Tom Thomson Spring Trip - A Tale of Trees and Fish
May 2012 by - Martin Garster
After two aborted attempts, I was able to get away for a few days in Algonquin Park. My latest grandiose ideas included a spring solo trip looping through the north east end of the park or doing a long figure 8 route intersecting at Louisa. However, my apprehensive and perhaps more level-headed wife suggested I try something a little easier. Given the cold water and the fact that I was alone, I agreed and headed to the summertime hub of the park, Tom Thomson Lake.
Sunrise along HWY 60 on the drive in.
The trip was a straight forward affair with only one road-like portage that you have to cross. It should take a short while to get from the access to Tom Thomson Lake, assuming there are no traffic jams along the way! I say traffic jams because I have heard this area is ridiculously busy in the summer. It is not uncommon to see 30 or 40 canoes lined up waiting their turn to portage around the Joe Lake dam.
I had the place to myself!
Since I was at the busiest point in the park and there was no one here, I was determined to take in all the sights that this beautiful place has to offer. I launched from the Canoe lake access point on water like glass.
First stop was the dock at Hayhurst Point and the Tom Thomson Cairn.
This cairn and bizarre looking totem pole were erected in 1917 as a memorial to Tom.
Despite what this inscription says I don't believe Tom Thomson is buried in Owen Sound. He is still here in the park. After this stop, a quick trip across the lake takes you to the former town site of Mowat.
I took out just north of the old town site in an area known as the Chip Yard.
This spongy log strewn bay is essentially a 100 year old example of industrial pollution by the Gilmor Lumber Company. It was a dumping ground for sawdust and inferior logs that was never cleaned up when the Lumber company went bankrupt at the turn of the last century.
From here, I went up the trail to the Mowat Cemetery. This was the original location where Tom Thomson was buried. The trail head can be found about 100 yards south of the Chip Yard along the old road.
Look for this tree on the west side of the road and you can see the trail head.
After 1/2 km or so the trail ends at this unusually large and obviously very old Birch tree surrounded by a picket fence.
There are two stones in the cemetery. One small stone marks the grave of Alexander Hayhurst who died in 1915 at 8 years of age. I believe the Hayhurst family are the ones who continue to maintain this cemetery. The other stone is for JA Watson and is inscribed:
In Memory of Jas Watson
Remember Comrades when passing by
Outside the cemetery is a lone white cross.
This lone white cross suggests the site of Tom Thomson's grave. It is widely thought to be a just prop or decoy left in this spot years ago. After reading the very good book Northern Light, by Roy MacGregor, I firmly believe that Tom Thomson's final resting place is here several yards outside the cemetery fence. Your guess is as good as mine as to exactly where.
Leaving the town of Mowat behind, I continued north past Potter Creek then portaged past the Joe Lake dam. I saw two parties leaving the park at Joe but didn't meet anyone going in or pass anyone camping. A few hundred yards past the dam is a bridge going over Joe Lake. Just before the bridge on the north shore is a boat launch and parking lot presumably for MNR or cottagers use. I tied up my canoe and went looking for any remains of the Hotel Algonquin.
The following post card was sent by my great great aunt to my grandmother in August of 1934. She was on vacation and stayed at Hotel Algonquin 78 summers ago. Pretty cool!
It's post marked August 30, 1934. (3 cent stamp gets it to Liverpool, England)
It reads, 'Many thanks for your letter, sent on to me here. So glad you enjoyed your trip to Norway but somehow, I can't picture you sitting still on a steamer. This is a beautiful place. Right in the bush. No roads. You travel by Canoe. Love Auntie M. Hotel Algonquin.'
I'm not sure when the hotel burned down. Here are the remains that I found ...
Footings for a water tower?
Err, um, I dunno.
At this point I was getting hungry. So, I headed north through Joe Lake to Gibraltar Rock for some lunch. Looking north from the rock towards Tepee Lake. Camp Arowhon is just visible on the left side of the photo.
Looking south from the rock down Joe Lake.
After lunch I continued on my way. The gathering wind pushed me through Teepee Lake past Camp Arowhon, and into the Little Oxtongue River. This is a beautiful part of the park. I can see why it is so popular in the summer. My final destination for the next three nights was Tom Thomson Lake. I was the only one on the lake and picked out a fantastic site on the east shore.
It was far too large for a solo traveller but it had all the other criteria I wanted. A good beach landing, western exposure, a good breeze, a rocky point for fishing and a great fire ring. I set up camp and settled in for the night.
Nice fire pit with surprisingly comfy stone seating!
Me and my bug tent, which wasn't really needed. Although the Black Fly's were out they weren't really biting.
Misty morning view from my campsite. Today I would trip to Brule Lake hoping to explore the old town site of Brule and Doc Kases cottage PrinGrove. I had a great breakfast omelette, a second helping of coffee and slowly got round to setting out for the day. I figured it would take an hour and a half to get to Brule. I was wrong!
Beginning of the 1.3km portage from Tom Thomson Lake to an unnamed pond.
The blow down alerts for the north and east portions of the park should be extended to cover the whole park. I had been on the portage between Tom Thomson and an unnamed pond for 2 minutes before I came to the first tree blocking my path. I started to keep count of the downed trees. That was futile! It was like God had picked a handful of Pine and Birch and strewn them across the portages like tooth picks. It was rare that I would walk for two minutes without coming across another tree I had to step over, climb under or find my way around.
