Getting to Grey Owl’s Cabin
Whereby the author makes a literary pilgrimage and calculates his carbon footprint asking if such journeys are really worth their cost.On the Kingsmere Road west along the narrow arm of Waskesiu, I drive with the window down. Nine cow elk with calves graze the summer roadside grass, their mouths moving together in easy time. A little farther on, two bulls, as big as dump trucks, racks spreading like the branches of oak, silent, soft in their eyes, watching me as I watch them. The sun is coming up off the tree line, and in the glowing track of the road, two wolf pups explode from the barrow pit. Was that dark presence at the corner of my eye their mother? But my gaze is forward, pushing hard on the brakes to slow the heavy truck. One of the pups breaks right and vanishes in the underbush. The other runs right down the middle of the road. It’s a little fur ball bouncing along on its big feet, loping like a teenager, its ears pinned back in terror. I’m coming up fast, still pressing hard on the brakes, harder, harder, hoping it will move out of the way before I push through, and then it does, cutting right to the cover of safety. I count myself lucky to see them, these elk, the wolves, driving slower now, sunrise flooding the north woods, an eagle at the jaggedy edge of the spruces and larch and pine. Though I know this is a national park where elk and wolves are safe from hunters, I’ve traveled in the boreal forest before, and didn’t see so many big animals. Maybe this is going to be a good day.
When I mentioned to a Canadian friend that I wanted to make a journey to Grey Owl’s cabin, he said, “Really? Why? He was a fraud.” I suppose he was, at least in part, an Englishman who co-opted an Indian identity. He was born Archibald Stansfield Belaney in the seaside town of Hastings, southeast of London, 1888. He immigrated to Canada and cobbled together a living as a trapper and seasonal job-hopper. He took on the name Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl, “He Who Walks By Night,” given him by the Anishinabe, and buried his past so deeply that it came to light only after his death in 1938 from pneumonia brought on by heavy drinking.
By his own count, Grey Owl was the son of an Apache mother and a Scots father, and he spent his boyhood in Mexico. His father, he said, was a close friend of Buffalo Bill Cody. After arriving in Canada, Grey Owl settled in with the Anishinabe at Bear Island, Ontario. There he learned a great deal about hunting and trapping, perfected his skills at knife throwing, and became a crack shot with a rifle. He was regarded as a heavy drinker, a sometimes brawler, a man of “dark moods.” He got into trouble with the law. But he was also a man with a sense of humor, and a welcome traveling companion. He could play the piano and sing. He quoted Shakespeare. He enlisted in the Canadian army during the First World War, where his independent spirit and expert marksmanship made him a top-rate sniper. He was married five times, however loosely he interpreted that word, and had two daughters and one son, each with a different woman. Anahareo, his fourth wife and the mother of his youngest daughter, Shirley Dawn, was the love of his life, but their marriage dissolved a couple years before he died.
The problem with Grey Owl is not that he was an Englishman living among First Nations people in Canada, but rather, over the final eight years of his life, he became a notable writer and one of the preeminent conservationists of the time. He sold his four books, along with his Indian persona and his message that human beings are not above nature, but part of it, to an impressionable public in Europe, the U.S., and Canada, nations at the brink of the Second World War. Lovat Dickson, Grey Owl’s publisher and eventual biographer, writes in Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl:
His appearance in London in October 1935 created a sensation. Not only did he look romantic, he spoke pure romance. His thrilling voice brought the wilderness and its inhabitants, animal and Indian, alive to his audiences. . . . In contrast with Hitler’s screaming, ranting voice, and the remorseless clang of modern technology, Grey Owl’s words evoked an unforgettable charm, lighting in our minds the vision of a cool, quiet place, where men and animals lived in love and trust together.
As his fame grew as a writer and conservationist, Grey Owl was commanded to appear before King George VI at Buckingham Palace. The strict protocol demanded that the audience take its place, and then rise as the footmen threw open the door to make way for the King and his family. But Grey Owl demanded the scenario be reversed, so that the King and his court would rise, and “he, Grey Owl, would enter.” And so it was. King George, the Queen, the Queen’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and Princesses Margaret Rose and Elizabeth, along with much of the palace staff rose to their feet as in walked Grey Owl in full buckskinned regalia. The lecture was a great success, and delighted especially Princess Elizabeth. When it came time to leave, Grey Owl put his right hand out to the King, touched him on the shoulder with the other, and famously said, “Goodbye brother. I’ll be seeing you.”
