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The pattern of his life changed: there were no longer the regular summer trips and winter studio work. He stayed in Prout's Neck through the summer and wintered in Nassau and Cuba. On a southern trip taken for his father's health, Homer found superb bass fishing and fine scenery for watercolors on Florida's St. Johns River. Meanwhile, the Adirondacks had been set aside as the New York Forest Preserve and fishing and hunting clubs proliferated on privately owned tracts surrounded by state-held wilderness. One of these was the North Woods Club, of which his brother Charles was among 20 charter members. It was a modest club by the standards of the time, owning only 5,000 acres, including eight ponds. The land was acquired by North Woods for $40 and a wagon.
On his visits Homer fished steadily for trout and pike, and a fern-bordered spring on the shore of Mink Pond soon became known as Homer's Spring because he used it to dull his liquor. Members of the club were expected to list their catches on the club record, but Homer rarely did. One July day in 1891 he jotted down "killed five trout," and a year later he made another laconic note, "killed seven trout." What prompted these particular listings is unknown.
In the winter of 1890 he was in Florida, completing his airy, luminous, light-suffused St. Johns River landscapes and the familiar Bass Fishing, Florida. About that time Homer heard of sportsmen moving into Quebec, where the big fish were still to be found.
The Tourilli Club, largely composed of Canadians, leased 355 square miles, including the east and west branches of the Ste. Anne River, the Tourilli River, and all lakes and rivers to which these two were sources. Membership was limited to 50, with an entrance fee of $250 and annual dues of $50.
The clubhouse itself was made of spruce logs, with an enormous stone chimney, a sizable living room, and rooms for 20 guests and 16 guides. The club kept 60 canoes and boats on its lakes and streams, put in 40 or 50 miles of new trails each year and kept kennels of spaniels for the fall partridge shooting. The clubhouse stood on the spur of a mountain overlooking the Ste. Anne and the mountains on the opposite shore. Five- and six-course meals, with coffee on the clubhouse veranda, were served by Mme. Lessard, the steward's wife, a cook whose reputation and recipes reached far beyond the wilderness.
It was too civilized, Winslow Homer found after he had joined. There were those American members—Rockefellers, Roosevelts and Saltonstalls—so after a short time Homer moved on to the extreme limits of the club's enormous property to Lake Tourilli itself where a small lodge had been built. Lodge-building was a major undertaking because all windows, doors, sashes, nails and furniture had to be hauled over the trail, a job requiring 24 men. Homer made his way there by the Ste. Anne, being poled upriver by expert canoemen. The alternative was to walk along trails through the birch forest and then make a portage, a six-mile climb over two mountain ranges. A one-way trip took three days, with one night at Lake Cache and the next at Lake Rond. Because of the steep bluffs above the river, the shadows on the Ste. Anne came about two hours before sunset and the fishing was good at that time. The Tourilli Club property was so large it was possible for a wandering fisherman like Homer to find lakes that were uncharted.
In 1897 he returned to Lake St. John, where George Van Felson had guided him. To reach it he took a steamer from Quebec 150 miles down the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Saguenay, just opposite the northernmost point of Maine. About a hundred miles up the Saguenay was the town of Chicoutimi, near where the Ha Ha River flowed into Ha Ha Bay in the heavily wooded Laurentian Highlands. Immense dark headlands rose 1,500 feet above the Saguenay itself. This is the landscape which appears in his Three Men in a Canoe, a still, shadowy half-twilight world of massive bluffs and smooth water, the small figures vital and alive against a background of nature remote, powerful, and yet not inhospitable to mankind. Above Chicoutimi the river changed character drastically, dropping in almost continuous falls and rapids from its source on Lake St. John. The lake was in virtually uninhabited country, and when Homer first visited it he wrote, "This place suits me as if it were made for me by a kind of providence."
There he caught trout and ouananiche, a landlocked salmon. His acclaimed Fishing the Rapids, Saguenay, is one of half a dozen fine works he painted there: a big, flat-topped rock in midriver, a background of blue-green haze, the violent spray and turbulent white water, blue and orange-flecked in the foreground, the small dark figure of the fisherman on the rock casting downstream. Homer did not paint the fishing line that is barely visible in the air. He took the pointed end of his brush and scratched the curve of the line through the paint.
The river poured from the lake through Grande D�charge and Petite D�charge, scenes that Homer rendered again and again: Entering the First Rapid, Under the Falls, Grand Discharge, Shooting the Rapids, Canoe in the Rapids, Trip to Chicoutimi. He could never tire of the visual paradox of his white-water canoe scenes, the violence and tumult of nature allied with the certainty or concentrated composure of the men in canoes.
In 1903 Homer wintered in Key West and found at Homosassa Springs in Florida what he called the best fishing in America. A village of some 200 population located 80 miles north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, Homosassa was unchanged since pre-Civil War days, aside from the building of an inn in 1882. The Crystal River, fed by Homosassa Springs—55 feet deep, 150 feet wide, pouring out six million gallons an hour—always held fish, some 30 saltwater species making their way nine miles up the river to the spring. Homer rarely wrote letters, but now he enthusiastically sent word to his family of the species he was catching, listing channel bass, trout, black bass and sheepshead. In 1904 he produced two masterpieces there, Homosassa River and The Shell Heap. He had a notion of a different kind of picture—a watercolor of a fish that he said made him think of "a new $20 gold piece." The result was Channel Bass, a hooked fish shooting through blue water above a bottle-littered bottom.