Climbing the Big Hill across from Achray on Grand Lake
In search of Tom Thomson

An account of ascending the big hill across from Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park to verify the painting location of the Tom Thomson sketch "View from the Top of a Hill". This painting depicts three lakes: we believe them to be Grand Lake, Sratton Lake and Johnston Lake.

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).

The big hill across from Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Bob: 2014-05-07 - map - explore

The big hill across from Achray on Grand Lake in the spring before leaf-out (as seen from near the Barron River outflow). There is lots of bare rock on the south east face.

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.

On the shore of Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Bob: 2014-08-27 - map - explore

Richard consulting one of his guide books before our attempt to climb the hill. Richard is always game for whatever we suggest, especially when it's a little different from the usual.

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

(photo by Bob: 2014-08-27 - map - explore

Climbing the hill. The climb was quite steep in places but there are many areas of open exposed bedrock. There was certainly evidence of others exploring this area -- rock cairns, and even a birdhouse hanging from a tree -- but there were no obvious trails.

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.

climbing a tree atop the big hill across from Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Bob: 2014-08-27 - map - explore

Since the view was obstructed, there seemed little choice but to try to get higher. Bob doesn't think he's climbed a tree in well over 40 years -- the last time was probably back at university, late at night, after a few drinks ... But that's a story for another time.

However, Richard had no issues with a "responsible" sixty-something-year-old going tree climbing.

Unfortunately, even from up the tree there was little to see.

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.

The pier at Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

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

The hill as seen from the pier at Achray.

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

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

Diana scrambling up the hill.

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

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

Bob making his way through one of the many juniper patches. He should have worn his gaiters.

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

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

Not all of the climb was on open rock. However, even in the treed areas, the bush was relatively open; there isn't a lot of soil up there. Most of the deciduous trees were red oak, as befitting a dry environment. Further when we did reach the top, we found that the drought of 2012 had noticeably thinned out the vegetation.

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.

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

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

View to the south. The mouth of Carcajou Bay opens to the left and then it zigs and zags -- one zig, one zag -- into the far distance, hidden by the trees and hills.

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

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

We continued our traverse, avoiding losing altitude. This photo is representative of the terrain -- bare rock or rock with a thin veneer of of grass and moss, junipers, and scattered small oak trees growing in the deeper pockets of soil. Many of the oaks and some evergreens were dead, probably killed by the drought of 2012.

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

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

This location afforded a view to the southeast. Here Bob photographs Stratton Lake in the distance. This is essentially the view in the painting.

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

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

A slightly closer view without Bob.

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

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

Taking some bearings from the map. While we "knew" we were close to the right location, nothing is ever entirely straightforward and a few details -- such as a missing lake -- needed clarifying.

Here is the painting:

View from Top of a Hill by Tom Thomson

() 

"View from the Top of a Hill" by Tom Thomson (1916)

Here is the map (the dot indicates the assumed painting location):

map  Grand Lake Stratton Lake Johnston Lake

(explore

map

Here is the corresponding photograph:

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

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

Photograph of the scene depicted in Tom Thomson's painting "View from the Top of a Hill".

And back to the painting:

View from Top of a Hill by Tom Thomson

() 

"View from the Top of a Hill" by Tom Thomson (1916)

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.

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

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

This photograph is a closer view of Johnston Lake from the assumed painting location. In the middle distance, the far shore of Johnston lake is just visible, showing as a roughly horizontal line amongst the trees. The intervening tree tops, obscure the lake itself.

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

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

This view is a little more to the left of the previous one and shows a glimpse of Berm Lake beyond the east beach at Achray. (The Achray pier can be seen to the left in the photo). For Berm Lake, the width of the obscuring line of trees is less than for Johnston Lake.

(The hills faintly visible on the far horizon are on the northern edge of the Ottawa Bonnechere Graben. They are about 50km distant and lie north west of Allumette Lake.)

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

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

A closer view of Stratton lake as seen from the assumed painting location on the south east face of the hill across from Achray. The railway line is hidden in the trees between Grand and Stratton Lakes.

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

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

Heading back down, mission accomplished. However, we will probably return to the top of the hill; it is a beautiful location.

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.

Notes

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.