Is it possible that every piece of art, every family story and every slice of our combined heritage has its ups and downs? That’s just life! So, it should come as no surprise that the life story of the carvings we know as Topple Art is not without some difficulty. Certainly, this much-loved piece of the Hawks is worth it!
While true totem poles are made by Tlingit and Haida carvers of the Northwest Pacific Coast First Nations[i], the one that stands at the Narrows between Big and Little Hawk Lake is also a huge source of pride for our lake community. At the outset it is important to recognize that the art installation known as the Totem Pole on the Hawks was never intended to be an insult to the Tlingit or Haida Native Peoples. In fact, as Brook O’Halloran, who is of Nipissing First Nations descent said, it seems like the artists who first made this, wanted to celebrate this indigenous art form. Others might say it is a bit like sitting on the shoreline and creating an Inuksuk[ii] with the kids and then telling them all about why the Inuit make these markers in their native land.
George Topple Sr and his brother-in-law Michael Cubitt were merely looking for something to do during a week-long holiday in 1958 with a log that had floated up on the nearby shore. Michael Cubitt was by all accounts an artist. As George Topple Jr described him, no one matched his artwork. At the time of the carving of the first totem pole, he worked for Kodak in Rochester NY as a photo engraver.
George Topple Jr also described how his father and Michael Cubitt man-handled the pine log onto the land and that the carving of this original Topple Art was done while the wood was still wet. The carving was done for the most part with a chainsaw. The wings on this first totem pole were carved out of hardwood planks that George Topple Sr. happened to have around the place. The head was the body of an apple tree. From the photo below you can see perhaps the eyes of the Topple Hawk at the top of the totem pole. They came from a 1950 Ford and early on they did light up. Likewise, in the early years there was a revolving light that helped to act as a navigation marker. Some folks remember this light had a wire that reached all the way back to the Topple cottage.
Long-time residents of the Hawk Lakes may remember that there had been carved “Creatures” and even a totem pole at “Fisherman’s Paradise”, right by Oakview Lodge[iii]. When asked if that was the inspiration, George Topple Jr. said that he was not certain and perhaps Alpha Warren Pinch’s work[iv] did give Michael Cubitt some ideas. The “Topple Hawk” at the top may have been a take on the Eagle Clan. Certainly, the real elk horn that Michael Cubitt attached to the top of the hawk was his own personal touch. George Topple Jr. related that he called these “goat sticks”. From the photo below one can more clearly see the elk horns as well as the bolts that attached the wings.
The Topple Hawk at the top of the pole was meant to represent this area of the Algonquin Highlands, which is understandable from the point of view that Little Hawk was known in the early 1900’s as Pipikwabi and Big Hawk, Kekkekwabi,[v]kwabi being an indigenous name for hawk. Under the Topple Hawk, Cubitt carved a bear and a frog. It should be noted that contrary to the modern idiom, the “low man on the totem pole” is not of lesser significance to the Tinglat and Haida carvers.
“Interestingly the low end of the Totem Pole is very important. Totem Poles are carved, not by one carver, but by a chief carver and a number of apprentices. The chief carver is well aware that the viewers of a finished upright pole, range in size from 3 feet (children) to about 7 feet (basketball players). So to be certain the Totem Pole looks professional and well-executed, the chief carver personally carves the bottom ten feet of the pole and allows the inexperienced apprentices to carve the higher regions. The most intricate and best carved figures are usually placed on the bottom end with the story thinning out towards the top. Many poles (but certainly not all of them) are topped off with Thunderbird, sort of a generic caper figure, something like a Christmas star, who often has far less meaning than all the carefully thought out symbolic creatures carved into the lower regions. If anything, the lower figures on a Totem Pole are slightly more important.”[vi]
We should be reminded that the Topple Hawk looks over the Hawk lakes and was meant by artist Michael Cubitt and the Topple family, who still own the land at the Narrows, to adorn this piece of land and act as a marker for all those navigating through the Narrows between Big and Little Hawk.
For thirty years that first totem pole art, done by Michael Cubitt, stood through all kinds of weather at the Narrows between Big and Little Hawk. Then in a 1988 summer storm, the rotting carved pine gave way, and the beloved art was so destroyed as to be unrecognizable. For several years there was no replacement until, yet another storm brought down a large white pine on the nearby McIvor property in 1995. No doubt there are folks who remember that violent July 15th storm. The good news is that the large white pine was turned into the second Topple Totem Pole artwork in a form similar, if not exactly the same, as the first.
This time the carving was done by Fred Welbourn, a cottager whose place is close to the Narrows, and George Topple Jr’s good friend, Bill Wheeler, who happened to be a retired high school art department head. First, they had to round up a bunch of other cottagers to help get the big pine tree ready to be a log that they could get to the Topple property where it could be carved and later erected. This job took a whole gang of cottagers and quite a bit of effort to move the 1600-pound log down the hillside, avoiding the McIvor outhouse and other obstacles, and then floating it to the Topple property at the Narrows. George Topple Jr. is quoted in The Times Supplement in 1995, describing this part of the job, “It was quite an operation.”
Fred Welbourn was a long-time cottager on Little Hawk, having purchased his property in 1955. His grandson Jay now owns that cottage property and still has in his boathouse a copy of Bill Wheeler’s drawing that Fred and Bill used to carve the second version of the Topple Art.
As reported in The Times supplement[vii], Bill Wheeler says “the designs are all taken from the Haida Tlingit motifs. In the original totem poles, the animals on the pole would represent the clans within the tribe that had carved it. As Andrew Mine reported[viii] when he interviewed the two carvers at work on the Topple property in 1995, Bill pointed to the pole and his design, “you would have had the Eagle clan (the Topple Hawk is of somewhat uncertain species), dominant at the top here, and the bear clan, and the frog clan…. The eagle and the bear, he says, are from the original pole.” He goes on to explain that he couldn’t make out on the old photographs the animal that was at the bottom of the pole, so the frog was his own touch, though also inspired by motifs on authentic poles.
