Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Grey Owl and I

This composite photo that was created by my companion Lyn Peelar. She calls it 'Kindred Spirits'. It has become a prized possession. It is the closest that Grey Owl and I would ever get in a photo. He died April 13, 1938 - 8 years and 8 months before I was born.

As a 9 year old boy I was absolutely enthralled by the writings of Grey Owl. Today, some 55 years later, his descriptions of the characters, wildlife and northern scenery still astounds me. It has also left me very proud, since the land that Grey Owl loved so much, from Temagami, the Mississagi River, to Biscotasing is also my home.

His Ojibwa name was Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, "He Who Flies by Night" - Grey Owl. His real name as it finally turned out, was Archie Belaney, an Englishman and a remarkable impostor.

As a kid I was a frequent visitor first to the Cobalt and later the Elliot Lake Public Libraries. I read every book that Grey Owl wrote numerous times.

When I became older I travelled to the towns that he had written about and canoed the same rivers. When I canoed the Mississagi River I was accompanied by a film crew who recorded the event for the local Chamber of Commerce.

Grey Owl claimed that he was the half-breed son of Scotsman George MacNeill and Katherine Cochise of the Jacarillo band of the Apache, born in Hermosillo, Mexico in 1888. His father had been an Indian scout and friend of Colonel Bill Cody.

He also claimed that at the young age of fifteen, he served as a guide and packer in Western Canada. When silver was struck in the Northern Ontario community of Cobalt in 1903, he had followed the rush but was sidetracked and instead became a trapper and wilderness guide.

The shock, however, was to come a few hours after Grey Owl's death. The North Bay Nugget reported that the 'blue eyed' man was not a full-blooded Indian, nor even a half-breed.(Apparently they had known this for some time but had decided to 'sit on it').

Grey Owl was, in fact, born an Englishman, Archie Stansfeld Belaney, and reared by two maiden aunts in Hastings, England. He would not see the true wilderness until he was 18 years old.

The repercussions of the revelation shocked those who knew him and drew damnation from the press who felt they had been deluded by Grey Owl/Belaney. In the end the truth about Grey Owl the man, did not overshadow the message he was attempting to deliver:the plight of vanishing species, symbolized by the beaver. Belaney's writings still stand as classics of the Canadian wilderness, both in form and message.

The story of Grey Owl is as mysterious in truth as any fiction. As a child, Archie Belaney had submerged himself in the study of nature and the tales of the North American Indian. His childhood was introspective, and he inwardly rebelled against the stern authority of his Aunt Ada, who wished to mold Archie into a gentleman so as to not become the irresponsible drifter his father had been.

At eighteen, against the protests from his aunts, Archie broke his ties with England and immigrated to Canada settling at first around Toronto. With the news of a silver strike near Cobalt, Archie naively headed northward into the wilderness. His near total lack of practical bush knowledge nearly killed him, but at the moment of his greatest distress, good fortune placed him in the hands of woodsman Jesse Hood and a band of Ojibwa, who took him in and taught him the ways of the Ontario wilderness.

Cobalt was a rough and tumble silver town. No place for a green horn.

Archie Belaney's Attestation Papers.

With the passing years, Belaney relinquished his past life and adopted the life of the Native Peoples he so admired. Soon his identity had become so thoroughly native that on his Army papers, he was identified as a half-breed.

The Great War pulled Archie and others from the Ontario wilderness and threw them into the savagery of the European battlefield. The sights and experience of war abhorred him. After receiving a foot wound during combat and having his lungs seared with mustard gas, Archie was released as unfit for further duty and awarded a pension. Brooding from the experience, Belaney returned to his Northern Ontario wilderness.

Back in Ontario, the horrors of war took their toll on his temperament. Belaney developed such a foul temper that his career as a guide was ruined. Total disregard for his own well-being nearly ended his life on several occasions.

Grey Owls next stop was in Biscotasing. Here his life went into a tail spin. He lived in a small cabin just outside the village and his life consisted primarily of drinking, poaching and occasional trapping. Periodically he would come into town to deliver his pelts, collect a few bucks from the Hudson's Bay Company, and spent the rest of his day gambling and fighting.

