by Dave Yanko
Archie Belaney was a fraud, a bigamist, a drunk, a scoundrel and
a liar. And like thousands before us, my brother and I were about
to set off on a 20-kilometre hike to his former home in the wilderness
of Prince Albert National Park.
We weighed into the forest at 4 p.m. on a hot and breezeless day
in late August, arriving around supper time at the Chipewyan Portage
campground on Kingsmere Lake.
We pitched the tent at fast-forward
speed and rushed to the lake for relief from the heat. After several
invigorating plunges, we sat down on the sandy bottom with all but
our heads submerged in the calm water. And we relaxed.
The silence was full and splendid - it would be more than an hour
before we’d hear our first loon. To the west in front of us, elegant
"swan" grebes floated in silhouette amid the shimmering vista of Kingsmere
at early evening. Behind us, golden reflections twinkled across the
jack pine shoreline like frisky northern lights on a crisp autumn
But most striking of all, from our periscopic perspective, was
the remarkable transparency of the water around us. So clear was
Kingsmere that Paul could not resolve its surface when he later
knelt down on the short wooden pier to retrieve our evening drinking
Were Archie Belaney present, he would have smiled contentedly
at the misjudgment.
Archie, a transplanted Englishman who gained
worldwide attention in the 1930s posing as the "Indian" nature writer
and lecturer Grey Owl, dedicated his life to preserving Canada’s
pristine wilderness areas. In Prince Albert National Park, his success
only one trail to the cabin and it's well posted. You can't
The journey to Grey Owls "Beaver Lodge" cabin is a mildly rolling
trek through spruce, pine and aspen forest that begins in a parking
lot 30 kilometres from the park village of Waskesiu. Park officials
recommend taking two days for 40-kilometre, round-trip hike, overnighting
at one of the northern lake-side campgrounds along the well-posted
trail, and then hiking to the Ajawaan Lake cabin and back to the parking
lot the next day.
Due to our mid-afternoon arrival, we chose to camp two nights
on the trail, the first at Chipewyan and the second at Sandy Beach,
situated at the 12.7-kilometre mark of the trail. The campgrounds
are appropriately spartan and very clean - backpackers haul out
their own garbage. In each of the grounds, there’s a raised-platform
food cache to deter the black bears, at least one outhouse and a
good supply of firewood. The park deliberately limits access to
the trail to preserve the wilderness experience, but group camping
is available by arrangement. Chipewyan, for example, contains only
two campsites, a single and a double.
After our soak in the lake, we finished setting up camp and grabbed
a bite to eat. I then set off for the shoreline, about 70 metres
from the campsite. As I neared the point where the campsite path
intersects the trail to Grey Owl’s cabin, I spotted a silver fox
approaching the same crossroads about 30 metres to my left. I froze,
hoping for a better view but fully expecting the wild creature to
His fixed stare and oversized ears measured me for danger - we
had surprised each other. But he boldly continued towards me in
the same light trot, apparently anxious to return to his den with
the gray squirrel that dangled lifelessly from both sides of his
delicate, pointed snout. Head motionless and eyes still focused
sharply on me, he glided close enough for me to see clearly the
dark grey coat and silver guard hairs so prized by trappers of old.
Three or four metres away he slowed, glanced away for just an instant
and then, resuming a now pivoting gaze, cut a discreet semi-circular
detour in front of me and regained his trail and speed to my right.
I beckoned Paul with a stage whisper that permeated the silent
forest like the crack of an axe. He arrived in time to get a good
view of the fox before its white-tipped tail disappeared over a
After nightfall we returned to the shoreline to admire the heavens.
A full moon shone over the placid lake, diminishing the intensity
of the starlight but bathing everything beneath it in that marvelous
blue radiance lost in the lights of the city. Above, the westerly
location of Vega, Deneb and Altair – the familiar summer triangle
– rendered the mild evening all the more precious by reminding us
of autumn’s approach.
in the park is always an event.
We arrived at Sandy Beach before noon the next day, set up camp, and
hiked off into the most varied and evocative landscapes of the trip.
Within one, two-kilometre stretch, we travelled through dense and
pensive coniferous forest into cheery, sun-bathed aspen groves, through
fern-filled lowlands cut by a rocky stream, and then into an airy,
jack pine stand where shadows loomed like dark sentinels on a bright
green carpet of moss.
