An aerial view taken from a Sault Academy of Flight airplane shows the Algoma region. Heather Triplett / HANDOUT
“We found that, at times, there were skies over the great Lake Superior which, in their singing expansiveness and sublimity, existed nowhere else in Canada.”
—Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, reflecting on his time in Algoma Country in the 1920s.
Much time has passed since Lawren Harris spoke those words, but his reverence for the great inland sea are easily matched by those who live there today.
Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Algoma, 1918, oil on paperboard, 26.6 x 33.6 cm, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Jackson, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1972.16 / HANDOUT
“You can see why the Group of Seven painted this area,” says Wawa historian Johanna Rowe, whose love and knowledge of the region was passed down from a family of Algoma history buffs. “Walking on the trails, you see wide vistas, beautiful beaches and spectacular sunsets. The waves and the sunlight are always changing, and you get a totally different view and experience by turning your head, just like they did when they were painting.”
Algoma Country is a rugged wilderness along the northern shores of Lake Huron and up the eastern shore of Lake Superior, north of Sault Ste. Marie. It looks much the same today as when Harris was first enchanted by it, around 1918, soon after the opening of the Algoma Central Railway.
The painters would take the train as this was the only way to access the wilderness. They then had a boxcar stationed in the backcountry and slept there overnight. At different times, the boxcar was stationed at the Agawa River, Hubert Lake and Batchawanan Bay. They also had a hand rail cart, called a velocipede, that could take them farther into the forest to paint, and back to their boxcar camp at night.
J.E.H. MacDonald (1873–1932), Agawa River, Algoma, 1919, oil on paperboard, 21.6 x 26.6 cm, Gift of Mr. R.A. Laidlaw, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1966.15.14 / HANDOUT
The endless sky, powerful waters, rugged rock formations, and richness of colour gave Harris and his peers the raw materials to bring the stunning images of Northern Ontario to the rest of the world.
“Lake Superior is magnificent, challenging, tumultuous, calm, and beautiful,” says David Wells, owner of both Rock Island Lodge, which offers photography and creative arts workshops and the affiliated Naturally Superior Adventures, which provides kayak and canoe trips. “The Lake Superior scenery is stunning with its long uncrowded beaches and waterfalls, and I am always amazed by the powerful exposed Canadian bedrock.”
Travelling in the Group of Seven’s footsteps
The Group of Seven was formed in Toronto in 1920, and its original members were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley. An early trip to Algoma Country had a profound effect on several of the members and their work continued to evolve over the following decades.
Many 21st-century travellers marvel at how the Group of Seven discovered Algoma’s treasures. They reached their destinations by rail and boat, exploring further by hiking and paddling to more remote areas, often camping and living off the land.
Lawren S. Harris (1885–1970), Sentinels, c. 1926, oil on paperboard, 30.5 x 38.1 cm, Gift of the Family in Memory of Helen O'Reilly, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1980.9, © Family of Lawren S. Harris / HANDOUT
On the road
A road trip along the coast of Lake Superior offers plenty to discover. Starting in Sault Ste. Marie, a visit to the Art Gallery of Algoma — a kick-off point for the region — is highly recommended for its Group of Seven collection and its regular painting workshops. The gallery is planning an exhibit of Franklin Carmichael’s work starting in October 2021.
Visitors to Sault Ste. Marie also can see a replica of the famous boxcar where the Group of Seven lived during this time at the Machine Shop on the former St. Mary’s paper site. The replica was made for the award-winning documentary A Painted Land — In Search of the Group of Seven.
Heading north of Sault Ste. Marie, you can see many sites the Group of Seven painted, such as Chippewa Falls, where A.Y. Jackson captured these rapids around 1955 in his sketch, Streambed, Lake Superior Country.
