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. (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.