The three portages and bit of paddling between Tom Thomson and Potter Lake took 2 hours. Not good! Knowing I was behind, I hurried up Potter Lake without checking my map. At the top of Potter Lake was a portage which followed a logging road to Brule Lake. There was no portage sign to be found, so I made my own path. Scrambled up the steep embankment to the road and started walking towards Brule.
After a 1/2 km or so I came across a portage sign signalling the proper portage from Potter to Brule. Arrgh!! Turns out I had exited Potter Lake too early! Instead of exiting at the top of the lake I had pulled out at point ¾ of the way up the lake. Duh! Lesson learned. Not much I could do but keep walking. After another 750 metres I finally made it to Brule.
Potter Creek heading in to Brule.
It is unfortunate that the west side of Brule Lake is scarred by the logging road running its length because otherwise Brule is a beauty! There are two campsites on the lake. The southern one doesn't look so great but the other site perched on a cliff on the east shore is great. I paddled around the lake a bit and stopped for a very late lunch. The sky started to turn dark and I was running out of time. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to really explore the lake and decided I had to head back the way I came.
On the left is the Brule town site. Right is Doc Kases cottage, Pringrove.
Since I knew what I was in for on the way back, I decided to make a video of the 500m portage out of Pathfinder Lake. Gives you an idea of what some of the Spring trails were like: ... http://youtu.be/GsQSDivAaf8
After a 2 1/2 hours trip and one final paddle up the Little Oxtongue River to Tom Thomson Lake I was happy to be back at camp. I was so tired I completely forgot about my fear of bears and fell into a sound sleep by 10pm.
The next day was another late start. I was planning another adventurous trip much like the day before. Only this time I can't tell you where I went on account of the fish!
Suffice to say I travelled about 3 hours from Tom Thomson Lake and found myself lifting over a few beaver dams and travelling up a stream. Now, I will preface this by saying I am a sorry fisherman. I have been fishing for a few years and have never caught a Trout. I spend too much time tying knots and getting hooks out of articles of clothing.
My vision of fishing for Lake Trout includes tying on a deep diving Rapala and throwing out 50 feet or so of line behind my canoe. Then I would paddle between the shore and an island. If that doesnt work, I would take 20 minutes or so to tie on a Williams Warbler and a sinker and go do the same thing. Having no idea how deep my lure actually is or what lay under the surface of the water. If a fish happened to be in the path of my lure I would be surprised. If one actually took the bait it would be an entirely unexpected bonus.
To my mind, fishing for Brook Trout involves finding an inky black pool at the bottom of a set of rapids. Quietly toss a small spinner across the current and bring it back in the hopes that a fish darts out to take the bait. I would have no real clue if there were fish there and if I actually caught something it would also be a very happy surprise.
Back to the stream ...
After 15 minutes travelling up the creek looking at the birds, looking for moose and listening to the peepers, I came to a small rock lift over. I took my paddle out of the water and laid it across the gunwales with the familiar clunk of wood on wood.
At this point, the water just ahead of my canoe, which was about 30 inches deep, exploded! I was stunned and didn't know what was happening. Then I saw a half dozen fish jump and flop up the small rapid 10 yards in front of the canoe. I froze. Looking down through the very clear water at the sandy bottom beneath me, I saw another half dozen Brook Trout scooting this way or that.
Holy Crap! I never expected this. I didn't expect to actually see the fish! I Iet my canoe silently drift back downstream and tied up to shore. I was full of excitement and jitters as I took the 20 minutes required to tie on a Panther Martin that had been patiently waiting for this occasion. I crept back up the embankment past the small rapid. Beyond the rocks were 30 yards of water before more rocks and a beaver dam. I peered into the water and saw more fish. I gingerly held out my rod to do a back hand cast up the stream. Released the bail and with a twitch of my wrist cast my Panther Martin directly into the alder ten feet from where I stood. LOL!!!
Dropping the rod I crashed my way through the bush to retrieve my lure. Of course, again, the water exploded into action. Fish were darting frantically to escape, flopping over rocks and hiding under logs. There were scores of them!
I finally untangled my mess and started casting properly into the stream. The Trout were not interested. I cast upstream, downstream and straight across. They just kept to themselves. I would land the lure directly behind or in front of a group of Trout and they would just sit and silently mock me. I proceeded to go through all the little lures in my little tackle box.
I was exasperated. In a last ditch attempt I tried a small jig with an artificial scented minnow. This, at least got their attention. Not that they would bite it. It looked more like they were trying to strike up a conversation. Berkley was not speaking their language. Exhausted and with 3 hours of hard travelling to get back to camp, I reluctantly left empty handed. This sorry fool will be back one day. Next time with a hook and some worms.
(EDIT: After initially posting this report I learned that these were not Brook Trout. They were most likely Long Nose Suckers preparing to spawn.)
At least this was waiting to console me back at camp ...
I drowned my sorrows and listened as two warring parties of loons screamed obscenities at each other well into the night. It was a perfect end to a great trip. I can't wait to go back in the fall!
- Martin Garster.