A visit to Archie’s – a climber’s story
“far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those whose genuine interest prompts them to make the trip...”
The road ran straight ahead as far as the eye could see and the land lay open and bare on either side of the scar with nothing on the horizon save what man had put there or allowed to remain.
This was once the land of the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot and Sioux but these people had been disenfranchised, confined to reserves, overwhelmed by disease, hunger and immigrant numbers. And the once great Bison herds that had kept them in food, clothing and shelter, had long since disappeared.
We drove west towards the Rockies. Seven hours (give or take) of some of the easiest driving known to man, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Canmore, Alberta door to door. Get up to 120 Km/Hr, hit cruise and sit back. One fuel stop would do it.
It was winter and we would stay in the Alpine Club hut, an excellent, comfortable and quiet residence just outside of the town and a little away from the party houses that attract less dedicated clientele. Of course, if I were a few years younger it would be a different tale to tell.
But this isn’t a climbing story. This is the story of a different pilgrimage to a different place. This is the story of a visit to Archie’s, a visit to Grey Owl’s.
We were faced with a dilemma. The climbing trips to the mountains were great but time and distance confined these to two or three visits per year. The local wall in Saskatoon had closed and the replacement for it had not yet been completed. The only option was the university wall and this was small and top rope only. We needed to broaden our horizons.
Saskatchewan is known as a prairie province, a land so flat that on a clear day you can see the back of your head. But this is only true of the bottom half and then only really true of certain areas, primarily around the number one trans-Canada highway. This is what most visitors experience as they try to cross the prairie as quickly as possible.
As you travel north there are some real gems but you have to look a little to find them. The South Saskatchewan River meanders its way north east towards Hudson’s Bay through a secluded cut in the land (once it is free of Lake Diefenbaker) and the wonderful Qu’ Appelle river valley runs east towards Lake Winnipeg. North of Saskatoon the land begins to roll a little, the Birch and Aspen woodland becomes a more regular feature. There are numerous small lakes and some spectacular wetlands which attract a vast array of migratory birds during the spring and fall. Moose and Deer are a regular hazard on the roads.
Where the farmland of the prairie ends is Prince Albert, a small city on the North Saskatchewan River beyond which the great boreal forest begins. A vast expanse of pristine wilderness reaching up to the arctic tundra, the forest is home to much wildlife and few roads although the initial lakes are over developed with weekend cabins and power boat enthusiasts.
In 1927 the Canadian government dedicated almost 1,500 sq miles of the forest to a National Park and named it after Queen Victoria’s husband or the city 80km to the south, you can take your pick which. Within its boundaries lies the small resort town of Waskesiu at the southern end of a lake of the same name.
Also within its boundaries, but in a much more remote location, lies the cabin home of Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, the naturalist and conservationist who was also known as Grey Owl. A visit to Archie’s was our next adventure.
He was born in Hastings, England in 1888 as Archie Belaney and died of pneumonia in Prince Albert in 1938 as Grey Owl. His life was both interesting and controversial and is well documented. Those who wish to be derogatory will highlight the fact that he was, in essence, a bigamist, a con man and a drunk. Those who wish to be benevolent will look to his writing (3 bestselling books) and his pioneering work on conservation.
Either way, his small cabin on the shores of Ajawaan Lake has become a shrine. It is where he is buried along with one of his wives, Anahareo and one of his children, Shirley Dawn and is a place of tranquil beauty set deep in the wilderness of the park. It requires some commitment to get to but may touch your soul if you make the journey.
From the Waskesiu town site you can follow the Kingsmere road west and then north along the eastern shore of Waskesiu Lake. After about 15 km the road turns to gravel and after 32.5 kms you will find yourself in the Kingsmere car park.
There are several choices for travel in to Grey Owl’s; Hiking, Canoeing, Kayaking or motor boat although the later is restricted to small 40hp craft and is rarely undertaken due to the difficulties encountered in getting up the Kingsmere river.
The short Kingsmere River connects Kingsmere Lake to Waskesiu Lake. Kingsmere lake is roughly 12 km long and 8km wide and has a reputation for becoming a “churning and dangerous ” body of water in a very short space of time. 600m north of Kingsmere Lake lies Ajawaan Lake and Grey Owl’s cabin.
The hike to Grey Owl’s is 20km from the car park along the eastern shore of Kingsmere Lake. It is a rough forest trail in which you will encounter deadfall obstacles. There are several campsites along the way with the last one being the Northside site. You could push it to Northside in 4 hrs but 6hrs would be more pleasant and from there you have another 3km to get to the cabin. The round trip is likely to be a minimum of 2 days.
