Worst Campsite I’ve Stayed On, Ever … So Far

NOTE: I normally don’t like to dwell on the negative. We had a great time on this past long weekend, not really stressing about anything because after all, we were on vacation. But for fun, I’m going to focus on some annoyances for a bit. I hope you enjoy it, and that I don’t give off the wrong impression. Nothing in this post came even close to ruining our good time. I hope that if you’ve never run into anything mentioned, this post doesn’t deter you from getting out there portaging. Oh, and there’s also some stuff that might unintentionally offend Germans, and some implied nudity. Enjoy!

Like most of us, I like my wilderness experience with at least the illusion of being away from civilization. Going to one of the big, popular provincial parks, with all it amenities and infrastructure gives you just that, but also offer things that quickly break that illusion. For example, I’m not a big fan of going to the popular areas of the interior on long weekends, but after the long and weird planning and organizing of this last trip I was on, I found myself going to Joe Lake on Labour Day – along with a huge number of other people. Seeing people, hearing people, you expect a bit of that, and I’m far from a back-woods snob who expects to have the park all to myself. In fact, that’s why I advocate portaging so much – with each carry-over, there are less and less people willing to follow. Take the energy you’re wasting on complaining about all the people (and their “evidence, you know what I mean,) and go over another portage. This is where I’ll become a bit of a hypocrite, having a little fun complaining because I didn’t take my own advice.

Taking some time to visit Tom Thomson

The Labour of a Long Weekend

Next to the August long weekend (Simcoe Day or whatever we’re calling it now), the Labour Day long weekend is the most popular for getting outdoors. For a lot of people, it’s the last chance to get out there before they or their kids go back to school. Typically, the traffic’s bad going up, somehow worse on the way back, every stop is crowded and if you haven’t booked your reservations months in advance, the pickin’s are slim. In the portaging world, it’s “prime real estate. ” If you’re wanting to go anywhere good within a Provincial Park anywhere south of North Bay, mark your calendars for the first Monday in April (5 months). This is the first chance you’ll get to book your preferred reservation and not be stuck scrambling. There’s usually a spot somewhere of course, and after some procrastination with the planning of this trip, we took what we could get.

We were trying to create the perfect “Family Trip”, one that made it easy to take the kids on, taking into consideration safety, effort and short attention spans, all without giving up the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere. (Algonquin is perfect for this because of some of its easy portages, amenities and the fact that you can cover a huge distance without ever being a kilometer or less than the highway.) We had a few plans laid out, but with some procrastination, the time flew by. We had to change from those options to whatever was available, and not too far out. So that basically means one of the spots where there were plenty of campsites, which as you can imagine means plenty of people. This is why I found myself standing in a long line to pick up my permits at the Canoe Lake put-in – somewhere I avoid like an extremely painful plague that corners you and tells boring stories at parties.

Having spent the night before at a local campground, I expected to get up, grab a big breakfast at the Portage Store – one benefit of a popular put-in – and be on the water by about 9 or 10. Because the campsite wasn’t too far off, I figured conservatively to be there by noon, maybe 1:00 – you know, because the kids would slow us down a bit. The kids we brought with us were 5, 7, 13 and 16, along with 3 adults who had never been portaging before, and this would be the perfect easy introduction. We’d keep things slow paced, take a few side trips to see some of the Tom Thomson landmarks, including his cairn on Hayhurst Point, then casually cross over to Joe Lake and pick an appropriate campsite. Absolute worst case scenario, we’d be stopping to feed the kids some granola bars to keep them going until a late lunch around 2:00 after setting up camp and cooking. (I planned out some fun meals for the kids). How naive could I have been?

Our view from the campsite. How can you complain about that, really?

Long lines

Instead, we were just on the water at 1:00. There were tonnes of people waiting in line for permits, loads of them waiting to get their canoe rentals, then another crowd to pick up PFDs and paddles. That’s not even mentioning the hoards you needed to navigate through to get anywhere, including the fun trying to park your car. (I always find it amazing that people are willing to spend the weekend exerting themselves paddling, but will jam their car in ridiculous spots that inconvenience everyone else, just to save them from walking a few hundred meters… but I digress.) Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.

