses (the norm in large format) create unique depth-of-field effects and realistic out-of-focus tonal shadings.
Although as indicated I’m working only in black and white with large format, this has opened the way to experimentation with traditional hand-colouring techniques. In fact, I was amazed to find vintage tip sheets from what might have been thought of as ‘staid old Kodak,’ suggesting all manner of substances for tinting photos. Wine, tea, coffee… anything may or may not work according to the old Kodak guidelines. Special photo-oils were once available for photo-retouching, but appear to have vanished. I was lucky to chance upon a vintage set of Prismacolour pencils in a junk store. Here are examples of photos I’ve done in November, 2016, and tinted with these pencils. These illustrations are simple cellphone shots of the original 8×10 prints:
Waterfall Algonquin Park:
Colouring process just starting on this print:
Colouring completed: Lane Beside the House,
Meadows and woodlots behind our house.
Trembling Aspen behind the house as evening comes:
Golden Delicious Apple Tree beside the lane:
Fence-row near the house, early November:
Residing for the past thirty years in the Humber River Valley, within sight of the McMichael Gallery – that quintessential Thomson shrine – and canoeing a sizeable portion of Algonquin Park, has been more than slightly conducive to a close study of the works of Tom Thomson.
And, besides having an active personal interest in the artistic creative process, I have been inspired by my late sister Pat Garratt, who was an art historian (University of Guelph). We often talked about Thomson, and art in general. Pat noted that the life of a work of art could effectively come to an untimely end, once hung on a gallery wall. Her point was that art is at least a three-way mystery, dependent upon a viewer bringing new life, new wonder, and new love to the table.
The art of Tom Thomson is refreshed by each viewer who is surprised, often repeatedly, by the strength of communication that can occur in proportion to the depth and authenticity with which artist and viewer has/had contact with the third party – the ‘outer world’ – in this case Algonquin Park.
The loss or other unforeseeable diminution (aesthetic devaluation through undue veneration of urban environments and issues in some looming dystopia?) of Algonquin Park, would thus lead to an impoverishment of Thomson’s art. It would become more of a lonely academic exercise – humans speaking to humans.
Tom Thomson’s muse is certainly found in the Park. And he was undoubtedly predisposed psychologically to ‘be creative.’ His questing, restless ‘aloneness,’ and the temper of the times would have impelled him toward some kind of expression.
Yet many other people, aspiring artists included, have found themselves in similar straits, and have come up empty-handed.
What Tom Thomson had in spades – besides a little talent and luck – was willpower. The ‘will,’ with respect to human artistic creative process, is essentially mysterious, hidden within an individual’s invisible labyrinth. It enabled Tom to channel his energies in new, creative ways with successful, positive results within his allotted time.
I’ve already detailed some of Tom’s everyday gear and procedures. Within that context, it’s appropriate to look more closely at his painterly methods.
It’s immediately noticeable that Thomson liked the ‘shoulder seasons’ best. Earliest spring and late autumn reflected his palette and temperament. These times present obvious challenges to the outdoor artist.
In a recent spring (early May, 2016) we camped and canoed for a few days in Algonquin Park. Although the weather was pleasant and almost bug-free (it’s an art in itself to beat the black-fly hatch-out, usually second week in May), the chill air and water made us wonder how Thomson was able to paint in similar conditions. Exposed fingers quickly were numbed; small-motor muscle control and dexterity were impaired by the chill. To have picked up a brush, let alone focus on painting, would have distracted from the simpler concern of trying to keep hands warm.
Similarly on late fall Algonquin canoe trips, a pair of high-tech neoprene gloves seems appropriate to ward off the chill.
Yet quite a number of Tom Thomson’s sketches depict snow and ice in the bush or waterways.
It’s wonderful how he could create these sketches amid the oft-choatic conditions of a rough wilderness camp, not to mention hand-numbing environmental conditions.
I would assert, too, that these ‘sketches’ were not quickly dashed-off in moments of bright inspiration. Rather, they are the products of prolonged and intense observation. Tips of icebergs, so-to-speak. Results of hours and days of collar-up, hand-numbing, dogged, apparently passive observation and experience, mysterious and unfathomable to the ‘normal’ uninitiate.
It can be succinctly stated that Tom Thomson, in his five or so years of seasonal residency in the Park, visited most of Algonquin’s approximate 3,000 square-miles via canoe or on foot. He paddled the lakes, rivers, creeks, wetlands in all their variety, and hiked the portages and look-out trails.