Grey Owl really did live the life he wrote and spoke about, but despite the truth of his satisfying vision of the wild, his fans and readers had paid for an Indian. What they got, they only later discovered, was a white man playing dress up. If Grey Owl had lived out his days quietly in the north woods, no one would have cared. But there is no faster way to make enemies than parting people from their money in a lie. Upon Grey Owl’s death, a waiting horde of newsmen discredited him, slandered him, cursed and cussed him, and his books and his message of environmental conservation were lost in the fray.To get to Grey Owl’s cabin, I drove to Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, from my house in west Texas. It’s about 1,725 miles from Lubbock to Waskesiu, but I didn’t drive in a straight line. I made a number of detours over several weeks, camping along the way: the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest near Cheyenne, Wyoming, where great mushrooms of smoke from the High Park Fire savaged the sky; Deadwood, North Dakota, because of that HBO series; Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, because N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) writes that “it has to be seen to be believed,” and I believed him; Lake Sakakawea on the wide Missouri River, North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark once camped; then on up over the U.S.-Canada border to Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan, where I watched a terrible wind come in over the quiet waters; then out to Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, where Grey Owl also lived for a short time; and finally, to Prince Albert National Park where he lived out his days, and now is buried. So, to get to Prince Albert National Park, I drove 2,450 miles. Inside the park, I drove another 100 miles over a period of four days. So now I’m at 2,550 miles of driving to get to Grey Owl’s cabin. Of course, I would also have to eventually drive home.
I drive a 2002 Ford F250 4×4 super cab, with a 7.3 liter V8 Power Stroke diesel engine (yeah, the last of the good ones). The paint is peeling and the truck has 200,000 miles on it, but it’s still going strong. I’m running Firestone Destination A/T tires at LT 285 75 R16, which is a little bigger than the factory tire, and so reduces my fuel economy just a bit. Then I have an 8-foot cabover Alaskan Camper on the back, which weighs 1,750 pounds, dry. The thing about the custom-made Alaskan is that it’s the only hard-shell pop-up camper made in North America. The top raises for camping and lowers for driving on a hydraulic system, which dramatically reduces drag, and so helps maintain reasonable mileage. I’ve got a canoe on top of that, and a whole lot of gear stowed in the cab because I’ll be making a long canoe trip out of Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan after I visit Grey Owl’s cabin, plus books, clothes, pots and pans, food, assorted tools and other miscellaneous gear, 35 gallons of fresh water, 20 pounds of propane, and at least, at least, a case and a half of beer.
On a good day, my truck can pull down 18 miles to the gallon. I use a diesel fuel conditioner, because the EPA changed the diesel fuel standards to remove most of the sulfur, thereby reducing emissions of oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter. That’s good news for all living things that respire, and those that don’t too, and good news toward curbing climate change, but the process reduces the potential energy of the fuel, decreasing the work it can do, which lowers fuel economy, which means burning more. This new ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD) is rated at 15 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur, and isn’t so good for diesel engines built before 2007, because they are designed to burn low sulfur diesel (LSD), rated at 500 ppm. One of the problems is lubrication, so the fuel conditioner lubricates older diesel engines, like mine, and can also increase fuel economy. Instead of buying this, you have to buy that. Now, this ULSD fuel is good news for European diesel engine manufacturers because they build engines designed to burn ULSD fuel, so now Europe can compete with North America in the marketplace. But, I suppose this is not so good for North American diesel engine manufacturers, who, until now, had less competition at home, which is probably why the diesel fuel was made that way for so long to begin with. But, this is a more complex issue, which includes a world campaign to lower sulfur content in diesel fuels for the sake of the entire planet, and I have no business reducing it to market exclusion. The point here is that with all this weight on and in my truck, and with this fuel and my engine, I probably average 15 miles per gallon. That’s not too bad for an outfit that weighs upwards of 15,000 pounds, but I’d do much better with a Toyota Prius. At any rate, to get to Grey Owl’s cabin, I burned 170 gallons of diesel. According to my source, one gallon of diesel produces 10 kilograms of carbon emissions. So to arrive at the parking lot where I will unload my canoe to paddle up to Grey Owl’s cabin, my truck alone has produced 1,700 kilograms of carbon.Grey Owl’s cabin is at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield country—which covers half of Canada, most of Greenland, and extends south into the Midwestern and northeastern United States—a vast region of exposed Precambrian rock and glaciated lakes. It was the first part of North America to be uplifted, and so most of the great mountain ranges of the ancient past have long since eroded away, and the land pressed flat by eons of advancing and retreating glacial ice. This process of glaciation (which occurred 1.6 million to 10,000 year ago) carried away most of the soils, and carved out the many thousands of lakes. The land is an undulation, like the surface of a golf ball—lake to exposed rock to thin soils over bedrock and the boreal forest stretched across it. Few roads penetrate this country, and many are seasonal, relying on winter ice to connect passages over solid ground. It is a country so filled with itself that to travel here is to accept it on its own terms—water to land, land to water by canoe or motor boat in summer; and ice to snow, snow to ice by dog sled or snow machine in winter.
