Archie Belaney has been called many things: a fraud, a bigamist, a drunk, a scoundrel and a liar.
But he was also a realist, an author, a lecturer and one of Canada's greatest proponents for wilderness. His legacy is one rife with controversy, but Belaney was surely one of Canada’s earliest conservationists and has since become a Canadian icon. It was with this view of the man known as "Grey Owl" that we set-off into the wilds of Saskatchewan's Prince Albert National Park to find his cabin, at the north end of Kingsmere Lake.
Little did we know, this trip would become an adventure we would never forget.
Grey Owl History
Belaney was born in 1888, in England, but immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century. Soon after his arrival, he met and married an Ojibwe woman named Angele Egwuna. She introduced him to the Canadian wilderness and her traditional way of life.
Between 1907 and 1927, Belaney lived in northern Ontario, making his living as a trapper, guide and forest ranger. He took on the identity of an "Indian," suppressed his English accent and proclaimed Apache ancestry. It was around this time that he started referring to himself as "Grey Owl."
In 1925, he met Gertrude Bernard, who he referred to as Anahero. She played a key role in his transition from trapper to conservationist. Also at this time, in desperate need of an alternative source of income, Grey Owl began publishing his writings. The Dominion Parks Service, which would later become Parks Canada, became aware of Grey Owl through his articles, and he was eventually hired as their first naturalist. In 1931, Grey Owl, along with Anahero and their two pet beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Roll, moved to a small cabin on Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park. His popularity rose quickly with the publication of his bestselling books. As his fame grew, more and more was expected of him.
Hundreds of people visited Beaver Lodge during the summer months and he also went on two lengthy speaking tours in England. Allegedly, Grey Owl always had a fond taste for alcohol, but it was during the demanding years of his popularity that he increasingly abused it. In the spring of 1938, Grey Owl returned to Beaver Lodge a tired and weakened man. His death, on April 13, 1938, was attributed to pneumonia, but was also the result of a demanding schedule, his ruinous lifestyle and the fact that his habits were quickly catching up to him.
We arrived in Prince Albert National Park late on a Saturday afternoon. After securing our backcountry permits and picking up our smaller-than-expected rental canoe, we hurriedly drove to the put-in spot. Due to our late arrival, our preferred campground was already full, which meant a longer paddle that evening and two unexpected portages, and we were already running short on daylight.
Ajawaan Lake is located just north of the much larger Kingsmere Lake. To gain access you first need to paddle through Kingsmere, which is notorious for its unpredictable weather. There’s no vehicle-access for Kingsmere Lake, so the only way to launch a canoe is via a small stream that connects Kingsmere Lake with Waskesiu Lake to the south.
Ironically, in our hurry not to lose daylight, we promptly got ourselves lost immediately after launching the boat. Instead of paddling upstream towards the portage, we ended up canoeing downstream and found ourselves on Waskesiu Lake. Discovering where we were, and realizing we had no other options, we reversed course and headed upstream. Ultimately, we made it onto Kingsmere Lake and furiously paddled towards the first portage.
It’s worth mentioning that we had been given some misinformation regarding the portage trails. The trails were described as, “a bit muddy” and “we’d likely get our shoes a little dirty.” In reality, this “bit” of mud was knee-deep. In fact, there was so much mud and water on the trail that it could float our fully loaded canoe, which actually saved us the inconvenience of carrying all of our gear. The daylight had vanished by the time we reached the second portage. We also hoped the black bear that was supposedly hanging around the area had moved on. With the help of headlamps and a roaring bonfire, we easily found the campground. We beached the canoe and set-up the tents by firelight, just as it started to rain. Sleep came quickly.
While preparing breakfast the next morning, we discovered that someone had vandalized the table in our site. Etched into the wood were the words, To Grey Owl’s or Bust! This quickly became our mantra for the remainder of the trip. We completed the Bagwa Canoe Route and found ourselves back on Kingsmere Lake. We floated into Northend Campground early that evening, after a beautiful day on the water.
From Northend, the cabin is an enjoyable 3.2-km hike through boreal forest. Arriving at the cabin, and finding it deserted, we spent the better part of the morning exploring and trying to imagine what Grey Owl’s life would have been like. It would have been easy to spend an entire day in the shadows of that old cabin, but as any traveller knows, the destination is only the halfway point. We would have to get moving if we hoped to make it to the next campground before nightfall.
We’d been paddling for little over an hour when Kingsmere’s unpredictable weather caught us off-guard. An exceedingly strong wind started gusting from the southwest, causing a large wave to capsize our small boat. We scrambled to haul the gear and ourselves onto the narrow shoreline while being continually pummeled by lake water. After wrestling our boat ashore, we sat in the woods, dripping wet and took stock of our situation. Quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and unable to continue paddling in the extreme weather, we decided to wait-out the wind. But the wind only got stronger. Unwilling to spend the night where we sat, we decided to push the canoe through the choppy water to the next campground that was, presumably, a short distance away. After being pounded by waves for two straight hours, we washed up on shore soaking wet, dog tried, and incredibly hungry. We were asleep before our heads even hit the pillow.
We woke early the next morning to the discouraging sound of wind rattling the tent. The lake was still a frothing mess, so paddling was out of the question. This was also the day we were due out of the backcountry and we were worried that if our families didn’t hear from us they’d become concerned. To complicate things, we were also running low on food. Our only option was to hike 13 km to our vehicle, call our families, check the weather, buy some groceries, and make a decision about how to proceed.
The long hike was uneventful, although we would later find out that we narrowly missed an encounter with a young bear. Back in Waskesieu townsite, we were able to make the necessary calls and check the forecast. The weather report gave us a glimmer of hope. It indicated that the wind was supposed to decrease slightly that evening, before intensifying again throughout the next day. Unfortunately, this meant we had to make the return trip back to camp immediately. It was dusk before we returned to the campground, exhausted. To our surprise, there were two other campers who had hiked in that morning. They told us about their encounter with the young bruin shortly after passing us on the trail.
Disappointingly, the wind wasn’t slowing. We went to bed, planning to get up every few hours and recheck its status. At 1:00 a.m., I awoke to complete silence. For the first time in the past two days, the wind wasn’t hammering the tent. I ran down to the lakeshore to find it somewhat calm. It dawned on me that we would have to make a moonlight escape. We launched the canoe into the dark water by light of the full moon. We paddled non-stop for the next 3.5 hours until we reached the mouth of the stream that would take us home.
Driving to drop-off the canoe, we could see the waves on Waskesiu Lake returning to whitecaps. It was apparent we had made the right decision or we would have been stranded for at least another day. Between paddling and hiking, we travelled over 75 km during our four days in the park.
The whole trip was worth it. Standing inside Grey Owl’s cabin was a surreal experience, but being at the mercy of Mother Nature throughout the expedition made his most famous quote resonate with us. "Remember you belong to nature, not it to you."