Seasonal home in Bisco.

Biscotasing is a mere shadow of it's former self. A few die hards stay on, but the bulk of the population are sportmen who come to the village for a couple of weeks each year. Myself and my eldest son visited the town in the late 1980's to retrace some of Grey Owl's travels. We stayed in a small cabin that had been the former town jail. Grey Owl spent a number of nights there.

On one occasion he attempted to shoot a man named Gus Christinik, but missed. Another time, he severely beat and left for dead a man named Gordon Langevin. Luckily Langevin was found three days later, albeit at the brink of death, by a boy named Newman. Grey Owl was run out of town on more than one occasion over incidents ranging from drunk and disorderly behaviour to attempted murder.

But again, the Ojibwa took him in. Under the care of the venerable tribal elder Neganikabu, Archie Belaney was trained in the Ojibwa manhood rituals. His instruction culminated in his official adoption into the tribe.

The Englishman Archie Belaney was, for all practical purposes, dead. Born was Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin - Grey Owl.

With his rebirth, Belaney/Grey Owl's disposition changed dramatically. His hatred of the white man's world changed to indifference.

The old Forest Ranger cabin on Bark Lake. I spent a couple of days there when it was used by a local outfitter.

Carved on the walls are some of the names of various rangers that stayed at the cabin. Archie Belaney's name is among them. The building is in really bad shape and it is a shame that the province does not see fit to restore this historic building.

In the winter of 1909 an event took place in Temagami that reveals two sides of Archie Belaney – the adventurous and the courageous sides.

The Park Management had stopped all trapping in the Park except that by Park Rangers. This obviously affected the many trappers who regularly trapped in the Park. Many trappers including natives were caught in the Park and fined or lost their licence. On a bet Grey Owl decided to protest the rules and cross the Park in mid-winter as a challenge to the authorities of the Park.

The Park Superintendent got wind of the challenge and alerted his Rangers. One Ranger was Mattawa’s Zeph Nadon whose son Maurice was the Commissioner of the RCMP from 1973-1977.

Rangers Mark Robinson and Bud Callighan

The Rangers stationed themselves on the poaching trails. Archie was well into the Park and sitting by his fire when Ranger Callighan arrived. The two men camped the night prior to Archie being charged the next day at Park Headquarters. Archie woke early and slipped away but did not get far before breaking through the ice of a beaver pond and getting soaked in the bitter cold weather. Callighan followed Archie’s trail and saved him with a warm fire and took him to the Superintendent’s office – Archie’s feet were frozen and he was not fit to travel. He was cared for for three weeks and given train fare back to Temagami.

While he was in the Temagami district of Northern Ontario, Grey Owl met a young woman, Gertrude Bernard by name but called Pony. She was part Mohawk, a nation within the Iroquois Confederacy. Her native name was Anahareo, the name by which she is identified in all of Grey Owl's writings. Their brief first encounter stirred Grey Owl's emotions as no one had before. By the winter, he could no longer be without her. In a letter, he asked her to visit him. Anahareo came for a week but stayed for years, leading Grey Owl into the final chapters of his life.

In 1925, Archie met Gertrude Bernard. Anahareo, as Grey Owl soon began to call her, was a Mohawk woman from Mattawa, on the Ottawa River. Anahareo played a key role in changing the direction of Grey Owl's life. She encouraged him to stop trapping and with her support he turned his back on the lifestyle of 20 years. Needing another source of income, Grey Owl began to publish his writings.

Anahario and Dawn, the child that she had with Grey Owl

She lived in Mattawa near the big pines that are still there on hwy 17 East, on the outskirts of Mattawa until she was 19. Her mother died when she was four, and she was raised by an aging grandmother (who died at age 108) and other relatives.

She learned to love the woods from her father who was a bushworker, and who taught her snowshoeing, maple syrup making, etc. Her grandmother also taught her many traditional skills, including making leather clothing and accessories and doing beadwork, which she later did for herself and Grey Owl.

