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Grey Owl's Cabin

by Dave Yanko

-courtesy Parks Canada
Grey Owl

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 night.

Grey Owl Bio
Prince Albert National Park

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 water.

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 is evident.

There's only one trail to the cabin and it's well posted. You can't get lost.

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 flee.

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 rise.

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.

Sunset 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.

Changing landscapes

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.

Grey 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 career.

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 his ruse.

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 invitation:

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 was bumpy.

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 guide.

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, and pollution.

"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.

-courtesy Parks Canada
The 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.

Together 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.

An empty cabin a long way from Sussex. But in the wilderness - still.

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.

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