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Accident or Foul Play? Artist Tom Thomson Died Ninety-nine Years Ago This Month

by Ted Currie

Off in the distance, from somewhere beyond the drifting haze of cool mist, the shrill call of a loon enchants the rising sunlight of a new day.

To the lover of the outdoors, the smells associated with this wild place, the evergreen and wildflowers, the lake water itself, are almost intoxicating, as one stands in silhouette, on the sandy shore, resting chin on the clasped hands tapping a loosely balanced canoe paddle. Listening to the gentle lapping of waves against the stern of the half-launched canoe at the paddler's wet shoes.

Canoe Lake as a portrait! It is one of Algonquin Park's natural jewels, sparkling this morning like a diamond cast down in the sunlight, pulsating in the prism colors that tantalize creative virtues. Through the daytime, the sound of canoes being lowered into the water from the docks at the Portage Store, is a welcoming din to new arrivals, and inspires of adventures yet to come on these alluring Algonquin waterways.

The gurgling of canoe paddles, in the hands of eager modern day voyageurs, and the wash of waves splashing up over the bows of these vessels, being traversed out onto the open lake, is as culturally poetic, as it is magnificent, simply framed as scenery. Some canoes being paddled already this morning, toward the portage routes to other destinations, tucked behind the evergreen clad hillsides on the far shore. It is living history that unfolds here, of which we are all welcome to partake.

Yet beyond the trickling silver and gold, of sun enhanced water droplets, falling off raised paddles, back into the lake, and the loon calls coming from one of the quiet inlets, it is to the witness obvious, this is a very enchanted, haunted place. But then again, I am an obsessed researcher, with a bias, dedicated to finding out more about the life and work of Canadian artist, Tom Thomson.

If I, by chance, was to, by sheer happenstance, catch a glimpse of Thomson's dove-gray canoe sliding over the silvery waterscape, on one of these outings, in this beautiful parkland, it would be the most wondrous conclusion to all the time I have considered well spent, on this mission of discovery. There have been numerous sightings by the way, of Thomson's ghost canoe, over the past ninety-nine years, since the artist's mysterious death, traversing this Algonquin lake nearly a century ago.

On the eighth of July 1917, budding Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson, died allegedly the result of accidental drowning, while paddling the calm waters of Canoe Lake, presumably on the way to the Gill Lake portage on a fishing excursion. This has been challenged ever since his body was recovered from the lake, some of those close to the artist from the community, feeling it had been the case "dead men tell no tales." Simply meaning someone in the neighborhood of the hamlet of Mowat, where Thomson had been residing that spring and summer of 1917, wanted to silence Thomson.

Or maybe it was a fight that went too far, Thomson falling, hitting his head, and being knocked unconscious. But how did he wind-up in the depths of Canoe Lake? There are many theories we will look at as this story continues over the next twelve months.

A reproduction of the original news clipping, reporting Thomson's death, appeared in the contemporary text of the book by Harry Hunkin, entitled "A Story of the Group of Seven," published by Glen Edward Witmer, in 1976. Headed "Toronto Artist Drowns in the North," it reads as follows:

"Body of Tom Thomson Found in Canoe Lake - Algonquin Park - Missing Nine Days - Standing as Landscape Painter Was High - To be buried in Park. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mr. Thomson, the Toronto artist at Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, on Sunday, July 8th, was solved yesterday by the finding of his body. Word which reached the city last night indicated that he had been drowned. His canoe was found adrift a few hours after Mr. Thomson was last seen, and the fate of the artist was a mystery until yesterday's gruesome discover. His brother, Mr. George Thomson, of New Haven, Conn., also a painter, who had been visiting the family home at Owen Sound (Leith), last week, when news first came, went to the scene and joined for a time in the search. The body, it was stated in last night's Telegrams, will be buried in Algonquin Park, which had been the artist's happy sketching ground for years."

I can still so clearly recall viewing a collection of original Thomson paintings, being offered as a special exhibit at the Algonquin Gallery, when a patron beside me gave an audible sigh, held a hand to her heart, and said to me, without turning her head away from the art work in front, "Isn't it amazing how you can, if you listen carefully, hear the wind, the lapping of the waves on the shore, sense the aroma of the lake on the day he sketched it?" I looked at her and nodded, because truth be known, I had been thinking the same thing at about the same time. It is after all the allure of his work, that the viewer feels the mood of the artist and the scene, as one would know of time spent sketching in Algonquin Park.

I had reason then, to view these magnificent panels, with the same openness as my art patron friend, quite absorbed by the scenes that seemed compelling, and strangely mysterious but in a good way. It took awhile and considerable contemplation, in a quiet corner, looking up at another paint board, but soon I had to admit, that I too, could hear even the most elusive of sounds, in his scenes, including the windsong through the evergreens, and an unseen chipmunk rattling through the dry leaves and grasses of the ground cover. I confess that it was just as natural to then feel the soft depression of pine needles, and thick moss beneath my feet, on the place Thomson set up his encampment, to paint in the late afternoon on a day just like this one.

I thought at once that I detected the tell-tale din of a painter searching through a paint box, looking for the right brush; sensed the gentle aromatic waft of campfire smoke, where the artist was baking one of his near-legendary blueberry pies, or fish dinners.

I well knew the places where Tom Thomson painted in those Algonquin years, which have ever since defined him as a landscape painter. I had purposely stood along the Algonquin lake shores where he was known to have set out his paint box, and boards, more than a century ago. At the Tea Lake Dam, for example, where he not only painted but fished from a perch on the rocks below, I could visualize him, just as clearly and detectable, as the sound of the mild cataract at this time of the year. It was always a sensory adventure enjoying a sojourn at the little park area around the dam site, where Algonquin visitors can enjoy a picnic and a canoeing hiatus during a long traverse.

My art gallery friend was right. There was much more to be experienced viewing a Tom Thomson painting. They were all, in their own way, portals the artist had generously provided his admirers, to appreciate the Algonquin spirit through his eyes and imagination. It was the gift he gave Canadians, and we have deemed them, ever since, iconic images of our land.

I was reminded some time ago, by a Thomson scholar, that it is a great shame to allow the mystery of his tragic, sudden death, whether it was the result of misadventure or foul play, to overshadow the brilliance of his art work, and the course of adventure in expression, his inroads of passionate discovery created for the Canadian art scene forever after. It is true that Thomson was on the way to greater and more profound accomplishment, had everything remained secure in his life and work. But life has no guarantee attached, and time waits for no man. We must be thankful for what he did accomplish in a few short years, versus feeling diminished by the works never initiated. His inspiration was captured in his art panels, which have been shared generously for generations, with his art admirers, and students wishing to follow in his footsteps.

Please join me in the next issue of Curious The Tourist Guide, for another chapter of our year-long anniversary series, in celebration of the life and art of Tom Thomson, exclusively prepared for this publication.