This early in the morning, the parking lot at Kingsmere Lake is empty. I park my truck, unload my canoe, and carry it to the put-in on Kingsmere River, the lake’s outlet. To get to Grey Owl’s cabin from here, I will paddle up river a short distance to a rail portage around Kingsmere Rapid. It’s an easy two-thirds of a mile walk, pushing my canoe down the tracks and through the woods on a rail cart. Back on the water, I will paddle a bit farther up river, and then out into Kingsmere Lake. From there, it’s about eight miles of paddling along the eastern shoreline to a trailhead at the north end of the lake, and then another two miles on foot to Grey Owl’s cabin on Ajawaan Lake. In Grey Owl’s day, there was no road from the village of Waskesiu to the parking lot here on Kingsmere River. To get to Grey Owl’s cabin, you had to paddle the length of Waskesiu Lake, another 16 miles, or more if the wind was up and you paddled the shoreline.
I reach Kingsmere Lake at about 7:30 a.m., and follow the east shore, easy in my canoe. The water is quiet, like a library, and I hear loons calling but I can’t see them, nor can I see any other boats. The sky is empty of clouds, and I am alone. Right now the wind is down, and I enjoy good paddling. I dig in, and move my boat along at a good clip. It’s a bit like mountaineering, in that I want to get out to Grey Owl’s cabin and start back by 1:00 p.m. because the wind usually comes up in the afternoon, wind from the leading edge of the great billowing summer thunder clouds that crack and open and let forth the deluge. If it comes at all it always comes from the sky, a spectacular catastrophe for a little boat on a big lake. On Kingsmere it often blows from the northwest across the lake, which would push me back to the parking lot. That would be okay, if it doesn’t push too hard. I’ve heard this lake, like any large body of water in the Canadian north, can become dangerous quickly, waves so big you can’t see the opposite shore. If I capsize out here alone, it wouldn’t be any fun, but barring major injury, I’m pretty confident I’d be able to swim my boat and gear to shore, empty the water, and paddle on. And if I can’t get my boat to shore, I can get myself to shore, and then I’d walk the trail just there inside the cover of the woods five to ten miles back to my truck.
I’m paddling the boat my father gave me when I finished my undergraduate degree, a solid all-around canoe, a blue Old Town Discovery 169. I’ve modified the outfitting with cane seats, and installed tie-down eyelets under the gunwales with pop rivets. I’ve added a few stickers to the outside: permits from paddling in Yellowstone, one from my canoe club when I lived in northern Japan. The hull is faded and scarred by 20 years of use. I’m using a paddle I carved myself from ash and alder wood from my native Northwest. The blade is wide and squat, a good all-around touring design, and the grip is an asymmetrical pear shape. This is my paddle’s first voyage.Another source of carbon from my outfit is the propane I burn to cook inside the camper, run the refrigerator, the hot water heater, and sometimes the heater. My Alaskan Camper comes with a 20-pound propane tank, and to get to Grey Owl’s cabin, I emptied it. A 20-pound propane tank holds 4.7 gallons of liquid propane. One gallon of propane will produce 91,690 British thermal units (Btus) of energy, and so 430,934 Btus for my tank. To put that into perspective, one Btu is the energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit, usually from 39° F to 40° F. Another way to think about this is one Btu equals about 253 calories, which is the potential energy in four medium-sized eggs. So my propane tank holds the energy equivalent of 1,723,736 eggs. Burning propane emits about 63 kilograms of carbon per one million Btus of energy. So, this means I produced another 27 kilograms of carbon to get to Grey Owl’s cabin. My carbon total is now at 1,727 kilograms of carbon. I paddle on. It’s cool on the lake, and quiet, and still. Sitting in the kneeling position, my knees on the bottom of the canoe, my butt leaning against the seat, I keep my back straight as I plant my paddle blade forward of my knees and unwind my torso, flair the blade to correct the boat, pry off the gunwale, and glide a moment before taking another stroke. It’s a good rhythm, and I like how it feels, almost better than anything else. I pass the Westwind campsite, conspicuously marked on the eastern shore, and think I’m making good time, but I can’t yet see the far shore on the north end. I hear an outboard motor somewhere off to the west. Fishermen probably, who would have come in on the same route that I did, pushing their aluminum fishing boat up the rail trail on a cart.
Two loons fly by overhead, then a few more. I see ducks of several kinds that I can’t identify. I hear more loons, and then the sound of the outboard fades around a far point. It’s quiet again, and I dip my paddle, dip my paddle, dip my paddle. I listen to the water run from the blade between strokes, and I lean over the gunwale to look into the lake. I can see the bottom, the various algaes and water plants, the flash of a few fish, likely northern pike, or jackfish they call them around here, but not big ones. And the trees lining the shore are thick, so thick it would be difficult to walk between them.After arriving in Canada, Grey Owl made most of his living as a trapper, but he soon began to see the end of that life. A season’s work once easily netted him $1,500 to $2,000, but by the time he met his fourth wife, Gertrude Bernard, a 19-year-old Mohawk-Iroquois woman, who became known as Anahareo, or sometimes Pony to Grey Owl, he was bringing in less than $600 each season. Anahareo, who Grey Owl describes as able to “swing an axe as well as she could a lipstick,” encouraged him to stop trapping. If she could in fact swing an axe, she probably learned it from Grey Owl. She was a town girl, raised and educated in Mattawa, in the Ottawa Valley, Ontario, and unused to life in the bush. She found trapping cruel and thought her husband should find a better way to make a living. He resisted for a time, until one day he trapped a beaver with two kits. Grey Owl collected the dead female for its pelt, as he had been doing for years now, while the kits cried and cried. As Grey Owl reports in his book Pilgrims of the Wild, Anahareo could not stand their suffering. “‘Let us save them,’” she cried out. “‘It’s up to us, after what we’ve done.’” It was in this moment that Anahareo changed Grey Owl’s life. “And truly what had been done here looked now to be an act of brutal savagery,” he writes:
And with some confused thought of giving back what I had taken, some dim idea of atonement, I answered, “Yes, we have to. Let’s take them home.”
