Climbing the Big Hill across from Achray on Grand Lake
In search of Tom Thomson
2014 May 07
Some time in the past couple of years, we came across a reproduction of a lesser known Tom Thomson painting, View from the Top of a Hill, that depicts a view overlooking three lakes. It is dated 1916, and since Thomson spent that summer working as a fire ranger out of Achray, we thought it might be somewhere in that vicinity. Examining the topographical map and satellite images of the area, we concluded that it most probably was the view from the top of the big hill opposite Achray on Grand Lake. Consequently we decided to climb the hill and photograph the same scene now, almost 100 years later. The primary difficulty was that, to the best of our knowledge, there was no trail leading there - it would be an uphill bushwhack.
We wondered if perhaps there used to be a trail associated with the old tote road that ran from Grand Lake over to the Spectacle Lakes and then south to Basin Depot. Thomson used to travel regularly to Basin Depot on a mail run, so this painting location could have been a detour off that route. Further, Thomson's duties as a fire ranger would probably have taken him regularly to the top of that hill, and others, for a look around. At the very least, there must have been a path.
Last fall we spent a pleasant afternoon poking around looking for the road (or any sign of a trail). While it was fairly clear where the road started, it was also clear there was nothing left to follow. We would have to bushwhack.
This spring we noticed that there was exposed bare rock near the top on the south east face of the hill that seemed consistent with the surmised painting location. However, the southeast face of the hill is quite steep, so we concluded that the most sensible route up would be a traverse starting on the north east side of the hill (near the campsite).
2014 August 27
In late August Bob and his friend Richard decided to scout out a route to the top of the hill and attempt to find the painting spot.
We reached the top without incident or major difficulty. However, the top was tree-covered, with only small open areas and no open vistas. We saw enough in glimpses through the trees to convince ourselves that indeed that the painting location must be near, but we found no opportunities to gather photographic proof. We could see Stratton Lake, but the view was never good enough to differentiate between Berm Lake and Johnston Lake. We got a very tantalizing tunnel view up Carcajou Bay.
We knew that somewhere up there was a larger open area but we couldn't find it. And since the southeast face was quite steep, we were loathe to undertake random forays down the slope without knowing just where that open area might be. When we returned to lake level, we were convinced that we had been in the vicinity of the painting location but that we needed to return when the leaves were down — for a better view of the scene and a better chance of finding the larger open area. As it turned out, all that was required was getting a bead on the open area.
After we were back in the canoe, we paddled around so that we could view the hill from the lake to the southeast. From there, the open area was quite obvious. By paddling directly towards the open area from well out in the lake, an extrapolation of our gps track provided a baseline for a future attempt. (We should have done this before our climb — but like many things, that was only obvious in retrospect.)
2014 September 19
In mid-September, Bob and Diana undertook another attempt to locate the painting spot.
We made our way to the southernmost location that Bob and Richard had visited and then struck a slightly downward course, traversing the southeast face of the hill towards the previously established baseline. Very soon a vista opened up to the south.
Here is the painting:
Here is the map (the dot indicates the assumed painting location):
Here is the corresponding photograph:
And back to the painting:
The problem, of course, is: where is Johnston Lake? It appears in the painting and on the map, but not in the photograph (even though we know it's there). This highlights a common difficulty in identifying Tom Thomson painting locations: You can no longer see the park as Tom Thomson saw it. The vegetation has changed significantly and most of the old infrastructure has disappeared. Lake levels are often different. Many scenes are no longer viewable and others are hard to recognize. But in spite of all this, many painting locations can be found.
In this case, the pine forests of the area had been extensively harvested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Johnston Lake was visible from this location in 1916 but the regrowth of the pine forest now hides it from view. (see notes). This is also why the currently visible shape of the near end of Stratton Lake doesn't quite match the painting.
We are convinced that the Tom Thomson painting View from the Top of a Hill was painted on the top of the hill across from Achray on Grand Lake and it may well have been painted on the open area that we identified. We believe that anyone visiting this location would reach the same conclusion even if they are not fully persuaded by the photographic evidence and arguments that we have presented here.
Is our assertion that tree growth in the last 100 years is responsible for "hiding" Johnston Lake reasonable? A simple geometry calculation says yes. The assumed painting location is ~105m above Johnston Lake. The far shore of Johnston Lake is ~2700m distant. The highest elevation point along the line of sight towards the far shore of Johnston Lake is between Grand Lake and Johnston lake and is ~1900m distant. (These distances are horizontal distances.) If we consider two similar triangles sharing a common apex (the far shore of Johnston Lake) and one side being the elevation of Johnston Lake and the other side being along the line of sight, then: x/(2700-1900) = 105/2700 where x is the height of the visual obstruction (ground elevation above Johnston Lake plus tree height) between Grand Lake and Johnston Lake. Solving for x gives ~30m. Consequently, an obstruction ~30m high at this location would just be sufficient to block the view of the far shore of Johnston Lake, which is what our photos suggest is the current situation. The ground elevation at this point is 5 to 10m above Johnston Lake. This gives us a calculated tree height of 20 to 25m, which is reasonable for 100-year-old red and/or white pines. If you further calculate what you could see from the assumed painting location if the area were clear cut and the only obstruction was the 5 to 10m ground rise, then you could almost see the near shore of Johnston Lake (~2200m distant) as well. Consequently, we can confidently assert that the tree cover between Grand and Johnston Lakes determines the visibility of Johnston Lake from this location. Further, we can turn this discussion backwards and assert that this painting provides "painted proof" that the forests around Achray had been largely cleared when Thomson was painting here ~100 years ago.
This discussion is based on the assumption that the painting location was the bare rock area that we visited. This is plausible in that this is a pleasant comfortable location that provides a relatively unobstructed view of the subject scene and it would also have 100 years ago. The very thin to absent veneer of soil at this location precludes local tree growth. However, it is also possible that 100 years ago, the top of the hill was sufficiently denuded of trees due to logging that other locations on the hill would also provide an unobstructed view. (And a higher location would provide a better view of Johnston Lake). This possibility does not negate the conclusion that the painting location was from this hill, but it does add some uncertainty as to the exact location.