After a couple of stops to visit some landmark sites (which was quite fun, by the way, but for the purpose of humour, I’m going to focus on the negative), we made it to our first portage. This particular portage is pretty popular (say that three times fast). It’s also the easiest “portage” I’ve ever carried over. It’s 300m, completely flat and covered with gravel. Basically, it’s a road – with the traffic to prove it. While it’s perfect for first-timers, kids or anyone with mobility issues, giving them the experience (and bragging rights) of actually portaging, it also means that it doesn’t fit the rule I mentioned above about keeping people less likely to follow you. In fact, it’s the “exception” portage that allows you to bring along a whole bunch of things you normally wouldn’t on a normal trip because of the bulk or weight. To me, that meant bringing a small cooler for fresh food at the campsite, and for fun, even a camping chair. (I used this as a reward system. Whoever did the most camp chores got the comfy seat. Now that I think about it though, I don’t remember ever sitting on it. Huh….) If we had to make a few trips on this “portage” it’s not a big deal.

Did I mention the traffic? Yeah, this little spot has been dubbed “Young Street North” because of how many people you’ll come across, and the canoe and gear traffic jam that inevitably ensues. As each canoe glided on shore, another swooped in right beside it. You have to pick your spot and get in there – or heaven forbid, wait for one. Normally I preach about the “routine” of portaging: Take out, get out of the canoe, pull your gear out and place it out of the way, then do the same with your boat, then get yourself organized (eat something, rest, have a chat etc.), then carry over. You never know when someone’s going to be coming along, and the last thing you want – they want – is for all your stuff to be plugging up the portage, having to step over all your stuff, assuming they can even get on shore. Of course at a busy portage, this technique is essential, but the least likely place where it’s going to be followed. There’s also plenty of those people who just want to stand in your way. What’s that about?

It becomes very important that you place your gear in the same spot, as things tend to inter-mingle. Coupled with the crowding, accidentally picking up someone else’s stuff, or having to move other people’s stuff to get at yours, things can get tense. Nothing like this happened this weekend, but I’ve been witness to arguments, cursing, shouting, pushing and shoving, and in one case almost a full-blown physical encounter in this situation. (Why!? You’re supposed to be on vacation!) To make things a bit more interesting, with everyone using the same outfitter, using the same canoes, at one point when I went to get the canoe I looked back and couldn’t figure out which one was mine. (One of our canoes even had a blue yoke pad, sitting beside another canoe that had the identical blue yoke pad!)

Nancy certainly didn’t mind this campsite, with squirrels to chase and a nice place to relax.

A break from the negative

The portage was a riot (the funny kind – just wanted to make that clear considering what I just wrote)! With the ease and short length, people were portaging the funniest things: Full sized coolers, enormous tents, inflatable water toys, barbecues, grills (which I – ahem – assume they brought back with them of course), and even a bag of take-out food. They used all kinds of ways to trasport their stuff too, like hockey bags, duffel bags and even a rolling suitcase! Why not. This is about the only place you could get away with that kind of portage (comfortably), so I say have at it. I remember my first trip. This is really how you learn – the hard way, mind you, but that’s often the lessons that are learned best.

… and now back to complaining

Once we stepped over, around and under people and their gear on both sides of the portage, we were on our way paddling Joe Lake. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful lake. The wind on our back. So too were about a dozen canoes, and about the same number in front of us. We were suddenly in that situation everyone worries about: The race to get a (good) campsite. Normally, I’m the type of person who feels bad about this race, knowing that my gain is someone else’s loss. The worst part of this race is often you have one of those “left or right” dilemmas, which means if you go in one direction and don’t find a site available, you have to paddle all the way back to go in the other direction. The kids in our group were getting grumpy by this time, and I knew if we had to double back we’d have one of those little kid freak-out mutinies on our hands. I counted the number of canoes ahead of us, then counted the number of campsites in our direction and didn’t like my odds, especially considering there were probably other campers who were already at camp. I swear to you I didn’t mean to do this on purpose, but we started passing canoe after canoe, and I have to admit I felt a little bad that the slower canoes would be travelling the furthest. When the kids started full-on whining however, my thoughts suddenly turned darker, as my paddle strokes became more enthusiastic, and was determined that the math of canoes in front vs. sites remaining would be soon fixed in our favour. (I wonder if anyone else knew we were racing?)