In taking them home—these two beaver that became known as McGinty and McGinnis—Grey Owl started down the path to world fame as an environmental conservationist.
You may remember similar experiences doing as much for Aldo Leopold, and an earlier American writer and conservationist, William Bartram. Leopold’s historic land ethic hangs on that moment he watched the “fierce green fire dying in [the] eyes” of a wolf he had just shot in southwest New Mexico. Before this moment, he believed ardently that killing predators was environmental conservation. And Bartram, writing in the late 18th century, a time when good biology always included killing and collecting species for later study, was “affected . . . very sensibly” watching a black bear cub bawling over the body of its mother killed moments before by a rifleman as they traveled down a river in the South. He charged himself “accessory to what now appeared to be a cruel murder,” and “moved to compassion,” he implored the rifleman to stay his hand. But too late, as “[the rifleman] fired, and laid [the cub] dead upon the body of the dam.” Such moments are enough to unhinge a man, to change him, as it did these three, each taking a place in the story of the environmental movement in North America.According the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average American produces about 19.18 metric tons of carbon per year. By comparison, the average Canadian produces 17.27 metric tons of carbon; the average German, 10.06; the average Chinese, 4.91; and the average Brazilian, 2.18. The average Afghan produces almost no carbon at all. One metric ton is equal to 1,000 kilograms. To get to Grey Owl’s cabin, I produced nearly two metric tons of carbon burning diesel and propane fuels alone. But there is more, of course.
The truck I’m driving has a carbon footprint too. The footprint of building the truck is fixed (it is only built once), however each time I have the truck repaired, change the oil, or buy news tires and the like, the footprint grows. It’s almost impossible to calculate accurately what this footprint is, but it is possible to make an educated guess. First, consider that energy is required for every step in the manufacture of a complex machine like my truck: the extraction of ore from the earth, the manufacture of the engine and components, the various plastics and such that make up the interior and exterior, the shipping of parts from all over the world, the energy required to run the plants where parts are made and the truck was assembled, and then the workers while at work. Even the workers’ clothes and what they had for lunch have a carbon footprint. And after that is the footprint of the sales people and their facilities. It’s staggering, really. It’s hardly possible to calculate a carbon footprint for my truck, but I did find a reasonable source. Two journalists at The Guardian report that the carbon footprint of an average sized car is about 17 metric tons. At the high end (the report on Land Rover Discovery), the footprint is 35 metric tons. To build a truck like mine, surely the cost must be at the high end. The truck is ten years old, and I traveled in my truck for two months getting to Grey Owl’s cabin and back again. A simple calculation puts my truck at 292 kg of carbon per month over its lifetime, which means adding another 584 kilograms. My total now is 2,311 kg.
And there is more still. My truck is carrying the camper and the canoe, and all the gear and clothing and other supplies. All of this too has a carbon footprint. The food I buy to stock the camper has a carbon footprint. Doing my laundry has a carbon footprint, as do the books I’ve brought with me, my laptop, even the beer. My source estimates 900 grams of carbon for a single bottle of good beer with a fairly extensive transport history. And this is what I have, good beer from Wyoming and Colorado. Let’s estimate two beers a day for two months, and so add another 108 kilograms of carbon in beer alone.
So far my calculations have been fairly precise, and I’ve accounted for the big ones. The calculation of the carbon cost of getting to Grey Owl’s cabin breaks down from here into a dizzying complexity too flatteringly sweet to be substantial, as Shakespeare said. I don’t really want to try to come up with an accurate number for every little plastic gizmo in my kit, and as with the calculation for the manufacture and upkeep of my truck, I’d then have to calculate the carbon cost of that plastic gizmo only for the duration of time that I use it to get to Grey Owl’s cabin. You would be bored to death, for one thing, and I would never finish this essay. So, to account for the rest that is nearly incalculable, I’ll double the total I have now and call it good. Let’s say that 2,311 kg doubled is at the very least the carbon footprint of getting to Grey Owl’s cabin: 4,622 kg of carbon. And then double it again to get home, and add the beer. To get to Grey Owl’s cabin it cost me, no, it cost the world, 9,352 kg of carbon, or 9.35 metric tons, plus or minus a kilogram or two. That sum is nearly half of the yearly carbon footprint of the average American, and nearly double the average Chinese. If I want to remain near the average for my country, there’s no room for travel for the rest of the year, and no room even to drink good beer. I can stay home well enough, but giving up beer is hardly American. It’s hardly even civilized.By the time I reach the Sandy Beach camp on the eastern shore of Kingsmere Lake, I am starting to hope for the end. The sky, clear and Canadian blue, leads me on, and my gaze drifts to the water, from sky to water, water to sky, until I hardly know if I am paddling or flying. I paddle into a raft of loons that part and make way for me. I wave to two figures squatting on the shore next to a canoe. The wind hardly shows itself at all, and I can hear them talking. One of the good things about traveling in Canada is that most people speak American.
