By Robin Esrock
Immigrants have it tough in Canada.
We must navigate strange terms like “double-double,” mask our horror when locals talk about eating beaver tails and pay deep respects to an artist named Tom Thomson, a man with the alliterative moniker of a Saturday morning cartoon character.
Just when I figured out that Portage was a street in Winnipeg, now I’d have to carry a canoe on my head. However, my on-going quest to tick off Canada’s Bucket List is motivated as much by context as adventure. To understand the legacy of Tom Thomson, I’d have to visit Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, and if I’m visiting Algonquin, then I must embark on a multi-day canoe trip.
First things first, I would familiarize myself with Thomson and the Group of Seven—starting with an early 20th century Canada struggling to define itself. “We’re not Australia,” simply wouldn’t cut it. Local artists looked to Europe for inspiration, save an eccentric Ontarian graphic designer named Tom (son of Tom), who preferred to capture the beauty of Algonquin, Canada’s first provincial park.
Tom, a respected outdoorsman and part-time park ranger, convinced some of his work pals that painting Canadian landscapes had real merit. (Some of those work pals turned out to be the greatest Canadian artists of all time.) Tom would disappear into the woods for weeks at a time, and although he was generally well liked, he was also known to ruffle the starched conservative feathers of some of the locals. Then, he disappeared. A few days later, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake, fishing twine tightly wrapped around his leg and with a blow to his temple. It could have been an accident. Anyone can slip, bump his head, and drown—even a renowned canoeist. Still, paddles float and Thomson’s was nowhere to be found. It could have been suicide, except Thomson had just started selling his art to the National Gallery of Canada. He had the world to live for, and according to friends, wasn’t suicidal in the slightest. It was most likely murder. In an area courting tourism, local authorities called it an “accident;” albeit one with more questions than answers. Tom’s pals, later the Group of Seven, paid lasting tribute, and one of Canada’s most enduring mysteries was born. None of this, I should add, makes it any easier to carry a canoe on your head.
As a canoe virgin, I wisely chose to employ the able services of an outfitter called Voyageur Quest, based at Algonquin’s Access Point #1, near the town of South River. Without their assistance, entering the park’s 7,630 sq-km of wilderness, with 1,500 km of canoe routes and 29 access points, would find me up a foul smelling creek. (Much like Thomson, I’d be without paddle too.) It was early June and the combined forces of the Mosquito Militia and Black Fly Brigade had declared all-out war on any mammal silly enough to invade their territory. This, of course, never stopped Thomson, and it wasn’t going to stop me.
My cheerful guide, Matt Rothwell, demonstrates how to portage, which isn’t too difficult once you can balance the canoe on that part of your neck you don’t plan on using for a while. What’s more, it creates a booming echo chamber to sing ditties in the woods—mostly with a theme about killing bugs.
The canoes are surprisingly stable, capable of carrying a ton of gear, literally, as proven by the Voyageurs of yesteryear. Packing all of our gear in waterproof bins and bags, Matt guides us along a string of lakes, each portage taking us further into Ontario’s pristine boreal wilderness. We gently paddle into the breeze, spotting moose grazing on lily pads. Smoky fires and brisk early summer winds keep the bugs at bay. After a day of paddling and portaging, Matt has seemingly unlimited energy to set up camp, whip up fresh bruschetta, spicy pasta dishes, apple crumbler and entertaining indigenous legends about the stars and waters.
“Look, there’s no question about it. Thomson was murdered by Shannon Fraser, with Thomson’s own paddle… or maybe a candlestick, in the basement, dressed as a butler,” I tell Matt over the fire. I’d done my research, and Fraser looked as guilty as a wasp in a beehive. The murder took place because: a) Fraser owed Thomson money and couldn’t pay; b) they had a drunken argument and it was an accident (most likely); c) Fraser thought Thomson, a known womanizer, was messing around with his wife; d) Fraser was told to rough up Thomson because he had gotten a local girl pregnant; e) a dark, baritone voice emerged from a bullfrog and told Fraser to kill, kill, kill (least likely). Unlike my bug net, though, the truth is not important. Algonquin’s rugged beauty is as remarkable today as it was back then, inspiring experienced paddlers, canoe virgins and great artists alike.
On our final night, I sit around the fire with Scotch in a tin cup, listening to the loons cackle in the distance and the wood crackle in the fire. It might be the wind whistling in the white pine, or the ghost of Tom Thomson whispering in my ear, but a little voice tells me I’m one step closer to understanding the vibrant, beating heart of Canada’s wilderness, and its culture too.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.