I was honored this year to be asked to speak at a tribute weekend to Anahareo and Grey Owl in Waskesiu, Sasketchewan in Canada.
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.
Once at the edge of the shore I climbed into a small motor boat along with 4 companions and the guide. There was another boat of 6 others on this trip as well. All part of the tribute weekend celebrations. The journey across the lake was about 25 minutes and fairly smooth for a place that can get choppy in a heartbeat. Anahareo and Grey Owl made the journey by canoe and with the beavers crated up and loaded with all their supplies, it was neither fast, nor easy. They were expert canoeist, though, but still I appreciate their strength and stamina.
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.
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.
From there I went to the graves: Grey Owl, Anahareo and Dawn. I picked some wildflowers and put it on Anahareo’s grave and said a few words to her. A few moments more alone with the three of them and then I went back down to the lower cabin where the rest of the trekkers were. I reached the lower cabin and went inside, e the lower cabin, wondering how much of it would be like the photos I poured over for hours. The corner of the cabin devoted to the beavers was still piled high with the branches and twigs. Near it was the wooden frame of the bed and the table. Even a shelf above it had a few items on it and on the other side hung an oar that Grey Owl inscribed, hung on the wall. A wood stove took up some room and I imagined them huddled round it in the dead of winter, Anahareo reading her geology books and Grey Owl scribbling away. There was a guest book on the table and beside it postcards for cabin visitors to take away.
I sighed and soaked up the atmosphere a bit and then joined the others outside to sit a while, take in the lake view and think of the hours Grey Owl and Anahareo spent in this spot. All the years that have passed and still their environmental message is as important today as it was then. Even more so.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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