The Native American man known to Canadians as ‘Grey Owl’ had done various jobs to make a living, including fur trapping in his youth. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1915, serving in Europe. However, he was twice wounded in action, quite probably by his own gun.
He married Gertrude Bernard in 1924 and taught her how to hunt and trap, as he had learned, in order to survive the harsh conditions they were living in. They had one daughternamed Shirley Dawn. His wife Pony, as she liked to be called, hated seeing cruelty to animals and convinced Grey Owl to channels his efforts elsewhere. She encouraged him to celebrate wildlife and to begin writing about it.
He quickly found that he had a talent for writingand quickly grew very fond of his environment. He even adopted two young beavers, who he called McGuinty and McGuinnis, after he had trapped their mother. He began work on his first novel and regularly had articles published in magazines such as ‘Country Life’. The language he used was graceful, commanding and poetic, perfectly capturing life in the wilderness.
Grey Owl was a very forward thinking man and persuaded the Canadian government to send a film crew to his cabin in Saskatchewan to witness his trained beavers. This film helped to launch his popularity.
As a charismatic speaker, Grey Owl was asked to conduct two major tours of Canada, the US and the UK (1935 & 1937), further spreading his message to preserve the natural environment and the animals within it. He took on a similar role for the Canadian Forest Service, acting as their spokesperson. By now, Grey Owl was beginning to suffer from failing health, exacerbated by exposure to Mustard gas during the war and returned to Beaver Lodge where he died in 1938. It wasn’t until after his death that the real facts of his life began to emerge.
Grey Owl was, in fact an ordinary Englishman, born in the sleepy town of Hastings. He was not a native Indian, fooling even his wife and publisher. He had married four different women, including Pony, fathering 4 children, though had never divorced. Although a number of factors led to his death, it was primarily down to years of alcohol abuse. These revelations were greeted with shock by the Canadian public; the renowned espouser of love for the environment has in fact been a lying, alcoholic bigamist, yet had risen to iconic status around the world.
Canoe Trek to the Grey Owl Lodge
It’s a 25km round trip that takes two days. Drive from Waskesiu village for 15 miles to where road ends; here load up the canoe and paddle along quiet little Kingsmere river lined with cat-tail reeds to join Kingsmere lake which is 11 miles long and really isolated – there’s a good chance you’ll see bald eagles, kingfishers and red squirrels. Along the trail there’s a mineral lick which is a good place for spotting moose, deer and maybe even wolves and bears.
Although the paddle looks very easy, it can be treacherous if you don’t have a guide or knowhow to navigate these waters. It’s strongly recommended that you keep close to the shore as the centre of this vast lake can whip up in to swirls and visitors have been known to drown very quickly.
You should camp overnight in Northend, a basic but clean campsite. Walk the last two miles to Grey Owl’s lodge through glades of birch & aspen. The cabin stands on the edge of the lake, surrounded by thick forest, built from logs and incorporating a beaver lodge (they would enter the cabin through an underwater entrance). The cabin is open so you can go in and check it out.