He did not arrive there as a greenhorn, but with extensive on-the-water experience from his youthful years growing up on the shore of a Great Lake. ‘Messin’ with boats’ is something he learned early in life (particularly small sailboats). By the time he first visited Algonquin in 1912, he’d already developed a tough-minded artistic sensibility that would see him through inevitable rough times.
Tom did venture beyond the Park’s boundaries. For instance, we know he regularly canoed to the village of South River – a challenging trip through the full spectrum of Algonquin land and water – to obtain artist’s supplies.
In 1912, with typical youthful bravado, he and William Broadhead embarked on a major canoe expedition down the Mississagi River in Northern Ontario.
However, Tom Thomson cleaved close to Algonquin Park thereafter (not withstanding a little mid-life restlessness). And I believe the Park would’ve stood him in good stead through the rest of a long life – if such had been his lot. For, truth be told, few places on Earth can match Algonquin as a canoeist’s destination and as a place allowing contact with natural wilderness and its wild inhabitants.
In addition to much of Algonquin, I have canoed Lake Superior’s North Shore, Pukaskwa, the White River, Temagami, the Cheepay and Albany rivers to James Bay, numerous smaller southern Ontario rivers in high-water conditions from headwaters to mouths (ie. Rouge, Humber, Credit…) and after a hiatus of about fifteen years during which I sailed the big waters of Lake Ontario, I returned to continue to explore Algonquin Park, now with my son Brant, and have found it to be largely unimpaired and unequalled.
True, other visitors will be encountered especially during peak seasons, but for me the Park’s human history and touch, add to its richness. There’s a lotta love gone by there. Let’s ‘feel that love.’
Those who seek remote isolation in ‘true’ wilderness often bank on the possibility of quick rescue if anything goes wrong, or are clients of some guided expedition. Too often, the extreme wilderness quest assumes the qualities of a recreational stunt. In all these cases, what is really experienced is faux wilderness.
The Park however is not scot-free of problems; some are long-standing issues that I believe Tom Thomson would’ve increasingly engaged with if he had lived longer.
Touching briefly on several:
*The impact of on-going logging in the Park and its legacy of logging roads.
*Increased visitation during certain times along with heightened expectations of ‘comfort.’ For instance, on recent October Thanksgiving weekends, cars were lined-up for almost thirty kilometres from the West Gate waiting to get in.
*Pressure to open more of the Park to hunting.
*Maintaining sources of funding and manpower to continue the huge task of managing Algonquin.
*Bringing new generations and cultures into the Algonquin Park ‘fold.’
* Respecting and increasingly re-incorporating indigenous Algonquin culture into the Park’s fabric.
Throughout all these issues, the land, water, and natural life of Algonquin should provide objective criteria against which human desires are accommodated or discouraged. A consensus has long emerged that aims to grant primacy to non-human life in the Park. Often times this means people have to be excluded, their activities constrained.
For instance, I don’t believe ‘sport hunting’ should have any place in Algonquin Park (currently it does, in certain times and places). The possible presence of even one hunter in a huge area of land seriously degrades the potential experiences of the majority of other visitors (not to mention placing additional burdens on already stressed-out wildlife populations) .
With hunting comes a kind of mechanized invasion of the backcountry – ATVs, chainsaws, motorboats, snowmobiles, roadways (how else does one extract a thousand-pound moose carcass?) – a state of affairs commonplace everywhere in Ontario save for a few ‘protected areas.’
I believe that a non-consumptive, non-predator-prey, relationship with wild nature is as authentic as any, and am prepared to argue the case on any grounds.
Hunting aside, perhaps the best solution to most of these issues resides in expansion of the Park’s area – whether through creation of additional ‘satellite’ parks, increased buffer zones, or boundary extensions.
After more than three decades of working in parks and dealing with the public (no, not in Algonquin), I can say that the success of these special, more-or-less protected, areas depends upon enforcement of pertinent regulations. You can have all the high-falutin’ ideas in the world, but once word of lax enforcement gets ’round, a free-for-all soon ensues and it’s then difficult to win back control.
Of course, ideally, enforcement should be invisible and client-based. But we often do need to heed the ‘experts,’ and allow those closely attuned to the land to speak-up and point the way.
