Northern Ontario
Credit: David Webb

White Otter Castle may crumble to the ground if it doesn’t get some TLC.

The Friends of White Otter Castle need $250,000 to keep this four-storey wilderness landmark preserved. The problem is, even though it has a heritage plaque, it’s not an official heritage site since it’s not located within a municipality. The money must come from private citizens—not from the government.

I’ve been to the castle several times. It’s definitely worth protection. My first visit was during a canoe trip down the Turtle River, south of the town Ignace, Ontario. The highlight of the river trip was a pilgrimage to Jimmy McOuat’s (pronounced McQuat) White Otter Castle, one of the north’s most mysterious hermitages.

White Otter CastleKevin Callan

The castle—situated along the shores of White Otter Lake—is a 28-by-38-foot (8.5 by 11.5 metre) log structure built by a 60-year-old hermit in the early 1900s and has been a local drawing card for years. One of the first visitors was canoeist C.L. Hodson, while working on an article for Rod and Gun magazine in 1914; “Mile after mile of rugged shoreline drops behind and then about 2:30 p.m. ‘Old Jimmy’s Place’ quite suddenly slips into view. A hundred yards back from the lake it stands on the edge of a small clearing. In the background are dark pine woods. No one speaks but with one accord the paddlers pause here. Eyes strain. Heartbeats quicken. In the very air is mystery. Almost, we fear to approach this retreat of the wild man. We are intruders—trespassers. Then, slowly, the paddles dip. The bow grates on a strip of sandy beach. Gingerly we step ashore and approach the hermitage.”

I felt a little shortchanged after having read Hodson’s description of his visit. Sure, the castle is impressive, standing four storeys high and built of 200 pine logs averaging 37 feet (11 metres) long, but what made Hodson’s arrival more exciting than mine was that “Old Jimmy” was home at the time. And, intrigued by all the stories about why the hermit had built the bizarre monument (one of the most romantic involves a mail-order bride from Scotland who cancelled the deal because Jimmy lacked a proper house), Hodson was able to ask the builder himself.

It seems it all had to do with McOuat being falsely accused of throwing a corncob at a bad-tempered schoolmaster (Jimmy’s chum had thrown the cob). For some reason, he was never able to forget the curse imposed by his angry schoolmaster: “Jimmy McOuat, ye’ll never do any good! Ye’ll die in a shack!” Decades later, Jimmy found the accursed prophecy coming true. After gambling his life savings away on a failed gold claim, he found himself living in a shack on the shores of the remote White Otter Lake (then know as Clearwater Lake). “All the time I lived in a shack,” Jimmy told Hodson, “I kept thinking: I must build me a house. And so I have. You can’t call this a shack, could ya?”

In 1918, four years after Hodson’s visit, Jimmy McOuat drowned while netting fish in front of his castle. His partially decomposed body, wrapped up in fish betting, was found the next spring by forest rangers and buried beside his beloved wilderness home.

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