100 years of haunting on Ontario’s Canoe Lake
Tom Thomson’s body was pulled from the water a century ago, but some say he never left
ALGONQUIN PARK— On an otherwise unremarkable Saturday morning this month, Sylvia and Vern Telford sat in a sun-filled cafeteria at the Portage Store at the foot of Canoe Lake.
The lake’s status as a pilgrimage site for tourists in search of a glimpse of the water and woods that inspired the Group of Seven, the country’s grandfatherly troupe of landscape painters, barely fazes them. They’re longtimers here. In 1908, Sylvia’s grandfather signed a lease for the land where the family cottage still sits, and an uninterrupted string of generations have been here ever since.
Sylvia explains, almost blasé, how various members of the Group would stop for tea and crumpets on her porch when she was growing up.
One of her friends, she says, would dutifully squire the longest-lived and most durable adherent to the Group’s Canadiana myth, A.Y. Jackson, around the lake in his boat so he could paint en plein air, often for the benefit of CBC cameras that would trail along after him wherever he would go.
And then there’s Tom Thomson. “Oh, yes,” Telford says, as though she’s been asked if she’d seen the most recent episode of Coronation Street. “He paddles past the point, right by the cottage, every July 17.”
She pauses. “Well, I’ve never seen him,” she laughs. “But that’s what everyone says.”
“Well, I’ve never seen him .. . But that’s what everyone says.” SYLVIA TELFORD LAND OWNER
“I grew up with him in a sense, I suppose.” SYLVIA TELFORD LAND OWNER
For Thomson, who died 100 years ago on July 8 — the very day Vern and Sylvia paddled in for coffee — that would be quite a trick. But with the lake very much in the throes of Tom Thomson mania — the centenary of his death has proved to be a marketing bonanza for local businesses — this year’s anniversary, which falls on Monday, sets a grand stage for a centennial haunting.
Thomson’s spirit, of course, needs no such marker to be restless. No one knows, exactly, what brought Thomson, in the throes of perhaps his most potent artistic moment — he had painted a new sketch every single day that spring, striving to capture Algonquin’s shift from the bleak skies of a leafless winter into the heavy purples and pinks of a summer twilight — to his watery end.
But around a week after he had died, he was found floating face down, tangled in fishing wire, near a point in the northeast corner of the lake.
Lacking a coffin, locals sent for one to be freighted up from the city; having nowhere to keep the body in the meantime, they simply left it in the water, lashed to the dock for another day until it arrived.
That final ignominy ended July 17, 1917, which helps explain the ghost’s choice of days for a moonlight paddle. But that’s not the only thing to stir his restless bones. Thomson’s death — just a few months shy of his 40th birthday, in perfect health and just as he was coming into his own as a painter — has stymied generations of investigators. (A website, “Death on a Painted Lake,” was produced in 2008, funded by the Canadian Heritage ministry.)
There was a rumour that he had
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been having an affair with the wife of a local fishing lodge owner, and that Thomson had become a victim of his wrath, or that the artist had run afoul of poachers hunting illegally in the park who saw him as an incriminating witness. Another theory suggests that Thomson had accidentally impregnated a woman holidaying at the park, and had committed suicide over it.
The coroner of the day, Dr. Arthur Ranney, ruled his death to be accidental, by drowning, but he never examined the body himself, leaving the door open for Dr. Michael Pollanen, then the chief forensic pathologist for the Province of Ontario, who in 2008 refuted the ruling and changed the cause of death to “unknown.” Thomson’s body was buried near Canoe Lake, but only for two days, when his brother George came to retrieve it and transport it back to the family plot in Leith, near Owen Sound.
If you believe the locals, though, part of Thomson remains at Canoe Lake, paddling past a northern point near the Telford family cottage. In 1980, Doug Dunford, a Muskokabased landscape painter, saw a lone canoeist paddling through thick fog one morning in July. Briefly making eye contact, Dunford told Haunted Ontario author Terry Boyle, he snapped a quick photo before the figure turned abruptly and disappeared into the mist.
“I didn’t understand why this person had turned so abruptly,” Dunford said. “Why was someone out on the lake in such fog? Why had he disappeared?” Later, Dunford concludes that he “knew it was Tom Thomson.”
For Telford, the drama isn’t quite so thick. Growing up, her grandfather would tell stories of Thomson camping frequently on their land to paint, with his blessing. The memorial cairn to Thomson, erected after his death by Group of Seven members, is on their land, well-trammeled by thousands of tourists each year, with their permission (a recently installed porta-potty in the woods behind the cairn has been a help).
“I grew up with him in a sense, I suppose,” Telford says, and he remains welcome any time.
Tom Thomson’s death — just a few months shy of his 40th birthday — has stymied generations of investigators.
Doug Dunford’s 1980 photograph of what he believed to be the ghost of Tom Thomson, on Canoe Lake. The painter died 100 years ago this month.