Her Story

About the free-spirited woman who transformed a trapper into a conservationist.

Memories of Grey Owl

Written and copyright by Peter Leney, Travel Writer.

Quebec's newest park presents a reminder that conservationist Grey Owl began his writing and speaking career here before becoming a household name in the 1930s.

Joanne Marchessault at Lac à Foin (Hay Lake). Credit: Peter Leney.
Joanne Marchessault at Lac à Foin (Hay Lake). Credit: Peter Leney.

LAKE TÉMISCOUATA – A new provincial park in Quebec is stirring local memories of Grey Owl, the Englishman who adopted an Indian identity to warn against the vanishing wilderness and threatened extinction of the beaver.

Opened in 2013, the Parc national du Lac-Témiscouata protects lakes and rolling forestland near the New Brunswick border where Grey Owl hoped to start a beaver colony after he gave up trapping at the urging of his wife Anahareo. The couple arrived here in 1928 with two pet beaver kittens.

Grey Owl described their experience in the area in his book Pilgrims of the Wild, published in 1935 after he had become internationally famous for writing and lectures with a conservation message.

By then, he was living in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, idolized by visitors to his cabin on Lake Ajawaan. But the seeds of his fame were sown around Lake Témiscouata. His beaver colony did not work out, but he began writing on wilderness themes for the British magazine Country Life and delivered his first lecture to wealthy anglos summering at Métis sur Mer near Rimouski.

"The tree falls and nourishes another," he wrote in Pilgrims of the Wild of the change in vocation.

The Parc du Lac-Témiscouata highlights Grey Owl in various ways. His life story is dramatized twice a week in a one-hour presentation written by a locally famous storyteller and acted by a park naturalist in costume. It is staged in an attractive amphitheatre adjoining the park visitor centre.

Grey Owl's image is also carved into a giant slab of slate near the visitor centre, alongside images of loggers, natives and other past occupants of the park territory. A walking/biking trail is named for Grey Owl but there is no reference to him along the way.

One tangible contact point for imagining Grey Owl and family is the so-called "vieux quai," a now-dilapidated ferry wharf in walking distance of the centre. It is near the group's first campsite after getting off the train at Cabano in autumn 1928 and paddling across Lake Témiscouata.

A strong advocate for greater recognition of Grey Owl's local presence is a park employee who does it on her own time. Joanne Marchessault, an environmental technician, embraced Grey Owl after seeing the 1999 Richard Attenborough film starring Pierce Brosnan and reading Pilgrims of the Wild in its French translation Un homme et des bêtes.

"He is known over the world, but not much in Quebec," said Marchessault, who used clues in Pilgrims of the Wild to identify places where Grey Owl and Anahareo lived and traveled within park territory. "I did my Sherlock Holmes," said Marchessault, who has an MA in biology from the University of Sherbrooke.

It helped her search that she had done the physical and biology inventory when the area was being considered as a park.

A key place for imagining Grey Owl is Hay Lake, or Lac à Foin, the site of his last cabin in the area. It was here that he wrote furiously and gained fame after a Parks Canada predecessor agency sent cameras to make the silent film Beaver People, showing the tame beavers coming to his call and wrestling with Anahareo.

Marchessault led me to the small, placid lake as a private favor. Although a short distance from a dirt road, it is hidden behind forest with no sign or parking area to mark it. I could not find it myself the next day. A park official said that future budgets might provide an indicator sign, or even a reconstruction of the cabin.

The trail named for Grey Owl is also awaiting a budget to post signs at points where Grey Owl passed by, as identified by Marchessault.

Aside from its Grey Owl recognition, the park stands out for its emphasis on archeology. Rich sites abound since Lake Témiscouata lies on an ancient portage route from the St. Lawrence River to the Bay of Fundy. A local source of chert used for tools and arrowheads made it especially attractive for natives. Two archeologists are on staff and park visitors can tag along on a real dig.

A Jardin des Mémoires (Garden of Memories) overlooking a lake reflects the care taken in developing the $30 million park. Minimalist iron sculptures cleverly depict "pre-history" and "meeting of two cultures" eras, while a cutaway log cabin represents the logging era, which left a "tortured remnant of a wilderness," as Grey Owl wrote in Pilgrims.

Visitors have a choice of seven historic or scenic hiking trails, including one to the chert deposits and another to locally famous Sutherland Falls that starts near Hay Lake and takes you through mountains "where Grey Owl once lived with his beavers," says the park web site.

Many activities are offered besides archeology: lectures on bats, biology outings for children, rabaska (large canoe) rides at dusk, rental of kayaks, canoes and bikes, and more.

Its visitor centre, called a Discovery and Services Centre, sells the French translation of Pilgrims of the Wild along with T-shirts and camp supplies. A video screen show images from a nest of bald eagles, the emblem of the park.

The camping area has 80 sites carved from the forest for good privacy. They include 14 Huttopia "ready-to-camp" sites.

The old Témiscouata portage route is paralleled by today's TransCanada highway (Route 185) from Rivière-du-Loup to Edmundston. Although the park lies across Lake Témiscouata from Cabano, access by car takes a 50-kilometre inland route through the village of Squatec. A passenger/bike ferry runs on reservation from Cabano.

If you go: Parc national du lac-Témiscouata is about 550 kilometres east of Montreal following the TransCanada Highway. Its bilingual website is at www.sepaq.com/pq/tem, SEPAQ is the acronym of the Quebec government agency that develops and operates Quebec's parks and wildlife reserves. Camping closes on September 29.

A blurb on Beaver People on the National Film Board website misidentifies Anahareo in the film as Angele Egwuna, who was actually Grey Owl’s first wife.