Legacy of a self-made legend

Four of us are lazing in a canoe in the middle of Lake Kingsmere, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada, North America, the World – as kids locate themselves in their exercise books at school, or did when I was young. It is that kind of an expansive day, a blissful, bright and beautiful day, like the ones you remember from the long summers of childhood.

“Well, it makes a change from the office,” says my brother Peter, passing cold cans from the styrofoam cooler down to his son Aaron, my daughter Maggie and me. Peter’s canoe has a motor, so there is nothing to do but enjoy. Around us, keeping their distance, dozens and dozens of loons are bobbing on the blue water. Blue skies above us and, in the distance, an austere wilderness shoreline pricked out in dark spruce. Ours is the only boat on the lake.

We are on our way to pay our respects to the writer, woodsman and naturalist known as Grey Owl, who is buried in the park near his cabin, Beaver Lodge. Grey Owl, a backwoods hunter and trapper in Ontario and Quebec, did a volte- face and began a new career in the mid-1920s. Moved by the plight of trapped beaver, he and his wife Anahareo, an Indian girl, adopted a succession of beaver, tamed them and gave them names.

Grey Owl made his own name by writing about the vanishing wilderness, indicting short-sighted governments for allowing “get-rich- quick-vandals” to slaughter game and fur-bearing animals on the carefully farmed territories of the Indians, robbing them of their rights and very means of existence. “The white man’s burden will soon be no idle dream,” he predicted, because the day was coming when the Indian would be forced into total dependence on the “degrading dole.” The trapper-turned-conservationist arrived in Saskatchewan in October, 1931, hired by the national parks service to begin repopulating the newly established park near Prince Albert with beaver, practically decimated as a species by then.

The parks people built a cabin on secluded Lake Ajawaan for the new hand, his wife and their travelling companions – a beaver couple named Jelly Roll and Rawhide. Ajawaan is small and remote, about 40 kilometres from Waskesiu townsite in the park and accessible only on foot or by boat. All the same, it was the best-known body of water in the Canadian West during Grey Owl’s tenure at Beaver Lodge.

The park is where prairie and forest meet, marking the transition from south to north. Of the divide, Grey Owl wrote that “it forms a line of demarcation between the prosaic realities of a land of everyday affairs, and the enchantment of a realm of high adventure . . the last stronghold of the Red Gods, the heritage of the born adventurer.” This morning, we drove from Waskesiu townsite along the north shore of Lake Waskesiu to the narrow Kingsmere River, where we parked Peter’s truck and unpacked our lunch, gas cans and the canoe. A short way up-river is a portage. Aaron and Maggie hauled the boat up a ramp and onto a dolly, which we alternately pulled and chased, depending on the grade, on a railway past the rough part of the river, through a stretch of stately forest. Grey Owl likened the northern woods – tall spires above, dark aisles below – to an open-air cathedral. The simile is still apt.

The river runs into Lake Kingsmere, where we are now in sight of the shore. We tie up at a wooden dock and cool off with a swim. The lakes in these parts are relatively shallow and just warm enough, during the short northern summer, not to rattle your teeth. From here it is a short overland hike, about a kilometre, to Lake Ajawaan, and another kilometre or two to Grey Owl’s camp along a path with a boardwalk over the bad patches.

Wild blueberries and cranberries grow beside the trail. Aaron points to some droppings, “unmistakeable signs of bear.” No bear in person – though we will sight one later, lumbering into some trees, on our drive back through the park.

Our gentle hike is easy going, compared to what the frontier traveller used to have to cope with even a mere 50 years ago. For Grey Owl, “high adventure” meant pitting himself against nature, and fate. For starters, the northern adventurer needed a sense of humor – emulating the Indian, who laughs at fate instead of shaking a fist – and cunning rather than brute strength, “thus husbanding his energies against the time when he is tried by the supreme tests of endurance, which occur frequently enough . . . ” Even the more lurid flows of profanity were “reserved for trivial occurrences, where the energy expended will not be missed.” Wilderness men were noted adherents of the energy-conservation principle when it came to words. Grey Owl repeats one anecdote – exaggerated maybe, but typical, he says – in The Men of the Last Frontier. A veteran of years of solitary wandering happened one night on a particularly pleasant camping ground. No sooner had the trapper put up his tent than a stranger, attracted by the smoke of the fire, edged his canoe ashore. “Fine evening,” said the stranger. “Yeah,” came the reply. “Gosh darned fine camping ground you got here,” added the newcomer. “Uh huh.” The newcomer proceeded to unload his canoe, talking the while. “They’s a war in China; d’jy’a hear about that?” Silence. The newcomer turned to see the oldtimer pulling down his tent. “What the hell’s wrong?” the newcomer demanded in pained surprise. “Not going away, a’ir you?” “Yes, I’m going,” was the answer. “They’s too darn much discussion around here to suit my fancy.” The top-ranked test of endurance was the portage. Two hundred pounds were reckoned to be a “man’s load.” In summer, the trail was torture, as “vicious insects light and bite on contact. One hand is engaged in pulling forward and down on the top load to support the head, the other contains an axe or a pail of lard; so the flies stay until surfeited, and blood runs freely with the sweat . . . ” An uphill trip was bad enough, given the weight of the load, taking “its toll of nerve and muscle with each successive step.” But going down, the effort to keep from tumbling pack-over-moccasins could be more arduous than the climb. Or the trekker could sink into muskeg (on that kind of terrain, you could hope to shoulder only 100 pounds, tops), or break a leg on a boulder- strewn path. Portaging might go on, in stages, for miles: “At last, bags and boxes lying in scattered heaps . . . the end, no doubt. You unload, and look around, and see no lake; only a continuation of that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned trail . . . ” Grey Owl’s cabin is right on the shore of Lake Ajawaan. Inside are a crude log bed, a cookstove, a bench and a shelf with some utensils on the wall. But what hits you when you first walk in the door is the honest-to- God beaver lodge under the window, an arrangement of timber and twigs that takes up a third of the room.

