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Man of the Last Frontier: The Story of Grey Owl
As the great doors of the hall are flung open, a dramatic figure dressed in buckskins and leather
entered proclaiming, "How kola," followed by a few words in the tongue or the Ojibway nation
which he quickly translates to mean: "I come in peace, Brother."
The man is Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, "He Who Flies by Night," Grey Owl. The brother to whom he
speaks is George VI, King of England. This command performance before the British Royal
Family will climaxed a meteoric and often mysterious career championing the wilderness, for
within the year, Grey Owl, at age fifty, will be dead.
Who was this man who had come out of the Northern Ontario wilderness to take pre-war
England and North America by storm by exhorting the glories of the wilderness and the plight of
By his own accounts, Grey Owl was the half-breed son of Scotsman George MacNeill and
Katherine Cochise of the Jacarillo band of the Apache, born in Hermosillo, Mexico in 1888. His
father had been an Indian scout and friend of Colonel Bill Cody. In fact, his parents were
participating in Buffalo Bill's tour of England for Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 when, in
Grey Owl's words, they returned to the United States with his "appearance threatening to
become imminent." At fifteen, he set out as a guide and packer in Western Canada. When silver
was struck in the Northern Ontario community of Cobalt in 1903, Grey Owl followed the rush
but was sidetracked and instead became a trapper and wilderness guide.
The shock, however, was to come a few hours after Grey Owl's death. The press had long
labeled him a "full-blooded" Indian despite his blue eyes, a fact Grey Owl never bothered to
correct. But Grey Owl was not a full-blooded Indian, nor was he even a half-breed. Grey Owl
was, in fact, born an Englishman, Archie Stansfeld Belaney, and reared by two maiden aunts in
Hastings, England. He would not see the true wilderness until he was 18 years old.
The repercussions of the revelation shocked those who knew him and drew damnation from the
press who felt they had been deluded by Grey Owl/Belaney. The truth about Grey Owl the man,
however, did not overshadow the truth of the message on which he spoke: the plight of vanishing
species, symbolized for him in the beaver. Belaney's nature writings still stand as classics of the
Canadian wilderness,.both in form and message.
The story of Grey Owl is as mysterious in truth as any fiction. As a child, Archie Belaney had
submerged himself in the study of nature and the tales of the North American Indian. His
childhood was introspective, and he inwardly rebelled against the stern authority of his Aunt
Ada, who wished to mold Archie into a gentleman so as to not become the irresponsible drifter
his father had been.
At eighteen, against the protests from his aunts, Archie broke his ties with England and
immigrated to Canada settling at first around Toronto. With the news of a silver strike near
Cobalt, Archie naively headed northward into the wilderness. His near total lack of practical
bush knowledge nearly killed him, but at the moment of his greatest distress, good fortune
placed him in the hands of woodsman Jesse Hood and a band of Ojibway, who took him in and
taught him the ways of the Ontario wilderness. For the next decade, Belaney trapped through the
winter and worked the summers as a guide or forest ranger. He never spoke of his past, and in
the tradition of the North Woods, no questions were ever asked.
With the passing years, Belaney relinquished his past life and adopted the life of the Native
Peoples he so admired. Soon his identity had become so throughly native that on his Army
papers, he was identified as a half-breed.
The Great War pulled Archie and others from the Ontario wilderness and threw them into the
savagery of the European battlefield. The sights and experience of war abhorred him. After
receiving a foot wound during combat and having his lungs seared with mustard gas, Archie was
released as unfit for further duty and awarded a pension. Brooding from the experience, Belaney
returned to his Northern Ontario wilderness.
Back in Ontario, the horrors of war took their toll on his temperament. Belaney developed such a
foul temper that his career as a guide was ruined. Total disregard for his own well-being nearly
ended his life on several occasions. But again, the Ojibway took him in. Under the care of the
venerable tribal elder Neganikabu, Archie Belaney was trained in the Ojibway manhood rituals.
His instruction culminated in his official adoption into the tribe. The Englishman Archie
Belaney was, for all practical purposes, dead. Born was Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, "He Who Flies by
Night," Grey Owl, a man of the Canadian wilderness.
With his rebirth, Belaney/Grey Owl's disposition changed dramatically. His hatred of the white
man's world changed to indifference. And, with the return of his usual humour and self-confidence, Grey Owl's reputation as a guide was quickly re-established.
While working in the Temagami district of Northern Ontario in the summer of 1925, Grey Owl
met a young woman, Gertrude Bernard by name but called Pony. She was part Mohawk, a nation
within the Iroquois Confederacy. Her native name was Anahareo, the name by which she is
identified in all of Grey Owl's writings. Their brief first encounter stirred Grey Owl's emotions
as no one had before. By the winter, he could no longer be without her. In a letter, he asked her
to visit him. Anahareo came for a week but stayed for years, leading Grey Owl into the final
chapters of his life.
Late one day, as Grey Owl was checking his trapline, he was abhorred to find three beaver
kittens and one missing trap. Upon relating the events of the day to Anahareo, he received an
intense rebuke from her. "You must stop this work. It is killing your spirit as well as mine." Grey
Owl knew she spoke the truth, but how could he earn a living if he did not trap?
