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.
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.
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.