Friday, September 6, 2013

Grey Owl's Cabin

Trip Date: August 2013

Mike and I had been talking about canoeing to Grey Owl's Cabin in Prince Albert National Park ever since his parents did it a few years ago.  It seemed like every summer when we tried to plan it something happened and the trip didn't.  During the winter of 2012, we decided that we would be doing the trip the following summer no matter what.  We would plan it, decide on dates, and actually make it happen.  We settled on August 17-20.  It was final.  We would really be going this summer!  As the trip got underway we had no idea what was in store for us...

Waskesiu, in Prince Albert National Park, is about 850km northeast of Calgary and 500km northwest of Regina.  After my nine hour drive, Mike and I made our way to the Parks Canada office in Waskesiu to purchase our backcountry permits.  Using the park's website we had planned in advance the exact route we wanted to take to and from the cabin.  From here things might get a little confusing so there's a map below of the Kingsmere Lake area that will hopefully clear up the next part of the story.  Our original plan was to launch our boat Saturday afternoon and paddle to the Westwind campground.  Sunday morning we would paddle up to Northend, hike to Grey Owl's Cabin and back, and then spend the night.  We would spend Monday paddling back to Southend via the Bagwa Canoe Route, which consists of Bagwa, Lily, and Clare Lakes. We would spend one final night at Southend before getting off the lake Tuesday morning and then driving home.  The plan made perfect sense to us, but things didn't go down like that!

The Kingsmere Lake area.  The red "P" is where we parked and launched the boat, the Smith Portage is the 1km rail-car portage, the red arrows indicate our actual paddling route, the green arrows are where we hiked, and the yellow star is the approximate location where we capsized.
The Parks Canada employee informed us that Westwind was reserved for educational group camping only.  Despite my charm, she insisted we didn't qualify even though I am a teacher!  Since Southend was full that night, she recommended we paddle to Lily Lake and was certain we'd make it before nightfall.  She also mentioned that there were two portages; one between Kingsmere Lake and Clare Lake and a second one between Clare Lake and Lily Lake.  Our new itinerary was basically in reverse from our original plan.  We would spend our first night on Lily Lake, our second would be up at Northend, where we would hike to the cabin, and our third and final night, would be spent down at Southend before getting off the water Tuesday morning.  Before leaving the Parks office we also opted into their volunteer program that required us to check-in and check-out of the backcountry.  If we didn't turn up in Waskesiu on Tuesday they would send Search and Rescue out within 24 hours to look for us.

The next stop was the Waskesiu Marina to pick up our canoe.  We rented the boat in advance and were expecting to get at least an 18-foot canoe for our three-day trip.  The boat we ended up with was quite a bit smaller and was the last one they had.  It required us to re-pack most of our stuff because some of our gear wouldn't fit.  After we got that all sorted out it was finally time to launch the boat.  The boat launch is on a small creek between Waskesiu Lake and Kingsmere Lake.  We immediately started paddling downstream, which promptly got us lost!  We were looking for the 1km rail-car portage that you have to take to get onto Kingsmere Lake, but instead ended up on Waskesiu Lake!  After turning around and paddling back upstream we found the rail-car and finally gained access to Kingsmere Lake.  By this time, however, the sun was getting pretty low in the sky and we still had a fair distance to go before reaching the campground.

This Marten was watching us as we loaded and launched our boat
We paddled the southwest corner of Kingsmere Lake, past the Warden's Cabin and found the portage trail to Clare Lake.  I forgot to mention above, but that same Parks Canada employee told us, "the portage trails had a bit of mud on them and that we'd likely get our boots a little muddy and smelly!"  This was her idea of a bit of mud!!

The beginning of the muddy section on the first portage trail.  The mud was up past our knees in places!
There was ultimately enough mud and water to float the fully-loaded canoe and it allowed us to just push the boat instead of carrying everything.  Needless to say it did take a lot longer than either of us had expected and it was very smelly!  We re-launched our boat on Clare Lake and paddled as quickly as possible because the sun had already set and it was getting dark fast.

