Archie Belaney — the man many know as “Grey Owl” — dreamed of living in the wilds of Canada. Here’s how the now-famous author, public speaker and early Canadian environmentalist described the North Country:
“It is a land of shadows and hidden trails, lost rivers and unknown lakes, a region of soft-footed creatures going their noiseless ways over the carpet of moss, and there is silence, intense, absolute and all-embracing.”
The following film retraces conservationist Grey Owl’s path through the northeastern Ontario’s legendary Temagami region – n’Daki Menan Aboriginal community.
Experience the old growth forest and beauty that captured Grey Owl’s heart:
Grey Owl’s early days
Born in 1888, Archie Belaney grew up in the seaside English town of Hastings. He often escaped his childhood, making up an imaginary family history and adventures to go with it.
He arrived in Canada in 1906, and at first worked in a large department store in Toronto. He saved his money, and joined a canoe club to learn how to paddle, in preparation for his future life in the north.
Later that year, he took a train to Mattawa, where he met Bill Guppy, a trapper and guide, who taught Archie the guiding and bush skills he wanted, including how to trap, snowshoe and winter camp.
In 1907, they paddled from Mattawa into the Temagami Forest Reserve. Lake Temagami was then becoming a place for tourism, and guides were in demand. While working at Temagami Inn, Archie met Angele Egwuna, learning traditional Ojibwe bushcraft and skills by her father and family.
He became a canoe guide for Keewaydin canoe camp, paddling the vast network of waterways of Temagami. Archie boasted of his growing skills, and attempted to cross Algonquin Provincial Park by snowshoe without the game wardens noticing him in 1909, but was discovered fortunately, before he succumbed to frostbite.
He married Angele Egwuna in 1910 at the Fire Rangers Hall on Bear Island, Lake Temagami. They had a daughter, but Archie decided he was not cut out for family life. By spring 1912, Archie had left Temagami and his family, arriving in Biscotasing, a remote railway and lumber hamlet north of Sudbury.
A forest and fire ranger
Belaney became a forest ranger for the Ontario Forestry Branch in the Mississagi Forest Reserve, at the heart of which are the Spanish and Mississagi Rivers, both now provincial parks. The Branch hired 50 fire rangers each summer to patrol the Reserve by canoe, to look for fires.
“When it came to a canoe trip, he excelled,” a fellow ranger said of Belaney. After fire season, he would hire out as a guide, and was considered a “wonderful entertainer and storyteller.”
Meeting Tom Thomson
Although the details are unknown, Archie met Tom Thomson on the Mississagi later that summer. It was only soon-to-be famous painter Tom’s second canoe trip and he nearly drowned twice. The two “backwoodsmen” met up again when Archie visited Tom in Toronto. Belaney patrolled the Mississagi and Spanish Rivers of the Reserve until 1925.
Becoming Grey Owl
Over the years, Belaney developed his larger-than-life personal history. By at least 1914, he had ideas of becoming a writer and was keeping a journal. He eventually did become a writer of magazine articles and later, as “Grey Owl,” an author of books such as Tales from an Empty Cabin, and Men of the Last Frontier, which were loosely based on his life and adventures in Temagami, and on the Spanish and Mississagi Rivers. Belaney became a celebrated author and speaker, meeting the rich and famous, including the King of England.
Grey Owl was an advocate for nature, speaking about the beaver and its impending extinction, and was one of Canada’s earliest conservationists.
Want to retrace Grey Owl’s path through northeastern Ontario’s Temagami region?
Enter to win a guided eight-day trip with adventure traveler and British TV personality Ray Mears.
Experience the Old Growth Forest and beauty that captured Grey Owl’s heart, traveling by land, air, and paddle into the heart of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park.