by Ted Currie
"Many liked 'scenery,' either perceiving it for themselves, or on having it pointed out to them; but very few, as with myself, knew their dominant mood of the day - influenced - well, by a gleam of light upon the lake at dawn, a faint sound of music in the pines, a sudden strip of blue on a day of storm, the great piled coloured clouds at evening - 'such clouds as flit, like splendour-winged moths about a taper, round the red west when the sun dies in it.' These things had an effect of intoxication upon me, for it was the wonder and beauty of nature that touched me most; something like the delight of ecstasy swept over me when I read of sunrise in the Indian Caucasus..'The point of one white star is quivering still, deep in the orange light of widening morn beyond the purple mountains,' and it was a genuine astonishment to me that so few, so very few, felt the slightest response or even noticed, a thousand and one details in sky and earth that delighted me with haunting joy for hours at a stretch."
The passage above was written by British Horror Writer, Algernon Blackwood, in this 1923 biography, "Episodes Before Thirty." As we resume our series of stories, about Blackwood's relationship with the District of Muskoka, in the Ontario hinterland, the campers, including a former business partner, named Kay, have arrived by train, steamship and small boat at the Lake Rosseau island where they would spend the next five months. Both men suffering the depression of having lost a Toronto hotel and bar business, Blackwood having also lost a small dairy operation before this, losing a large amount of investment money.
The soon-to-be author writes, "With Kay, my late 'partner in booze,' as I had heard him called, there was sufficient response in these two particulars to make him a sympathetic companion. If these things were not of dominant importance to him, they were at least important. Humour and courage being likewise his, he proved a delightful comrade during our five months of lonely island life. What his view of myself may have been is hard to say; luckily perhaps, Kay was not a scribbler. He will agree, I think, that we were certainly very happy in our fairyland of peace and loveliness amid the Muskoka Lakes of Northern Ontario."
As he recalls, "Our island, one of many in Lake Rosseau, was about ten acres in extent, irregularly shaped, overgrown with pines, its western end running out to a sharp ridge we called Sunset Point, its eastern end facing the dawn in a high rocky bluff. It rose in the centre to perhaps a hundred feet, it had little secret bays, pools of deep water beneath the rocky bluff for high diving, sandy nooks, and a sheltered cove where a boat could ride at anchor in all weathers. Close to the shore, but hidden by the pines, was a one roomed hut with two camp-beds, a big table, a wide balcony, and a tiny kitchen in a shack adjoining. A canoe and rowing-boat went with the island, a diminutive wharf as well. On the mainland, a mile and a half to the north, was an English settler named Woods, who had cleared the forest some twenty-five years before, (1860's), and turned the wilderness into a more or less productive farm. Milk, eggs and vegetables we obtained from time to time. To the south and east and west lay open water for several miles, dotted by similar islands with summer camps and bungalows on them. The three big lakes, - Rosseau, Muskoka and Joseph, form the letter 'Y' our island being where the three strokes joined.
"To me it was paradise, the nearest approach to a dream come true I had yet known. The climate was dry, sunny and bracing, the air clear as crystal, the nights cool. In moonlight the islands seemed to float upon the water, and when there was no moon, the reflection of the stars had an effect of phosphoresence in some southern sea. Dawns and sunsets, too, were a constant delight, and before we left in late September we had watched through half the night the strange spectacle of the Northern Lights in all their rather awful splendour."
As you will read later in this lengthy series of stories, regarding the life and work of Algernon Blackwood, as it relates to his stay, (reportedly on two occasions), he was very much inspired and influenced by his wilderness experience, as short as it was on those stays. Once on North Bohemia Island, according to information from a piece written by historian and ghost sleuth, John Robert Colombo. Once again, in the words of Algernon Blackwood.
"The day we arrived - May 24th - a Scotch mist veiled all distant views, the island had a lonely and deserted air, a touch of melancholy about its sombre pines; and when the small steamer had deposited us with our luggage on the slippery wharf and vanished into the mist, I remember Kay's disconsolate expression as he remarked gravely: 'We shan't stay here long!' Our first supper deepened his conviction, for, though there were lamps, we had forgotten to bring oil, and we devoured bread and porridge quickly before night set in. It was certainly a contrast to the brilliantly lit corner of the Hub (their former Toronto hotel) dining-room where we had eaten our last dinner. But the following morning at six o'clock, after a bathe in the cool blue water, while a dazzling sun shone in a cloudless sky, he had already changed his mind. Our immediate past seemed hardly credible now. Jimmy Martin, the 'Duke,' the Methodist woodcuts, the life insurance offices, to say nothing of the sporting goods emporium, red-bearded bailiffs, Alfred Cooper, and a furious half-intoxicated Irish cook - all faded into the atmosphere of some half forgotten, ugly dream.