“Is this Sandy Beach?” I call out.
“Yes,” one of them calls back.
“So I’m not far from the trailhead to Grey Owl’s cabin?”
“It’s just on a bit farther. You see those reeds up there? That’s the trailhead.”
And so on I paddle, stroke after stroke, winding up along the shape of the lake until those reeds come within reach, and I beach my canoe on the shore. I brought food with me to have a lunch, but I worry about the afternoon wind and storm. I drink down a half liter of water, and set out on the trail. A few dozen feet from my boat, a sign welcomes the traveler with a few words from Grey Owl:
Far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those whose genuine interest prompts them to make the trip, Beaver Lodge extends a welcome to you if your heart is right.
Walking through the woods, I wonder if my heart is right, and how I would know. I climb a hill and come over it, head down into the basin of Ajawaan. At the top of a boardwalk, I find an old moose antler wired crosswise to a spruce tree. It is weathered, gnawed by mice, and green with algae at the edges. I wonder if Grey Owl himself put this up to mark my way. The trail takes me down to the lake edge, and then comes away into a tunnel of trees. I stop to admire an immense bear shit in the trail, the bulk of which, could he produce it, any man might be proud. It looks fresh, very fresh, a riotous cake of berry seeds and other dark matter. Alone and on foot, I feel a nervous energy rise up in my body, a light caution, a sudden alertness. I pick up a heavy limb to quiet my hand, and I begin to sing a little to Grey Owl’s woods, a silly song about trekking:
Oh, I love to go a-wandering
along the mountain track,
and as I go, I love to sing,
my knapsack on my back . . .
It makes me feel better, and I think then that fear is a permeable membrane. One may walk in and out of it, but it is far easier to walk in. Walking out is a tremendous feat, and each time you make it out, you become a hero, however temporary, however private.
I walk and sing and no bear comes, and the trail begins to feel too long. Just as I am tiring of the day, a loon cries overhead and Grey Owl’s cabin appears before me. I stop there at the portal from the woods. That, I tell myself, is Grey Owl’s cabin. I feel a little shy of it, the cabin, not like an intruder really, but rather that I shouldn’t go right in. I stand a moment in its presence, the sunlight on the quiet lake, and though I do not think much or often of ghosts, I sense a spirit in the woods. Laugh at me if you want to, but some know what I mean. It’s like walking with the bear that isn’t there, and singing to it as you go. And Grey Owl, after all, is here. He’s buried just there on the hill.
Grey Owl died in the spring of 1938 after that impossible lecture schedule in Europe. At the height of his exhaustion on the tour he said to a friend, “a month more of this will kill me.” His chief desire was to return to his cabin at Ajawaan. “If I am to remain loyal to my inner voice,” he writes, “I must return to my cabin in Saskatchewan . . . and take time to think.” He did so. A park ranger checked in on him on April 8, reporting that Grey Owl “seemed all right, and very happy . . . to be back.” On April 9, Grey Owl called the park station at Waskesiu to report he was feeling ill. A party arrived to take him to a hospital in Prince Albert. Within 24 hours he developed a fever, and soon after fell into a coma. On April 13, he was dead. Lovat Dickson writes that Grey Owl died of exhaustion, “exhaustion of hope and purpose which are born in the imagination and signal the heart when to stop.” His daughter, Shirley Dawn, was buried next to him near the cabin in 1984, and then Anahareo in 1986.
Though he probably can’t hear me, I decide to say hello before I enter Grey Owl’s cabin. “Hello Grey Owl,” I say aloud, and then make my way to another signpost where he has left a few words more just for me:
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 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.
And what was he? These do not sound like the words of a fraud to me, but of a quiet, thoughtful man who loves this country. Yet the public outcry against Grey Owl in the years since his death runs the gamut from “fake Indian” (which he was) to “wanton cultural appropriator” (which is arguable) to “pervert” (which I can’t believe). Scholar Albert Braz has pointed out that the “level of vitriol that Grey Owl’s ‘masquerade’ still attracts” is perplexing, and it “has been so unrelenting [as to overshadow] every other aspect of his life,” especially the simple fact that in the 1930s, he emerged from obscurity to become one of the preeminent voices for environmental conservation. He was one of the very few Canadians who publicly recognized that the nation’s natural resources have a limit. Some even credit Grey Owl with saving Canada’s national animal, the beaver, from extinction. In support of him, Major J. A. Wood, then superintendent of Prince Albert National Park, wrote that he cares not whether Grey Owl “was an Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman, or Negro. He was a great man with a great mind, and with great objectives which he ever kept before him.” Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979) echoes this sentiment claiming that “Grey Owl was one of the most remarkable men Canada has ever produced. He was a genius; no doubt a charlatan, a poseur, and a faker, but no one in North American history ever left behind him such a treasure of concern for what he described as his furred brethren of the soil and his feathered brethren of the air.”