When we got around a point, the first sites started coming into view. Occupied. Then another, also occupied. The math isn’t working out. Others started asking me about the likelihood of over-booking. “No, no,” I’d say cheerfully, “There’s always a site somewhere.” To be perfectly honest now, I started to have doubts. The seven year old in my canoe had to pee. No, this won’t do, can’t it wait? Nope. We pulled over. I pretended to smile and wait patiently. I think I pulled it off. “There’s one!” someone yelled, “Nope. Occupied, sorry.” There was one site left on this side of the lake, and one canoe ahead of us, with two speedy paddlers obviously intent on grabbing it. I was about to turn the canoe around and hope we’d find something on the other side of the lake (but more importantly that the kids would keep in decent moods), when suddenly the speedsters ahead of us just kept going past the empty site in view. Suckers! We grabbed it up like the last piece of chocolate on the dessert tray left with nothing else but recycled decade old fruitcake. As I unloaded the canoes I felt bad. First, because of the guilt I was trained with having over something like this, instilled in me by all good mothers like my own (really regretting the “Suckers!” comment now). Second, because I realized I got caught up in something that shouldn’t be. Only a place like Joe Lake on a long weekend could cause this, and I shouldn’t have ever agreed to take part. (To further the chocolate/fruitcake analogy, I should have let the little girl behind me have it, and just bought my own chocolate on the way home. I definitely shouldn’t have eating it in front of her, dancing around singing “In your face”/”Losers, Weepers”. Not that this has ever happened.)

We managed to visit the Canoe Lake Cemetery to pay our respects to Tom Thomson. Someone left there homework there. Hmm…

Karma makes you itch (Is that the expression?)

We had originally planned to get a couple of campsites we checked out last year when we stayed there (smartly, off-season). The one we had camped at was great, especially for June, as it had a great open flat space to let the wind take care of the bugs. Later in the season, while we certainly would have been happy with that campsite, further down there was a bigger shaded site that would have better suited our large group. Oh how naive was I, thinking I would have our pick? Yeah… perhaps it was because of the “Sucker!” comment because instead, we were left with a rather small, severely un-flat site. As an added bonus, our view included both coveted sites, each that would barely be used as their occupants were out site-seeing (or whatever) from sun-up to sun-down. (Not that I was keeping track, obsessed on what-could-have-been or anything.) Often when choosing a campsite, we have a group discussion on which we’d prefer seeing, the sunset or sunrise, to determine which we choose. This site had views of neither. None of these things would normally bother me or my other trips, often not being at camp for very long anyway, but all these things taken together (flatness, view, space, etc.) and expecting to be there for multiple days, I can’t say I was thrilled with this site. (We made the most of it though, and it certainly didn’t come close to ruining our trip. Most of the group didn’t even notice.)

Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick…

I mentioned that the short portage made for some interesting things being carried over, and while I didn’t notice it at the time, this apparently also included a radio with some powerful speakers and some floating fire lanterns. Just after dusk, we spotted some strange lights coming from the other side of the lake, rising into the horizon. It took us a while to figure out what they were. Apparently there was some kind of festival going on over there. I worried about the lanterns burning down the forest, but later I was more focused on the dance music that started. It was loud, and would carry on until the wee hours of the night. There is truly nothing like repetitive, incessant bass to enhance your wilderness experience. Who wants loons, owls or those annoying wolf howls? I had thoughts of paddling over there, really, really early of course, and start singing those annoying camp songs. You know the ones, where they repeat over and over and get in your head. Yeah, if I believed in doing things like that, I would have been over there. Did I mention I’m a horrible singer? Needless to say, a campsite that is dance-club adjacent is not what I would call ideal.

Even the loons get used to how busy this lake can get

Bet it gets better…

The truly worst part about this campsite was that there were trails runing to and from our site. At first, I thought this was neat. When the first hikers came through, I ran up to ask where they were coming from, interested in possibly venturing out at some point to see where the trails went. Apparently the hikers came from the Arrowhon Pines Resort, one of the few roofed resorts located within the park. You can drive right up to the resort, and after a twenty minute hike, be right at my campsite. Neat. Apparently the resort maintains the trails for their guests, complete with ugly orange marking tape every few feet to show you the way. Nothing like periodic visits by hiking resort guests to shatter the illusion of being out in the middle of the wilderness. (On a positive note, this would be a great site for the safety concious, as help is just a run down the trail away. So in a way, this would be good for the “Family Trip”.)