We, however, weren’t looking for a long walk; we wanted to experience the lake and to reach more secluded areas so we decided to go in by Kayak.
The forecast was perfect. Clear sunny days for Saturday and Sunday with low wind and warm temperatures, little or no chance of rain and a slight increase in the wind from the North West for Monday. That would put it behind us for the return leg.
My Kayak was a bright yellow Valley Skerray. It’s the original fibreglass version which is classed as a good beginner’s boat with a little more stability and a little less speed. I put it on top of the Jeep and loaded my camping gear, food, clothing etc. into the back. At 6.30 am on the Saturday morning I drove round to Richard’s and loaded his gear and kayak. His was a Valley Nordkapp, a faster, slimmer, less stable craft for the more experienced paddler.
I took the number 11 highway up from Saskatoon to Prince Albert. It is currently being turned onto a duel carriageway which is making the journey a little quicker. At P.A. I filled up with petrol and continued on to the National Park. The road goes north to La Ronge, a popular staging post for fly-in fishing camps and those heading onto the Churchill River system. We would turn off after about 60km and head into Waskesiu.
I have an annual National Park pass so we didn’t need to stop at the entry gate to the park but we did need to stop at the warden station in Waskesiu to buy our back country passes and camping permits. The total cost was less than $40 for 2 of us for 3 nights so it wasn’t too bad but the idea that you need permission to go into the backcountry is something us Brits find a little unsettling. This type of restriction is confined to the park areas. There are vast tracts of land over which there is no jurisdiction.
We were at the Kingsmere car park by 10am and had packed the kayaks with our gear by 10.30am. Somewhat unique to our gear, from a European perspective, was the inclusion of Bear Spray and Bear Bangers. The latter was to scare an intruding bear off and the former was to give you a fighting chance if the latter hadn’t worked.
Black bear attacks are exceptionally rare but they do occur and have been known to be predatory in nature. My travelling companion has a large scar on each arm and one on his head as testament to the time when a Black Bear came through his tent wall while he was in his sleeping bag. It’s not something you should waste too much time dwelling on but it is something you should have an awareness of. In any case, Cougars, Bull Moose and Bull Elk during the rut are likely to get you first.
As for the wolves, there is little documentary evidence to support the idea that they would normally attack. There was one notable case in Saskatchewan related to wolves which had become accustomed to humans through visiting the local rubbish tip and had attacked and killed a man but the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary. In fact, many old trappers have noted the presence of Wolves in and around their campsites at night and none had ever reported an attack on themselves. Attacks on their dogs were another thing entirely.
The Kingsmere River is a gloriously rich oasis of life which meanders gracefully through the forest and simply sets the scene for the rest of the trip. We entered it from the trail that leads down from the car park. It was very high and flowing faster than usual. The North Country had had significant rain fall earlier in the summer and the effects were still being felt in September. Once in, we paddled upstream in brilliant sunshine.
After about 400m the river turns to rapids and, although not severe (possibly grade 1) they present a significant obstacle to a fully loaded sea kayak or canoe. As a result there is a railway portage which is 1km long and affords you the luxury of being able to load your craft onto a heavy metal cart and push it beyond the rapids on rail tracks. The original track was only the length of the rapids but this had been extended to take you almost to the lake. This type of portage was not unusual throughout the Canadian canoe routes and helped the Voyageurs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyageurs) speed up the transport of fur bales and goods.
Unfortunately, if you aren’t the first on to the portage then you have to walk to the other end of the track to retrieve the cart from where it was left by the previous user. This isn’t unpleasant but can be a little time consuming. Once loaded there are handles and a brake system to help push and control the speed.
We retrieved the cart from the lake end and loaded our Kayaks. You can put back into the river just after the rapids, which is a much shorter haul but there are a number of fallen trees blocking the river above this point making it an interesting section to navigate. As a result we pushed on to the end of the tracks and rolled the kayaks down the ramp and into the river.
It was warm, sunny and calm on the river so we didn’t put on our spray decks. As we entered the Kingsmere Lake we realised our mistake as the waves rolled over the top of the kayaks. The wind was stronger than we had anticipated and was coming out of the north which meant the waves were at their height at the point where we entered the lake.
We quickly diverted to the beach at Southend camp site and recovered the situation. We then headed north into a headwind and some choppy water with spray decks securely in place and thankfully so.
