The Cliff at Tarn Lake
View from a Height

An account, with photographs, of a round trip hike from St. Andrews Lake in Algonquin Park, crossing the portage to Tarn Lake and then bushwhacking up the cliff in order to determine if indeed that clifftop was the site of Tom Thomson's painting, "View from a Height".

2012 September 11

In the spring of 2008, a small painting by Tom Thomson entitled "View from a Height" was sold at auction by Joyner Waddingtons for $1,207,500. It is a beautiful little painting. But the aspect that intrigued us was the question of where it was painted. As far as we know, no specific location has ever been ascribed to this painting. As noted by Joyner Waddington's director Rob Cowley (Auction attention focused on Thomson sketches) "It's painted from the perspective from above, looking down, and for Thomson, it's incredibly rare." As it is believed to have been painted in the fall of 1916, it is likely that it depicts a location in eastern Algonquin Park (Thomson was a fire ranger working out of Achray that year).

Our best guess was that it was painted from the top of the cliff at Tarn Lake. We could not find any photos taken at that location, but the painting seemed to match what one would expect to see from there according to topographic maps. We decided to travel there to check it out. However, a trek to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake is not to be taken lightly; it is too much to do as a day trip from our home in Point Alexander for this pair of senior (or almost senior) citizens.

As a day trip from St. Andrews Lake, it seemed reasonable. So in 2012 September, we camped on St. Andrews Lake, hiked over to Tarn Lake, climbed the cliff and then returned to our campsite. But even starting at St. Andrews Lake and without significant gear, it was a long, hard day.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake portage from St Andrews Lake

(photo by Diana: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

We set up camp on St. Andrews Lake, at a campsite that we had stayed on the first time we had visited that lake, 39 years previously. The next day we headed for Tarn Lake, leaving camp at 8:30 am. This view down the length of St. Andrews Lake is from the start of the portage to Tarn Lake.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake portage from St Andrews Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

We stashed the canoe in the bush and started hiking across the portage. It is a relentless climb out of St. Andrews Lake, but through a very attractive mixed, but largely deciduous, bush. Here, Bob is disappearing in the distance, Diana's usual view of him on this sort of expedition.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake portage from St Andrews Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

The portage to Tarn Lake is unmaintained and it obviously hasn't been cleared recently. There are many blowdowns, most probably due to the early winter storm of 2011 November that caused havoc across Algonquin Park. The blowdowns in combination with the steepness, and occasional roughness, of the trail made for very hard going. There was minimal evidence that anyone had been across this season (a lack of broken branches on the blowdowns, for example). In view of the dry summer, it is likely that Tarn Lake was essentially unreachable via Macdonald Creek for most of this year.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake portage from St Andrews Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Upwards, ever upwards. At this particular location the trail was just entering a nice hemlock grove.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

After almost two and one half hours (4.7km according to the gps) we reached the end of the portage at Tarn Lake -- very slow going. The water level in the lake was sufficiently low that there was a strip of beach along the shore.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

This is a view of the cliff on Tarn Lake as seen from the end of the portage. The lone campsite on the lake is on the small point, just a short distance along the shore.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  campsite

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Diana relaxing at the campsite. We had a major snack break here. There were no signs of recent use of the campsite.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  bushwhack to cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

After our snack break, we started our bushwhack up to the cliff top. A small unnamed lake up the hill drains via a creek that flows by the campsite (although this year the flow in the creek was only a trickle). We crossed the creek and found a faint path -- perhaps just a game trail -- that ran parallel to the creek. We followed that path until we eventually lost it within sight of the unnamed lake. We then turned south and continued to climb until we found ourselves at the foot of a small cliff. We turned south east and were able to eventually make an end run around this small cliff. We again found a faint path and followed it for a short distance, but it seemed to be going in the wrong direction. We broke off and turned westward which eventually took us to the top of the cliff (see gps track below). The bushwhacking was hard, on a steep slope with lots of blowdowns and broken rock.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  bushwhack to cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

As we made our way up, we were treated to this vista to the east. The skyline is the top of the ridge of hills that we had crossed over on the portage (but farther south).

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  bushwhack to cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Our first view of Tarn Lake "from a height". Here we are looking over the campsite and at the end of the portage (near dead center of the photograph).

