Before reviewing his canoeing / camping equipment and exploits, it’s best to touch on Canadian canoeing traditions to see where Tom Thomson fits.
The oldest canoe tradition is that bequeathed by Aboriginal Peoples. Modern Canadian canoes are but minor variants of the original birch-bark craft. These earliest canoes (dating from prehistory) functioned as tools of survival, providing transportation to seasonal territories for food-gathering etc. I trust, however, that their creators and first paddlers found much unexplainable joy when using these near-perfect craft.
As European settlers (‘colonizers’) arrived, they quickly adopted some of the Aboriginal tools of wilderness life, and the original survival value of canoe travel remained paramount. Personally, based upon my own experience with Native people, I feel that this initial transaction among Aboriginals and Europeans – the gift of the canoe – was a largely positive and voluntary one, both ways, at least between individuals.
Europeans did bring a more industrial and restless edge to canoe travel in North America. The canoe became even more of a workhorse, bringing timber surveyors (‘cruisers’), land surveyors, prospectors, and retail merchants deep into the wilderness. As villages became established, brigades of skilled canoeists (comprised often of Metis) continued to make extensive forays into the hinterlands. I believe that quite a few of these canoeists actually loved this arduous endeavor, and devoted their lives to it with fierce joy (‘Voyagers,’ etc).
This original utilitarian canoeing acquired recreational overtones as leisure-time became available. It morphed into the several sub-sets of activity that define ‘canoeing’ today.
Perhaps Calvin Rutstrum (1895-1982; in books such as “The New Way of the Wilderness,” 1958) best straddled the transition from survival-based canoeing to a more recreational focus. He, along with others such as Bill Riviere (d.2005; “Pole, Paddle, and Portage,” 1965) and Stewart Edward White (1873-1946; “The Forest,” 1903) introduced new generations of recreational canoeists to the old tried and true canoeing ethos, steeped in ‘workplace’ rigor.
This ‘canoeing as a workplace’ as taught by Rutstrum, stressed the ability to travel far, for long periods of time through all weather, into remote wilderness. Self-sufficency was paramount. If things went wrong, quick rescue was not anticipated. The canoeist eventually returned to ‘civilization’ with ‘the goods,’ – be it some personal achievement or something with more commercial flavour.
On the other side of the coin are the whitewater thrill-seekers and sport canoeists. Unlike the Rutstrum school of paddlers who largely view whitewater as an obstacle to avoid, today’s sport canoeists seek it out and make it the focus of their excursions. Perhaps Canadian author (ie. “Path of the Paddle,” 1980) and film-maker Bill Mason (1929-88) best exemplifies this newer school.
Technical whitewater paddling manoeuvres such as ‘back-ferry,’ ‘playing the eddies,’ etc. were not consciously practiced by the old-schoolers. Their main tactic, when forced to run rapids, was to paddle quickly forward to maintain steerage-way and thus dodge obstacles.
Of course,there are many nuances within the canoeing spectrum but I think it’s safe to say, without delving further into canoeing history, that Tom Thomson fits comfortably within the Rutstrum ‘workplace’ tradition of wilderness travel.
That’s not to say that Tom was a stranger to whitewater. For instance, in the summer of 1916 he worked as a fire-ranger with Ed Godin in Algonquin’s north and eastern areas; as Silcox writes:
“They travelled the Petawawa River… and Thomson again followed and painted part of the Booth Company’s timber drive along the Petawawa.” (p 58)
The Petawawa is known as a premier whitewater river, with all grades of rapids and lengthy, very challenging stretches. George Drought says the Petawawa: “continues to provide some of the best whitewater canoeing in the country” (“Petawawa River Whitewater Guide,” FOAP, 2013, p 6). It seems likely that Thomson was very familiar with and at least dappled in all of this river’s rapids.
But again, Tom’s intent was ‘workplace oriented,’ with his main focus on fire-ranging duties, or corralling subjects fit for his brushes.