The next morning, they canoed to the beaver lodge in search of the mother beaver who they
believed had been in the missing trap. Instead they found two orphaned beaver kittens. Grey Owl
and Anahareo adopted the pair, christening them McGinnis and McGinty. The child-like antics
of the "Macs" completely ended thoughts of future beaver trapping for Grey Owl. After a night
in which he slept with McGinnis cuddled to his neck, Grey Owl proclaimed himself: "President,
Treasurer and sole member of the Society of the Beaver People." His plans for the society
entailed finding a lake far away from trappers and there establishing a beaver colony and refuge.
Grey Owl and his "family" traveled to the Lake Temiscouata region on the Quebec-New
Brunswick border to find a remote lake on which to establish the colony and where he could trap
enough other fur-bearing animals to support the beaver project. Birch Lake, Quebec became the
colony site. There a cabin, later to be named the House of McGinnis and the scene of Grey Owl's
last book Tales of an Empty Cabin, was built. The area, however, did not support a fur-bearing
population of consequence, and Grey Owl could not make a living by trapping unless he broke
his vow to abstain from the beaver hunt.
To pass the winter, Grey Owl began to write accounts of the antics of the "Macs" along with his
general observations on the wilderness around him. Anahareo encouraged him to submit some of
these accounts for publication. Naively, they sent a manuscript to the editors of Country Life, a
British magazine for wealthy landowners.
Surprisingly, the material was well received by the Country Life editors. In March, Grey Owl
received a hefty cheque with the suggestion that the editors would be interested in a book-length
manuscript. Joyfully Grey Owl and Anahareo returned to their cabin, but the elation was to be
short-lived. At their cabin, the pair was met by their old friend Dave bearing a gift to help their
financial situation: the hides of the beavers from the Birch Lake colony!
In despair, they saw their hopes for a beaver refuge sink. And with spring break-up, the ultimate
sorrow descended on the pair. McGinnis and McGinty went out for an evening swim and never
returned. Though Grey Owl and Anahareo searched for weeks, no trace of the two beavers was
Dave tried to console Grey Owl and Anahareo and obtain their forgiveness by presenting them
with two newly orphaned beaver kittens. At first Grey Owl was reluctant to accept them, but at
Anahareo's urging finally gave in. The male died after a few weeks, but the female seemed to
thrive in her new environment. She grew fat and domineering, and soon it became clear that this
beaver was to become the boss of the household. They named her Jelly Roll, but her bearing and
regal overseeing of events at the cabin earned her the title of the Queen.
Work continued to be difficult for Grey Owl to obtain, and the lack of money again faced Grey
Owl and Anahareo. By chance, Anahareo had found the opportunity to show some of Grey Owl's
writings to a Montreal woman, Mrs Peck. Impressed by what she read, Mrs Peck arranged a
lecture for Grey Owl. He as terrified at the prospect, describing his feelings "like a snake that
had swallowed an icicle, chilled end to end." His worries were for naught, however; the lecture
was a tremendous success, not only from an entertainment point of view, but also financially.
Grey Owl and Anahareo now had a bank account.
With the coming of winter, Anahareo left the cabin went north to prospect for gold. Grey Owl
remained at Birch Lake with Jelly Roll to write and to continue searching for McGinnis and
McGinty. He wrote several articles recording the life and antics of Jelly Roll and her new
consort Rawhide. It was during this winter that Grey Owl also wrote The Vanishing Wilderness,
his first book, published under the titled The Men of the Last Frontier in 1931.
Thereafter, events moved swiftly for Grey Owl. His articles and lectures brought him
considerable attention on both sides of the international border. The National Parks Service of
Canada took an active interest in Grey Owl's dream of a beaver sanctuary. They produced a film
The Beaver People that starred Jelly Roll. Now the Government of Canada was willing to
establish a beaver sanctuary in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. But Grey Owl,
Anahareo, Jelly Roll and Rawhide soon found that Riding Mountain was the wrong place for the
sanctuary. Grey Owl appealed to the Park Service for a change in location. As a result, the new
colony was moved to Lake Ajawaan in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan.
Over the next three years, the colony grew and prospered as did Grey Owl's work. He penned his
book Pilgrims of the Wild as well as a novel based on the antics of the beavers McGinnis and
McGinty entitled Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People. Grey Owl was soon known and
loved throughout North America and Europe as his books, articles and films met great success.
But for Grey Owl himself, life was going stale. He longed for the freedom of the backwoods.
Anahareo was restless as well and would soon leave Grey Owl and their young daughter to strike
out into the bush prospecting for gold. In 1935 when Lovat Dickson, Grey Owl's English
publisher and later his biographer, suggested a European lecture tour, Grey Owl consented
reluctantly hoping that the tour might buoy his failing spirits and refresh his mission.
