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Rail, river and canvas: A trip into Canadian art history on the Algoma Central Railway

Writer Conor Mihell holds a small print of Algoma Waterfall – a painting of Bridal Veil Falls by J.E.H. MacDonald – in front of the real falls on the Agawa River.

Aaron Peterson/Aaron Peterson/

The title of the Lawren Harris painting is ambiguous, but the view from a canoe on the Agawa River lays to rest any doubt about its location. Algoma Waterfall can only be a picture of Bridal Veil Falls, a multitiered cascade plunging 70 metres from the rim of the Agawa Canyon. We rest our paddles to examine a postcard-size reproduction of Harris's 1927 canvas and a similar 1920 work by J.E.H. MacDonald. Except for a few bits of ice clinging to the granite cliff, there is no difference in the scene today from when the Group of Seven explored and immortalized this region nearly a century ago.

Earlier in the morning, my wife and I had loaded our canoe into an Algoma Central Railway boxcar in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and travelled 180 kilometres north to a remote whistle stop that is best known for being the destination of thousands of fall-colour sightseers on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. The train's unheralded sibling is a no-frills passenger service that runs three times weekly in each direction across the heart of Northern Ontario, from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, making unscheduled stops to drop off and pick up outdoor enthusiasts at wilderness lakes, rivers and outpost lodges anywhere along the line; it also transports all the required boats and gear for adventures.

We unload at Canyon Station in the early afternoon. The train disappears and we pack our canoe with overnight gear and head downstream on the Agawa River. Before boarding the train, we shuttled a vehicle to the mouth of the river at Lake Superior, along the Trans-Canada Highway. We'll paddle 30 kilometres through the white-pine-cloaked, 200-metre-deep river valley, running whitewater rapids, portaging around chutes and falls, and camping out for the night in the backcountry of Lake Superior Provincial Park. Along the way, we'll catch more glimpses of Canadian art history in the flesh.

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From 1918 to 1922, Harris, MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston used this same service to venture north on the then recently created Algoma Central Railway to paint the rugged scenery east of Lake Superior. They spent their days sketching from canoes and high rocky vistas and then compared notes while camped out in boxcars on chilly spring and fall nights. MacDonald's The Solemn Land, Lismer's Sombre Hill, Algoma, Harris's Algoma Hills and Jackson's First Snow, Algoma, are the notable results of this definitive era of painting.

"To talk about the Group of Seven's work in Algoma is sort of like talking about Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel," says Michael Burtch, a past curator and director of the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie. "It's the area that defined their style."

Since 2009, Mr. Burtch and local adventurers and authors Gary and Joanie McGuffin have been riding the train in search of the original locations of Group of Seven paintings. When they find the exact site of a painting, Mr. McGuffin, a professional photographer, frames the scene in a photograph proportional to the artist's original canvas. Because parts of the landscape have been altered by logging and hydroelectric development, the project has involved identifying how scenes have changed over time, and poring over painters' journals and letters for clues on directions to specific sites. Despite the challenges, they have found about 60 locations so far.

Mr. McGuffin was especially struck by MacDonald's response to the landscape along the Algoma railway line, particularly the dramatic Agawa Canyon. "He was obviously overwhelmed," he says. "In his letters home, he called it 'the original site of the Garden of Eden' and 'a little Yosemite.' "

Whether you have the time and inclination only for a daylong ride on the recently updated Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which now features interpretive commentary, rotating seats, expansive windows and flat-screen monitors that provide passengers with an "engineer's-eye view," or a backcountry trip, Algoma country remains inspiring today. The impressive railway trestle at Montreal River, just south of Agawa Canyon, overlooks the scene of two MacDonald masterpieces – The Solemn Land and Falls, Montreal River – both of which are visible from the train. Bridal Veil Falls and Black Beaver Falls can also be viewed from the train or trails in the canyon; the tour-train experience includes an hour-long layover for exploring Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park.

On this spring day on the Agawa River, we negotiate exciting rapids and drift in pools beneath the towering canyon walls. The river's pace becomes more frenetic about halfway to Lake Superior, and we're forced to portage a wild chute where loggers once sluiced timber on annual spring lumber drives. Then we carefully paddle to the head of the portage trail around the Agawa's Hetch Hetchy – a 25-metre falls that pours into a mist-cloaked and ice-rimmed cauldron of granite.

We make camp and finish the portage the next morning, marvelling at the fact that the falls goes unnoticed by most tourists (as well as the Group of Seven). From here, the canyon walls slowly peel back and the river runs fast all the way to Lake Superior.

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If you go

To Sault Ste. Marie by air

Porter Airlines and Air Canada fly to Sault Ste. Marie daily.

Algoma Central Railway

From its headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie, the railway's daylong Agawa Canyon Tour Train departs daily from June 21 to Oct. 10 (adult fares $79 to $99). Passenger service is offered year-round, with northbound coaches departing Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday, Saturday and Monday (adult fares vary from $20.95 to $150.45; shipping charges for canoes is additional).; 800-242-9287

Agawa River

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Near-continuous whitewater and several difficult portages make this overnight canoe trip suitable for experienced paddlers only. Water levels are best in mid-to-late May, and occasionally in the fall. Backcountry camping permits are $10 a person a night from Lake Superior Provincial Park (; 705-856-2284). Guided trips are available from Naturally Superior Adventures (; 800-203-9092).

Art History

Sault Ste. Marie's Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains is offering interpretive Group of Seven art history train tours on the weekend of Sept. 17 (

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