We reached the second portage between Clare and Lily Lakes and prayed for no more mud!  We also immediately remembered that there was a Black Bear in the area of Lily Lake due to the healthy berry crop.  We had to unpack some of our gear to find headlamps and bear spray, which was quickly secured to my PFD for this portage.  By the time we finished carrying the last load it was pitch black out.  The moon was hidden behind thick storm clouds, which gave us a little extra motivation to find the campground as quickly as possible.  We did not want to be stranded in our boat when the lightning got closer!  We were also hoping that the other group of people staying at Lily Lake campground had a bonfire going so we would be able to see where the campground actually was.  Thankfully they noticed our headlamps as we got closer and came down to offer a hand pulling our boat and gear ashore.  After setting up our tents by firelight and eating some snacks, sleep came quickly for both of us.  We were hoping tomorrow would be a better day!

Our campsite on Lily Lake
Each backcountry campground in the Kingsmere Lake area has a bear cache
Someone carved this into our picnic table and it's exactly how we felt after our first night!
We were back in the boat by 10:30AM on Sunday morning and paddling for Bagwa Lake.  We had our fingers crossed that there weren't anymore portages as we'd gotten our fill of those the night before.  We found our way through to Bagwa Lake and ultimately back out to Kingsmere Lake.  The weather was perfect on this day.  The sun was out and there wasn't any wind, making the paddling quite enjoyable.

Lily Lake on Sunday morning
The channel between Bagwa Lake and Kingsmere Lake was filled with Lily Pads
It was neat to paddle through all of this
We weren't in a big hurry to get to Northend, so we took our time.  We stopped for a break at Pease Point and again for lunch in Bladebone Bay.

The view from Pease Point looking towards Kingsmere Lake
Lunch break at Bladebone Bay
Looking east out of Bladebone Bay
We arrived at Northend campground and began setting up camp
Northend even had a shelter in case of inclement weather
After dinner we relaxed by the lake
This Gull spent most of the evening searching for food
This Sandpiper was busy searching for its next meal
Another Gull along the shoreline
Lesser Yellowlegs
Sun setting over Kingsmere Lake
The next morning we got an early start to Grey Owl's Cabin.  The hike was only 6.4km round trip, but we didn't want to be paddling late in the afternoon.  Kingsmere Lake is notorious for changing quickly.  One minute the lake could be glassy and calm, but the next moment it could be churning with white-caps.  We wanted to do the hike and be back on the water before the afternoon wind picked up.  

Trail marker for Grey Owl's Cabin
Someone lashed a Moose antler to a tree along the trail
A section of the trail
Ajawaan Lake, where the cabin is located
"Far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those with genuine interest prompts them to make the trip, Beaver Lodge extends a welcome to you if your heart is right."
-Grey Owl 

Archie Belaney, more commonly known as Grey Owl, has been called many things since the time of his death; a fraud, a bigamist, a drunk, a scoundrel, and a liar, all of which might be true, but he was also a realist, an author, a lecturer, and one of Canada's "most effective apostles of the wilderness."  He was born in 1888 in England, but immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century.  Soon after arriving in Canada he met and married an Ojibwe girl named Angele Egwuna who introduced him to the wilderness and the Native way of life.  This was his first of three marriages, but only one divorce, and at least two common-law relationships.  Between 1907 and 1927 Grey Owl lived in the northern Ontario wilderness, making his living as a trapper, guide, and forest ranger.  He took on the identity of an Indian, suppressed his English accent, and proclaimed Apache ancestry.  In 1925 he met Gertrude Bernard, who he referred to as Anahero.  She played a key role in his transition from trapper to conservationist.  In desperate need of another source of income, Grey Owl began publishing his writings.  The Dominion Parks Service, what would later become Parks Canada, became aware of Grey Owl through his articles.  He was eventually hired as their first naturalist.  In 1931 Grey Owl, along with Anahero and their two beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Role, moved to a small cabin on Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park.  His popularity rose quickly with the publication of his bestselling books, Pilgrims of the Wild, Sajo and the Beaver People, and Empty Cabin.  As his fame grew, more and more was expected from him.  Hundreds of people visited Beaver Lodge during the summer months and he also went on two lengthy speaking tours to England in 1935 and 1937.   It has been reported that Grey Owl always had a taste for alcohol, but it was during the demanding years of his popularity that he increasingly abused it.  In the spring of 1938, Grey Owl returned to Beaver Lodge a tired and weakened man.  His death, on April 13, 1938, was attributed to pneumonia, but was also the result of a demanding speaking schedule, his ruinous lifestyle, and the fact that his past was catching up to him.

