Grey Owl at Cabano

A view of what Grey Owl called "Elephant Mountain," from Cabano. Source: Alan MacEachern

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For many people around the world, Canadian environmental history probably begins and ends with Grey Owl. Born Archie Belaney in Hastings, England, he moved to Canada in the early 20th century, adopted an aboriginal persona, started writing about nature, and with the publication of books such as Pilgrims of the Wild became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1930s. James Bond played him in the movie.

Descriptions of Grey Owl typically state that his life as a naturalist began when he moved “to Cabano in northern Quebec” – which is odd, since Cabano is in the Témiscouata area of eastern Quebec near New Brunswick, right alongside the Trans-Canada Highway, on the same latitude as Spokane, Washington. And Grey Owl never pretended Cabano was more remote than it was. It is as if we need to imagine him far, far away from civilization before he could possibly have come to love nature. But in Canada, people encroach on the wild more quickly than we first think.

For 25 summers, I drove past Cabano on the way to Prince Edward Island, always planning to take a few days hiking and camping the area, locating the lakes and maybe even the cabins where Grey Owl stayed. I never did. But on the way through last year I learned that the region he wrote about had just become what Quebec calls a national park and what the rest of Canada would call a provincial park. This time, I stopped. As you would expect, Parc national du Lac-Témiscouata promotes its literary connection on signs and in pamphlets, but there are no trails leading to where Grey Owl stayed, in part because there are no physical remnants of his time there. Or at least none yet found. Interpreter Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon told me that the park was planning archaeological work in summer 2014 to look for where Grey Owl wintered with his pet beaver Jelly Roll, a site described in Pilgrims of the Wild as “a small camp, well built and in good shape, situated on the shores of a little lake that lay about five miles back of the Elephant mountain. … [A]ll was peace and quietness and contentment, … this little lake set high in the mountains.” This, it is thought, was Lac à Foin.

After talking to Pierre-Emmanuel, I went for two good hikes in the park and prepared to leave. I was to be in New Brunswick that evening and at its provincial archives the next morning. But feeling invincible, I instead drove alongside where I thought Lac à Foin was, parked my car at the side of the road, and walked into the forest. The little lake could not be more than 500 metres away, I told myself, I couldn’t miss it. And if I did, I would retrace my steps. I was maybe 300 metres into the dense pine woods – no map, no compass, no GPS, no wifi, no cell signal, no one knowing where I was or where I was going – when I turned back. In Canada, the wild encroaches on people more quickly than we first think.

Happy Canada Day.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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