Beaver Lodge is situated on the northern shores of tiny Ajawaan
Lake, located three kilometres north of Kingsmere and reached via
the portage trail Grey Owl used when travelling to his cabin by
canoe. A small pier on the north shore of Kingsmere accommodates
canoeists as well as day-trip visitors ferried to the site by water
taxi. Boats are restricted on Kingsmere by size of motor as well
as by an arduous pulley-car portage.
The trail to Ajawaan and on to the cabin is much more developed than
the one along Kingsmere. A bleached-wood walkway provides easy navigation
on portions that run over hill and through marshland. Reaching the
cabin at mid afternoon, we sat down against a log near a commemorative
plaque and quietly sipped water while the rigors of the trail subsided
and Grey Owl’s life rose into perspective.
Born in 1888, Archie’s metamorphosis from middle-class
Englishman to buckskin-clad Indian naturalist actually began during
his childhood in Hastings, Sussex, where he escaped the stern tutelage
of the two aunts who raised him by collecting a menagerie and pretending
to be a "Red Indian’’.
He immigrated to Canada in 1906 and married Ojibwa Indian Angele
Egwuna, his first of three marriages (and only one divorce) and
at least two common-law relationships. Angele introduced him to
the wilderness of Temagami, Ontario, where he learned to imitate
the ways of the Indians while working for 20 years as a trapper,
guide and forest ranger. Archie suppressed his English accent, dressed
in Indian garb and proclaimed Apache ancestry to all but Angele,
who knew him as "her Englishman’’. It was in Temagami, as well,
where Archie developed a taste for alcohol.
Owl's cabin on Ajawaan Lake.
Grey Owl’s rustic cabin, made famous in the 1930s through film and
photograph, is tucked neatly into a small and peaceful lakeside landing.
A pine stand skirting the property is broken by a wide wooden stairway
leading uphill to a cabin used by Anahareo, Grey Owl’s common-law
partner from 1925 to 1936 and the woman responsible for his writing
Anahareo was a young, "town-bred’’, half-blood Mohawk working
as a waitress in Temagami when the 36-year-old "mixed-blood Apache’’
swept her off her feet. Like almost everyone else, she believed
It was Anahareo who convinced Archie to stop trapping after she
became outraged at the suffering she witnessed on his trap line.
Without a source of income, Archie turned to writing under his "Indian’’
name Grey Owl. His passionate prose and ground-breaking theme on
the need to preserve the wilderness caught the attention of the
world, including officials from the Canadian Parks Branch. They
hired him as their first naturalist. After a short posting in Manitoba,
Archie moved to Prince Albert National Park.
It was here at Beaver Lodge where he wrote three best-selling
books and numerous articles. And it was here, 60 years ago, that
he greeted hundreds of summer visitors who responded to his open
Far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those
whose genuine interest prompts them to make the trip, Beaver Lodge
extends a welcome to you if your heart is right.
Like all of Archie’s relationships, the one with the parks branch
On one of his exhaustive speaking tours of England, he drank heavily
between engagements and at least once took to the stage quite drunk.
According to the few who knew of his imbibing, the footlights had
a remarkably sobering effect. Dressed in full Indian regalia, the
noble messenger from North America delivered his moving presentation
without a hitch and received typically rave reviews from an audience
and press that were none the wiser.
Word of Grey Owl’s drinking sprees got back to parks branch officials.
They could ill afford to have their icon of the Canadian wilderness
appear drunk before audiences as influential as Buckingham Palace.
They threatened to fire Grey Owl – his job was saved only through
the intensive lobbying of a friendly official.
The bottle became an increasingly common companion here at Beaver
Lodge. Archie was a binge writer as well as a binge drinker. When
the two activities coincided, he was incorrigibly difficult and
self-absorbed. He even spurned Anahareo, his only regular human
contact in winter months, forcing her to leave for Ontario.
Some believe Archie’s personal problems stemmed from his perceived
rejection by his father. Whatever their cause, clearly, he was a
flawed human being. In spite of that, and perhaps in some measure
because of it, he was a compelling writer.