It is recommended that small water craft head up along the east side of the lake sticking close to the shore. As indicated earlier, Kingsmere can turn from a mill pond to a very challenging and dangerous state in a very short space of time. It is not uncommon for canoeists to be wind bound for a couple of days. For kayaks it can be a little easier provided you are confident in rough water as the waves won’t fill the boat.
Our plans were different. The main campsites are on the east or north side but we were heading to a more remote site on the far North West corner which can only be reached by boat. Bladebone bay is the start of a portage into some very challenging territory. As a result we were heading up the west side.
Paddling into the wind is a relatively easy exercise provided it isn’t too strong. Every now and then a wave would wash over the top but we remained relatively dry and the sun was shining and warm.
We passed the warden station early on, a posting I wouldn’t mind having myself. The fishing season was closed on the lake which was good for the somewhat rare lake trout and good for us as we seemed to be the only ones out there. It was likely the warden station would be closed soon but a flag was flying as we passed indicating that someone was still at home.
We paddled for a little over an hour and then pulled into a sheltered beach to have some lunch. It was pleasantly relaxing sitting on a log looking out on to the lake with no one else around. For me, the sense of isolation was a tremendous tonic and I felt entirely comfortable with the situation.
After lunch we continued north, passing Pease Point and heading out across the lake with the Bagwa Channel to our left. The Bagwa loop is a short chain of lakes and portages which might take two days to complete depending on weather, fitness and timelines. We had snow shoed in there in the past in temperatures of minus 20 degrees but a kayak trip would wait for another day.
At a little after 3 pm we paddled into Bladebone bay in calm and pleasant conditions. We pulled the kayaks onto the beach and went to check out the campsite. As expected we were alone and had the choice of sites, each with its own fire pit. There was a good pile of cut logs, a toilet and a bear platform to hang your food up on. We set up the tents (Richard snores), made a fire and got the supper going. It was a wonderfully calm night with an almost full moon and the lake was like glass.
We sat by the fire and talked till dark with a couple of shots of Glenfidich (for medicinal purposes only). The nearest human life was perhaps an hour away across the lake in Northside campsite and our nearest emergency help was 4-5 hrs away depending on conditions. There is no cell phone coverage out there but we did have a signal beacon with us for use in dire emergency.
Our intent was to travel across to Northside the next morning and hike the short distance (about 3km) into Grey Owl’s. We would then paddle back to Bladebone for a second night. The idea was for a pleasant and relaxed Sunday trip with no need for rushing or speed.
The forest at night is quiet but not silent. The hoot of an owl or the haunting cry of a loon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loon) on the lake can be regularly heard and there is often the sound of undergrowth breaking as nocturnal creatures go about their business. Our food was hung up out of the way from interested bears and we had cooked a good distance from the tents. No food was in the tents and I slept soundly in the knowledge that we had both bangers and spray should the need arise. There had clearly been a wolf digging at one of the camp sites before our arrival but no wolf was heard that night.
The morning arrived to a different sound, waves crashing on the beach.
Weather forecasts in Canada are possibly as accurate as anywhere else but this is not an endorsement and today was to be a case in point. Despite clear sunny conditions being forecast with zero precipitation, here we were in the middle of a system with strong winds blowing out of the east and while it wasn’t raining when we got out of our tents it was surely going to.
We ate breakfast and prepared to leave for Northend. Richard said he was going to put on his wet suit as it would be warmer if we dumped in the lake. I followed his lead but mine was a heavy surfing suit designed for the north coast of Scotland and once in the kayak I felt hot, restricted and sick. I paddled on through some exciting waves as the banks on the north side of the lake are steep and rocky and there was nowhere to put in to change. It was raining steadily now.
By the time we got to Northside I was fit to burst and was mightily relieved to get out of the wet suit. It was still raining so I pulled on a shirt and a lightweight waterproof and elected to hike in shorts. We both wore closed toe hiking sandals which make sense when you are constantly standing in water. We pulled the kayaks high onto the bank and into the trees.
We set off on the trail for Ajawaan and Grey Owl’s. Ajawaan comes up relatively quickly as it is only 600m north of Kingsmere. It is a much smaller lake and relatively sheltered and the rain had slowed to a spit. Grey Owl’s cabin, however, is a further 2.5km round on the west side of the lake. The trail is well maintained with boardwalks where it is steep or boggy. There are various information panels along the way.
And finally we were there. The site is just as it is in the pictures with the main cabin situated on the shore of the lake and a further, later, cabin built up on the hill for Grey Owl’s wife and visitors at the time. There is a visitor’s book to sign and the interior of the cabin is stark and uncomfortable. I suspect it was a cosier place when Archie lived there. Within the cabin there is also the beaver lodge where his two “pet” beavers lived. A little way along from the upper cabin is the grave site where the remains of Grey Owl, Anahareo and Shirley Dawn lie buried.