Tom Thomson, of course, was one who knew the spirit of Algonquin Park intimately, almost since its inception. He did not create that spirit, but helped reveal it – making it OK for people to publicly celebrate what they had already privately delighted in.
Today, anyone contemplating stewardship of Algonquin Park would do well to study Tom Thomson’s life and work (as well as indigenous Algonquin knowledge). His vision was that of a true, archetypical environmentalist.
Having surveyed the academic issues and situated Tom Thomson within Canadian canoeing traditions, it’s appropriate now to look more attentively at the gear he used – how it affects my evaluation of his canoeing/camping cred – and for any insights it may provide into his life and times.
Tom Thomson’s canoe is at once the most visible and yet also controversial piece of gear. After examining photos and descriptions, I tend to agree with opinions expressed in forums on the website of the ‘Wooden Canoe Heritage Association,’ that Tom’s canoe was a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser – a wood and canvas model made in New Brunswick, about 1912. This model was the predecessor of the now very popular ‘Prospector’ design.
A great canoe; great design. Its construction materials have features still sought-after today: quiet passage through the water, nice thermal properties, reasonable repairability. In addition, Tom’s canoe appears to have cane seats and a stern-facing backrest in the bow (upgrades?).
However, wood and canvas canoes are fragile around rocks, and they do absorb water over time, adding to their initial heaviness. Tom’s canoe by 1917 – especially considering its alleged custom paint-job – probably exceeded 70lbs. This compares to as little as 40lbs for a modern, similar-sized high-tech kevlar/carbon craft.
A 16′ fiberglass Prospector canoe I used for decades, weighed about 65 lbs; my current canoe – an ex-rental 17′ Nova Craft Haida – weighs about 50lbs.
Tom Thomson’s canoe is kind of a Holy Grail today. Despite searches over the years, its whereabouts are unknown. It now seems to me that Tom may have owned and used more than one canoe while in Algonquin.
In a letter to Tom Harkness (executor of Thomson’s estate), dated August 6, 1917, Shannon Fraser, proprietor of Mowat Lodge where Thomson was headquartered, writes:
“I have seen the Rangers and they said the canoes [Tom’s] was worth $10.00 dollars a peace and they leak pretty bad they are Pretty old canoes and full of holes so they said that was all they are worth.”
This letter is quoted in Gregory Klages’ new book (“The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson,” 2016, Dundurn), but he does not comment on its significance with respect to Thomson’s canoe[s]. Yet, grammar and spelling aside, Fraser implies that Tom owned or had invested in a fleet of canoes at Canoe Lake. Perhaps this is connected to money Tom is rumoured to have lent Fraser to ‘buy canoes’ for Mowat Lodge.
My take is that Fraser deliberately down-played the canoes’ value so as to minimise his liability in the estate settlement. In general, this is not an uncommon situation when estates get messy – as Thomson’s did. It need not reflect too harshly on Fraser who seems to have been always on a thin edge financially. His comments do, however, add another rather unexamined mystery to Tom’s canoe inventory.
Tom Thomson’s canoe paddles are another essential piece of gear. They, too, are embroiled in controversy. How many paddles did he have? What role did they play in his fate? What happened to them?
I have pondered such questions from a canoeist’s perspective and, after reviewing the few available photos and contemporary testimony, have arrived at tentative conclusions.
First I will look closely at what information about the paddles themselves can be teased from available evidence.
This photo, dated 1912, appears to be the only one in existence that shows Tom with a paddle.
A previous photo, four back, shows a (the same?) paddle hand-grip near his right shoulder.
I believe the paddle to be similar to one I have in my own ‘collection.’ It dates from the 1940’s, perhaps much earlier. Note the curved handgrip and spline where shaft meets blade, similar to Tom’s (his paddle appears to have a round decal on upper blade). Total length is 59″ – perfect for a six-footer. Material is beech, and the overall dimensions make for a very well-balanced paddle.
Tom is reputed to have had a “favourite ash working paddle,” which was lost. This is quite possible, as ash paddles have been in wide use in Algonquin since the Park’s inception (see a selection of old ash paddles displayed in the Portage Store restaurant at Canoe Lake).
