Margaret Winters

About Margaret (Winters) Charko

The following page is based on an interview with Margaret Charko in 2004. Margaret married Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) veteran Ron Charko in 1942, and together they had two daughters -- Janice and Marlene -- and one son, Ron. After postings in France and extensive travel with the military, Margaret and Ron settled in Ottawa in 1967, where Ron worked in Space Research with the National Research Council (NRC) and NASA until his retirement in 1980. As a member of the Grey Owl Society, Margaret remained intimately connected to the Grey Owl story throughout her life, visiting Hastings in 1998, Beaver Lodge in 2003, and Hastings again in 2010 -- at the age of 92.

Margaret with Dawn and Anahareo, ca. 1980 in Kelowna, BC. Courtesy of Margaret Charko (Winters).
Margaret with Dawn and Anahareo, ca. 1980 in Kelowna, BC. Courtesy of Margaret Charko (Winters).

When we moved up to Prince Albert from the Prairies, my mother took over a boarding house from a woman who had died very suddenly. We mainly provided room and board to park wardens from Waskesiu, though Grey Owl used to stay with us sometimes, too. When Anahareo was expecting Dawn, Grey Owl asked the warden if there was some place she could stay when she came out of the hospital. He was told she could stay with the Winters family and they came right over after she left the hospital. We had Dawn staying with us when they went up North because there was really no way to get in and out very quickly if the baby got sick.

Anahareo had a great sense of humour. We always had a lot of fun with her, and she always felt right at home -- helping out in the kitchen and such. We were all like a family. In fact, when we stopped running the boarding house, Anahareo and Dawn would still stay with us when they were in town. Anahareo and my mother had a very strong bond, but there was also a strong bond with us children. We were three teenagers there and we were a lot of help to her with the baby. Anahareo was quite like a sister to me; there was seventeen years between her and Grey Owl, and I think she enjoyed being among younger people.

That said, she never stayed for too long at one time. Anahareo was a free spirit; there were things she wanted to do. She went prospecting because Grey Owl was always so busy writing and she and Dawn couldn't make any noise. Sometimes Anahareo would take Dawn with her and sometimes Anahareo would stay with us with Dawn, but Anahareo wasn't about to just settle down and look after a child.

After Anahareo came back from her long prospecting trip, she'd go up to Ajawaan to look after the beavers when Grey Owl was away, but other than that, it just wasn't the life she wanted to lead, having to be quiet all the time. It didn't start that way, of course, because he didn't do all that much writing when they first got married, but his life changed. In later years, he got a lot of pressure from the publishers. I think he got too much pressure, really.

Grey Owl was also very much a part of the family. He was very warm and fit right in. He'd play the piano and read parts of his stories to us, which we loved because it sounded different than when you read them yourself.

My mother actually helped Grey Owl get packed up for his tours to England and, when he got back from his first tour, he asked if I could help him type up "Tales of an Empty Cabin" because he was under a tight deadline. I couldn't type and we didn't have any money back then in the thirties, so he paid for a course for me and my brother, Stan. I then went up North and stayed for six weeks in the upper cabin. He had already done some with a little portable typewriter, so I did about two-thirds, a little bit at a time. Grey Owl would write all night and sleep all day because that's when the beaver sleep; I'd get his drafts and start typing in the daytime, and would work all day.

It was a great experience, but at first, living that close to the beavers was pretty scary because they were pretty big. But Grey Owl would say, "Sit still. Just sit still," and the beavers would come in and out of the cabin. Then we'd feed them a piece of apple and they got friendly with us. He had tourists coming through all the time and he'd have them sit up on the bunk because he didn't trust what the beavers might do. If they didn't like somebody, it could be dangerous.

Yet, we didn't know very much about this period in Grey Owl's life. In fact, there were a lot of things we didn't know about him -- not until after he died and the story all came out. We never thought he was anything but Indian, and it was hard for us to accept the truth. Anahareo didn't know either. She was with us at our house when he died, and she said that she had never thought of him as anything but Indian, and that she would still feel that way. And so did we. In fact, he couldn't go into any beer parlours in Prince Albert because he was Indian; he had to go to a bootlegger. My mother sometimes picked him up in a taxi when he was in town because she knew where he'd be, and she'd get him sobered up. As far as I know, he never did much drinking when he was up at Ajawaan, so when he was in town, he sort of made up. That's the way the North was in those days: when you were in the bush it was all work, and when you came into town you let loose.

So, I was up at the cabin with Betty Somervell in 1936 when Anahareo and Grey Owl parted for the last time. I hadn't been aware of it very much, but Betty told me this was her goodbye to him there. They both still came to our house after that, but not often at the same time. After she and Grey Owl parted, she went down to Saskatoon; we didn't see very much of her then, though she did come back and visit us after she had met Eric Moltke. He was divorced and his ex-wife lived in Prince Albert. He was a very proper person -- he'd bow for people and so on. We teased her a lot about it. But I moved away to Saskatoon shortly after that -- Ron and I married in 1942 -- so I wasn't really there when they started going out together. Then they went to British Columbia (BC) and from then on, we really lost track of her.

As Ron was in the Canadian Air Force, we did quite a bit of travelling ourselves. We spent five years in France from 1959 to 1964, and did a lot of travelling in Germany and all through that area, and then we came back to Ottawa.

Around 1979 or 1980, we went up to visit Bob and Dawn in BC. Anahareo was living with Katherine, and Dawn took us into town to see her. I hadn't seen Anahareo in many years by then and she was getting quite old and grey-haired. I lost touch with her again for a while, then, but I saw Dawn more often; she would come to Ottawa with Bob and visit with us. At one point, she was doing work with the National Archives, putting material there. I tried to talk her out of it because there is so much there that no-one will ever see again, but she did it anyway.

I've always felt that, if it weren't for Anahareo, Grey Owl would not have been famous at all -- he probably would have said so as well -- yet she was always very modest about it. She was really quite a person.