Grey Owl, you might notice, did not look like an Indian so much as he looked like the Indian as imagined by white people, the Indian of Hollywood, the Indian of that Romantic vision of the New World unspoiled by European colonization and the filth of the Industrial Revolution. Grey Owl wore a costume of buckskins, dyed his hair black, colored his face with henna, and practiced his stoic scowl in a mirror to perfect this costume. Still, it is difficult to separate the costume from the man, as Grey Owl didn’t just wear it, but became it, utterly, seamlessly, ceaselessly. Braz points out that N. Scott Momaday, himself a person of mixed heritages, has written that “we are what we imagine” and “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself.” Certainly Grey Owl possessed such an idea of himself, but does this make him an Indian? I don’t know. But I wonder. If a man can travel to Trinidad, Colorado, and change his sex to become a woman, why can’t a man change his heritage to become an Indian? Poet Gary Potts, a former Chief of the Bear Island Anishinabe in Ontario where Grey Owl first lived when he immigrated to Canada, points out that what troubles white people most is not the lie, but rather that one of their own went native. He argues that white people are not overly troubled by Indians who assimilate into their culture, but when it goes the other way, it “troubles them to no end.” Braz reports that the Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen asserts “there is nothing necessarily nefarious about Grey Owl . . . since his journeys through the Canadian wilderness are really ‘in search of himself.’” And Anahareo, Grey Owl’s wife, writes, “He was an Indian, as I was.”
So what or who was Grey Owl? He was a boy trapped inside an identity that did not agree with him, an identity he eventually threw off when he moved to Canada, the one place he could live out his best idea of himself. And I think we are all complicit in his transformation. If you want to condemn Grey Owl, perhaps you might condemn yourself as well, a member of the culture that helped create him. Grey Owl was the Indian we all wanted him to be, a spokesman and symbol for the North American wilderness we simultaneously love and destroy. Perhaps too what is so difficult to accept is that Grey Owl ventured out to live the life he imagined, while most of us stare out the front window or at the computer screen and only dream.
I approach the cabin, the door already ajar. I push it open. Before me is a wood cook stove, rusted by decades of disuse, and across on the opposite wall, a crude desk or table next to an even cruder split log sleeping platform. The cabin is not a replica, as in the case of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Grey Owl lived here. At the far end of the room is a space cut away from the floor boards with a collection of beaver sticks and mud, remnants of the famed beaver lodge built inside the cabin with access to the lake so his pet beavers could come and go as they pleased. On the desk is a drum propped against the wall, apparently a gift from the son Grey Owl had with Marie Girard, a Métis woman whom he abandoned when he was a young man. Girard died of consumption shortly after she gave birth in the winter of 1914-1915. Written on the skin of the drum:
To: Grey Owl
Rest in peace Dad
Your loving son #2
I walk up the hill to another cabin, the place Anahareo had built just for her. Apparently she didn’t take to living with beaver, and wanted a space of her own. Next to that, the three graves: Grey Owl, Shirley Dawn, and Anahareo. I linger there for a time, linger before the depressions in the ground before the grave stones where they went in. I leave a quiet space for them, not moving or making noise at all, and then I move on.
There isn’t much else to see or do, but for the sunlight streaming through the trees, and the sparkling waters of Ajawaan. I wonder if the wind is getting up out on the lake, and so turn and make my way back down the trail.
I sing my way to my boat, and find that the wind has indeed come up. The lake can look so small when it is calm, but when the waves are high it’s like the sea. Great rollers are washing down the shoreline of Kingsmere Lake. Off to the north and west, thunderheads build against the sky. I stow my pack and push off into the waves which push my boat along. I don’t have to paddle very hard. My strokes keep the boat at a good angle, and I ride along with a happy heart.
Paddling, I begin to think of all the journeys I have made, and how many of them likely had a much greater carbon footprint than this one. All you have to do is step onto an airplane. A round-trip flight from Houston to London, for example, comes in at about 1,700 kg of carbon, for each person on the plane. The plane itself produces that sum multiplied by some 400 seats: 680 cubic tons of carbon. But this is merely the plane’s emissions, and does not include all the other carbon sources that I so tediously considered for my truck. Air travel produces more carbon than any other sort of travel. And to boot, air travel is fast, which means you can produce more carbon in far less time. My truck racked up a good carbon sum, but it did so over a period of two months. Let’s say you were to fly one million miles, as several of my friends have, as Hillary Clinton did in four years as Secretary of State. If you never get off the plane, you can fly that million in 2,000 hours, the equivalent of just over 83 days. In my truck it would take 15,385 hours to make the same distance, an equivalent of 641 days. And of course, if you are doing the driving, you have to stop now and again to rest and drink beer, so it would take much, much longer. Not so with air travel; air travel allows you to drink beer and produce carbon at the same time.