For example, the paddle pictured on the right is a 1940-50’s working ash paddle I found deep within Algonquin’s interior, and for which I subsequently traded with the MNR. These paddles were locally made, most likely by Avery & Sons of Whitney, Ontario (Algonquin East Gate), still a going concern today. The small maple paddle on the left is labelled as an Avery, and the design similarities are apparent. Ash paddles are noted for their strength and flexibility.
How many paddles did Tom Thomson own? Quite a selection, I believe – to go with the several canoes he apparently owned at Mowat Lodge.
When canoeing himself, the preponderance of evidence convinces me that he routinely carried two paddles, as per standard practice. In this, I’m in agreement with Gregory Klages who, based upon on-the-spot letters from Shannon Fraser, concludes that Thomson usually carried only two paddles (pp 230-2). Additionally, a third paddle would obviously have been an unnecessary encumbrance on portages.
However, Klages (spoiler alert) inadvertently undermines his central thesis which supports the official finding that Tom Thomson’s death was caused by ‘accidental drowning’ (p234 etc).
Because – and again from my canoeist’s viewpoint – the number and disposition of Tom’s paddles raises serious implications with respect to his subsequent fate.
To wit: his routine when preparing to portage would have been thus:
1. Step out from the canoe at the landing.
2. Lift out accessible packs to lighten the canoe.
3. Haul the canoe further out of the water and remove remaining gear.
4. Rig the canoe for carrying by tying the two paddles inside to form a rudimentary shoulder yoke.
He would then be ready to proceed, making one or more trips depending on load (ie. length of trip).
At no point would Tom have been out on the water with paddles already tied-in for portaging (would’ve interfered with pack placement and accessibility of spare paddle). The existent photos of Tom on the lake in his canoe, clearly show this to be the case.
Tom was last seen alive on July 8, 1917. His(?) canoe was reported floating upside down later that same day, but apparently was not recovered until July 10. His body was found, also floating, on July 16. Both canoe and body were found in the deep open waters of northwest Canoe Lake.
The obvious question is, how did Tom Thomson’s canoe and body relocate from a putative portage, to deep water? To the best of my knowledge, there are no existing portages in the vicinity of Canoe Lake where he was found. The closest trail – a largely abandoned path at Whiskey Jack Creek – does not alter this scenario.
If Tom had slipped on a portage (say, on the rocky ‘official’ portage into Gill Lake), how did his canoe end up so quickly back out on the lake? How could he have paddled there, perhaps injured, when both paddles were apparently found lashed in the canoe? Even if Tom did utilise a third ‘padding paddle,’ this does not change the ‘forensic scholarly’ finding that he was preparing to portage and thus was off the water.
To summarize the paddle situation: two paddles, tied in Tom’s canoe floating out on Canoe Lake, don’t support the official verdict of death by accidental drowning. Instead, they raise more questions. The probability of a long-suspected ‘third-party’ involvement, is strengthened in this scenario. And for now,that’s as far as I’ll go along those lines.
Suffice to say that, the official version of Tom Thomson’s death does not square with important physical evidence reported in the immediate aftermath.
Leaving aside such constraints for now, more mundane but nonetheless germane information about Tom’s other canoeing gear can be gleaned from photos and first-hand accounts. I touch on his artist’s tools in later Log entries.
Tom’s pack was a traditional canvas canoe pack, little-changed for the past century and identical to my 1960’s Woods #1 Special pictured above. Recent cheap imported versions of these ‘Made in Canada’ originals, are not nearly as durable.
A distinctive feature of this pack is the attached short ‘tump’strap. You don’t see these used much now, but they were required in Tom’s day, when loads were heavier and necks were stronger. He also carried a tarp (rubber?) rolled up in a long standalone tump-line, as used in the following photo:
While these old canvas packs had great durability, they were not inherently waterproof and were available in a limited range of sizes. For these reasons, they have been supplanted to a large degree by plastic packs which even permit a watertight closure, allowing the pack to float in case of upset.
However, the new plastic packs are susceptible to puncture and I’d bet that, unlike the old canvas packs, few will be around fifty years from now.
Perhaps the last large item of Tom’s camping/canoeing gear is his tent. It was a classic ‘A-frame.’ Versatile, easy to pitch; with pegs, poles, and often bedding cut from surrounding forest. Materials were light canvas (poplin) and rubber ground-cloth. Real luxury would’ve been some kind of bug screen combined with the Hudson Bay blanket(s) Tom reportedly used.
