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.

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