Grey Owl's Cabin, also known as Beaver Lodge
A beaver lodge directly inside Beaver Lodge.  The beavers, that Grey Owl and Anahero considered to be part of their family, could gain access to this cabin via an underwater entrance from the lake.
The lakefront cabin, complete with indoor beaver lodge, was the first cabin to be built on Ajawaan Lake.  As the frequency of visitors increased, so too did the number of people spending the night, and not everyone, not even his common-law wife Anahero, wished to share accommodations with an active beaver family.  For these reasons Anahero's upper cabin was built sometime in 1932 about a year after their arrival in Prince Albert National Park.

The wood-burning stove in Grey Owl's Cabin
Shelves on the wall above the bed
A paddle, complete with Grey Owl's signature and the date; Dec. 10, 1937.  Most of Grey Owl's belong's were pilfered after he died.  This  paddle was carved by a visitor to the cabin and left as a memento.  The date signifies a great triumph in Grey Owl's life; a Command performance for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.  The signature and date, obviously, were not written by Grey Owl himself, but by a visitor marking the special occasion.
There was a small desk in the corner of the cabin.  Sitting on top was information about Grey Owl and the cabin, as well as as guest book that we could sign.
An old pipe tobacco can
His small bed made of pine saplings
A beautiful lakefront view
Anahero's upper cabin
The inside of her cabin was completely empty
Say a silent thank you for the preservation of wilderness areas, for the lives of creatures who live there and for the people with the foresight to realize this heritage, no matter how.  
-Inscription on a plaque near the gravesite 

The nearby graves of Grey Owl, Anahero, and their daughter Shirley Dawn
The following pictures are of Grey Owl, Anahero, and two of their beloved Beavers.  I found the photos online and they are courtesy of Parks Canada.

After thoroughly exploring the area around Grey Owl's Cabin we hiked back to Northend, broke camp, packed the canoe, and launched the boat.  Our final destination for the day was Southend campground and we would be paddling down the eastern shore of Kingsmere Lake.  After about an hour of paddling the wind picked up quickly.  Before we knew what hit us we were being hammered by white-caps and one of those large waves capsized our boat.  Luckily we were close enough to shore that I could immediately touch the bottom, but it was a scramble to pull everything onto the rocky shore, including a canoe that was three-quarters full of water.

Trying to wait-out the wind after we capsized
The shoreline around Kingsmere Lake is dense Boreal Forest that grows almost to the very edge of the lake.  With that being said, there's not much in the way of an actual shoreline, just a narrow strip of large rocks.  We ended up hauling all of our gear into a very small clearing and thought we'd wait-out the wind.  We were hoping that the wind would die down as quickly as it arrived or, at the very least, it would calm down in the evening, giving us a chance to paddle to one of the three campgrounds along the eastern shore of the lake.  After 4.5 hours of waiting in the woods we knew we had to make a decision.  We could either (A) camp right where we were, (B) bushwack our way through the woods to the hiking trail that we knew wasn't far behind us and hike back to Northend for the night, or (C) attempt to paddle to Sandy Beach, which was the next campground down the lake and a distance of about 1.5km.  Neither of us wanted to spend the night where we were, and the wind wasn't dying down, so we decided to hike back to Northend.  In the middle of organizing our gear for the trip back we both looked at each other and basically said, "this is ridiculous.  Why are we backtracking?"  After mutually agreeing, we re-loaded the canoe and would attempt to paddle to Sandy Beach.  Once the boat was in the water we quickly realized there was no way that we could possibly get into the boat and paddle it without capsizing again and again.  The waves were just too big.  We were both soaking wet at this point so we just decided to push the boat to Sandy Beach!  This decision was far from fun, but it allowed us to make forward progress to an actual campground where we could build a fire, dry our clothes, and eat!

Pushing the canoe for 1.5km to Sandy Beach.  This picture doesn't do the size of the waves any justice, but you can see on Mike's PFD just how high the waves were hitting him!
After drying off, warming up, and filling our bellies we made the decision to get up bright and early the next morning to try and get off the lake early that afternoon.  We were a bit concerned that our families were expecting phone calls from us on Tuesday morning, but we assumed they wouldn't panic as long as we called them at some point that day.

