Grasping the Magnificence

Prospecting for painting sites has been a great way to experience this singularly gorgeous area of Algoma.

It was the promise of a wild and ruggedly beautiful wilderness that brought Canada’s Group of Seven to Algoma and the North Shore of Lake Superior. Although that was close to 100 years ago, many of the places they visited remain as they did when they were first painted. Revisiting places depicted by Canada’s famous group of painters is a great way to appreciate their art and a conduit towards grasping the magnificence of Northern Ontario. It’s also an excellent way to capture some Moments of our own.

james smedley port coldwell

(See Lawren Harris' Coldwell Bay, North of Lake Superior c. 1923 here to compare the two images.)

Many areas are actually quieter now than when they were painted. I recently flew with Wilderness Helicopters over the near-deserted fishing village of Port Coldwell. When it was painted by Lawren Harris in 1923, it was a busy fishing port that also serviced the coal-burning engines of the Canadian National Railway. Today, there are clearings and the remains of boats and docks that point to a busy past, but it’s the distinctive wooded hills that enveloped the sheltered cove that remain as captivating as ever.

Back on the ground, my search for Group of Seven painting sites concentrates on the work of A.Y. Jackson. The painter spent time through the 1950s and 60s in the Algoma Region, working out of a cabin on a Lake Superior beach, near Wawa. Each visit resulted in numerous paintings and sketches, and additional works depicting the Wawa area continue to resurface.

So far there are about 20 A.Y. Jackson paintings of the area that I’ve been made aware of, thanks to the research of local Group of Seven enthusiasts like Lake Superior resident Joel Cooper, Naturally Superior Adventures owner David Wells, and local historian Johanna Rowe. Rowe says the inspiration to search out A.Y. Jackson painting locations came from Jim and Sue Waddington, who identified several Wawa area A.Y. Jackson painting sites in their book, Following in the Footsteps of the Group Of Seven.

Prospecting for painting sites has been a great way to experience this singularly gorgeous area of Algoma, and capture some worthwhile Moments of my own.

sandy beach wawa

A.Y. Jackson made many paintings of Sandy Beach. Although the distinctive landforms help to pinpoint the painting sites, replicating the painting in a photograph is difficult because of the changeable beach landscape. Creeks choose varying paths through the sand, accumulations of driftwood come and go, but my trips to Sandy Beach almost always result in something extraordinary.

james smedley waterfall michipicoten bay

There is a particular little creek where the water is funnelled through a rollicking granite waterslide before joining the waters of Lake Superior’s Michipicoten Bay. It is undoubtedly the stretch Jackson painted in a piece called Little Wild River, but extreme light conditions and encroaching forest make it a difficult place to photograph. However, when I turn my focus upstream and discover a delightful waterfall, I come away with another Algoma Moment of my own.

lake superior sunset

Although artistic license was practiced by A.Y. Jackson, his works are usually true to the distinctive landforms depicted. At one particular point of land that we suspect is a painting site, I spend an evening trying to photograph at the same angle and perspective that Jackson had painted. In the end, I run out of light and give up, but not before capturing a Superior sunset over the restless waters of the Big Lake.

james smedley lake near wawa

In searching for the site of a painting called Lake Near Wawa, I was struck by the infinite possibilities. Rather than being discouraging, the prospect of taking a closer look at just a few of the thousands of lakes in the area was a ticket to discovery. Although this image looks nothing like Jackson’s Lake Near Wawa, it was pretty hard to pass by without taking this image.

sandy beach wawa

(See A.Y. Jackson's On the Beach, Wawa, Ontario July 1966 here to compare the two images.)

While some of the twenty A.Y. Jackson painting sites around Wawa remain mysterious, and others look quite different due to changes in the landscape, there are some that look almost exactly as they did when they were painted. After creating an image that looked very much like Jackson’s On The Beach, Wawa, Ontario, I moved around for a different perspective on the scene to create a composition of my own.

james smedley sandy beach lake superior

Using some of the components of the Jackson painting, I created a fetching combination of sand, water, sky and forest.

Exploring the landscape visited by the Group of Seven is more than pinpointing exactly where a particular painting was rendered; it’s about experiencing dramatically beautiful areas of the province. Whether it’s a photograph, a painting, or simply a vivid memory, spending time in the Algoma wilderness means coming home with some valuable Moments of our own.

(All photo credits: James Smedley Outdoors)
About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


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