South of Grand Lake
Tom Thomson Sketching Locations

Abstract: Grand Lake and Stratton Lake are bounded on the south side by a line of high hills. Many of Thomson's sketches are of, or include, these hills. However, at least one of his sketches is from atop those hills and several are from beyond those hills. These sketches are collected here:

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View from the Top of a Hill

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Yellow Sunset

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View From a Height

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In Petawawa Gorges, Spring

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Algonquin Park Vista

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Log Jam: Sketch for 'The Drive'

View from the Top of a Hill

View from the Top of a Hill

This sketch was painted from near the top of the big hill across Grand Lake from Achray. This hill features in the background of several of his sketches. The view is to the south-west with Stratton Lake and Johnston Lake in the distance and Grand Lake close at hand.

Atop the big hill across from Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Diana: 2014-09-19 - map - explore

Here is the contemporary view. Johnston Lake (the lake on the left in the sketch) is no longer visible from this site due to intervening tree growth between Grand Lake and Johnston Lake. This is explained in more detail on our page: Climbing the Big Hill across from Achray on Grand Lake In search of Tom Thomson as is our search for this site.

This location is less than two hours from the Out-Side-In.

The similarity of View from the Top of a Hill with Aura Lee Lake (see the Tom Thomson Catalogue Raisonné entry for Aura Lee Lake) has been noted (Reid, p138) and on that basis, it has been suggested that View from the Top of a Hill is also from that area. We do not agree.

View from the Top of a Hill is painted, back-to-back, on the same board as Yellow Sunset.

Yellow Sunset

Yellow Sunset

This was painted on the same board, back-to-back with View from the Top of a Hill. It is clear from overall condition of the two sketches, Thomson's signature on Yellow Sunset and annotations on the face of View from the Top of a Hill, that Yellow Sunset is the favoured painting and that View from the Top of a Hill is the discard. On this basis, we conclude that Yellow Sunset was painted after View from the Top of a Hill and thus Yellow Sunset must have been somewhere in the Achray area.

Mouth of Carcajou Bay on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Diana: 2016-05-18 - map - explore

This photo of the big hill is taken from the south east shore of Grand Lake looking across the mouth of Carcajou Bay. It is close to the location of Yellow Sunset. A better location would be to paddle out into the mouth of Carcajou Bay keeping the foreground point aligned with the the peak of the big hill until the left slope of the big hill coincides with the top (but not the tree tops) of the foreground point. The foreground point has a distinctive shape, now obscured by the tree cover, that matches the painting. We are reasonably confident that this is the correct location of this sketch.

View From a Height

We are confident of the location of View from the Top of a Hill. The absence of Johnston Lake could readily be explained. However, in this sketch a lake that should be visible isn't. This one is harder to explain.

Thomson is purported to have made regular visits to Basin Depot to pick up the mail. Tarn Lake is "down that way" although off the most direct route if one were walking rather than canoeing — there is no easy canoe route from Achray to Basin Depot. There is a high cliff on Tarn Lake that the fire rangers may well have made use of to survey the surrounding forests. A 1942 map indicates a trail from St. Andrews Lake over the hill to Tarn Lake, continuing along the east shore of Tarn Lake (that is, below the cliff) and then south into the Pine River drainage system. We have no knowledge as to how old this route might be.

View From a Height
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

This is the view from the cliff on Tarn Lake. While we believe that this view is consistent with the sketch, we need to explain why Little Tarn Lake doesn't show in the sketch.

A careful examination of the sketch indicates that perhaps Little Tarn Lake is indeed there — beyond the 'orange' to the left of the tree. But if that is Little Tarn Lake, it is a marsh/wet-land rather than a lake. Further, the water level in Tarn Lake would seem to be much lower than that shown in the photograph. Is that reasonable?