Gertrude was a physically active, intelligent, attractive, strong-willed and adventurous child. She was bored by school and skipped a lot. She had her own little hideaway in the woods. Gertrude taught the boys lacrosse and in the summer went swimming with them, which was frowned upon in those days.

When Gertrude was 19, she got a waitressing job at the Wabikon Resort in Temagami, and was given the opportunity by a rich guest from the U.S. to go to school anywhere she chose at his expense. She also met Angel Belaney and her daughter Agnes, the wife and daughter of the man who would soon change her life, Archie Belaney, a “Native” man known as Grey Owl who occasionally played piano at the lodge.

By the end of the summer, Gertrude and Archie were flirting with each other.

Gertrude was called home suddenly when a young niece died. Because of her family situation, she could not return to Temagami, but she could not get Archie out of her mind. She was about to write to him when the tall, handsome, gentleman dressed in deerskins and a wide-brimmed hat appeared on her doorstep.

Archie stayed briefly, spending most of his time with her father, and returned to Temagami. He wrote long letters every day for a couple of weeks and eventually sent her a train ticket and an invitation to join him for a few days on his new trapping grounds in Quebec. She went, and the rest is history.

For the next 11 years, their life together was a joy and a struggle. Grey Owl found that Gertrude, who was half his age, was not the silent partner he wanted. She insisted on going on his trap line with him, and was soon convincing him that this was not an appropriate way of life.

These were the happiest days of Grey Owl's life, but this love story did not have a happy ending. Gertrude wanted a life and career of her own, and was often away working as a prospector or on other jobs. She would join him regularly and eventually accompanied him to Saskatchewan when he became a Park Naturalist in Prince Albert National Park overseeing a beaver population.

By this time, Grey Owl was writing books and taking lecture tours to England, the U. S. and across Canada.

Gertrude became pregnant in 1931 and their daughter Dawn was born in 1932. By late 1936 they separated permanently.

Late one day, as Grey Owl was checking his trap line, he was abhorred to find three beaver kittens and one missing trap. Upon relating the events of the day to Anahareo, he received an intense rebuke from her. "You must stop this work. It is killing your spirit as well as mine." Grey Owl knew she spoke the truth, but how could he earn a living if he did not trap?

Map of the Temagami Area

The next morning, they canoed to the beaver lodge in search of the mother beaver who they believed had been in the missing trap. Instead they found two orphaned beaver kittens. Grey Owl and Anahareo adopted the pair, christening them McGinnis and McGinty. The child-like antics of the "Macs" completely ended thoughts of future beaver trapping for Grey Owl. After a night in which he slept with McGinnis cuddled to his neck, Grey Owl proclaimed himself: "President, Treasurer and sole member of the Society of the Beaver People." His plans for the society entailed finding a lake far away from trappers and there establishing a beaver colony and refuge.

A rare photo of Grey Owl and Anaherio is Biscotasing. This was his second time in Bisco. A somewhat more tame Archie.

To pass the winter, Grey Owl began to write accounts of the antics of the "Macs" along with his general observations on the wilderness around him. Anahareo encouraged him to submit some of these accounts for publication. Naively, they sent a manuscript to the editors of Country Life, a British magazine for wealthy landowners.

Surprisingly, the material was well received by the Country Life editors. In March, Grey Owl received a hefty cheque with the suggestion that the editors would be interested in a book-length manuscript. Joyfully Grey Owl and Anahareo returned to their cabin, but the elation was to be short-lived. At their cabin, the pair was met by their old friend Dave bearing a gift to help their financial situation: the hides of the beavers from the Birch Lake colony!

In despair, they saw their hopes for a beaver refuge sink. And with spring break-up, the ultimate sorrow descended on the pair. McGinnis and McGinty went out for an evening swim and never returned. Though Grey Owl and Anahareo searched for weeks, no trace of the two beavers was ever found.

Dave tried to console Grey Owl and Anahareo and obtain their forgiveness by presenting them with two newly orphaned beaver kittens. At first Grey Owl was reluctant to accept them, but at Anahareo's urging finally gave in. The male died after a few weeks, but the female seemed to thrive in her new environment. She grew fat and domineering, and soon it became clear that this beaver was to become the boss of the household. They named her Jelly Roll, but her bearing and regal overseeing of events at the cabin earned her the title of the Queen.