From Fred’s son Craig Welbourn, we know that his dad carved the wings in his basement in Hamilton during the winter. He started by using pine, which is a nice wood for carving, but he quickly realized that the wood would not last, nor would it be strong enough to remain horizontal over time. At that time, one of Craig’s brothers worked in a factory that made skids for steel coils. The skids, of course, had to be strong, so they were made using undressed 2”x12” oak (i.e., a full 2” deep). To support the weight of the steel coils, the boards had to be perfect, so any that had even a hairline crack were discarded. Craig’s brother was able to obtain some of this oak, which his dad then used to carve the wings. And they are still up there strong as ever after all these years!
This may be the upside of the story, or the downside, depending on your point of view!
We also know from the family of Michael Cubitt, that his son Raymond Cubitt received a call in 1996 from George Topple Jr. asking if he would like to carve a replacement head and wings for the totem pole that had gone down in the storm of 1988. Raymond Cubitt was even sent a copy of the Wheeler blueprint. The Cubitt family knew that local fellows were doing the body of this art installation and that Raymond only needed to do the top. For whatever reason that is not what Ray did. Rather he matched the top section to the artwork that his father had originally done.
The Cubitt family did a video of all of Raymond’s many hours of work. No mention is made of the blueprint design. Ray explains in that video the wings were made from a couple of pieces of pressure treated lumber that were carved and joined together and then painted specially to protect from UV rays.
In May of 1997 he brought the wings from where he lived in Spencerport, New York to Canada. The head was carved later from basswood that he had in fact brought from Canada. Ray brought the finished head back to Canada in the late summer of that same year. Supposedly when he crossed the border with this massive head in the car, he was asked by border security what that head was in the front seat, to which he replied, his wife. The border guard no doubt laughed as he waved him through customs.
It was Labour Day weekend in 1997 when a large group came together to help George Topple Jr. and Ray Cubitt and families erect this second version of the totem pole. There was so much excitement around the Hawk lakes that day, that a large crowd gathered to watch the new totem pole go up. Some folks even brought refreshments and snacks for everyone. It was a real party with so much excitement to see this landmark stand tall again. People still talk about that day and will tell you they remember being there. A real emotional moment in the heritage of the Hawks!
A quadpod was erected to make it as safe as possible to move the carved log into the drum barrel that was then filled with concrete, in an attempt to stabilize the structure.
There was always the intention of having a brass plate on the base of this second pole to honour the memories of George Topple Sr. and Michael Cubitt for all their work getting the original pole completed in 1958.
The memorial plaque did not stay long, nor did the second set of Cubitt wings and head.
A mix-up had happened, and it is still not clear how. But we do know that the Wheeler-Welbourn carvings of the head and wings are what exists today on this version of the Topple Hawk as per the blueprint. Ray and his family were upset and made sure that they retrieved the memorial plaque as well as the unwanted top of this pole. The unintended hurt feelings existed for a long time.
Yet a renewed life is always possible!
On the anniversary of George Topple Jr.’s passing on August 11, 2020, his wife Jean received a call from one of the directors of the Halls Hawk Lakes Property Owners Association, wondering if she would be okay with a group of volunteers painting the beloved landmark. It was a way of honouring George Topple Jr. as well as such an important piece of the Hawk Lakes history. The idea came from Carol Winter whose cottage is close to the Narrows. She recognized that this iconic art installation needed repair and a fresh paint job. Yet it should be noted that the paint had lasted surprising well since it had weathered 23 years already. By the middle of September, she had gathered not only a gang to help do the work but also Brook O’Halloran who performed a Smudge ceremony to bring pureness of the soul and clarity to the mind of those gathered and to rid us of any evil thoughts towards this artwork. Brook also blessed this renewed version of the Topple Art. While we cannot go back and change history, it was a very moving ceremony to try to reconcile our Algonquin Highlands heritage.
There certainly were a lot of accolades in the Halls Hawk Lakes Facebook Group for those who worked on this version of the Topple Art. As one person said, “It wouldn’t be the same on the Hawk Lakes without it! Thanks for maintaining it!!!! Another writes, “Wonderful!! A million thanks…that Totem Pole is a part of so many of our childhood memories”
Kim Cubitt wrote about the photos posted of the renewed totem pole, “I’m so excited to see these. My grandfather, Michael Cubitt, carved this so many years ago. He was an amazing artist and person. He, along with my grandmother, father and his siblings, had many happy memories there….”
And to end the story of The Ups and Downs of the Topple Art on the Hawks, Kim (Topple) Johnson replies to her American cousin, who she has never met, “Kim, please feel free to come by our cottage anytime to see it.”
Renewal and reconciliation are good!
Even canoe trippers who have never been on the Hawk Lakes are guided through the Narrows by this famous artwork that is described in camping guidebooks. Thank you to all who help keep it standing!
Story written by Joan Hamilton with heartfelt thanks to the whole Topple and Cubitt families, Jim Dixon, Ann McIvor, Brook O’Halloran, Ann Reynolds, Owen Roes of Roesy’s Aerial Photography, Craig, Glen and Jay Welbourn, and Carol and Brent Winter of BCPainting.
[iv] See story “Roots go back 100 years for this Pinch family member”, written by Joan Hamilton
[v] See HHLPOA Lake Plan, page 14
[vii] “The Hawk Lake Topple Hawk”, by Andrew Mine for The Times Supplement, Minden, Monday September 11, 1995.