Nearly a century has passed since some of Canada’s most famous landscape painters rode the rails deep into the wilderness of northern Ontario and defined an iconic style of art. Between 1918 and 1922, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston—members of Canada’s legendary Group of Seven—traveled on the Algoma Central Railway and sketched the rugged hillsides, waterfalls and autumn colors of Algoma, just north of the Great Lakes. They spent their days sketching from canoes and hiking to elevated viewpoints. MacDonald’s “Solemn Land”, Lismer’s “Somber Hill, Algoma”, Harris’ “Algoma Waterfall” and Jackson’s “First Snow, Algoma” are the notable results of this definitive era of painting.
The artists’ journals documented their travels and sense of awe for a landscape that remains much the same today. MacDonald called the Agawa Canyon—the jumping off point for a classic overnight whitewater canoe trip on the Agawa River, which flows into Lake Superior—“the original site of the Garden of Eden…a little Yosemite.”
With the railway’s blessing, the painters repurposed a red boxcar as a mobile studio, complete with a stove, bunks, furniture and a canoe and hand-pump railcar for their sketching missions. “A car to live in, eat in, and work out of,” enthused Harris in a 1918 letter to his friend MacDonald. Many of the paintings displayed in the Group of Seven’s breakout exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920 were inspired by their “boxcar trips.”
Today, many Group of Seven painting sites can be easily identified in the 500-foot-deep Agawa Canyon. Bridalveil Falls, the subject of works by Harris and MacDonald, is easily visible from the windows of the passenger train. Canoeists can paddle right up to the cascade, which tumbles from the canyon rim, for a more intimate glimpse. Just downstream, opposite the tracks on the Agawa River’s infrequently visited east shore, are the remains of a logging camp. Inscriptions on rocks suggest loggers and their families used the camp in the Group of Seven era.
For all their exploration of the Agawa, it seems like the painters missed the river’s greatest highlight. The 80-foot plume of Agawa Falls spills into a rockbound gorge, bathed in perpetual mist. Today, it’s the scenic reward for paddlers (the falls is bypassed via a steep 500-metre portage) and hikers on the Towab Trail.