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

At the top of the cliff. Tarn Lake is immediately below, while Little Tarn Lake is in the distance. It had taken us an hour and 15 minutes to reach this location from the campsite. The time of day was 1:30. We had a late lunch here.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photo by Bob: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Tarn Lake

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Diana admiring the view. She had moved down a little from the summit. This location is a little more open and provides less obstructed views of Tarn Lake, Little Tarn Lake, and downstream along McDonald Creek. The vegetation here includes lichens, moss, sweet fern, juniper and red oak.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Looking down McDonald Creek. The farther of the two prominent hills is somewhat over 3km away. We are hopeful that, in the spring, we will be able to approach it coming upstream on McDonald Creek as a day trip out of Achray; that is, by continuing upstream on McDonald creek beyond the portage to Turcotte Lake (if it isn't too weed choked).

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photo by Diana: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

A closer look at the two hills.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photo by Diana: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

We believe that this is the scene that Tom Thomson saw and painted. It looked right on the topos and it looks right in person after allowing for the inevitable admixture of artistic licence.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

Tom Thomson's interpretation of the scene 96 years previous. He's exaggerated the background hills (as he did in many of his paintings) and chosen not to include Little Tarn Lake, but we believe it is a good match. When we were there it was quite windy. Even this aspect is captured by Thompson in the foreground bushes.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

This location also provides appropriately sized and located stone seats for the convenience of the artist (an important consideration). Diana tried sitting on two different rocks and found them both to be comfortable as potential painting spots. The padding of moss and lichen helped.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  Tarn Lake  cliff top

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Bob, sitting in the sweet fern, recording his thoughts and notes

An unedited, hand-held video panorama of the view from the clifftop on Tarn Lake with lots of wind noise.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  Algonquin Park  St Andrews Lake

(photographed: 2012-09-11 - map - explore

Back at St. Andrews Lake at 5:40. The return hike was a weary slog back down the trail, and neither of us took any photos along the way. By the time we reached St. Andrews Lake, we were quite tired. It took us a while to recover completely.

a hike to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake in Algonquin Park  elevation profile

(photographed: 2012-09-11) 

Elevation profile from our campsite on St Andrews Lake to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake and return. It strikes us as interesting that the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake is almost the same elevation as the top of the ridge separating Tarn Lake from St. Andrews Lake.

Satellite Image

Our route (red line) from our campsite on St. Andrews Lake to the top of the cliff on Tarn Lake and return. The track was measured using a Garmin foretrex 301 gps and reduced to 500 points with GPSBable. (The elevation profile was plotted without point reduction). The track is somewhat noisy which we attribute to the thick cover along the portage and up the cliff. (Noise is not evident along the shore of Tarn Lake or on St. Andrews Lake.) The noise is the probable cause of the gps apparently overestimating the lenghth of the portage by ~300m.

After visiting the cliff at Tarn Lake, we are convinced that this is indeed the location of the Tom Thomson painting, View from a Height. The only detail that gives us pause is the noninclusion of Little Tarn Lake. However, we are discussing a painting, not a photograph. One can speculate several reasonable artistic or practical considerations that could have led Thomson to exclude that feature. Further one must assume that Thomson was aware of, and had ample opportunity to visit, this location. It is close to the old route from Achray to Basin Lake. According to Addison (1974) Thomson made a weekly trip by canoe and tote road [from Achray] to Basin Depot for supplies and mail. Further, it would seem reasonable to assume that fire rangers patrolling in the area would routinely visit locations that gave commanding views of the surrounding territory. And while certainly not definitive, we can think of no other appropriately sized and shaped lake in the area (or along the Petawawa or Barron Rivers) adjacent to such an elevated painting location.

Notes

We are hesitant to discuss the difficulty of this as a day trip from the Stratton / St. Andrews Lake area other than that we found it a long, hard day. The poor state of the portage was an important contributing factor. This account should be regarded as a record of what we did and not as a recommendation to others. You are solely responsible for your own trip planning.

Google map layer, "Jeff's map", courtesy of Jeff's Map.

Sources

For a recent trip report of visiting Tarn Lake via McDonald Creek, see August 25, 2011 - Day 14 Slogging through the solitude! by Mark Rubino. It seems that there is no easy way to get to Tarn Lake. (The complete trip log starts here: August 12, 2011 - Day 1 My journey begins!).

Ottelyn Addison (1974), Early Days in Algonquin Park, McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

There's lots of stuff available about Tom Thomson (but not about this particular painting); see, for example:

Joan Murray (2011), A Treasury of Tom Thomson, Douglas & McIntyre.

Dennis Reid ed. (2002), Tom Thomson, Douglas & McIntyre.