One of the nice things about a canoe trip, as opposed to a hiking trip, is you don't have to be nearly as worried about weight.  With that fact in mind we packed a flat of water for the trip instead of purifying lake water as our main source to drink.  When we capsized, the only items we lost were the remaining bottles of clean drinking water.  Luckily I had packed some AquaTabs in case of an emergency and they came in very handy.  Before going to bed we filled a bunch of empty water bottles with lake water and purified a few litres so we had enough to get us through the next day.  From hearing horror stories of other people catching Giardia (Beaver Fever), neither of was was too keen on drinking lake water to begin with, but we didn't have much of a choice at that point.  After establishing a supply of drinking water, combined with the fact the wind hadn't really died down at all, we called it a night and crashed hard.

Panoramic view of Kingsmere Lake after a frustrating day
We were up at 6AM, but the wind was still blowing strong.  We didn't think we'd be able to paddle out, so we went back to bed for another hour.  At 7AM we decided we'd make an attempt to paddle at least to the next campground, but upon launching the boat and getting absolutely swamped by waves we pulled the plug on that plan.  It was now time to hike back to the vehicles.  Once back at our cars we would have cell reception so we could call our families, check the weather report, and then make an informed decision about our best course of action.  It was a 12.7km hike to the cars.  We prepped day-packs for the hike and began our journey.

The hike out was pretty monotonous and uneventful.  We passed two different groups of hikers who were heading in the direction of Grey Owl's Cabin, but otherwise we didn't see anything.  We only listened to the howling wind that was ripping off the lake directly towards us.  Once back at the vehicles we headed towards Waskesiu.  We stopped at the marina on the way to let them know that we wouldn't be returning their canoe that day.  The lady working there was very helpful and even offered to pick up the canoe, using a 40hp fishing boat, the following day if the wind died down.  She didn't mention us or our gear so we kind of assumed that her offer was only for the boat. We left the marina and promised to keep them apprised of our plans.  We then drove into Waskesiu to speak with Parks Canada.  This was an exercise in extreme patience.  We informed the woman of our situation and that they shouldn't dispatch Search and Rescue because we were fine, just stranded.  We also told her that we would have to go back into the backcountry at some point to get the boat and our gear.  Her response was, "okay I will de-register you so we won't send out Search and Rescue.  There's really nothing else we can do though."  Our response to that statement was something along the lines of, "okay, but what happens when we go back to retrieve our gear and then something serious happens to us?  There's currently no record of us being in the backcountry because you've already de-registered us, so there wouldn't be anybody looking for us at all."  Her response, "ya I guess that's right.  So do you guys have jobs and stuff?  What do you guys do?  You probably need to get back home, hey?"  Mike and I looked at each other in complete disbelief.  We had hoped to come to some sort of agreement with Parks Canada about re-registering us once we headed back out, but it was obvious this employee wasn't fully connected with reality.  We went into the Parks office knowing it wasn't their job to get us out of our situation, but we didn't expect anything like that.  It wasn't worth our time talking with her anymore so we left without any type of resolution.  We were never re-registered for the backcountry, so ultimately nobody within Parks Canada knew we would be back in the park in the near future.  After leaving Parks Canada we made the necessary phone calls to our families and let them know about our situation and that we were alright.  We also talked about our options and checked the weather report.  The day's weather was sunny with wind blowing at 30km/h and gusting up to 50km/h.  It was supposed to diminish to "light wind" in the evening and then steadily increase to 20km/h the following day.  We both felt like our best option was to head back to the campground that afternoon and if the wind died enough we could paddle out in the evening.  Neither of us really wanted to hike another 12.7km, but it was a necessary evil if we wanted off the lake.  We bought some more food, as we were running low, and headed back to the trailhead not really knowing what to expect.

We saw this large bull Elk on the side of Kingsmere Road on our way back to the trailhead
The hike back to Sandy Beach was long and very uneventful.  We did spot some fresh bear scat that wasn't there on our way out, but that was the extent of our excitement.  When we arrived at Sandy Beach we noticed that a pair of the hikers we passed on our way out had set up camp there.  One of the first questions they asked us was, "did you guys see the bear?"  Thankfully, we had not, but I guess shortly after we passed each other they rounded a bend and a Black Bear was sitting in the middle of the trail.  Luckily he ran away shortly after being spotted, but we now knew there was definitely a bear in the area.  We had a quick bite to eat and tiredly waited for the wind to stop blowing.  As the sun was setting and the wind didn't seem to be letting up we made a plan to go to bed and get some rest.  We would get up every two hours to check the wind and the waves to see if it was feasible to try and leave.  Laying in the tent, listening to the fly flapping around in the wind, neither of us felt great about our chances of paddling that night.