Invaded by Germans

Realistically, the hikers weren’t a problem. Most were just walking by, making their way past us without issue, and the trails were a few hundred feet behind the main campsite area. Except for the illusion, this really wasn’t something to complain about. Except for two particular incidents. The first was a little weird. We were hanging out on Sunday, and with the group going off on a little paddle or swim, I figured I’d take the opportunity to make some videos, in particular one on making coffee in the wild. That’s when a group of loudly speaking German hikers showed up along the aforementioned trail, with one of them continuing on down into our campsite. He proceeded to walk past everyone, right to the shore, then started taking pictures from absolutely every vantage point. I thought at one point he was documenting each and every tree. He had trampled right over our campsite, completely ignoring the occupants and any sense of privacy we might have expected. Thank goodness we were all dressed and decent (this is going to be funny in a moment). It was like we were just part of the scenery, or actors meant to make the campsite look more authentic for the tourists, like those kids they hire and dress up at Disneyland. Perhaps they were a little disappointed to find us not singing or selling keychains. His friend appeared a little embarrassed, staying back on the trail, giving me one of those “Sorry about my friend” looks. I wonder whether he expected to be served the coffee I made. (Maybe I was misinterpreting his friends look.) Strangely, once he was done, our guest simply carried on, saying a rather indifferent “Hello” on his way out. Why mention that they were German? At the risk of offense, it justified the whole “Invading” joke. My apologies.

Watch my face in the video above. I’m a bit notorious for not being able keep my facial expressions from revealing what I’m thinking. These wouldn’t be the only guests we’d receive throughout the weekend, but none made it to the campfire again.

A Much Worse Invasion (of Privacy)

Oh yeah, did I mention that the trails ran right past our campsite privy? Yeah. The trails ran right past our campsite privy. As an added bonus, it was at the crossroads of the longer and shorter version of the trail, so sitting there, random hikers could come from one of three directions. Nice! I’ve been on some sites with a privy in exposed areas, and others that were uncomfortably close to the campsite. With some strategy, this can be resolved by choosing when to use it (like when everyone else is asleep).

We had some close calls, with someone coming down from … using the facilities… when a hiker would be spotted shortly afterwards. Because some of us were back-country camping for the first time, a typical concern was raised about two people visiting the privy at the same time. I offered my usual tip, which is to keep all the toilet paper together in a big zip lock bag. That way, if someone goes for it and it’s missing, they know “it’s occupied”. This led to jokes about announcing rather loudly that you’re using the privy, just in case. We laughed about this. It was funny. That is until it happened. You see, the hikers from Arrowhon don’t know where we keep the toilet paper, and can’t hear you no matter how loud you yell your intention to have some private time to yourself. Yep. You’ve probably guessed already what I’m about to say. I’m just glad it happened to me and not one of the new campers, as this would probably turn into their last camping trip.

I’m not going to get too graphic here, but let’s just say I was seated, alone, and well, still needed a bit of time. This isn’t exactly a position you can easily just get up and leave from, even if you do get enough notice. Needless to say when two hikers came around the corner, we were all speechless. At first, there was a moment of paralyzing shock. I’m pretty sure it was just a few seconds, but it seemed like an awfully long time. I tried my best “Sorry. What can you do” look, waving them on. Their gazes shot down to their feet. What do you do in this situation? They shuffled by, and as you can imagine giving me as wide a birth as they could, and just kept walking. None of us said a word.

When I made my way back to the campsite, I debated not mentioning this to anyone. That’s just not me however. It was too funny not to share, even if it was at my expense. Everyone agreed that this was the highlight of the weekend.

So what do you think? What makes a bad campsite in the interior? Poor view? No space? “Interesting” scenery? Cleanliness? Privacy?