Perhaps ... The drainage throughout this area is controlled by the local beaver population; it would be quite different without the beavers. Ponds giving way to beaver meadows and back to ponds as beaver come and go is common in this sort of environment. And there is reason to believe that the beaver population may have been low or even non-existent in Thomson's time. According to Ralph Bice:

When the park was established, the beaver were very scarce. Trappers of that era told me that there were only a few known spots where there were families of beavers

The lack of beavers could provide a reasonable explanation to the discrepancies between sketch and photo; perhaps there are other explanations. The point being made is only that Little Tarn Lake not showing as a lake in the sketch is not necessarily fatal to identifying this location as the site of the sketch. However the absence of the lake does raise doubts. We are now, perhaps, somewhat more sceptical of this identification than when we visited the site. But: "if not here, then where?" Cliffs overlooking small lakes are rare in the Achray area.

We also suspect that maybe the sketch Rainbow may have been painted from near by; but we can't make the case (yet?). If we could make that case, it would strengthen the case for this one

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For a detailed account of our search for this sketching location, see The Cliff at Tarn Lake; View from a Height.

This location is about — but less than — a day's travel from Achray. It is conceivable that someone who was very physically fit could execute a sketch at this location as a day trip from the Out-Side-In but it would be a very gruelling day.

In Petawawa Gorges, Spring

This sketch had us stumped for a long time. The pencil inscription on the reverse has been attributed to Dr. James MacCallum and reads, in part, Ice still present toward middle of April. Painted near mouth of Petawawa from Achray, Grand Lake. We couldn't recognize it as a location around Grand Lake nor in the canyon. What does near mouth of Petawawa from Achray mean? Where the Petawawa River flows into the Ottawa? Where the Barron River flows into the Petawawa? Where Carcajou Creek flows into Carcajou Bay? Where Clemow Lake drains into Grand Lake? Where the Barron River flows out of Grand Lake? This view didn't seem to match any of them. However, we have recently concluded that this scene is along the channel that drains the Spectacle Lakes and that flows into Carcajou Creek just where it flows into Carcajou Bay. It seems reasonable to assume that Carcajou Creek could have been considered as the upper reaches of the South Branch of the Petawawa River. (However, the name Karkishoo — Carcajou — was contemporary in Thomson's time.)

In Petawawa Gorges Spring
Narrows between Carcajou Creek and Lower Spectacle Lake

(photo by Diana: 2015-06-26 - map - explore

The narrows between Carcajou Creek and Lower Spectacle Lake looking towards Lower Spectacle Lake. While it may not be obvious from the photograph, we are reasonably convinced that this is the location of the sketch. We returned to this spot in early 2016 but were unable to get a more convincing photo. It is difficult to envision these cliff faces without their tree cover.

(Not obvious from the photo is that there is a small bay behind the near cliff on the far shore as in the sketch. Also, in Thomson's time there may have been a dam at Carcajou Falls and thus the water level depicted in the sketch could differ from the modern level. This photo was taken from our canoe; the sketching location is more likely up on the shore.)

This location is consistent with MacCallum's description of the location. By "Petawawa", MacCallum no doubt meant the Barron River which was then known as the South Branch of the Petawawa River. The modern convention is that the Barron River flows out of Clemow Lake into Grand Lake. However, it is not a big stretch to believe that MacCallum was referring to Carcajou Creek as the Petawawa since it is a larger watercourse than the Clemow Lake drainage. The watercourse between Carcajou Falls and Lower Spectacle Lake is not on Carcajou Creek, but is "near" its mouth.

This location is about two hours from Achray by canoe. That assumes of course that Grand Lake and Carcajou Bay are ice free. If not, then access to this location becomes an issue.

Algonquin Park Vista

Algonquin Park Vista

This sketch is believed to have been painted in 1916 which would suggest that its location is in the general vicinity of Achray. The landscape elements of the picture — foreground wetland/creek with somewhat distant relatively large hills — suggests that it was somewhere along the MacDonald Creek/Carcajou Creek system looking north with the background hills being the line of hills south of Clemow Lake, Grand Lake, Stratton Lake, etc. We interpret the sketch as depicting a landscape essentially denuded of large trees.

