Paddling After Tom: A Canoe Lake Mystery In The Wilderness North of Toronto
A part-time paddler heads to Algonquin Park, Ontario to learn more about Canada’s most famous painter and his mysterious death over 100 years ago.
“…the best I can do does not do the place much justice in the way of beauty.”
Tom Thomson, letter to Dr. James MacCallum, Oct. 6, 1914, from Canoe Lake Station, Algonquin Park
It was here in Algonquin that the one-time park ranger spent endless days painting and sketching innovative works that would inspire fellow artists in the early 20th Century, who would themselves go on to form Canada’s prominent arts collective, The Group of Seven. (Hollywood legend Steve Martin is a big champion of one member of the Group of Seven in particular.)
125 years after the park’s establishment, Canoe Lake remains one of the most popular access points in Canada’s oldest provincial park. I had paddled it many times, but never stopped to investigate many of the sites that pertain to Tom Thomson’s life. With the anniversary of his mysterious death in mind (was he murdered? did he have an accident? was it suicide? was his body really exhumed from his Algonquin Park grave?), my girlfriend and I decided to discover more about this epic Canadian tale that remains shrouded in mystery.
We wanted to experience as much of the history of both Thomson and the lake as we could fit into a single day. Armed with a simple map (you can get maps from outfitters) and some basic research, we headed for the park on an overcast Sunday morning. We rented a canoe from The Portage Store, which is located directly at the Canoe Lake access point. The friendly and knowledgeable staff had us outfitted and on our way in no time.
While the morning sky was grey and foreboding, the temperature was perfect for paddling. Following our map, we stroked towards the spot where Thomson’s overturned canoe was found, on July 8, 1917, behind Big Wapomeo Island. We paused a moment to reflect on the tragic event that took this brilliant young man’s life too soon.
Next we passed the approximate location where his body was discovered floating eight days later. Thomson had been a strong and accomplished paddler, and we wondered aloud at what could have transpired to cause him to flip his canoe and drown and discussed the many theories for this shocking occurrence (e.g. Was he murdered? Hit over the head with a paddle because of a bad debt? Why did he drown? Only his ghost can tell the tale.)
An Historic Logging Yard
After a relatively short but invigorating paddle we approached the area that was once the Gilmour Lumber Company’s chip yard. At one time filling a space of ten acres, the chip yard was where loggers in the park would use broad axes to square the giant red and white pine logs. While this procedure wasted almost half of each log’s wood, the timber’s square shape made it easier to pack into great ships that would carry the lumber to Britain.
The water level has risen significantly in the years since the yard was abandoned, and what remains is a shallow, marshy area. As we paddled toward shore, the tangled remnants of those great trees could clearly be seen under the clear water.
Our first stop on the tour was the graveyard that potentially contains Thomson’s remains, as the location of his final resting place is one of the most contentious aspects of his mysterious death. In his recent book titled “Northern Light,” Canadian author Roy MacGregor makes a strong case that Thomson’s body does indeed rest in the little cemetery north of where the historic Mowat Lodge once stood, though others believe it was shipped to relatives down south.
We tied our canoe near the road that is still in use today to access several cottages, many of them dating back to Thomson’s lifetime. Staying to the right at the road’s junction, a seemingly out of place birch tree marks the beginning of the path to the cemetery. While the trail was somewhat overgrown, it was easy enough to follow and within ten minutes we were greeted by an eerie sight.
The cemetery is surrounded by an old wooden fence and dominated by the largest birch tree I’ve ever encountered. Within the fencing are the graves of just two men, while outside rests a plain white cross. It is this cross that was apparently created to mark Thomson’s grave, and his body may still rest in its vicinity. The grey light filtered through the massive birch’s foliage to cast tangled shadows over the cross and headstones within the fencing, lending an appropriately sombre atmosphere to the setting. After a short time of reflection, we headed back down the trail to see if we could discover any remains of the two Mowat lodges.