Sunset over Kingsmere Lake just before hitting the hay around 9PM and praying for calmer weather!
I woke up around 11PM and could still hear the wind blowing outside the tent.  I didn't even bother getting up, I just rolled over and fell back to sleep.  At 1AM, I again woke up, but couldn't hear the wind at all.  I got up and walked down to the lakeshore.  The waves were still a decent size, but by far the smallest we'd seen since the wind started blowing.  I came back to the tent and basically told Mike, "I think it's now or never."  We packed up the tent, loaded the canoe, changed into our paddling gear, and launched the boat around 2AM by the light of the full moon.  We really lucked out that it was a clear night, because our headlamps wouldn't have provided nearly enough light to navigate our way back.  We paddled for 2.5 hours without stopping for a break, a drink of water, or a snack.  We didn't want to take the chance that the wind would start to blow again and we'd be stranded in the middle of the night.  It wasn't a relaxing ordeal either.  We were both worried about taking our paddles out of the water for fear of capsizing in the darkness.  Finally we reached the small creek that would take us to the 1km rail-car portage.  It was a great feeling being off Kingsmere Lake and knowing now that our trip was finally coming to a close.  

Upon reaching the rail portage there was a sudden change in temperature and both Mike and I began shivering uncontrollably.  Neither of us were cold while paddling on Kingsmere Lake, but as soon as we got to the rail portage we could instantly see our breath.  To be honest I don't know why there was such a shift in temperature, maybe it was the fact that we both relaxed when we reached the portage and the adrenaline that had been pumping earlier was now gone.  Whatever caused the dramatic change in temperature though wasn't welcome.  To make matters worse we also needed to hike the 1km portage trail to get the rail-car that was at the opposite end.  So by the time we collected the rail-car, pushed it back to the waiting canoe, loaded the boat, and then pushed it back up the trail again the sun was already starting to rise.  

Tired, cold, and hungry, but almost off the water.  All that's left is the 1km rail portage and another short paddle downstream to the take-out point.  We're going to make it!
Our loaded canoe sitting on the rail-car.  The 1km portage actually turned into 3km because the rail-car was at the opposite end when we arrived!
We finally reached the take-out point at 5:30AM; a full three 3.5 hours after we made our moonlight escape from Sandy Beach campground.  We immediately changed into warm, dry clothes, and then set about unloading our gear into the vehicles and finally securing the canoe to the roof of Mike's Jeep.  We dropped the canoe at the marina and left them a note saying we'd made it off the lake safely.  All that was left was a five hour drive to Regina for Mike and a nine hour slog back home for me.  Mike texted me after he got home and said he figured between canoeing and hiking we put on about 75km over the course of the four days!

Despite what you've read here, and what you might be thinking, we actually did have a lot of fun on this trip.  Standing inside Grey Owl's Cabin was worth the effort required.  It just goes to show that having a trip plan while in the backcountry means very little as nobody can control the weather.  There are just too many intangibles to accurately predict the outcome and you need to be flexible.  We both definitely learned a lot and I know we'll be back out there sooner than later, although, after hearing about our trip, I'm not sure my wife will ever join us on another adventure again!  I think it's also safe to say that we'll be talking about this trip for years to come!

I wanted to finish this post with a great quote that summed up the adventure we had.  When I asked Mike about it, he jokingly suggested, "If you don't laugh, you'll cry!"  We both seem to think this one is a little better though...
"An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered."
-G. K. Chesterton 

An abbreviated version of this story was featured in the May 2015 issue of Our Canada magazine.  You can view the photo slideshow on their website right here.


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  2. Damn! Lol lots of twists in that story eh? Lol planning never works out. The cabin looks amazing. Hopefully I'll get there one day.

    1. As much as you plan it out the weather is always so unpredictable. Although it was tough at the time we both look back on it now and laugh. Thanks for reading Scot!

  3. Wow this is an ultimate experience. Paddling and camping are two of my favorite outdoor adventures. Cheers!
    Paddleboards in Alberta

    1. Thanks! It was definitely an unforgettable trip to say the least. Two of my favourite activities as well. Thanks for stopping by!