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100 years ago, a young Algonquin Park fire ranger had his first public exhibit with the Ontario Society of Artists. That man was Tom Thomson and, over the course of the next four years, his brushstrokes would defy the critics, enthrall the public, inspire a generation, and redefine Canadian art. Thomson’s emotional, evocative renderings of Algonquin Park are a reflection of his love of the land and his passion for nature. Between 1913 and his untimely death on Canoe Lake in 1917, Thomson produced hundreds of small sketches and oil paintings inspired by his life in Algonquin Park.
One of those paintings, The Jack Pine, would go on to be the most recognized and reproduced piece of art in Canada. Today, you can see The Jack Pine for yourself at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa but for a more poignant encounter, I recommend a visit to Algonquin Park to follow in Thomson’s footsteps and see the real Jack Pine scenery. The park is a wonderful destination for hiking, canoeing, bird watching, and camping, and the opportunity to commune with Thomson makes it the perfect place for a patriotic weekend excursion.
Achray Campground marks the start of the 1.6 kilometer Jack Pine Trail, which leads to the rocky outcrop where Thomson prepared the sketches for his iconic painting. While I laced up my shoes and applied a generous layer of bug spray, I couldn’t help but be amazed that I was so close to such a pivotal scene in Canadian history. I was pleased to find that the trail is well marked and is more of a gentle nature walk than a vigorous hike. There is a short, moderately steep incline at the end of the trail, where the path goes up over an exposed part of the Canadian Shield, but it is otherwise easy to navigate.
Reaching the end of the trail, the woods melted away and the clear blue waters of Grand Lake came into view. Atop the massive boulders of the Canadian Shield, scraggly pine trees grasp to get a foothold in the crevices between the rocks. It’s a very appealing and very pleasing scene, but I couldn’t discern anything that made this location more attractive, more inspiring than any other Grand Lake outcrop. What did Thomson see that I didn’t?
I suddenly grasped that what made Thomson such an incredible artist isn’t that he painted the most extraordinary scenes. What made Thomson so exceptional is that he could see the raw potential and the bespoke beauty of the ordinary. Where I see an attractive lake, he saw gold and vermillion dancing across the sky and reflecting on the water. Where I see scruffy trees, he sees a metaphor for vulnerability and strength among ancient rocks and tenacious new growth. To walk in Thomson’s footsteps is to see the ordinary with an extraordinary imagination. It’s to appreciate the tiny details of everyday beauty, from the slight ripple of wind on the water to the gentle, sloping arch of a tree branch.
The original Jack Pine tree was discovered, long dead, by park rangers in 1970, but a new growth of trees and plants have filled in the gap, a remarkable metaphor for the enduring power of nature. Just as Thomson’s legacy continues to inspire, Algonquin Park does as well.
Filed under: Natural Wonders Tagged: "Algonquin Park", "Algonquin Provincial Park", "Ontario Travel Blog", Jack Pine, National Gallery of Canada, The Jack Pine, tom thompson, turnipseed travel