The lectures were highly successful financially and well received although a personal nightmare
to Grey Owl. He felt "like a man standing naked upon a rock" when confronted by the huge
London audiences. The pressure of the press and public recognition gave him no rest. Perhaps he
was tormented by the false life he had been living. By tour's end, Grey Owl was a tired, old man
although only in his late forties.
The notoriety he gained abroad gave him no peace at home either. With great effort, he tackled
new projects including a movie about the Northern Ontario wilderness and, what was to become
his last book, Tales of an Empty Cabin.
In 1937, Grey Owl agreed to a second tour of Britain. The tour again appeared to be a brilliant
success, culminating in a private lecture to the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. But with
each appearance, a little more of the spark and fire of Grey Owl the man dwindled. As each of
the 140 lectures he was to give in a three-month period passed, Grey Owl became less the
vibrant man and more the performing machine. Returning home across the Atlantic, Grey Owl
faced a twelve-week North American tour. During this lecture series, he predicted: "Another
month of this will kill me. If I am to remain loyal to my inner voices, I must return to my cabin
Shortly after returning to the log house beside the still frozen Lake Ajawaan, Grey Owl suddenly
fell ill. He was taken to the nearest hospital in a horse-drawn sleigh. There he was diagnosed
with pneumonia. Two days later, he fell into a coma, and by eight the next morning, Grey Owl
was dead. The medical staff were convinced his illness should not have been fatal. But with the
spirit had died the man.
To summarize the complex philosophy of Grey Owl into a single sentence would seem an
impossible task had not the man done so for us. In Tales of an Empty Cabin, he wrote: "Every
individual human being, every people as a whole, needs an aesthetic release; it is part of the
business of living, and aside from the arts, of which we have apparently so few, we will find it in
the lakes and streams and woodlands of our north as nowhere else."
Grey Owl's stated mission as the preservation of the Canadian wilderness in as natural state was
possible. Through the influence of McGinnis, McGinty, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, Grey Owl had
the perfect symbol of the vanishing wilderness -- the symbol of Canada -- the beaver. He saw
the decimation of the beaver population as a sign that civilization was encroaching too close
upon the wilderness. The traditions of wild places were being infested with the diseases of the
cities: theft, distrust, filth, a lack of understanding of the complex interactions of life in its
natural, wild state.
As with many other hunters, trappers and backwoodsmen, Grey Owl had became one with the
wilderness and its creatures. It took but a small emotional event to awaken him to the
senselessness and tragedy of the hunt.
"Man's unfair treatment of the brute creation is too well realized to need a great deal of
comment.... Man's general reaction to his contacts with the animal world...are contempt or
condensation towards the smaller and more harmless species, and a rather unreasonable fear of
those more able to protect themselves.... Whole species of valuable and intelligent animals have
been exterminated for temporary gain." (Tales of an Empty Cabin)
Grey Owl's words re-emphasized those written less than a century prior in the backwoods of
Concord, Massachusetts by Henry David Thoreau. They also presaged the concerns of future
spokespersons for the wilderness and the environment.
"If we are to become a people of some account in future history, we must think of something
besides the dollar sign.... We need an enrichment other than material prosperity, and to gain it
we have only to look around.... Is not at least some of this great Northern heritage worth saving
in its original, unspoiled state, for such a worth purpose?" (Tales of an Empty Cabin)
Grey Owl was the product of many dichotomies. He was the romantic who as a youth dreamed
of the noble savage and the glories of the wilderness. Yet, he was also the realist who ran the
trap lines and lived the stark live of the Native American. He was born an Englishman but reborn
an Ojibway. He gave the appearance of an uneducated man, yet he wrote with the prose of
Thoreau mixed with the poetry of Whitman. A "devil in deerskins" yet a "St Francis of the
In an age before pollution and acid rain befouled Northern streams, logging denuded uncounted square miles of woodland and species after species faced extinction, Grey Owl was a voice crying out of the Northern wilderness. Today the echo of his words still ring true as we enter an new age, an new millennium. His spirit still flies across the wilderness and we follow.
Order Grey Owl: Three Complete and Unabridged Canadian Classics from Amazon.com
The book contains three of his best-loved works.
The Men of the Last Frontier, Grey Owl's first book, was published in 1931. In this collection of stories, Grey Owl tells about his life on the trail, his Native friends, and their animal companions. In so doing, Grey Owl hoped to evoke sympathy and caring for the land that sustains us all.
Pilgrims of the Wild, published in 1934, is primarily an animal story, it also relates Grey Owl and Anahareo's struggle to emerge from the chaos that followed the failure of the fur trade and the breakdown of the old proprietary system of hunting grounds. This is a humble and moving collection that paints a beautiful picture of a quickly changing land.
Sajo and the Beaver People, published in 1935, chronicles the "beaver people" -- two beaver kittens rescued and adopted by an Indian hunter. The kittens soon become the beloved pets of the entire village. Their adventures and eventual reunion with their parents make this one of the most touching and irresistible stories in Grey Owl's body of work.
For complete biographies of Grey Owl, visit the Nature's Song bookstore.
Man of the Last Frontier: The Story of Grey Owl by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2002, All Rights Reserved.
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