Sacred High with the Beaver Man: Riding Mountain, Manitoba (3)

Manitoba Sunset, Clear Lake, Manitoba

Photo from the Canadian Park Service of Grey Owl

A subdued sunset on Clear Lake petered out as clouds moved in over central Canada, bringing rain the next day. It is cool, and the mornings in late September welcome a sprinkling of frost over the brilliantly yellow leaves of the poplar and aspen (some trees already stripped clean by winds). Shrub berries, like red huckleberries, weigh heavy on branches just waiting for their demise in the stomach of a passing black bear.

A person named Grey Owl was sitting on a log, tending a small smoky fire by the lake. He is almost 130 years old (born the same year as my own father, 1888). Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney at Hastings, England. He motioned to me to sit beside him and I did, rolling a chunk of worn log next to the flames.

The man, a self-proclaimed half breed, had lived much of his life with the Ojibway, and from them learned native habits and prejudices. But first, in 1925 he had moved to northern Quebec where he served as trapper and guide. There he met and married a young Mohawk girl, Gertrude Bernard (Anahareo). She helped change his lifestyle from trapper to world famous conservationist and author. When two beaver kittens were left orphaned because their mother had died in Grey Owl's traps, Anahareo convinced Grey Owl to rescue them. The two orphans were adopted and named McGuiness and McGinty.

The beavers are grown and long gone, he said with a twinkle and smirk, perhaps meeting the fate that he and Anahareo had spared them once.

Few beavers remain on the Riding Mountain plateau now. Grey Owl no longer wanders into the townsite of Wasagaming either, where he used to tell stories at the Wigwam Restaurant. When alive, Grey Owl did not stay long at his assigned remote cabin on Beaver Lodge Lake in Riding Mountain. He moved to Prince Albert National Park. His body was laid to rest in 1938 on the hillside overlooking the cabin on Ajawaan Lake.

"Sometimes," Grey Owl told me, his favorite old companion while he served as the Riding Mountain naturalist in 1931, "a beaver named Jelly Roll, swims past in the shadows fading to dark night.

Grey Owl, known most popularly as "The Beaver Man,” then told me the Cree story of the Moose People.

The Cree (also Assiniboine, and Ojibway) are the largest group of Aboriginal people in Canada today. The name Cree comes from a French word, Kristinaux, shortened to Kri. The Plains Cree call themselves Nehiyawak.

Cree people of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are known as the "Plains Cree" and make up a large percentage of the First Nations population of the so-called Prairie Provinces. Plains Cree once lived on the prairies, hunted buffalo, and traded with other natives and curious Europeans. Today, most of the tall grass prairie has disappeared and the few remaining buffalo are in special parks like Riding Mountain and Elk Island.


Farmland below Riding Mountain Escarpment