Up the Portage Without a Car

Question: How can you go portaging without using a car? If you live in a city far off from a provincial park the answer is that you can’t, not practically anyway. A new service has started that helps solve this problem. It’s called Parkbus, and since its pilot program started in 2010 it has offered a way for those without cars or who are looking for a more eco-friendly transportation to get to Algonquin.

ParkbusWhen I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with cars. I wanted one very, very badly. Other kids I knew with the same obsession started working on cars, taking auto class in school, working on fixing the family vehicle with their dads or just taking engines apart to see how they worked. Not me. I just wanted one. It wasn’t about gears or cubic inches or horsepower, it was about where I could go. The gasp you hear when a 16 year old gets handed a license isn’t the collective horror at yet another novice driver on the road, it’s the sound of the planet suddenly shrinking (okay, maybe it’s both). Oh, the places you’ll go!

Of course, once you actually have a car, the ideal quickly tarnishes – about as quickly as the car will rust if you’re not always throwing money at it. To get to those far off places cost money. Welcome to the conundrum of time and freedom versus economic means. The more you have of one the less you have of the other. Want to go canoeing in Algonquin? You’ll need a car and a good enough job to pay for it – a job that now takes up most of your time from which you’ll have to beg for the vacation time in order to be able to go canoeing at some point.

Car Free Canoe Trips

What if you don’t have a car? Outrageous, I know, but there are a lot of people out there that don’t. For a variety of reasons these people have chosen to spend money on other things. Often this reason is about the impact on the environment. It seems a little ironic that going to a more pristine place where you can appreciate nature, could cause it harm. What if there was a better way?

It was these thoughts that brewed in the heads of a few guys who came up with an idea. They wanted people who otherwise didn’t have the means to get to an Ontario park to still have the opportunity to experience the Canadian outdoors. What if there was a bus that ran from a major city – say Toronto – straight up to Algonquin?

Ambitious Ideas

This idea sounds like a lot of really great ones I’ve heard, and maybe even thought of over the years. But the difference between those and the Parkbus idea is that not only did they figure out what they had to do to achieve it, but also – and this is the most important part – they actually went and did it. There first task was to contact MEC and hope the Toronto store would allow them to conduct some market research to figure out whether there was enough people interested in and who would like to use this eco-friendly type of service. Once the surveys were completed, they approached Ontario Parks with their plan partnering with Hammond Transportation. Long story short, in 2010 a pilot project was under way.

What’s even more impressive is that Parkbus is run by a handful of people in their spare time away from their day jobs. They call themselves outdoor enthusiasts, whose ambition is to make the most popular parks in Ontario accessible by bus. After the success of the pilot program last year, they’ve extended the Toronto-Algonquin schedule and have included a trip to Killarney as well. They’re even going to be experimenting with an Ottawa to Algonquin trip if all goes well. Who knows, if this idea takes off, perhaps they’ll be buses from all the major cities taking people up to parks across the province.

How it works

Basically the buses start at 7:30 AM on Thursday mornings from three stops in and around Toronto. Then they drive up to the highway 60 corridor, stopping at six spots where riders can gain access to Algonquin and any required services: Wolf Den Bunkhouse/Hostel, campgrounds at Lake of Two Rivers and Pog LakeThe Portage Store on Canoe Lake and two Algonquin Outfitter locations (Oxtongue Lake and Opeongo). The idea is that you pack whatever gear you may have, get on the bus and be dropped off where you can start your Algonquin adventure. At each location you can rent all the gear you may need and be on your way (canoes are not allowed on the bus, so you’ll have to rent those at the very least). On the following Sunday, the bus will make all the same stops in reverse to pick you up. All of this completely car free. For longer stays, simply book the return trip on a later scheduled return trip (Sundays).

The cost: $34.95 each way – which is actually down from $42 last year. Considering you would spend the about the same on gas anyway, it’s worth a thought. You can buy your tickets directly from the website or by calling (416) 454-5215. I like the idea of sitting back and letting someone else do the driving, being fresh and rested ready to start off once I arrive. And perhaps I’ll be able to take a little nap on the drive home when I’d normally want one the most after a weekend of portaging.