So, what about the great travelers who roam the world? What about the immense journeys of the environmental writers and conservationists of our time, the women and men whose work has been my steady diet since I was a boy? What is the carbon footprint, for example, of a writer who travels to all the cold places in the world to bring back a story about melting glaciers or the decline of polar bears, writing that may help change public policy in order to curb the environmental pressures that are causing the melting and the decline to begin with? What is the carbon footprint of a writer who flies off to the site of some terrible disaster—Banda Aceh, Sendai, or the path of Hurricane Sandy? Or a writer who travels to a dozen landscapes in as many countries to consider the fate of humanity in relationship to water? What is the carbon footprint of a UN conference on the environment? And how then does the work of these writers and their carbon footprints compare to the work of writers who stay home, who inhabit one place, one landscape for the whole of their life and so come to know it intimately, and write from that intimacy? What are the impacts of those two bodies of work? The John Muirs of the world who roam, and the John Burroughs of the world who stay home?
The question I have to ask myself is this: Is the carbon cost of researching and writing a story on climate change worth its weight in carbon? Or, are writers who travel extensively really just documenting the failure of our species, even as the process of documenting it hastens that failure? Perhaps you’ve asked these questions before. Eventually it becomes personal. I want to know how to justify my own journeys, those I’ve made and those I wish to make. How do I justify the carbon cost of my journey to Grey Owl’s cabin? Surely seeing Grey Owl’s cabin will not help save the world. Of course it won’t.
But I can’t worry about this right now, because the wind is gusting harder, and pushing my boat into the shore. I turn the bow out to face the waves. I paddle up and over them. Up and over them. This will go on for hours, I think, because the thunder boomers are building against the sky, and the wind is intensifying, the waves growing and pushing against the shoreline. I miss a few strokes to switch from my new wood paddle to my fiberglass whitewater paddle, and the waves slap my boat up onto the beach. I give in, and leap out, pull the boat up on the finely sorted pebbles. It’s 1:00 p.m., and I’ve been moving and pushing the route pretty hard all day. I feel it now as I stand at the lake edge. I’m tired. I feel a little lost and deeply alone. I don’t have that vibrant presence with me anymore, the presence of that bear, the presence of Grey Owl. This emptiness passes in a moment though, because I begin to line my boat up the beach. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The waves keep pushing the boat back onto the shore. I can’t go very far anyway, because ahead of me the trees come right to the water and cut off my path. I need to get back out into the surf and ride the waves again. There is no better antidote for loneliness than going on, so I paddle out, and take that good tack on the wind and ride the storm down the lake. I see an eagle on the wing, and I sheepishly hope it is a gift from Grey Owl showing me the way.
Perhaps you have heard that the modern environmental movement is dead, that environmental organizations have themselves become corporations, and corporations, despite the good intentions of their members, are self-sustaining and self-preserving. A corporation is an entity working for the good of itself, not the good of the world. Kenneth Brower, in his article on Grey Owl, remarks that
those old clarion voices in the wilderness and from the wilderness—Thoreau’s, Muir’s, Leopold’s, Grey Owl’s—have done their job in alerting mankind to the environmental threat . . . the era of the ‘stars,’ those seminal, charismatic, flawed, larger-than-life characters whose eloquence and example brought the natural world back into the world; is finished—or so the bureaucrats themselves assure us.
Brower argues that what we have now are the bureaucrats, the lawyers and lobbyists, people who “know the art of compromise and can work effectively with Congress and Parliament.” Certainly we need them, but we need Grey Owl too. Or at least, I need Grey Owl.
My world, and what I know about my world, would be diminished if the writers whose work I admire stayed home. Truth is I want them to get on airplanes and fly about the world. I want them to bring back stories of places I’ve never been, and may never go. The truth is I want to get on airplanes and fly about the world. I want to go find stories in places I’ve never been. I don’t know what to do about this, and I doubt they do either. Nobody knows what to do about it. And could we stop even if we were asked to, even if we wanted to?
A friend of mine has suggested (as others also have) that perhaps the adaptations that have allowed our species to take dominion over biological niches in virtually every climate on earth—our big brains, language, the opposable thumb—are maladaptations. Evolution is like that. A successful adaptation in one set of conditions may be or become a failed adaptation in another. I must confess that I no longer believe that we are going to get ahold of this thing called climate change. I no longer believe that we are going to exercise restraint and end or even curb our consumption of fossil fuels in order to make the world a better place for future generations, future generations of human beings and everything else. I don’t feel hopeless. I just believe we’re going to use it all up. What about you? There is no short-term incentive to stop mining the earth for resources. None. And for all our powers of imagination, we are still a species that functions better on brief time scales. We can hardly bother to imagine what’s going to happen next week, let alone in 100 years. Or 1,000. I think it’s best for me, for my peace of mind, to plan for life in a hot future rather than try to stop that future from unfolding. I’ll still recycle and walk to work and do all those things a thinking person should do, but I just can’t allow myself to lay awake nights and worry anymore.
