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Five Days in Algonquin Park: Day 3 - Paddling Canoe Lake and Honouring Tom Thomson

Canoe docked at Hayhurst Point on Canoe LakeWe have been to Canoe Lake a bunch of times over the past few years. The historic Portage Store located on the lake is always on our list of places to visit. And, we've spent plenty of time watching others take-off and return from trips to the back country from the store's docks.  But we had never put our own paddles in the water here.
What's the big deal about Canoe Lake? It is a beautiful spot with cottages, campsites and summer camps lining its shores. But it is probably known best for being the location of the mysterious death of famed artist Tom Thomson in 1917.  Some even say that Tom still paddles these waters..... Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the spirit of Tom Thomson is forever remembered on this lake with a stone cairn erected by his friends shortly after his death and a wood totem pole erected in 1930. Both of these memorials are located on a point jutting into the lake, which can only be reached by boat when the lake isn't frozen.

Our interest in Tom Thomson really peaked just over a year ago when I started following  @TTLastSpring on Twitter. He is a real man tweeting as Tom Thomson may have done back in the early 1900's. He's an amazing story-teller and his tweets and blog are educational, entertaining and haunting.  While I had certainly heard of Tom Thomson, it was this Twitter account that really brought the story to life for me, Alex, and Emma as we shared Tom's story with her. In fact, it was on the shore of Canoe Lake last year that we first told Emma the story of his fateful last paddle.

So, now that the whole family is hooked on the story of  the famous painter we made sure that this year's fall trip to Algonquin would be the time we finally get out on Canoe Lake to visit the Thomson memorial cairn located on Hayhurst Point a short paddle away from the Portage Store put-in.

Historical plaque at Canoe Lake

We had the perfect day for it. The sky was a crisp, autumn blue and the breeze was slight. As we paddled away from the docks at The Portage Store, I wondered what the shoreline looked like in 1917. We paddled past cottages and a summer camp, closed and quiet until next summer's campers bring it back to life.
The docks at Canoe Lake

The paddle to the cairn took us an unhurried 45 minutes or so. I thought I'd try my hand at sitting in the stern of the canoe this time. For the non-paddlers out there, that means I was in charge of steering our boat.  It also means that the trip probably should have taken about 30 minutes, if the person steering the canoe was able to keep the boat going in a straight line.

Thirty (or more) minutes of paddling on Canoe Lake on a beautiful fall day really isn't a hard task. We found our destination easily, with two small docks resting in the lake for visitors to the cairn. After pulling our canoe up on the shore to leave room for any other visitors that came along, we made the easy climb up a ridge to the memorial site.

Visiting Tom Thomson memorial cairn and totem pole, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park

The totem pole was a surprise to me. I knew of the cairn and had seen pictures of it, but had no idea about this colourful marker.  We found out about that memorial when we arrived at the site. Interestingly, the totem pole has a loose connection to my hometown.  Frank Braucht, the man who oversaw its erection in 1930 was a teacher at a high school here in Guelph.

Before we left home, Alex prepared a list of geocaches to find in in the park. The totem pole and cairn provide the location for a geocaching "Earthcache" that we planned on finding and logging on this trip.  An Earthcache requires a geocacher to observe the surroundings at the posted coordinates and answer some questions to claim the cache.  There is no actual geocache treasure at the site.

So, we paid our respects to Mr. Thomson, admired the cairn and totem pole, solved the earthcache and then spent a little extra time looking for a geocache that didn't actually exist on the site.  I'm glad Alex figured out he was looking at a description for a cache located somewhere else before I stuck my fingers blindly into spider-web infested holes that really aren't meant for fingers (or geocaches, as it turns out) in the totem pole or nearby outhouse.  I know. Ew.

We also got to know about five chipmunks who had absolutely NO fear of humans. The Algonquin chipmunks are known for being friendly, but these guys were crazy.  We saw one actually run up the leg of another visitor.  Clearly, many visitors to the Point had shared bits of their snacks and lunches with these cute, furry little guardians of the cairn.  But don't let their cuteness or smallness fool you. These critters will bite and it hurts. Just ask Emma. She found out the hard way that sometimes, chipmunks can't tell the difference between a peanut and a little finger-tip.

The trip back to the Portage Store saw a slight rearrangement to the seating chart. With me in the bow and Alex in the stern, it was a faster and straighter paddle. We ventured closer to the closed-for-the-season summer camp and told Emma stories of our own days as young campers and camp counsellors.

The dock at Canoe Lake

When we arrived back at the docks, we felt a great sense of satisfaction. We had finally seen the Tom Thomson cairn, we had solved an earthcache and we had seen the beauty of Canoe Lake.  It was the perfect excuse to head up to the Portage Store restaurant and celebrate with some deep-fried yumminess, cold beverages and entertainment watching back country trippers heading out for their own adventures and tourists trying their hand at paddling this famous Algonquin lake.

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