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The north shore of Lake Superior was a remote paradise for the Group of Seven, the artists whose landscapes established a uniquely Canadian style of painting. The painters gradually extended their sketching missions north from their base in Toronto, discovering near-north wilderness areas like Algonquin and Killarney and then venturing north of Sault Ste. Marie on the Algoma Central Railway.
Lake Superior (Lawren Harris, 1923)
With each journey, the artists’ enthusiasm for the Northern Ontario scenery heightened. In 1922, A.Y. Jackson discovered Port Coldwell, a tiny fishing village on the north shore of Lake Superior, west of present-day Marathon. With no roads servicing the area, Jackson arrived by way of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. As the story goes, the artist had to sweet-talk the engineer into slowing down the train and then leapt out while the cars were still moving. The village was nestled between steep grades and the engineer worried that the train wouldn’t have the power to make the ascent out of the village from a full stop.
The cemetery at Port Coldwell.
Port Coldwell was named after the Scottish foreman of a CPR blasting crew in the 1880s. Once the railway was complete, the village turned its focus on Lake Superior. Rowing and sailing tiny wooden dories, fishermen headed offshore to set nets for lake trout. In 1915, the Nicol brothers established a fishery here to compete with the Booth Fish Company, which for years held a Lake Superior monopoly. It was with these hardscrabble fishermen that Jackson likely first travelled outside of Coldwell’s fjord-like harbor and viewed the open coast.
Jackson’s initial sketches from the Coldwell Peninsula piqued the interest of his colleagues, Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael. The area’s rolling terrain and elevated lookouts—not to mention the smooth curves of Pic Island, looming just offshore—captivated Jackson. The Coldwell peninsula had “a feeling of space, dramatic lighting, the stark forms of rocky hills and dead trees…” And always in the background, noted Jackson, “Lake Superior, shining like burnished silver.”
Jackson’s fine canvases from Coldwell are overshadowed by Harris’ haunting series of Pic Island paintings, which represent some of his finest work. Harris captured the island’s stunning natural architecture beneath Lake Superior’s all-encompassing sky. Paddlers will recognize the spotlight sunrays of Harris’ 1923 classic Lake Superior—a common phenomena foretelling strong winds and changing weather.
Pic Island, Lake Superior (A.Y. Jackson, 1924)
The CP freight trains keep rumbling through nearly a century later, but today Port Coldwell is a ghost town, its fishing heritage a victim of the invasive sea lamprey. Today, the rugged wilderness coastline of Neys Provincial Park is a forgotten gem amongst paddlers, featured on Naturally Superior Adventures’ fully guided Rossport to Hattie Cove sea kayak trip. From the stunning smooth red rock campsite on Foster Island, it’s easy to see why Harris asserted this type of landscape exists “nowhere else in Canada.”