Thursday, July 9, 2015

Ghost Canoe

This is the week for sitting on the shoreline of a northern lake and staring into the evening mists that creep across dark waters at sunset.

You never know what will emerge from the mists. Perhaps a dove grey cedar strip and canvass canoe paddled by a lone man wearing a yellow bush shirt. If you do see him and call to him, he will not answer and the canoe will dissolve into the mists as if it had never been there.

Ninety-eight years ago this week Tom Thomson, landscape artist, drowned in Canoe Lake. He was last seen alive July 8, 1917 and his decomposing body was found in the lake more than a week later, on July 16.

Some people believe Thomson’s ghost still paddles through the mists on Algonquin Park lakes. There have been reports of sightings, none in recent history.

The most famous sighting report came back in 1931 from a Mrs. Northway, a summer resident on Smoke Lake. She and her guide were paddling the lake one evening when a man in a canoe appeared. As the guide steered their canoe toward the man to exchange greetings, the canoe vanished.

One of Mrs. Northway’s guests that summer was Lawren Harris, Thomson’s friend and a member of the Group of Seven artists. He believed her story because, he said, persons taken unexpectedly continue to haunt the places they loved.

Jimmy Stringer, long-time Canoe Lake resident who met Thomson when he first arrived in the Park in 1913, told of two encounters with Thomson’s ghost.

He said he saw it once while paddling in the Park alone. Another time he was guiding an American who was part of a group. Their canoe fell behind the rest, and somewhere along the route the American began yelling from the bow.

Stringer asked what was wrong and the American said he had seen a ghostly canoe with a lone man up ahead. The man in the ghost canoe shouted that someone had drowned, then disappeared. When they reached their destination, Stringer learned that one of the lead canoes, carrying the American’s brother, had tipped and the brother had drowned.

Stringer himself drowned in Canoe Lake. He was pulling a toboggan on the lake when the spring ice gave way – in almost the same spot where Thomson’s body was found.

Mystery shrouds much of the Thomson story. His body was buried in a tiny bush-choked cemetery at the north end of Canoe Lake. The burial was hurried because the body was decomposing.

However, Thomson’s brother George send a telegram to the lake saying the family wanted the body reburied in Leith, near Owen Sound, where Thomson’s parents lived. He hired an undertaker to travel to the lake, exhume the body and bring it home to Leith.

The undertaker arrived with a coffin on an evening train and went to the isolated cemetery about midnight. He left with the coffin on the next train. Rumours circulated that the undertaker did not exhume the body and brought an empty coffin to Leith.

Thus the Great Canadian Mystery: Do Tom Thomson’s bones lie under his headstone at Leith, or in the dark tree-shrouded soil at Canoe Lake?

The other part of the mystery is how did Thomson die? Some people say it is impossible that the wandering woodsman-artist who spent so much time in his canoe could simply fall out of it and drown. There are theories that he was murdered. There was much speculation about fishing line wrapped around his ankle.

What is known is that on the night of July 7 there was a drinking party at one of the cabins on Canoe Lake. Thomson was there. Arguments, no doubt fuelled by too much booze, broke out.

Thomson was last seen the next day paddling his canoe away from the Canoe Lake shore and letting out copper fishing line as he went. He disappeared behind Little Wapomeo Island and his canoe was found overturned the next day.

The mysteries remain, elusive as the evening mists. Elusive as the ghost canoe that some people say still glides through them.

From my Minden Times column @
More on Tom Thomson at:

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