It was an armed assault. They were coming from every direction, replacements quickly taking the place of their fallen peers. Buzzing around at a rate that can only rival the late Jurassic Period, the insect life in Saskatchewan during summer can be a daunting foe. I chalked up my annoyance to just not being very outdoorsy, and fell into a quiet acceptance as the small runabout motored down the river. The bugs, the bright sunshine, the incredible verdant green plants surrounding us, this is what it must have been like when the great and highly weird Canadian conservationist Grey Owl first followed the same path to his now famous cabin more than 70 years ago.
I’m not up on my early Canadian conservationist history as most of you probably are, so please pardon my ignorance that I didn’t know who the indefatigable Grey Owl was before we crossed the mirror-like surface of Kingsmere Lake to reach the hallowed ground of his cabin. Grey Owl, whose name was actually Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, emigrated from the United Kingdom in 1906 with a well-established infatuation with Native American culture. He was so single-mindedly obsessed that he changed his name, applied coloring to his skin and affected the dress, speech and even mannerisms of First Nations peoples.
Giving up a life of trapping for conservation, Grey Owl became well known as an ardent supporter of preserving Canada’s wilderness and unique wildlife. Dominion Parks Service hired him as their first naturalist and in 1931 a small cabin was built for him and his family (including beavers) in Prince Albert National Park. He lived in this simple cabin until his death in 1938 from pneumonia, following a hectic lecture schedule in Europe.
It’s just as remote today, an all too rare pleasure. To get there we slowly boated down the Kingsmere River through the aforementioned army of gigantic bugs, to Kingsmere Lake. But, and here’s the kicker, you can’t actually boat from the river to the lake; no, that would have been far too easy. Instead one must portage the boat, a much more involved process than I had ever imagined.
The distance of the portage is about a kilometer and is necessary in order to avoid some minor rapids. Not an insignificant distance to somehow move a wheel-less boat that’s, you know, just a tad bit on the heavy side. To aid in this seemingly Herculean feat of travel passion, rail tracks were installed and a dolly sits in place to cart the boat. Using pulleys, levers, ropes and other words that probably aren’t accurate, one hauls the boat out of the water onto the dolly and then must push it the kilometer in order to relaunch the boat in the lake.
A lot of effort for a damn cabin, but I learned it was entirely worth it.
I was fascinated by Kingsmere Lake, on which Grey Owl’s Cabin rests. There are no roads leading to this quiet place of introspection. The only way to reach it is by the portaging of boats, thereby making this area not just extremely remote, but extremely peaceful. There were a few summerhouses dotting the shores, but the most populous resident was the loon. The sun was shining brightly and the lake was a perfectly still surface, reflecting the blue sky and only disturbed by our invasive ripples. Had we turned around right then and there my day was already a great one, but we hadn’t even reached out target objective.
I’m always wary when guides, particularly the outdoorsy types, say that something isn’t hard or not too far. It’s not malicious, I know, but it’s almost always a lie. The great King’s Canyon death march in Australia was described to us as a pleasant morning walk. Hiking up a volcano in St. Kitts was “not a big deal.” So yeah, they lie which is why I was concerned when I heard similar protestations of ease from our guide as we started the hike to the cabin itself.
But in a rare moment of outdoorsy guide veracity, the hike was not in fact bad. The bugs, they were bad. My only advice would be that unless you want to consume, quite inadvertently, several kilos of insects then don’t visit northern Saskatchewan in early summer. The din of their buzzing actually made it hard to hear my fellow hikers, but believe it or not after a few meters everything became just background noise.
Along the way we heard all about the strange Grey Owl. The confirmed alcoholic had one too many wives and led a double life equaling that of any great fictional character. More enjoyable than his strange history was the hike through one of the most beautiful areas of Saskatchewan. I’m always most impressed by natural beauty and this was certainly yet another example of being humbled by nature’s diversity and ability to charm.
Finally, almost as a side thought, we reached our main objective – the cabin. What was it like? Well, it’s a small wooden cabin on a lake. And that’s about it. I suppose the cultural meaning is what has propelled this into a popular destination for hikers and general lovers of history. But I’m not entirely positive of that. More than learning about Grey Owl or seeing his incredibly run-of-the-mill cabin, the journey to get there is the real experience. Setting out across a pristine lake, entirely alone except for some waterfowl and hiking through brilliant forests, this is the true pleasure of this adventure.
Did I like the experience? Yes, without a doubt, but probably not for the reasons I should. I enjoyed it for the opportunity for introspection it afforded and to bear witness to what makes Canada such a great place to visit.
So go, visit Grey Owl’s cabin and be just as amazed. Just make sure to bring some bug spray.
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