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Following in Grey Owl's wake

(This story originally appeared in the December, 2000 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine)

By John Geary

There it was again … there was no mistaking it this morning.

A pack of wolves serenaded us as we finished our breakfast on Bagwa Lake. There is no sound that says "wilderness" more than the howl of a wolf on a distant shore …or in this case, a not-so-distant shore.

On a more easterly shore, the morning before, I thought I had heard wolf howls, but they were too faint to tell if the sound was really wolves or just my imagination giving me what I wanted.

A desire for these kinds of experiences took us into the heart of one of Canada's less-visited national parks, in early October. By canoeing in Prince Albert National Park, in central Saskatchewan, we were paddling in country renowned as the last stomping ground of the famous - or infamous, depending on one's perspective - Englishman Archie Belaney, better known to the world as Grey Owl.

While Grey Owl is remembered for many things, his enduring legacy is his love of nature. It was in his cabin on Ajawaan Lake in this park, inspired by the wild beauty of the boreal forest and aspen parkland surrounding him, that he wrote the books Pilgrims of the Wild, Sajo and the Beaver People, and Tales of an Empty Cabin.

We planned to visit his cabin, Beaver Lodge, as part of a three-day trip that included the Bagwa Circuit, one of two backcountry canoe routes in the park.

Light, wispy snowflakes greeted us the morning we headed out. When we checked into the park office to register for our backcountry canoe trip, the registrar gave us a funny look and asked us if she had heard us correctly. Yes, we told her, we were indeed registering for a backcountry canoe trip.

You would have thought it was winter or something, the way she reacted.

There are three ways to visit Grey Owl's cabin: by foot, by canoe, or by a combination of paddling and hiking. We chose to paddle up the east side of 12-1/2 mile long Kingsmere Lake. A trail follows the eastern shore, with five campsites distributed along the lake's edge.

Our trip turned out to be one of the first made by canoeists since the park removed the Kingsmere River dam in September, to help restore the fading walleye population.

Removal of the dam had another effect: more difficult access to the lake. Putting into the river south of the dam followed by a leisurely 20-minute paddle upstream led to a hand-powered railcar. Using the railcar, visitors used to be able to push a canoe or boat about a mile through the bush to a dock above the dam. From there, it was an easy put in and paddle into the lake.

With the dam gone, the river level was too low to float a craft past the old dock, so we had to portage the canoe away from the river, about another mile to the southern shore of the lake.

When we arrived, we discovered that the lake level was so low, we had to doff our boots, roll up our pant legs and guide the canoe about a half-mile out into the lake before it became deep enough to resume paddling. No cup of coffee ever served as a better wake-me-up than that half-mile walk through icy lake water.

Two hour's-worth of paddling brought us to the Sandy Beach campsite. Although it was only 5 o'clock, fall canoeing makes for shorter days.

Fall canoeing also makes for more solitude. During our two hours of paddling, we had seen no other canoes on the lake. We did see numerous waterfowl, such as red-necked grebes, cormorants, ducks and an occasional loon. Their presence was just a taste of what was to come.

While hauling equipment from our canoe up to our campsite, my eyes spied something that my brain registered, "cat" because of its calico color. A millisecond later, my common sense kicked in, telling me there is no way a cat could be out here, at least not a housecat.

It was a calicofox. Red foxes and gray foxes I have seen; but until then, I had never seen a calico fox. I froze about 20 yards away and watched it for a moment or two before it sensed me, then darted back into the safety of the trees.

Nature was rewarding me already.

It rewarded me again later that evening when I went down to the lake. There, about 20 feet out from shore, was an otter lolling casually about in the lake, looking for all the world like he was taking his evening bath.

A quote from Grey Owl came to mind: "Remember, you belong to Nature, not it to you."

The trip was reconfirming that arrangement is one I embrace quite willingly.

While preparing the next morning's breakfast, I thought I heard a long, drawn-out howl far off to the west. As I did not hear it again, I thought perhaps I was trying too hard to hear wolves. The next morning, of course, would prove my first instincts correct.

We had shared the Sandy Beach campsite with a pair of hikers but after leaving to continue our paddle to Beaver Lodge, they proved to be the last humans we saw for two days.

It was approximately three miles across the lake to the access point from Kingsmere to the trail that led to Ajawaan Lake. We took our time, pausing often to sit and listen to the silence, to watch hawks and bald eagles fly overhead. We eventually landed at the portage, then headed into the woods with canoe and packs to find the pristine lake from which Grey Owl had drawn inspiration. He described it thus:

"Ajawaan; a small, deep lake that, like a splash of quicksilver, lies gleaming in its setting of the wooded hills that stretch in long, heaving undulations into the North, to the Arctic Sea."

As Grey Owl would have done, we paddled across the lake to Beaver Lodge, rather than walk around the lake on a 1-1/2 mile trek.

As we touched the shore by his cabin, a sense of reverence washed over me.

Here was the spot at which one of the early conservationists of the 20th century did much of his work. We stepped inside his cabin, trying to get a sense of the ghosts of those who had lived here 70 years before. The grave site is located in the woods near the cabin where Grey Owl, his wife Anahareo, and their daughter, Shirley Dawn, lie buried.

After a leisurely lunch, it was time to head back to Kingsmere and on to Bagwa Lake, another three hour's worth of paddling.

Halfway across the mouth of an inlet in the northwest corner of the lake, the gray skies that had been threatening rain for the past two hours finally made good on their threats. We paddled through the misty veil of rain, past the Pease Point campground on the west side of the lake and into marshy Bagwa Channel.

Paddling through the marsh provided us with plenty of up-close views of waterfowl, especially ducks. We eventually glided into the waters of Bagwa Lake. As we pulled ashore to our campsite, we were treated to an absolutely glorious sunset. Eagles, hawks, otters, foxes, and now this - could a canoe trip offer anything more?

The sounds of an owl hooting and ducks quacking intermittently answered that question, providing a natural lullaby to soothe us into slumber that night.

Those arias proved to be merely the opening overture for next morning's concert. Twice while we ate breakfast, our lupine singers serenaded us. Then, as we pulled out from shore to head into Lily Lake, they howled one final, wild aria, a grand finale to bid us farewell and raise the curtain for our trip's final act.

As we entered Lily Lake through a connecting channel, we spied a lone eagle sitting on a brush pile not 30 yards to our left. He spied us too, and treated us with a majestic rise into the air across our bow.

Out in the middle of the lake, we again took the time to stop and listen to the laughing cries of the grebes that surrounded us.

A portage to Clare Lake, a short paddle across the small lake, and another portage brought us back to the southwest corner of Kingsmere. Paddling toward the Southend Campground, three monster lake trout swam by, just a few feet beneath our canoe.

All too soon, we were taking our canoe ashore for our final portage and short paddle back to our waiting vehicle. Our thoughts remained back at Clare Lake, however.

As we had approached the portage back to Kingsmere, we sat in silence, contemplating, reflecting, meditating and giving thanks, this Friday prior to the Canadian Thanksgiving. Thanks for a safe journey, thanks for all the beauty of nature we had experienced, and thanks for people like Grey Owl, champions of conservation, without whose efforts we could not enjoy the treasures that nature offers so freely.

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