BY CONOR MIHELL Nearly a century has passed since a collective of landscape painters rode the rails deep into the wilderness of northern Ontario and defined an iconic, uniquely Canadian 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 in boxcars to access rugged hillsides, waterfalls and autumn colors of Algoma, just north of the Great Lakes. They spent their days sketching from canoes and camped out on chilly spring and fall nights. 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." Things are poised to change this year. Last fall, the Canadian government quietly withdrew its $2.2 million annual funding for passenger trains on the Algoma Central Railway; and in late January, rail giant CN, the ACR line operator, announced it would terminate the service this spring.
Yet the passenger train is essential for canoeists and whitewater kayakers looking to access some of the best wilderness paddling in the Midwest. The decision impacts numerous outfitters, cottagers, as well as distinguished outdoor adventurers and photojournalists Gary and Joanie McGuffin, who are in the midst of a six-year project to rediscover and photograph the exact locations of the Group of Seven paintings. Along with art historian Michael Burtch, the McGuffins are currently working on a documentary about their work with Toronto-based White Pine Pictures. "This project is unique in that so few places in the world can boast of a landscape that has remained relatively pristine throughout the past century of industrialization and urbanization," wrote Burtch and the McGuffins in a letter to Canadian transportation minister Lisa Raitt. Efforts spearheaded by the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains have pressured the government into considering a funding extension to develop a long-term solution for the ACR passenger train. "The photographic record that we have created of over 100 sites attests to the remarkable preservation of these iconic places," continued Burtch and the McGuffins. "Accessibility to many of these sites is possible only by rail, as was the case in the years that the Group of Seven made history here."