I’m on board

I wound up convincing some friends to try out this service for ourselves – with surprisingly little effort by the way. In July we will be going on a completely car-free trip. We’ll be travelling to Toronto by bus, then up to the Parkbus’ first pickup location by subway. In essence, we’ll be portaging up the wild streets of the Big Smoke – on a weekday no less. It should be something to see, and will probably be where we’ll encounter the most dangerous wildlife of the trip. I’m hoping to have plenty of pictures of this for a write up of our journey shortly after we get back.

I think this is a great idea, and I really wish the Parkbus project a lot of success. As a fellow idealist, I love the idea of giving access to our beautiful northern wilderness to those that this would normally never be an option. If you’re planning on going to Algonquin (or even Killarney) please consider the Parkbus option. At the very least, spread the word.

Oh, and if you’ve still never been portaging, with a bus service available you’re running out of excuses not to go. See you on the bus.

 

Searching for Tom Quick Notes

I just got back from another of the Speaker Series for the Searching For Tom exhibit at THEMUSEUM (which I’ve written about here). This time it was Virginia Eichorn, curator of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery speaking on why Tom means so much to us. It was a great presentation, and obviously word has got out because the place was relatively packed.

I’ll elaborate on this and other speakers at a later date, but I just wanted to quickly share some of the references made in Virginia’s presentation, specifically regarding the ways that people choose to remember Tom:

This video is an acoustic version of “Tom Thomson” by a band called Winhara:

This one is a very funny commentary on the potential cuts to arts funding:

I’m not really sure how she found this one, but it’s a school art project by a then 15 year old named Corey Foster:

And of course it wouldn’t be complete without a plug for the Tom Thomson Museam and Art Gallery (which I gladly include so as not to upset Virginia by stealing her material):

Searching for Tom

Tom Thomson: Man, Myth and Masterworks

Are you looking for something canoe-related to do while the rivers are still frozen? If you’re anything like me, your canoeing plans are under way, and you’re starting to get desperate for anything about paddling and the outdoors. A definite must is to check out the new Tom Thomson exhibit at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener. What does Tom Thomson have to do with a site dedicated to portaging and canoe camping? Read on to find out, or better yet, go see the exhibit.

 

“Someday they will know what I mean”

Tom Thomson

The Exhibit

Thanks to a fellow blogger and friend of Portager, Mike Ormsby, I was given tickets to the opening night of the exhibit. What a fantastic experience. Having recently read the new biography Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, the exhibit was perfect timing for me. What they’ve created is a well-rounded tribute, including very early works by the painter, then as you move along you’ll see Tom’s gradual evolution into what became his unique style. More to this, the gallery has chosen other works to compliment Tom’s, including a taste of his friends’ and colleagues’ work – the Group of Seven – and has even included works by the painter’s brothers and sisters. Dashed throughout the exhibit are very famous photos of Tom and his friends, as well as examples of some of his belongings. Finally, they have works by other artists who have been influenced by Tom Thomson.

Speaker Series

To further the experience, THEMUSEUM is putting on a Sunday Speaker Series where you can see presentations by Thomson experts and enthusiasts, every Sunday afternoon at 1:30pm. One that you should really think about attending (I know I will) is “The Artist and The Canoe” on April 3rd. Mike Ormsby is the author of Reflections on the Outdoors Naturally and is a Tom Thomson and Heritage Canoe expert. Check out his extensive writing on the Tom here. The rest of the schedule is shown below (starting March 13th):

March 13: “Tom Thomson: The Man, His Art & Why He Means So Much to Us” – Virginia Eichhorn, curator Tom Thomson Art Gallery

March 20: “Algonquin Elegy” – Neil J. Lehto, author

March 27: “Tom Thomson was a Weatherman” – Phil the Forecaster Chadwick

April 3: “Tom Thomson: The Artist and The Canoe” – Mike Ormsby, Heritage Canoe Expert

April 10: “Canoe Lake CSI: The Remarkable Investigation into the Whereabouts of Tom Thomson” – Roy McGregor, author

April 17: “The Canadian Landscape before Tom – Homer Watson, the Man of Doom” – Sandu Sindile, curator Homer Watson House & Gallery

May 1: “Tom Thomson in Cyberspace, or How to Build a Ghost Canoe” – Marcel O’Gorman, artist

    May 8: “Defiant Spirits: Modernism, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” – Ross King, author and curator

      Of note are 3 authors whose books I finished recently: Neil J. Lehto author of “Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring“, Ross King author of “Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven” and of course Roy McGregor author of Northern Light. If you haven’t read them already, I suggest taking them and a hammock on your next trip up to Algonquin.