An Historic Algonquin Lodge
In its prime, the town of Mowat housed more than 600 people, most of them employed by the timber trade. The original Mowat Lodge was built as a boarding house for Gilmour Lumber employees, but it burned to the ground in 1920. A second lodge was built nearby, but it suffered the same fate in a fire ten years later. Our search for evidence of these lodges was foiled due to the change in water level, but we were able to look out over the lake and enjoy a similar view to what those original workers must have experienced from their lodgings.
Next we paddled further up the lake into Potter’s Creek in search of the site of Canoe Lake Station, where visitors disembarked from the railroad before travelling south to Mowat. About halfway up the creek we passed beside the remnants of an old trestle bridge. With some of the original bridge foundation still visible above the water, we couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering and construction that was completed almost entirely by hand.
The creek narrowed and we found ourselves paddling through a channel that wound through a dense expanse of lily pads and vegetation. After paddling under the now restored railway bridge, we exited the canoe and began our search.
The railway tracks were removed in 1959, and the railway bed has been converted to a road that gives access to both Camp Arowhon and Arowhon Pines Resort (both still in operation). After searching both sides of the road we discovered a level area that likely housed the station, but there were no traces of the structure to be found.
The next leg of our adventure involved a quiet paddle and portage into Joe Lake, where we went searching for evidence of the Hotel Algonquin. The hotel had been situated on a hill overlooking the lake, set back from the railroad. This time our search was more successful. The hotel and surrounding buildings were demolished in 1957 as part of a policy to return Algonquin Park to its natural state. However, we were able to discover a couple of sections of stone foundations, some rusted pipes and a collection of old cans, bottles and porcelain. It was amazing to see just how much the trees had grown up in the sixty years since the hotel’s destruction!
An Historic Monument: Tom Thomson Tribute
The final stop on our Tom Thomson tour was the site of the cairn and totem pole erected in his honour. Situated on a hill overlooking the lake, the site chosen was a favourite campsite of Thomson’s. Today there is a public dock where we tethered our canoe and walked the short trail up to the site. We encountered a tour group from Europe with a guide who was sharing the mystery surrounding Thomson’s death (always an opportunity to lean in and listen!).
The stone cairn stands almost four feet tall, on which is mounted a bronze plaque. The epitaph engraved upon the plaque was written by J. E. H. MacDonald, a friend of Thomson’s and a founding member of the Group of Seven. It reads, in part:
“To the memory of Tom Thomson, artist, woodsman and guide, who was drowned in Canoe Lake July 8th, 1917.”
The 25-foot totem pole was carved with images and symbols representing his life, and solemnly stands watch over the area of the lake where Thomson’s canoe and body were found.
After a last period of contemplation about Thomson’s life and the mystery surrounding his death, we got back into the canoe for the return leg of our journey. Passing the small lighthouse that stands just north of Popcorn Island, we were greeted by a large loon unfazed by our presence. After watching the magnificent bird dive and resurface several times we paddled back to The Portage Store.
We had successfully navigated the length of the lake and witnessed firsthand most of the important sites representing Tom’s life and death on those same waters. With weary shoulders and high spirits we drove back to Huntsville, Muskoka (where Thomson also spent a great deal of time), reflecting on what life in Algonquin must have been like a century ago and the legacy that Tom Thomson left us – including a thirst for art, outdoor adventure, and a satisfied curiosity.
Looking to head out on your own paddling adventure? Click here for a listing of outfitters in the great Canadian wilderness north of Toronto. For directions to Algonquin Provincial Park, click here.
To plan your stay, click here.
TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHT TO THE MUSKOKA AIRPORT IN SUMMER WITH PORTER AIRLINES FROM BILLY BISHOP TORONTO CITY AIRPORT, CLICK HERE.
Gerry Lantaigne explains the importance of Tom Thomson to Canadian culture
Guest Blogger: Bill Farnsworth
Bill Farnsworth is a freelance writer who has lived in Muskoka for more than 30 years. When not writing, Bill can be found cycling, running, paddling and trying to keep up with his two adventurous boys.
Tom Thomson painting shows “The Jack Pine” (1916-1917), which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. Photos of Tom Thomson from The Library & Archives of the National Gallery of Canada.
This article was originally published on our sister site here.