"We at once set our house in order. We had saved a small sum in cash from the general wreck; a little went a long way; pickerel were to be caught for the trouble of trolling a spoon-bait round the coast, and we soon discovered where the black bass hid under rocky ledges of certain pools. In a few weeks, too, we had learned to manage a canoe to the point of upsetting it far from shore, shaking it half empty while treading water, then climbing in again - the point where safety, according to the Canadians, is attained. Even in these big lakes, it was rare that the water was too rough for going out, once the craft was mastered; a 'Rice Lake' or 'Peterborough,' (canoe) as they were called, could free anything; a turn of the wrist could 'lift' them; they answered the paddle like a living thing; a chief secret of control being that the kneeling occupant should feel himself actually a part of his canoe. This trifling knowledge, gained during our idle holiday, came in useful years later when taking a canoe down the Danube, from its sources in the Black Forest, to Budapest.
"Time certainly never hung heavy on our hands. Before July, when the Canadians came up to their summer camps, we had explored every bay and inlet of the lakes, had camped out on many an enchanted island, and had made longer expeditions of several days at a time into the great region of backwoods that began due north. These trips, westward to Georgian Bay with its thousand islands, on Lake Huron, or northward beyond French River, where the primeval backwoods begin their unbroken stretch to James Bay and the Arctic, were a source of keen joy. Our cooking was perhaps primitive, but we kept well on it. With books, a fiddle, expeditions, to say nothing of laundry and commissariat work, the days passed rapidly. Kay was very busy, too, 'preparing for the stage,' as he called it, and Shakespeare was always in his hand or pocket. The eastern end of the island was reserved for these rehearsals, while the Sunset Point end was my especial part, and while I was practising the fiddle or deep in my Eastern books, Kay, at the other point of the island, high on his rocky bluff, could be heard sometimes booking 'The world is out of joint, Oh cursed fate that I was born to set it right,' and I was convinced that he wore his Irving wig, no matter what lines he spouted. In the evenings, as we lay after supper at Sunset Point, watching the colours fade and the stars appear, it was the exception if he did not murmur to himself, 'the stars came out, over that summer seas,' and then declaim in his great voice the whole of 'The Revenge,' which ends 'I, Sir Richard Grenville, die!' - his tall figure silhouetted against the sunset, his voice echoing among the pines behind him."
Algernon Blackwood, obviously spellbound by the picturesque, restorative qualities of his island paradise, adds to the recollection, noting, "Consideration for the future were deliberately shelved; we lived in the present, as wise men should; New York, we knew, lay waiting for us, but we agreed to let it wait. My father's suggestion - 'Your right course is to return to Toronto, find work, and live down your past,'- was a counsel of perfection I disregarded. New York, the busy, strenuous, go-ahead United States, offered the irresistible lure of a promised land, and we both meant to try our fortunes there. How we should reach it, or what we should do when we did reach it, were problems whose solution was postponed.
"On looking back I can only marvel at the patience with which neither tired of the other. Perhaps it was perfect health that made squabbles so impossible. Nor was there any hint of monotony, strange to say. We had many an escape, upsetting in wild weather, losing our way in the trackless forests of the mainland, climbing or felling trees, but some Pan-like deity looking after us....The spirit of Shelly, of course, haunted me day and night; 'Prometheus Unbound,' pages of which I knew by heart, lit earth and sky, peopled the forests, turned stream and lake alive, and made every glade and sandy bay a floor for dancing silvery feet: 'Oh, follow, follow, through the caverns hollow; As the song floats thou pursue, Where the wild bee never flew..." I still hear Kay's heavy voice, a little out of tune, singing to my fiddle the melody I made for it. And how he used to laugh! Always at himself, but also at and with most other things, an infectious, jolly, wholesome laughter, inspired by details of our care-free island life, from his beard and Shakespeare rehearsals to my own whiskers and uncut hair, my Shelley moods and my intense Yoga experiments.
"Much of the charm of our lonely life vanished when, with high summer, the people came up to their camps and houses on the other islands. The solitude was then disturbed by canoes, sailing-boats, steam-launches; singing and shouting broke the deep silences; camp-fires in a dozen directions blazed at night. Many of these people we had known well in Toronto, but no one called on us. Sometimes we would paddle to some distant camp-fire lying on the water just outside the circle of light, and recognizing acquaintances, even former customers of Hub and Dairy, and the Sporting Goods Emporium, but never letting ourselves be seen. Everybody knew we were living on the island; yet avoidance was mutual. We were in disgrace, it seemed, and chiefly because of the Hub - not because of our conduct with regard to it, but, apparently, because we had left the town suddenly without saying good-bye to all and sundry. The abrupt disappearance had argued something wrong, something we were ashamed of. All manner of wild tales reached us, most of them astonishingly remote from the truth."