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Heroes and Outlaws

Grey Owl: Champion of Nature, Friend of the Wild

Saskatoon Star Phoenix
May 1, 1971. p.15

By Jean Macpherson
Staff Reporter

The expatriate Englishman sleeps beside the lonely beaver dam his hands helped the animals to build.

And as the leaves brighten in the forests and the beaver take up their springtime activities, a trickle of interpid tourists visits the cabin and grave, paying homage to one of Nature's most articulate spokesmen, Grey Owl.

Among the tourists this June will be a group of Aden Bowman Collegiate students on their second annual outing to study the conservation efforts at the lodge north of Kingsmere Lake in Prince Albert National Park.

The "Green Leaf" tour involves a bus trip to Waskesiu, canoes across the lakes, a portage over the narrow-gauge railway which connects Waskesiu and Kingsmere, shooting the Kingsmere river rapids, and a trip up the tiny winding Ajawaan river to the two cabins built by Grey Owl.

It was not until his death in April, 1938, that it became known that Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belany in Hastings, England. To audiences in North America and readers all over the world, Grey Owl was an Ojibway Indian who lived all his life in the hinterland, companion to the beaver and friend to all wild things.

His somewhat sketchy history reveals that he arrived in Canada at the tender age of 15 and worked in a menswear store in Toronto until 1906, when he appears to have been a tourist guide at a camp near Cobalt, Ont.

On Aug. 23, 1910, Archie Belaney married a Huron girl called Angle (possibly pronounced "Angel"), but nothing more was heard of her or her three children until a claim was made in her behalf against the Grey Owl estate.

According to Jim Sceviour, a teacher at Aden Bowman Collegiate and an authority on Grey Owl, the "Indian" married the Huron girl for the purpose of gaining memebership in her tribe, but succeeded only in having her drummed out of the group. At a later date, however, Grey Owl did become a memeber of the Ojibway tribe, and married a Mohawk girl called Anahereo.

In the meantime, Grey Owl spent four years overseas during the first war, during which time he married an Englishwoman. She refused to return to Canada with him, and was subsequently divorced.

Sometime in the period following his discharge from the Army, Grey Owl established himself as an Indian lecturer on wildlife, and made four movies involving his pet beavers, Jellyroll and Rawhide.

By 1928 he was a veteran of successful lecture tours in the United States, Canada and England, in which he was accompianed by Anahereo and the two beaver. He adopted Indian dress and a lecture style which was a combination of art, talent, and sincerity.

He became the author of many pamphlets, children's stories, and three books. Men of the Last Frontier, 1931, was a collection of his essays, recounting tales of wildlife activities. Pilgrims of the Wild was published in 1935; and Grey Owl's last book was called Tales of an Empty Cabin.

His children's books, including Sajo and the Beaver People, were published in England, and still outsell all other children's stories, including Hans Christian Andersen.

After a two-month stint at Riding Mountain National Park, Grey Owl, Anahereo and their beaver family were transferred in 1931 by the Canadian National Parks Commission to Prince Albert National Park, where they established the beaver preserve that still exists on Ajawaan Lake.

There Grey Owl continued his writings and speaking tours until his death.

Two cabins were built, and in the one on the lake's edge and two pet beavers built their lodge, half in, half out of the man-made structure.

In the years since his death in 1938, Grey Owl's cabins have remained untenanted except for the beaver. Some of the logs rotted at the foundation line, and park officials had them removed so that the cabins became lower and lower, until more recently cement blocks were inserted to hold them up.

A sign was erected by the parks commission in front of the lower cabin, telling a little of the story of Grey Owl and his animal friends. Plans are being tentatively discussed regarding rebuilding the cabins for preservation, using as many of the original logs as possible, or at least preserving them for viewing.

Grey Owl welcomed tourists to his beaver lodge, and remained dedicated to the dissemination of information about these animals, including the need for conservation, not only for the beavers, but for all wildlife and the wilderness areas in which they live.

But tourists before 1938 were few and far between, and their methods of travel were the same as those of the original native inhabitants of the forests.

Last year the governemnt laid plans to build an all-weather road past Waskesiu, past Kingsmere, and into the very place where Grey Owl's beavers sported in the Ajawaan river.

Conservationists in Saskatoon shuddered at the thought of twin-motored high-powered boats on the tiny lake, concession stands and cottages among the pines, empty bottles broken on the rocks. A quiet lobby persuaded the parks commission to postpone the building of the road, to allow the beavers to continue to enjoy their existence undisturbed in the untouched wilderness Grey Owl worked to preserve for them.