Have you ever wanted to become a hermit in the woods?
I have. It seems reasonable at times to choose to separate oneself from society. Aldo Leopold did it. So did John Muir. There’s also Jimmy McOuat, who built a castle in the wilderness near Atikokan, Ontario; and Dan Brown and his sister Betty, who lived for most of their lives in a cabin in a remote section of bush near Sudbury, Ontario.
The list goes on. Many have found peace by escaping into wilderness seclusion. One of the best examples of this is Wendell Beckwith, an eccentric inventor who lived alone for 20 years on Wabakimi Provincial Park’s Whitewater Lake. His noted intention for doing so was to devote his life to “pure” research.” The truth, however, was that he was escaping a troubled life back home in Wisconsin.
Wendell BeckwithA while back, I visited Wendell’s hermitage with film producer Kip Spidell and Ontario Provincial Park planner Nancy Scott. It is situated on Best Island in the southeast corner of Whitewater Lake. Our trip there was in the late 1993, just before the cabins started showing signs of major deterioration and items began disappearing, taken by selfish visitors looking for souvenirs.
There were three cabins and a storage shed, all connected by a flagstone walkway and surrounded by a decorative cedar-rail fence. Each structure was designed perfectly, and every shingle and floorboard cut precisely. Elaborate carvings adorned all three entranceways, and pieces of the inventor’s scientific contraptions and scores of Ojibwe artifacts were scattered about. There was even a homemade telescope Wendell had made and a “lunar gun” (a device constructed to compute and predict lunar cycles and eclipses) resting beside the storage shed.
In 1955, after producing at least 14 patents, most of them for the Parker Pen Company, Beckwith left his wife and five children behind in Wisconsin and began his solitary life on Whitewater Lake. The cabins didn’t actually belong to Beckwith. Harry Wirth, a San Francisco-based architect and developer, used the island as a retreat and hired Beckwith as caretaker.
During Beckwith’s time here, he worked on various theories, ranging from the idea that the mathematical equation Pi recurred constantly in nature, to the idea that Whitewater Lake was in complete triangulation with the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge—backing up his belief that Whitewater Lake was the “Centre of the Universe."
The first of the three cabins is a split-level building—known as the guesthouse, or Rose’s Cabin. The modest structure is thought to have been the living quarters for Rose Chaltry while she visited Wendell Beckwith. Rose, Harry Wirth’s secretary, came to know Wendell and supported him financially after he had a major dispute with Wirth in 1975.
The main cabin, the only structure not completely designed by Beckwith, comes with its own icebox, which was lowered underground to keep food from spoiling, and a sizable homemade birch-bark canoe lashed to the south wall. This was where Beckwith stayed at first, but he soon found it far too showy and impractical. The massive stone fireplace was ineffective at heating the cabin during the winter months, and he became concerned about his reduced hours of research.
By 1978, he had completed construction on the “Snail,” a circular cabin built directly into the side of a hill. The structure was far more heat-efficient, especially with a skylight centred above a sunken stove, which was equipped with a rotating conical shield to direct the heat, and a pivoting chimney to allow for maximum draft. It was an environmental masterpiece.
Wendell Beckwith died of a heart attack in 1980, alone on a beach near the Snail. In the small cabin, there is a registry book resting on the table, and inside is an entry from Wendell’s daughter, Laura, dated August 6, 1997:
Very proud to be the daughter of such a man. Wish everyone could have seen his “domain” as it was while he was alive. By all accounts, he was an exceptional and extraordinary man whose ideas and theories we may never comprehend—but we can admire what he built here and the life he fashioned for himself. I last hugged him on the beach here—and I feel his presence still. Goodbye again, Dad.
Beckwith’s vision—to have a community of researchers living on the island in their own Snails, “cleaning their minds of mental paraphernalia in the outside world”—may have actually been a great idea. Truly, he was not some mad scientist, but rather a Renaissance Man who designed a perfect life for himself in this wild place of Wabakimi.
To get an update on the state of the cabins, and more info on Beckwith, check out the excellent detailed blog by Ramblin' Boy.