A visit to Grey Owl’s is a uniquely personal experience. I had always wanted to come here and it did not disappoint me. I was reluctant to leave but content with what I found. As we headed back along the trail the sun was trying to break through.
When we reached the kayaks the sky was brightening up a little and the lake looked relatively calm. We checked out the Northside campsite and I was a little envious to find a reasonably new permanent shelter with a wood burning stove. I would be thinking more about that later in the day.
We had some lunch and then set off for Bladebone again. Almost immediately the wind got up and the lake turned to waves and white horses. It was an east wind and we were heading west which might seem ok except that, in a kayak, you tend to surf waves coming from behind you and this can make life a little interesting, especially in an empty craft. The waves were up to a meter high at times and I was paddling with full skeg. I lifted it just to see what would happen and was immediately pitched sideways on to the wind and waves. I quickly dropped the skeg again and turned the kayak in the direction I wanted. Dumping into the lake in this state would not have been fun. The real fear would by hypothermia and I never wished I had a dry suit so much in my life.
As we travelled west a large bald eagle followed us, flying from tree to tree and stopping to watch. It felt good to have him there although he would surely be heading south soon. Eventually we surfed up onto the beach at Bladebone and pulled the kayaks well into the trees for shelter.
We put up a tarp cover for some shelter but a fire was out of the question. We could probably have got one going using birch bark as a starter but it would have meant standing in the rain which would have defeated the object. It was a little before 4 pm and we decided to retire to our tents and get a little sleep and warm up in our bags. At about 5.30pm we rose for supper and chatted into the evening. We finished off the Glenfidich and retired to bed. At this point it started to rain very heavily and we began to have some concerns about the journey back the next day.
Somewhere around midnight I rose to take a leak. The sky was crystal clear and the moon shone through the trees. The temperature had dropped to a little above freezing and the forest dripped from the recent rain. A loon cried out on the lake. It was perfectly still with no wind. It was perfectly beautiful.
As the dawn broke a combination of mist and low cloud returned. This gave the lake a moody look yet it felt totally without malevolence. We had breakfast, packed away our things and set off in sunshine with a much cooler west wind at our side. We had the shelter of the west shore trees and pulled into one secluded bay to check out the camping possibilities. You can wild camp anywhere in the park provided you are at least 2km away from a designated site. This might be one for another trip. As we got back into the kayaks we heard wolves calling in the distance.
With the wind to our side and the waves quite small we made good progress across the lake. We entered the head of the Kingsmere River after a little under 3hrs. We decided to stick to the river until the top of the rapids where there is a grassy platform on which to exit. This would save a considerable haul on the rail cart but we had to negotiate a fallen tree across the river. As it turned out this was more of an inconvenience than a considerable obstacle.
You need to be quick to get into the bank at the point of exit otherwise you will be into the rapids and have to take your chances. It would not be good for a fibreglass sea kayak. We, however, made the manoeuvre fine and landed up on the grassy bank where we had some lunch before taking the short walk to collect the rail cart. We loaded the kayaks and took them down past the rapids to the final leg of the journey. The last 400m of the river were peaceful and relaxing and, as I watched Richard exit onto the bank we had left 2 days earlier I felt a tinge of sadness. I would have stayed a while longer but the real world was calling so we loaded up the Jeep and headed home.
As for Archie, I have this to say; he may have been a bigamist, a con man and a drunk but I can see how circumstances conspired against him. His alcoholism might be explained by his service in the 1st World War as a sniper where he was wounded and spent some time in hospital. His bigamy could be due to the expanse of land and sea over which he travelled, the social expectations of the time and the practicalities of divorce in those days. It may also be due to his abandonment by his parents. And as for his con, well his desire to be known as a first nation’s member was not borne out of a desire to make money. He lived his life as a native long before he was made famous and this fame was thrust upon him through his efforts to change the way the world thinks about conservation. His desire to live out his life in the Canadian wilderness as a member of its aboriginal people was a childhood dream and as someone who did the same, long before I had ever heard of Grey Owl, I can hardly hold that against him. After all, you only need to know my other UKC name to know this is true ;-)
The last word belongs to Grey Owl: “I hope you understand me, I am not particularly anxious to be known at all; but my place is back in the woods, there is my home and there I stay. But in this country of Canada, to which I am intensely loyal, and whose natural heritage I am trying to interpret so that it may be better understood and appreciated, here, at least, I want to be known for what I am”