Category Archives: Algonquin Park stewardship

Canoe Lake Cemetery, May 19, 2017

Often, special times and places are entrusted to a writer/photographer’s exclusive view, and he or she must decide how – or whether – to share those occasions with a larger audience. Such was the case presented to me recently by the Canoe Lake Cemetery (also called Mowat Cemetery), located in Algonquin Park, Ontario.

Normally I avoid getting too specific about places such as the Cemetery, preferring to allow people to make their own discoveries and to respect the private, personal ambience of such. However, after a number of site visits and much study of this Cemetery’s history, I’ve decided to share a little more of what I’ve observed there, along with some thoughts pertaining to the Cemetery’s long-term viability as an historic site.

Presently there are only two officially recognized human burials in Canoe Lake Cemetery. For a few days in 1917 the famed Canadian artist Tom Thomson was interred there, only to be subsequently removed under questionable circumstances. There is credible evidence that Thomson was never disinterred and still rests in Canoe Lake Cemetery (MacGregor, 2010). The possibility of other human burials has been posited, but with no physical evidence (Garland, 2015).

In any case, the Cemetery has assumed historical importance out of proportion to its small physical size. It has endured since the turn of the last century, through the rise and fall of the associated pioneer village of Mowat, and various subsequent commercial / recreational/ transportation endeavours at the heart of a nascent Algonquin Park (see Garland for Mowat history).

Through all this time and change, a single very large White Birch tree has grown great within the Cemetery’s bounds. It appears in some of the earliest sketches and photos of the Cemetery, dating from the 1950’s. At that time the tree was already large and well-developed, suggesting a present age beyond a century.

In addition, the relatively short, squat, wide-spread form of this birch indicates that at least the first third of its life was spent in open-growing conditions, with little crowding or competition from other trees. IMG_20170519_091443_edit_edit   (Little, 1971; photo from 1950’s)

Logging operations began in ernest around Canoe Lake in the late 1800’s. Quite quickly the surrounding hills were largely deforested (as revealed in co-temperous photos). Thus if the Cemetery birch sprouted around 1880, it would have had time to develop its present form before much other forest regeneration occurred.

At some point near mid-life (say in late 1930’s), the birch appears to have been struck by lightning. This resulted in a black zigzag scar full-length down opposite sides of the trunk (scar is visible as black line in 1950’s photo). As is typical in such occurrences, the lightning did not kill the tree, but introduced weakness.

I should note that some traditional-minded Indigenous people consider such lightning-struck trees to be spiritually potent.

 

 

Part 5: Tom Thomson the Artist (updated November 20, 2016)

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.img_20160811_101639_edit

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.

 

 

 

 

Tom The Canoeist, Part 4: The Territory: Algonquin Park (updated December 2, 2016)

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.

Tom the Canoeist, Part 2: The Traditions (updated October 15, 2016)

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). IMG_20160811_092905

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. IMG_20160727_194400_edit

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.

 

 

 

PERSPECTIVES ON CANADIAN ARTIST TOM THOMSON (1877-1917), Tom the Canoeist, Part 1: The Issues (updated October 15, 2016)

img_20161027_225546_editModern art critics and academics have fairly uniformly tended to downplay the ‘skilled woodsman’ aspect of Tom Thomson. They have apparently seen it as getting in the way of a true, demythologized evaluation of his art. Answering to egalitarian times, they have wanted to ‘normalize’ Tom as far as possible: His canoeing was ordinary; the wilderness he traveled, not so wild.
As an example I suggest reading Harold Town’s 1977 ‘Introduction’ to his major Thomson book, “The Silence and the Storm.” In that same book Town’s co-author, David Silcox, also makes disparaging remarks in a similar vein, though to a lesser degree. Very recently, Gregory Klages in his 2016 book “The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson,” continues the trend, somewhat muted, but with clear intent; he writes:
“Thomson has been characterized as a deft outdoorsman with natural skill at painting a uniquely distinctive Canadian environment that he knew well. This is the image that Thomson’s friends and supporters worked to advance after his death, and that was integral to the rise of his reputation. If Thomson died as a result of a canoeing accident on a calm lake in the middle of the day, this image would be significantly destabilized.” (pp 236-7).
Although I certainly agree with constructing a clear-eyed overview of Tom Thomson, from my perspective as a seasoned wilderness canoeist, I think it’s important to more closely investigate both the level of his bush skills and their relationship to the artistic achievements that flowed from them, rooted in his time and place.

By comparing wilderness canoe equipment/methods, circa Thomson’s time (early 1900’s), with modern gear and turning an experienced eye on Thomson’s on-the-water accomplishments, with consideration of Algonquin Park itself, a more grounded sense can be had of his woodsman’s expertise or lack thereof.

In the process of doing so, I have gained other insights, obliquely, into Tom Thomson’s life and art, and share these where appropriate within this Log.

Tom’s story continues to evolve – thanks partly to new efforts by on-line commentators such as @TTLastSpring.

I believe more insights, more material, and more truth is out there waiting to be had by those intent on finding it.