A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Lake Superior Country, 1924, oil on canvas, 117 x 148 cm, Gift of Mr. S. Walter Stewart, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1968.8.26 / HANDOUT
If you are looking for Group of Seven reproductions and art inspired by the Algoma region, stop at the Trading Post at Voyageurs Lodge and Cookhouse, which overlooks Batchawana Bay. Just south of Wawa, stop at Lake Superior Provincial Park to take in the rugged wilderness of the area and check out many of the marked locations where the Group of Seven painted some of their recognizable landscapes. At the Visitor’s Centre, you can view a Group of Seven display including a replica of the handcart they used along the train tracks to get further into the woods to paint.
From there, the route from Wawa to White River then Pukaskwa National Park, and along the top of Lake Superior, has interpretive panels displayed that shed light on the artists and the landscapes they captured in their works.
You can also go southeast of Sault Ste. Marie, along the northern coast of Lake Huron, to Bruce Mines. There, an installation tells the interesting story of Tom Thomson’s adventures during a visit to the area. Not a member of the Group of Seven, but considered a strong inspiration to them, Thomson is believed to have painted View Over a Lake with Houses, here, and the installation includes of replica of the famous painting.
Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lake Superior, 1926, watercolour on paper, 28.5 x 34.2 cm, Gift of Mrs. R.G. Mastin, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1987.2.3 / HANDOUT
For those who wish to head further northeast of Bruce Mines, there is a monument erected near Aubrey Falls in memory of Thomson. Along the scenic drive from Bruce Mines to Aubrey Falls, you can view some of the breathtaking scenery Thomson saw as he paddled the Mississagi River in 1912.
As far as the eye can see
Sault Academy of Flight is a flying school but you don’t need to sign up for lessons to enjoy all they have to offer. The school’s 2.5-hour sightseeing flights can take you on a number of routes within range of the Sault Ste. Marie airport.
“From up in the sky, you get an incredible idea of the power of nature, these great uninhabited expanses,” says owner Anne-Marie Hollingsworth.
“The natural beauty is astounding and the flight gives you an idea of how far into the wilderness the Group of Seven travelled to create their art.”
Historian Johanna Rowe is a local expert on A.Y. Jackson. She offers visitors to Algoma Country the chance to explore the area with a walking tour in Wawa, Ont. that follows in A.Y. Jackson’s footsteps. Drawing on local diaries and journals and inspired by Jackson’s trips by foot and boat in the 1950s and 60s, Rowe invites visitors to go where A.Y. Jackson walked, see the world through his eyes and look at the scenes, so many years later, that he depicted in his most famous paintings. For example, fans of Jackson’s Falls on the Magpie can visit the Silver Falls on the Magpie River and stand right where he would have sat to paint.
Falls on the Magpie, by A.Y. Jackson, permission courtesy of M. Pollard. / HANDOUT
On the water
Naturally Superior Adventures is a launch point for those who want to discover the Lake Superior region by water. The lodge is open this summer and offers sea kayak trips and stand up paddle boarding.
The Jack Fish to Hattie Cove trip takes visitors to important north shore painting locations, including Pic Island made famous by Lawren Harris. The ghost town of Jack Fish was a favourite haunt of Harris and Carmichael, with Harris focused on the gentle curves of St. Patrick Island, and Carmichael on the then-bustling village.
This area wasn’t only an inspiration to the Group of Seven painters, but to (pianist) Glenn Gould, among other artists, says Wells. “To spend time here is to understand how the land inspires.”
While the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, a one-day scenic train ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Agawa Canyon Park is not running in 2020 due to COVID-19, it is a popular experience and you may wish to consider it for a 2021 trip.
This year, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Group of Seven, some of Canada’s most celebrated artists. Travellers can experience the Group of Seven’s spectacular works of art in galleries across Ontario. Check with individual galleries regarding current operating times. Those near the Toronto area can use this itinerary to find gems to visit within the city. Follow this itinerary to discover notable Group of Seven related locations in Algoma Country, Sault Ste. Marie and the North Shore of Lake Superior.
For more on all these attractions and more, including additional itineraries that you can follow on your trip, visit GroupofSevenContinues.ca.
Ontario encourages everyone to travel safe during this time and follow public health guidelines. It is important to practice physical distancing, frequent hand washing and wearing a non-medical face covering where required or where physical distancing is a challenge.
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