On Carcajou Creek in Algonquin Park

(photo by Bob: 2015-07-27 - map - explore

This view is looking north on Carcajou Creek from somewhat south of the mouth of McDonald Creek. The background hills, mid distant trees and foreground marsh provide a reasonable match to those in the sketch.

We suspect that the sketch is from this general area, but the exact location is not findable due to the regrowth of the forest. The sketch is from a more elevated position — the photo was taken from the water — but the adjacent hillsides are now all tree-covered and difficult to access. We suspect that the location of our photograph is actually from the creek shown in the foreground of the sketch.

This location is about three hours from the Out-Side-In by Canoe. It is also near the tote road that leads to Basin Depot.

'Log Jam': Sketch for 'The Drive'

Log Jam Sketch for The Drive

The challenge in identifying the location of this sketch is that the logging dam no longer exists. The location needs to be identified on the configuration and shape of the background hill and the river.

This Tom Thomson sketch was painted in 1916 and the studio painting 'The Drive' that winter. The sketch is generally thought to depict a J.R. Booth lumber drive on the 'Petawawa'.

But where exactly? The problem is that at the obvious locations — the foot of Grand Lake or somewhere farther down the South Branch of the Petawawa (Barron River), for example — the background hills don't match. (In particular, for the dam at the foot of Grand Lake, the high hills would be to the left). What is needed is high ground on the right hand shore (looking upstream) and low ground on the left hand shore. Carcajou Creek between Wenda Lake and Carcajou Lake matches this topography; we haven't been able to identify any other location in the Achray area that does. In addition, the background hill has a rather distinctive shape.

Old lumber dam on Carcajou Creek in Algonquin Park

(photo by Diana: 2015-06-25 - map - explore

The remains of an old lumber dam on Carcajou Creek. It is now more of a beaver dam but there is no doubt that it formerly was a lumber dam (rock piles, old spikes, etc.). The 'distinctively shaped hill' is hidden behind the trees on the right.

Carcajou Creek in Algonquin Park between Wenda Lake and Carcajou Lake

(photo by Diana: 2015-06-22 - map - explore

This is the view of the far hill from just upstream of the dam.

Is this the lumber dam depicted in the sketch? We believe that it may be. Most importantly, the background hill is appropriately shaped and is in the correct location relative to the dam. However, a certain amount of 'hand waving' is necessary to make the case. To match the hill to the sketch, you need to assume that Thomson purposely exaggerated the verticality. He may also have exaggerated the height of the dam. This sort of exaggeration to increase the impact of the sketch occurs in several of Thomson's works.

The actual view depicted in the sketch is no longer available; the sketching location is completely overgrown.

This location is less than a day's travel from the Out-Side-In by canoe via the Spectacle Lakes and Carcajou Creek. However, it is too far to comfortably visit as a day trip. Without a knowledge of the tote roads of the time, we can't say if it would have been reachable more efficiently by coming over the hill from Grand Lake.

For the story of our search for this sketch see Trip Log - Achray to Carcajou Lake via Carcajou Creek and Return

Craig Lake on the South River has also been suggested as the location of this sketch. However, the most common suggestion is at the foot of Grand Lake, which we reject.


While Ralph Bice suggested that beavers were scarce when the park was established, they were at least making a comeback in the western part of the park in the early days of the 20th century (see accounts by Macoun and by Morris, in Garland, 1994)


Ralph Bice, 1980. Along the Trail with Ralph Bice in Algonquin Park, Consolidated Amethyst, Scarborough.

G.D. Garland, ed. 1994. Glimpses of Algonquin, Thirty Personal Impressions From Earliest Times To The Present, The Friends of Algonquin Park, Whitney.

Dennis Reid, ed. 2002. Tom Thomson, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.