A few days before I wrote this essay, Al Gore made several hundred million dollars selling his “green” TV network, Current, to Al Jazeera, a fine news organization, and backed by big oil money from Qatar. After stating that he could see no hypocrisy here, he was asked if we still have time to save the earth from climate change. “Yes,” he answered, “we still have time.” I have nothing against Al Gore, but folks, he doesn’t know. While he is a fine spokesperson, he’s not a climate scientist. He’s not even a man with a reasonable carbon footprint. Besides, climate scientists don’t really know either. They work in probabilities, not in the absolute of yes or no. If the climate change spokesman of the world can’t get out from under oil, how can you? How can I?When I reach Westwind Campground again, the shape of the lake and the shore is a shelter for me. I can see the big waves out in the middle, and I’m happy to be where I am doing what I’m doing. I’m happy I paddled so hard and consistently to arrive back here so early in the day (it’s 3:30 p.m.). I’ve not had any food since 5:00 a.m., and I feel worked. I relax for the first time on my trip, letting my boat drift into the weeds. I drag my hand in the water, and the sun is warm on my back. The thunder clouds are building still, wrapping the west and north shores of the lake. I’ve got beer and good food waiting for me back in my camper, and I’m eager now to paddle home.
I enter the outlet that is the Kingsmere River, and it takes me down into its quiet waters. I like how it feels in me that I’ve been to Grey Owl’s cabin. I don’t know what that feeling is really. An expansion? A depth? A clarity? I feel like I’ve pushed out the boundaries of my world a bit and now have new space to breathe. I’ve made other literary pilgrimages: Thoreau’s Walden Pond; Hemingway’s Idaho and Paris and Spain; Frost’s cabin at Bread Loaf; Wordsworth’s Lake District. This pilgrimage to Grey Owl’s cabin won’t save the world, but it has enriched my life, and I will add my story to those others. And perhaps this is enough to justify the expense in carbon. Though I still don’t believe we’re going to stop or even slow climate change, I feel a bit more hopeful about something. I have to believe that to keep such hope alive is the single most important endeavor in a time of crisis. A story can do this. And so can a journey on a lake in a canoe.
The river takes me out of the lake and back to the boat landing where I began. I paddle up to find a man and a young woman loading to paddle out. We exchange greetings, and he asks if I need help with my boat. We can load it on his car and take it up to my truck, which is parked about a quarter mile away. All right, I say. His name is Howard, from Saskatoon, and he introduces me to his daughter. They’re headed up the west shore of the lake to camp for a few nights at Pease Point. He’s a retired teacher, he says, and used to run canoe trips for his students. I tell him some of my story, and we find we have a great deal in common.
“So, were you out soloing overnight, or just for the day?” he asks. “I see you don’t have much gear.”
“Just the day,” I say. “I made a trip up to Grey Owl’s cabin. Started early this morning.”
“Oh, Grey Owl’s cabin. Good for you,” he says. “Good for you.”
- Anahareo. Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl. Don Mills: PaperJacks, 1975. Print.
- Bartram, William. William Bartram: Travels and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1996.
- Berners-Lee, Mike. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2011. Print.
- Berners-Lee, Mike and Duncan Clark. “What’s the Carbon Footprint of a New Car.” The Guardian. 23 September 2010. Web. 4 February 2013.
- Braz, Albert. “St. Archie of the Wild: Grey Owl’s Account of His ‘Natural’ Conversion.” Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ed. Janice Fiamenco. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. Print.
- Braz, Albert. “The Modern Hiawatha: Grey Owl’s Construciton of His Aboriginal Self.” Auto/biography in Canada: Critical Directions. Ed. Julie Rak. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005. Print.
- Brower, Kenneth. “Grey Owl.” The Atlantic. January 1990. Print.
- Cantwell, Robert. “Grey Owl: Mysterious Genius of Nature Lore.” Sports Illustrated. 8 April 1963. Print.
- Cantwell, Robert. “Carbon Footprint Calculator.” Terrapass. Web. 4 February 2013.
- Dickson, Lovat. Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl. New York: Atheneum, 1973. Print.
- Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992. Print.
- Grey Owl. Pilgrims of the Wild. Ed. Michael Gnarowski. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010. Print.
- International Civil Aviation Organization. The United Nations. Web. 4 February 2013.
- Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- “Understanding the Canadian Shield.” Canadian Shield Foundation. Candian Shield Foundation. Web. 4 February 2013.
Photo of canoe on lake surrounded by forest in header and on home page by Yanik Chauvin, courtesy Shutterstock.