Although potentially more weighty and less waterproof compared to modern designs, the great utility (four seasons) of the old A-frame has such undiminished desirability for ‘workplace’ camping, that Rutstrum developed and marketed his own adaptable version which still commands a niche following today.
Before considering what foods Tom brought while canoeing, I’ll look at a couple of smaller items in his kit.
Tom carried a knife that, I believe, was used primarily for filleting fish and other culinary endeavors. Judging from the photo – the only one I’m aware of that shows his knife – I’m undecided as to whether it reveals a heavy ‘tang’ (ie. Bowie style) or is simply a sheathed, long-handled filleting knife. In any case, in Tom’s time there was a limited selection available. Quite likely his knife was made in Sheffield, England by Charles Ibbotson&Co. (ie.’Early Bird’), comparable to these in my ‘collection:’
If you ask an old woodsman what tool he’d choose if allowed to take only one into the wilderness, I bet he’d say, “axe.” With an axe a skilled person can create shelter, access wild food, defend themselves, and even shave. It is, however, important to distinguish between an axe and a hatchet. The latter (small head, handle 1′ or less) is an inefficient, dangerous tool (miss a stroke with an axe, most likely blade hits ground; miss with a hatchet, blade more readily strikes leg or hand).
Tom Thomson carried an axe in the bush, and although I’ve not been able to locate any photos of it, I believe it probably was of the ‘Hudson Bay’ style. This design features a relatively broad blade-edge combined with smaller and hence lighter poll. Yes, I happen to have an example in my collection – a “Genuine Norlund” from mid 1960’s Canadian Tire:
In her 2012 book about Algonquin Park’s Smoke Lake, Gaye I. Clemson quotes Esther Keyser who established a canoe-trip business in the Park in the 1930’s: “I was proficient with the Hudson Bay axe…” indicating perhaps early widespread usage of this axe design in Algonquin.
Given the importance of an axe in any canoeist’s kit of Tom’s time, it’s all the more puzzling that he left his on the dock when departing on what turned out to be his final trip (as per Robinson’s July 1917 Journal entry).
To me this indicates that Tom was embarking on a quick errand, with the intention of returning shortly to complete his interrupted(?) packing for a longer excursion.
In addition to the axe he also left “three old tin pails” on the dock – no doubt a good part of his cooking gear, further reinforcing my impression that he was intending to be gone only briefly.
The apparent brevity and errand-like quality of Tom’s initial departure that day, July 8/17, further erodes the official version of events that claims he was preparing to portage, fell, struck his head, and subsequently accidently drowned.
An item of his kit not accounted for in Tom’s ensuing estate but that nonetheless was central to his mode of procedure, is his reflector-oven. This kind of folding oven, widely relied on by ‘workplace’ canoeists, no doubt allowed Tom to live partly off the country through his fishing.
Besides fish, Tom’s bush diet appears to have been high in carbs. His fondness for maple syrup and jam is well illustrated in his food lists and related documents. For instance, Mark Robinson noted that “1 gal can maple syrup, 1.5lbs tin of jam” were recovered from his empty canoe (July 1917). And Tom himself provided this grubstake in a letter dated May 8, 1917 (Addison/Harwood, 1975, pp 62-3):
“I have all the supplies including 1 gallon maple syrup pail of jam plenty bacon, potatoes, Bread, tea, sugar, all kinds canned stuff…”
These kinds of foods – typical for the time among working wilderness travellers – have important implications when trying to understand and evaluate Tom Thomson’s accomplishments as canoeist/ camper.
For instance, Tom’s favourite ‘gallon of maple syrup’ would’ve weighed almost 15 lbs. In comparison I’ve calculated that a similar weight of modern freeze-dried food such as I routinely use now on canoe trips, would provide three squares per day for two people for ten days, and these would be gourmet meals, simply prepared. All the rest of Tom’s foods were similarly cumbersome, although certainly sustaining.
Have you ever actually tried to prepare hot meals over an open wood-fire in wilderness conditions? And in all weather conditions? Fishing for food sounds great, but the mess and tedious prep requirements can quickly overwhelm the dilettante until he / she hightails it back to the Portage Store Restaurant, where a nice Tom Thomson Burger can be ordered.
The fact is, to successfully use Tom’s canoeing / camping tools and techniques much beyond a weekend novelty, requires skill of a very high order. That he was able to also create art of the highest caliber, attests further to his extraordinary accomplishments.