Ca­noe through the bo­real for­est trac­ing the le­gend of Grey Owl

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL -

Ma­jes­tic ev­er­greens reach into the sky on ei­ther side of the Kingsmere River as the ca­noe slices through the wa­ter.

It’s a jour­ney back in time to dis­cover the myth and mys­tery of Grey Owl, a Bri­tish-born man named Archibald Be­laney who be­came a well-known nat­u­ral­ist and au­thor while pass­ing him­self off as abo­rig­i­nal.

Grey Owl lived and worked in Prince Al­bert National Park in northern Saskatchewan in the 1930s. He used to travel to and from his log cabin on Ajawaan Lake through Kingsmere Lake and River.

Cliff Speer with Ca­noeSki Dis­cov­ery Com­pany fol­lows Grey Owl’s path on a pad­dling and hik­ing trip that starts on the shal­low river.

“It kind of runs through a fairly heav­ily forested area with quite large spruce trees and de­cid­u­ous trees, as well as poplars, bal­sam po­plar and aspen and birch,” said Speer.

“It’s part of the south­ern bo­real for­est and it’s quite scenic and the river’s quite nar­row and quite wind­ing and very clear. The wa­ter that comes out of Kingsmere Lake, you can see the bot­tom. There’s no sed­i­ment in it. It’s very, very clear. You can look right down and see the bot­tom as you’re pad­dling along.”

It’s pretty quiet too, Speer said, ex­cept for song­birds that might be heard in the spring.

The Kingsmere River has a low-wa­ter stretch of rapids and a kilo­me­tre portage to get around it. There’s a rail­car-style push cart to trans­port loaded ca­noes over the portage.

But the shel­ter ends at the mouth of the river and “the full force of the wind” is in your face as you en­ter Kingsmere Lake.

“The lake is quite open and it’s quite an ex­panse,” said Speer, who has been a pro­fes­sional guide for 27 years.

“Eleven kilo­me­tres of open wa­ter, with no pro­tec­tion, no is­lands, no points re­ally of sig­nif­i­cance ... so the north winds can blow right down the length of the lake and so you can get quite a blast down at the south end.

“The waves build up and so, yeah, it can get very dan­ger­ous.”

At the north end of the lake, there’s a six-kilo­me­tre round-trip hike to the site of Grey Owl’s log cabin.

There are ac­tu­ally two cab­ins: Grey Owl’s cabin and an­other cabin built up

on a bit of a hill for his wife, Ana­hareo, and their daugh­ter Shirley Dawn.

The story goes that Ana­hareo wanted a sec­ond cabin be­cause Grey Owl opened up the first cabin to al­low young beavers to come into the one-room log struc­ture.

Grey Owl died of pneu­mo­nia in 1938 at age 50. He’s buried near the sec­ond cabin in a small grave­yard over­look­ing Ajawaan Lake.

Speer said some peo­ple try to do the trip over a weekend but don’t usu­ally make it to the cabin.

“If you try and do it in a weekend and you get out on the lake and it’s just too windy to be able to make any head­way, or it’s too dan­ger­ous, well, you’ve got to turn around and just go back home,” he ex­plained.

“I’ve talked to peo­ple who’ve tried it three, four times and never made it be­cause they tried to do it in two days and they got wind­bound and they couldn’t get in (to the cabin).”

Speer’s Quest for Grey Owl trip runs over four days, with camp­ing at ei­ther end of the lake, to al­low for changes in the weather.

It also makes for a more re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, he said.

“That’s re­ally the im­por­tant thing, is to give peo­ple a sense that, yeah, this can be fun if it’s be­ing done the right way.”


Grey Owl was a Bri­tish-born man named Archibald Be­laney who be­came a well-known nat­u­ral­ist and au­thor while pass­ing him­self off as abo­rig­i­nal.

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