Tag Archives: Tom Thomson Canoeist

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.

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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.