Canoe through the boreal forest tracing the legend of Grey Owl
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.