Anahareo and Grey Owl separated a few years after they moved to Saskatchewan – his increasing preoccupation with his writing was given as the cause. Personally, I blame the beaver, Rawhide and Jelly Roll, for the marriage break- up.

Beaver are undoubtedly clever: they build their dams in an arc, convex or concave according to the water pressure. And only the little ones make mistakes in felling trees. They are industrious, working in shifts so there is always somebody on the job. But when they share your quarters, this what life is like, according to Grey Owl: “They roam about the camp and . . . take large slices out of table- legs and chairs, and nice long splinters out of the walls, and their progress is marked by little piles of strings and chips. This is in the fore part of the evening. After ‘lights out’ the more serious work commences, such as . . . the transferring of firewood from behind the stove into the middle of the floor, or the improvement of some waterproof¬†footwear¬†by the addition of a little open-work on the soles . . . “In winter they will not leave the camp and I sink a small bathtub in the floor for them, as they need water constantly. They make a practice of lying in the tub eating their sticks and birch tops, later climbing into the bunk to dry themselves . . . “Tiring of this performance, I once removed the bench by which they climbed into the bunk and prepared for a good night’s sleep at last. I had got so used to the continuous racket they created all night, between the drying-off periods, that, like the sailor who hired a man to throw water against the walls of his house all night while on shore, I could not sleep so well without the familiar sounds and during the night I woke to an ominous silence. With a premonition of evil I lit the lamp and . . . saw one of my much-prized Hudson Bay blankets leaning over the side of the bunk and cut into an assortment of fantastic patterns, the result of their efforts to climb into the bunk . . . ” Also, beaver snore. “It couldn’t have been any picnic,” says Maggie, “living with those beaver.” Grey Owl, who had been known to raise considerable hell in his trapping days, was becoming increasingly difficult, too. “He could be a pain in the ass for the wardens,” says Peter, who used to work in the park. “He went to Prince Albert for his drinking binges, and he went in style. Once he rented an entire house of ill-repute. Afterward he had to be gotten home – and he was of uncertain temper, especially when boozing . . . ” On April 13, 1938, Grey Owl died in Prince Albert of pneumonia contracted after a spectacularly successful but debilitating lecture tour in England. That week, Toronto journalist Greg Clark broke the story that the revered champion of Indian and animal rights was not himself half- Indian, as he had said, but a hood-winking emigrant named Archie Belaney, born in Hastings, England, in 1888.

Grey Owl was buried in the midst of an international uproar caused by the revelation. It is said that the clergyman who officiated at the service insisted that the dead man be dressed in a Christian blue serge suit rather than his barbaric buckskins, so as not to “confuse his Maker.” Today, when you climb the riverbank to Grey Owl’s grave, by a stone cairn in a clearing overlooking the shining lake and shaded with poplar and spruce and pine, none of the aftermath matters very much. For those who got the real message, it never did. IF YOU GO If you don’t have a fully equipped brother living in the area, boats can be rented in the park. After portaging to Lake Ajawaan from Lake Kingsmere, you can paddle to the cabin. The parks people suggest following the east shore on Kingsmere, as the lake can become dangerous if a wind comes up. Or you can hike along Kingsmere about 15 kilometres to the site. Visitors can spend the night at a nearby campground before making the return trip.

The Friends of the Park bookshop in Waskesiu townsite has posters and Grey Owl’s books, still fascinating and pertinent today. The great naturalist will be a special focus of the Saskatchewan park’s celebration of the National Parks Centennial this year.


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