Trail tourism on Lake Superior

·3 min read

About 100 years ago, renowned Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris and four painterly companions routinely made an arduous autumn trudge to some of Marathon’s highest peaks.

Boarding a train station north of Toronto, they headed north with all their painting and camping gear in tow, which they eventually had to haul through some of the most rugged terrain in Canada.

It was a tough slog in clothing and footwear that was primitive by today’s standards. But the enthusiasm and intrepidness of Harris, who was known as the unofficial leader of the group, undoubtedly saw them through.

Public art galleries and private collections still feature the works that were envisioned in rough sketches on those hikes in the early 1920s in Marathon, as well as other Lake Superior locales, like Port Coldwell.

Though few can capture a colourful landscape like the Group of Seven, many can hike. In Lake Superior’s coastal hills, tourists have begun to discover the wondrous sights that Harris and his colleagues drank in — with better footwear and much lighter gear.

“I don’t think many people realize that these places still exist,” Group of Seven Lake Superior Trail Association project co-ordinator Kirsten Spence said this week.

“It all looks the same (as in Harris’s time) — the islands and the (distinctive) shafts of light” that Harris depicted in his paintings.

One year Harris was inspired by the remains of a significant forest fire, which left the terrain “right down to the bones.”

“He liked the stark, naturalness of the landscape,” said Spence, who noted her association’s friendly relationship with the Toronto-area McMichael art gallery, which features many of the Group of Seven’s most notable paintings.

The non-profit association currently oversees about 35 kilometres of marked trail between Pukaskwa National Park and Lake Superior’s Sturdee Cove just east of Marathon.

Though the association operates on a modest budget of $170,000, it is planning additional “gateway signage” in addition to a small exhibit erected just east of Marathon on Highway 17.

Harris, who sold quite a few paintings and was not adverse to making money, might have been heartened to know that the trails he helped blaze nearly a century earlier might be helping to give local economies a boost.

Spence said so-called “trail tourism,” in which tourists plan a vacation around a series of day hikes, is on the rise.

No less than the Conference Board of Canada weighed in earlier this year in formal fashion.

“Trails are a powerful asset that drives economic development while also preserving our natural heritage,” the board said in a news release.

“The evidence is clear that trails have many benefits for individuals and the economy,” said conference board senior economist Swapna Nair. “The health benefits include improved physical and mental health outcomes due to increased activity levels.

Marathon Mayor Rick Dumas said the economic potential of the town’s link to the Group of Seven mystique justified the municipality spending $60,000 two years in a row to help promote the connection to some of the country’s most celebrated art.

“We had a big (promotional) event planned for Toronto in April 2020, but COVID hit,” Dumas said Wednesday. “We’ll still try and do that, maybe next spring.”

In Marathon alone, locals and tourists alike have easy access to two hiking trails — Peninsula Hill and the aptly-named Painter’s Peak — that feature landscapes that have been immortalized on Group of Seven canvasses.

Spence, a geographical designer by training as well as a life-long traveller, said the Group of Seven’s stomping grounds have become a significant passion.: “It really is one of the nicest places to go for a hike.”

More information is available on the trail association’s website at groupofseventrail.com.

Carl Clutchey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal

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