Algonquin saplings


Sadly, Mary and I were not traveling with a canoe on our SUV, so our access to Algonquin was limited. I could still paint the small maples flaming on the rocks, though, with a promise that some day I would be back with my paddles and paint kit. But here is an Algonquin mystery for you:

One of the enduring mysteries of the art world is how Canada’s great artist, Tom Thomson, age 39 and an experienced guide and woodsman, died on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park.

A century after his death, the facts are limited. At noon on Sunday, July 8, 1917, Thomson left his cabin to fish. That afternoon, Martin Blecher and his sister Bessie saw Thomson’s canoe floating upside down as they motored on the lake. They did not stop to check it, saying they thought it was another canoe that had slipped its moorings.

On Tuesday, guide Mark Robinson was called in to search for the body. He and others checked portages and inlets for the following week.

The news of the missing artist spread rapidly. “Mr. Thomson is very well known here and everyone will hope that he will be found safe and well. The other alternative is not pleasant to consider but should it be found that he has been drowned, Canada will have lost one of her most accomplished landscape artists, and a thorough gentleman,” wrote the Owens Sound Sun.

Thomson’s body surfaced on Monday, July 16. Robinson and Dr. Goldwin Howland, of Toronto, examined it. They found a bruise on the left temple about four inches long, “Evidently caused by falling on a Rock otherwise no marks of Violence on Body,” wrote Robinson. The decomposing body was quickly buried at Canoe Lake.

On Tuesday, the coroner arrived from North Bay and assembled an inquest. “There is Considerable Adverse Comment regarding the taking of the Evidence among the Residents,” Robinson wrote in his diary. Almost immediately, Thomson’s family sent a steel coffin and requested that his body be exhumed and sent home to Leith, Ontario.

That is where the facts end. Even his final resting place in dispute, with one group of people saying the undertaker balked at exhuming his remains and sent an empty casket back instead. Thomson, they say, is buried at a secret spot near Canoe Lake.

Was it accidental drowning, as the coroner decided? Was it manslaughter, as Mark Robinson came to believe? Was it suicide?

Martin Blecher was 26 when he saw the overturned canoe. He was the son of German immigrants, a quarrelsome, alcoholic recluse who told people that he was a private detective employed by the William J. Burns International Detective Agency in Buffalo. Robinson, who listed local war deaths in his diary, believed Blecher was a German spy.

“I had heard that there was some ill feeling between Tom and some man in that region [Mowat]. It was somewhat casually referred to by someone at Canoe Lake possibly one of the Rangers, but as this was while we were still looking for Tom and I was still hopeful of his safe recovery, I didn’t at the time attach any serious importance to the report,” wrote Thomson’s brother George.

Was the man Blecher or someone else? Daphne Crombie, who was in Mowat that spring, remembered, “Tom and George…they’d had a party. They were all pretty good drinkers, Tom as well. Well, they went up and had this party. They were all tight and Tom asked Shannon Fraser for the money that he owed him because he had to go and get a new suit…Anyway, they had a fight and Shannon hit Tom, you see, knocked him down by the grate fire, and he had a mark on his forehead…Annie [Fraser] told me all this and also Dr. MacCallum. Tom was completely knocked out by this fight. Of course, Fraser was terrified because he thought he’d killed him. This is my conception, and I don’t know about other people’s. My conception is that he took Tom’s body and put it into a canoe and dropped it in the lake. That’s how he died.”

Why did Thomson need a new suit? According to Annie Fraser, he’d gotten local woman Winnie Trainor pregnant and had to marry her. After Thomson’s death, Trainor traveled to Philadelphia to stay with friends, and rumors persisted that she was pregnant. She never married and was protective of his reputation for the remainder of her life.

Years later, Robinson elaborated on his finding of the body: “His fishing line was wound several times around his left ankle and broken off.  There was no sign of the rod, his Provisions and kit bag were in the front end of the Canoe when found. The lake was not Rough.”

““You might interview Martin and Bessie Blecher but again be careful. They possibly know more about Tom’s sad end than any other person,” he added darkly.

Even in Algonquin, solitude and peace are an illusion.

In 2016, my daughter Mary and I set off across Alaska and Canada on a Great White North Adventure, which you can read about starting here. We arrived in Anchorage at the beginning of September and got home in mid-October. In between, we visited every province but PEI (been there, done that), and Yukon Territory. In retrospect, it might have made more sense to do this during the summer, since Alaska and Canada threw a mess of strange weather at us.

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Algonquin saplings is 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

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