Work continued to be difficult for Grey Owl to obtain, and the lack of money again faced Grey Owl and Anahareo. By chance, Anahareo had found the opportunity to show some of Grey Owl's writings to a Montreal woman, Mrs Peck. Impressed by what she read, Mrs Peck arranged a lecture for Grey Owl. He as terrified at the prospect, describing his feelings "like a snake that had swallowed an icicle, chilled end to end." His worries were for naught, however; the lecture was a tremendous success, not only from an entertainment point of view, but also financially. Grey Owl and Anahareo now had a bank account.

With the coming of winter, Anahareo left the cabin went north to prospect for gold. Grey Owl remained at Birch Lake with Jelly Roll to write and to continue searching for McGinnis and McGinty. He wrote several articles recording the life and antics of Jelly Roll and her new consort Rawhide. It was during this winter that Grey Owl also wrote The Vanishing Wilderness, his first book, published under the titled The Men of the Last Frontier in 1931.

Thereafter, events moved swiftly for Grey Owl. His articles and lectures brought him considerable attention on both sides of the international border. The National Parks Service of Canada took an active interest in Grey Owl's dream of a beaver sanctuary. They produced a film The Beaver People that starred Jelly Roll. Now the Government of Canada was willing to establish a beaver sanctuary in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. But Grey Owl, Anahareo, Jelly Roll and Rawhide soon found that Riding Mountain was the wrong place for the sanctuary. Grey Owl appealed to the Park Service for a change in location. As a result, the new colony was moved to Lake Ajawaan in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan.

Over the next three years, the colony grew and prospered as did Grey Owl's work. He penned his book Pilgrims of the Wild as well as a novel based on the antics of the beavers McGinnis and McGinty entitled Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People. Grey Owl was soon known and loved throughout North America and Europe as his books, articles and films met great success.

At the heighth of his career Grey Owl gave talks in England and Europe. This particular series of talks was given in his former home in Hastings. His two aunts were present and although they both noticed something different about him, decided not to say anything.

But for Grey Owl himself, life was going stale. He longed for the freedom of the backwoods. Anahareo was restless as well and would soon leave Grey Owl and their young daughter to strike out into the bush prospecting for gold. In 1935 when Lovat Dickson, Grey Owl's English publisher and later his biographer, suggested a European lecture tour, Grey Owl consented reluctantly hoping that the tour might buoy his failing spirits and refresh his mission.

The lectures were highly successful financially and well received although a personal nightmare to Grey Owl. He felt "like a man standing naked upon a rock" when confronted by the huge London audiences. The pressure of the press and public recognition gave him no rest. Perhaps he was tormented by the false life he had been living. By tour's end, Grey Owl was a tired, old man although only in his late forties.

The notoriety he gained abroad gave him no peace at home either. With great effort, he tackled new projects including a movie about the Northern Ontario wilderness and, what was to become his last book, Tales of an Empty Cabin.

This was to be Grey Owl's final book.

In 1937, Grey Owl agreed to a second tour of Britain. The tour again appeared to be a brilliant success, culminating in a private lecture to the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. But with each appearance, a little more of the spark and fire of Grey Owl the man dwindled. As each of the 140 lectures he was to give in a three-month period passed, Grey Owl became less the vibrant man and more the performing machine. Returning home across the Atlantic, Grey Owl faced a twelve-week North American tour. During this lecture series, he predicted: "Another month of this will kill me. If I am to remain loyal to my inner voices, I must return to my cabin in Saskatchewan."

Shortly after returning to the log house beside the still frozen Lake Ajawaan, Grey Owl suddenly fell ill. He was taken to the nearest hospital in a horse-drawn sleigh. There he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Two days later, he fell into a coma, and by eight the next morning, Grey Owl was dead.

As with many other hunters, trappers and backwoodsmen, Grey Owl had became one with the wilderness and its creatures.

Cabin at Lake Ajawaan

Grave Markers Grey Owl, Anahero, Shirley Dawn