As I travelled from Ontario (Toronto) to Saskatoon, in Canada, the last week of August, I thought about Grey Owl and Anahareo’s journey all those years before with the beavers, after leaving Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba in November,1931. I was flying, but their journey was by train. More restful you might think, on a train. Nice and gentle, no squashed seating with knees around your ears as you try to manage a hot beverage and a plate of food on a flip down table the size of child's hand, as is the case with the plane nowadays. But then I realized they had the beavers with them, packed in their wood stove, and all the food and baggage they’d need for the coming winter. Not so easy.
Once in Saskatoon, I was met at the airport by my wonderful host and Waskesiu resident, Doreen Kerby, who packed me into her car and we drove the 3 hour journey to Waskesiu, in Prince Albert National Park. The highway was smooth, straight and clear cut through the Sasketchewan prairie land filled with ripening crops in a car with plush bucket seats and modern shock absorbers. Back in the thirties, I could imagine this journey would have been much longer, made on rough dusty roads in the back of a truck that would rattle the teeth out of your head and coat your throat with dirt.
The prairies eventually gave way to a more rugged landscape and the trees rose higher and more majestic as we entered the arboreal forest. Tall pines, black spruce, white birch, and aspen. By the time I arrived in Waskesiu it was dark. Exploration would have to wait until the next day.
The next morning I was able to have a short walk around the point, the place where the old cottages from the early days of the park are located. Among them was the oldest cabin in the park, a trapper’s cabin, now renovated into a lovely home full of whimsy. I thought about how it must have been in the days when Anahareo and Grey Owl were here. I’m sure they would have been to the old cabin and could only imagine what they would make of it now.
After the walk it was time to begin the journey to Anahareo and Grey Owl’s cabin. We drove to Kingsmere Lake, parking in the designated area, and then made the short trek to the edge of the lake. Grey Owl and Anahareo would have had to carry the beavers and all the supplies and gear in stages back and forth from the clearing where they would have unloaded the truck. For me, it was a short trek. For them, one of a series of portages they were to make to get to their new home at Ajawaan Lake.
When we reached the other side, there was another portage to journey across. This one though, well marked and had boardwalks in areas where the muskeg was too wet to walk safely and comfortably across. No boardwalks for Anahareo and Grey Owl, and it was a long portage. Now they have a track with a little carriage to push up and down for easier porting. Still, it would wear out many people going back and forth for canoe, supplies and luggage.
Once at the lake’s edge, the canoeist can lower his boat in the water and paddle his way across Ajawaan Lake to the cabin, but we trekkers walked around the edge of the lake to the cabin, peeking through the trees to catch sight of it. The plantlife was really in full bloom, as it was late August, with loads of bunchberries and other plants. The bugs were in retreat for the most part, something I much appreciated. Mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, noseeums and anything else that would eat me alive in June and July were thankfully gone to ground now. It was November when Anahareo and Grey Owl moved the beavers to Ajawaan, but other times of the year, in any part of the bush, it must have been a real challenge with all those bugs.
The main cabin was in a small clearing. I could recognize it at once, of course, after seeing so many photos of it while researching the book. It still felt so special to actually see it in person. The day was grey, but at least it wasn’t raining (that sounds like I’m back in Ireland). I bounded up to the upper cabin-- the one Anahareo stayed in after Dawn was born and she needed a place for the baby away from the beavers. I wanted to look at that alone, to have some moments just with the cabin and my own thoughts. It was empty and quiet and I stood there for a little while and just took it in, imagining how it was to live there day after day, hauling water, cooking, washing clothes. Not easy.