One of his most popular short stories is "The Tree". Published
in "Tales of an Empty Cabin’’ in 1936, the story is written from
the point of view of an ancient and magnificent jack pine whose
""fate it was that all who loved it should die, while it lived on.’’
From its beginnings as a humble pine cone dropped in the centre
of a mountain pass by an inattentive squirrel, the tree stood stalwart
witness to more than 650 years of history in the canyon and on the
plains below. It provided temporary shelter to numerous beasts that
traversed the trail at its base and drank from the nearby creek.
It chronicled the lives of a grizzly bear and eagle that sought
permanent refuge at its broad bows. And it gave life-long solace
to a young Indian brave who embraced the noble pine as a spiritual
In later years, the tree’s sorrow at outliving all who loved it
deepened as it watched the incursion of the white man. Nature’s
reign over the prairies gave way to "civilization’’, including land
ownership, King Wheat, Indian reservations, industry, animal extinction,
"Tomato cans and other refuge" lay strewn in the creek. And up
the canyon came a highway, built by men who ""saw beauty in straight
lines’’ and who ""found romance in converting the face of Nature
to man’s needs’’. The mighty tree was to be sacrificed at the altar
of the automobile, that pervasive symbol of modern industry with
""its full complement of those more or less useful gadgets so clever
and expediently designed to render the latest models quickly obsolete.’’
The tale closes on a hopeful note when a squirrel toting a pine
cone scampers across the new highway into a meadow, where he buries
his seed capsule and forgets about it.
Inside Grey Owl’s small, unattended cabin is the preserved beaver
lodge that was home to the creatures the naturalist said were ""the
Wilderness personified’’. They came right into the one-room cabin
through an underwater entrance in the adjacent lake. Grey Owl’s
love of wildlife was authentic and he was sincere in his mission
to preserve it. But his use of Canada’s national symbol in the films
and stories presented to his international audiences was a carefully
calculated decision aimed at touching a chord at home, where the
natural habitat of all forest animals was threatened by the advance
of agriculture, industry and the fur trade.
affection was real. But the images were carefully constructed
to elicit a sympathetic reaction.
I have found that in the beaver, with its almost human, very nearly
child-like appeal, I had seized on a powerful weapon. Placed in the
vanguard, the beaver constituted the thin edge of the wedge.
Grey Owl’s bed was a raised platform consisting of a dozen pine
saplings stripped of branches. On a desk situated near a wood-burning
stove at the end opposite the beaver lodge was a guest book containing
appreciative comments of recent visitors from North America, Germany,
Japan, the Netherlands and France.
in death, but not always in life.
Outside, fearless whiskey jacks flitted overhead as I set off up the
hill to look at Anahareo’s cabin and the gravesite where she, Grey
Owl and their daughter Shirley Dawn are buried. Finding Anahareo’s
cabin empty, I moved on to the cemetery. In a beautiful setting on
a wooded knoll, the side-by-side gravestones are attended by a discreetly-positioned
plaque bearing these words:
"Say a silent thankyou for the preservation of wilderness areas,
for the lives of the creatures who live there and for the people
with the foresight to realize this heritage, no matter how.’’
There seemed to me no more fitting a summary of Grey Owl’s life
than the one contained in that single sentence.
Grey Owl died in 1938 at the age of 50. His demise was attributed
to pneumonia, but it was really the result of the cumulative and
deleterious effects of a relentless speaking tour abroad, his ruinous
lifestyle, and the fact his past was catching up to him. He knew
he was about to be exposed as a fraud.
For all his foibles, Grey Owl was a realist who knew nature must
bend to the pursuits of modern society. He wrote and spoke not about
a return to the past, but about the duty of those who destroy the
wilderness for the common good to preserve at least a memory of
it and its inhabitants, and all they stood for.
empty cabin a long way from Sussex. But in the wilderness -
Those memories live in Prince Albert National Park.
On all sides from the cabin where I write extends an uninterrupted
wilderness, flowing onward in a dark, billowing flood Northward
to the Arctic Sea. No railroad passes through it to burn and destroy,
no settler lays waste with fire and axe. Here, from any eminence,
a man may gaze on unnumbered leagues of forest that will never feed
the hungry maw of commerce.
More about Grey Owl:
Purchase Grey Owl books, videos, etc.
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