Home » Visit to Canoe Lake: Tom Thomson’s Grave

Visit to Canoe Lake: Tom Thomson’s Grave

Last weekend, we went up to a friend’s cottage on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park.

You may recognize the name – it’s well known as the lake where Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson mysteriously died at age 42 in July, 1917. He had left to go on a fishing trip, but after only a few hours his canoe was found floating in the lake. It wasn’t until a week or so later that his body was found.

Getting ready to head out. All images: VoCA/Scott Barker

On our way across Canoe Lake.

Thomson, who was a recognized outdoorsman, spent six months of every year in Algonquin Park hunting, fishing and of course painting. He had worked as a guide and fire ranger in the park, so the fact that his death was declared an accidental drowning on what was a apparently a clear and normal day seems unusual. Even at the time, people couldn’t believe it and rumours swirled about suicide and murder.

The gravesite is in Mowat cemetery, about a ten-minute walk into the bush off the west side of the lake. We took my dog, Hudson. You have to go through people’s cottage properties to get there and it’s entirely unmarked. You basically go up an un-maintained grassy road to the first big birch, and take a left into the bush, whereupon a faint trail becomes clear.

Little Wapomeo, the island where his body was found. And my dog, Hudson.

Walking down the main road.

The turnoff into the bush.

Walking through the forest.

After about ten minutes, you arrive at a white picket fenced-in area under an enormously gnarled birch. There are two headstones there, one In Memory of Ja’s Watson, the first white person buried at Canoe Lake the other for a child, Alexander Hayhurst.

And then there’s the question of Thomson’s body.

His family had his body exhumed in two days after its burial at Mowat cemetery and moved to Leith, Ontario. Now it is believed by some that the body was never moved.

Arriving at Mowat Cemetery, with the great birch tree. Image: Scott Barker

Another view of the tree. Image: Scott Barker

According to our friend Jackie, whose family has been on the lake for generations (and whose uncle’s cottage was visited many times by members of the Group), this photo below is where Thompson is actually buried. There is a white cross nearby which is apparently a relic from a CBC documentary.

Where he is said to be actually buried, just several feet from Mowat. Image: Scott Barker

Although Thompson was essentially unschooled as a painter, he was arguably the most impressive of the Group of Seven.

An excellent read about the early days of the Group is the book Defiant Spirits by British Canadian author Ross King. I highly recommend it. You can buy it HERE and read my review HERE.

A great resource for information on the mystery can be found at THIS website.

On the way back to the lake.

Old cottages and buildings along the shore.

A totem pole nearby erected in memory of Thomson.

Another view of Little Wapomeo, where his body was found.

The point where his body was immediately taken for examination by the doctor.

The Jack Pine, 1916-17 is probably Thomsons most famous painting. It’s now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
Image: algonquinartcentre.com

10 Responses to “Visit to Canoe Lake: Tom Thomson’s Grave”

  1. liz pead says:

    Hi Andrea! my next large sclae piece is about Lil’ Wap and Thomson. I did a YouTube fun thing earlier this year with a couple of friends. Currently I am in Baltimore with Keith Bentley, but will be back later this week. I’d love to ‘interview’ you about the scene of the crime. could you work that into your schedule in the next couple of weeks?
    you tube vid…
    keep your stick on the ice,

  2. mom says:

    Thanks Hudson, for taking us on that interesting wilderness walk!

  3. Jeff says:

    Great post! Such a lovely way to illustrate a story many have heard about. Thank you!

  4. SD says:

    Thanks for the post. Seeing photos of the territory that Thompson painted is a treat. Nice birch, there is an alder tree at Skedans that must be of similar age.

  5. ChrisToronto says:

    Great story, great photos. You’re lucky to have gotten away. Hudson looks happy.

  6. Val says:

    I like to walk in a park of McMichael gallery, you feel, like you in the middle of nowhere, but it is only 30 minutes drive from downtown Toronto. I didn’t know about Group of seven cemetery, passing almost every day. Landscape work was done in the park this summer, finally you can see the cemetery, and enjoy the new sculptures park too.

  7. Pamela Thomson says:

    His name was Thomson.

    We Thomson’s are very sensitive about the addition of an unwanted “p” !!

  8. Go Home Lake says:

    For the most recent (and seminal) story of Tom Thomson, check out Roy MacGregor’s book:
    Northern Light. The epilogue describes his recent visit to the lake and his hike into the Mowat cemetary on Canoe Lake. It is an extremely well documented and well written non fiction book . A great read.

  9. Mike Alexander says:

    I visit Algonquin Park every year with my daughters, this year we decided to visit the grave site of Tom Thomson. We were told we would need to take a canoe and a map of sorts was produced, this would be our second outing in a canoe and we were a little concerned at how far we would have to paddle and how deep the water was. Needless to say we did not make it but a very kind cottager told us we could drive part of the way then go on foot. We started off and found the old road and had to walk after encountering a locked gate, this we also abandoned as it was getting late in the afternoon and we were ill equipped for a walk in the bush. We hope to complete the journey at a later date, we were somewhat amazed that there were no directions and our questions were met with some reticence as if the whole area was off limits. I am currently researching a map so that we may walk in and find Toms grave site, if anyone has details I would appreciate hearing from them.

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