      “Tom Thomson came paddling past. I’m pretty sure it was him”

      – Three Pistols by The Tragically Hip (Road Apples)

      More on Tom

      What is it about the legend of Tom Thomson that makes him so relevant to canoe enthusiasts? I’ve never studied art myself, other than what was force-fed to me in grade school, and I wouldn’t exactly call myself a great “lover of the arts”. But being a canoe guy, I’ve found myself absolutely fascinated by artists and their work – particularly Canadian – that share the love of the outdoors, and clearly express that love. This is why I’ve been looking into the Group of Seven so much lately. One of their intentions for their work was for people to see their paintings and create and/or renew their appreciation for the Canadian wilderness and all its beauty – and hopefully to seek it out for themselves. For me it was the exact opposite, in that my love for the outdoors led me to an appreciation for not only the paintings, but the artists, and particularly the means in which they used to find their subjects.

      The Group of Seven were our kind of people. A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael, for example, lived, canoed, portaged and vacationed in the very same places that we now play. They were explorers, out to see the Canadian wilderness for themselves, and share that view through paint.

      But what about Tom? He wasn’t even an official member of the Group – having died prior to its formation. In fact, I remember talking to my wife about him at the McMichael Gallery years ago. It would be the first time I would see a Group of Seven painting in person. Passing by the Tom Thomson paintings I muttered something about why was Tom getting so much of the attention. Was it just because he died (as we like to speak well of the dead), because he died young (and so much more could have been achieved), or because he died so mysteriously and tragically (and so amplifying his legend)? I thought it not fair to the other painters. Even after seeing the Group’s work, I found myself staring at Tom’s paintings. “Okay,” I said to my wife, “I get it”.

      Searching for Tom in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

      Since reading more about Tom, I realized what he contributed to Canadian culture, and it became clear why canoeing and Tom Thomson go together so logically. It could be said that a very simple way to associate yourself with being Canadian is to associate yourself with the canoe. Tom Thomson certainly did that. Even in the end, it was his empty distinctive cobalt blue canoe that signaled something bad happened to the artist – on the aptly named “Canoe Lake”.

      In the first of THEMUSEUM’s speaker series, Arts reporter for the Waterloo Region Record Robert Reid spoke about how influential Tom truly is – not to just Canadians, but to outdoors people and appreciators of the Canadian wilderness. When Robert Reid spoke of the Northern River, he said that it didn’t matter where it was painted, we all know exactly where it is – in fact it’s not a place at all, he argued, but a state of mind. Tom has been alluded to and has inspired music, novels, films and even ballets (check out this video, Tom shows up around 0:59). Apparently, he even made a mean campfire doughnut – I mean how much more Canadian can you get? Robert Reid suggested, if he had never lived, Canada would have had to invent him.

      Tom would go on to spend half the year in Algonquin and travel throughout a wide area, all by canoe, living in camps, painting, fishing and soaking it all in. For a time he even had a day job to pay the bills, but always had paddling on his mind, practicing strokes at his desk. The only difference between him and us is that he had a fantastic ability to communicate what he saw in a very unique and expressive way. He lived the lifestyle we all want, really. Oh, except for the whole dying-at-a-young-age-under-mysterious-circumstances thing. Personally, I’m hoping for more of a I-can’t-believe-he’s-still-going-out-there-at-his-age kind of ending to my story.

      So go see the exhibit and check out the speakers series, and if you see me there, feel free to say “Hi”.

      Social Networking Postcript

      THEMUSEUM (@THEMUSEUM) is using the hashtag #searchingfortom to group together tweets about the exhibit. Foursquare users should also check in there as well. I got a “Photobooth” badge for doing so, somehow.

      Trip Plans Postscript

      Later this year I will be going up to Canoe Lake, Tom’s most common stomping ground. After reading his biography, and now visiting the exhibit, I’m hoping to see all the landmarks from Tom’s life there from a new perspective. I’ll keep you posted.

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