Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, the son of an aristocrat in Hastings, England, in 1888. Raised by his two aunts, he led a lonely childhood in England until 1906, when, at the tender age of seventeen, he emigrated to North America to live among the Native people. He returned to England a few years later to serve in the First World War, was wounded, and returned to live with the Ojibway in northern Canada.
In mid-life Archibald Belaney adopted the Ojibway name Wa-sha-quon-asin, or Grey Owl. He married three times and fathered three children. He also lived for many years with an Ojibway woman named Anahareo, moved to northern Quebec, where he began his writing career in earnest.
All of Grey Owl's stories are based on true-life experiences. As a canoeman, packer guide, fur trapper, naturalist, and storyteller, Grey Owl's nature writings have delighted readers worldwide since they first began to appear in 1929. That same year Grey Owl began to lecture as a conservationist.
During the course of his writing career, Grey Owl's deep love and respect for nature created a body of work devoted to promoting conservation awareness through true tales of life lived in the wilderness. Grey Owl: Three Complete and Unabridged Works contains three of his best-loved works.
The Men of the Last Frontier was Grey Owl's first book, published in 1931. In this collection of stories, Grey Owl, one of the early voices to sound an alarm for increased conservation, tells about his life on the trail, his Native friends, and their animal companions. In so doing, Grey Owl hoped to evoke sympathy and caring for the land that sustains us all.
Pilgrims of the Wild was published in 1934. Primarily an animal story, it also relates Grey Owl and Anahareo's struggle to emerge from the chaos that followed the failure of the fur trade and the breakdown of the old proprietary system of hunting grounds. This is a humble and moving collection that paints a beautiful picture of a quickly changing land.
Sajo and the Beaver People was published in 1935. The "beaver people" are two beaver kittens rescued and adopted by an Indian hunter. The kittens soon become the beloved pets of the entire village. Their adventures and eventual reunion with their parents make this one of the most touching and irresistible stories in Grey Owl's body of work.
Grey Owl will be fondly remembered as both a mystery and a legend. His love of nature and the wilderness and his stories of life as a guide have become part of the canon of nature writing.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From "The Men of the Last Frontier"one of the three books included in Grey Owl
excepted from Chapter 1: The Vanguard
During the last twenty years or so, with emigration pouring its thousands of newcomers into Canada to seek fresh homes, the world has been wont to consider the Dominion as a settled country, largely shorn of its forests, and given over almost entirely to farming, mining, manufacturing, and like industries.
Certainly the Canada of to-day can boast of unlimited opportunities for those who are willing to work, and there can be found in her cities and small towns a civilization as prosaic and matter-of-fact as exists in many older and longer-settled countries. There is big business; there are mining developments and engineering projects second to none in the world. Several finely equipped railroads span her from coast to coast. The mountains have been conquered, mighty rivers dammed, and vast reaches of prairie and woodland denuded of their game and brought under the plough. There are few improvements or inventions of modern times that are not in common use, even in sparsely settled districts.
All this is known to the world at large, and the word "Canada is synonymous with "Prosperity" and "Advancement. These things coupled with the almost unequalled natural resources yet remaining at her command, have placed Canada in the forefront of the colonies that help to make the British Empire.
Those of us who enjoy the high privilege of participation in the benefits accruing from the development of a land of such riches, and unequalled opportunity, are apt to think but little, or fail, perhaps, even to be cognizant of the ceaseless warfare that for three centuries has been carried on in the van of the Great Advance. Without it the triumphant march of today might have been long deferred, or at least limited to a far smaller area. This bitter contest is still being waged without intermission, by a thin handful of devoted souls, on the far-flung borderland beyond the fringe of Civilization, where they are still adding additional, and alas, final, verses to the soul-inspiring saga of the Great North-West.
The mechanical mind of the efficient engineer who designs marvelous bridges, constructs huge dams, lays out our railroads, or makes extensive surveys-however well suited to his particular calling very seldom possesses that sixth sense which seems to be the peculiar attribute of the pathfinder. Many of the mountain passes, and skillfully selected routes bearing the names of prominent men supposed to have discovered them, were the century-old trails of trappers and other frontiersmen whose names we never hear.
Not for the borderman are the rich rewards of honour, material profit and national prominence, which fall rather to those who follow with the more conspicuous achievements of construction, and, too often, destruction. Not for gain does he pursue his thankless task, for he is satisfied if he makes the wherewithal to live; neither for renown, for he lives obscurely, and often dies a strange death, alone. And no press notices sing his praises, and no monument is raised over his often unburied body.
He who leads the precarious life of skirmisher or scout on the No-Man's-Land beyond the Frontier, becomes so imbued with the spirit of his environment, that when the advance guard of the new era sweeps down on him with its flow of humanity and modern contrivance, he finds he cannot adapt himself to the new conditions. Accustomed to loneliness and seclusion, when his wanderings are curtailed, he forthwith gathers his few belongings and, like the Arab, folds his tent and steals silently away. Thus he moves on, stage by stage, with his furred and feathered associates, to fresh untrammeled horizons; where he explores, lays his trails, and unearths secret places to his heart's content, blazing the way for civilization, and again retiring before it when it comes.
This is the spirit of the true Pioneer. This is the urge that drove Champlain, Raleigh, Livingstone, and Cook into the four corners of the earth; the unquenchable ambition to conquer new territory, to pass where never yet trod foot of man.
Of all the various kinds of bordermen that pass their days Back of Beyond, undoubtedly the most accomplished and useful as a pathfinder is the trapper. He antedates all others. Men of the type of Boone, Crockett, Bridger, and Cody still exist to-day, undergoing the same hardships, eating the same foods, travelling by the same means, as did their forerunners, and talking languages and using methods handed down from the dim obscurity of the past, by the past-masters in the first and most romantic trade that North America ever knew, that of the hunter. The trapper of to-day has no longer the menace of the hostile savage to contend with, but he is in many ways under infinitely greater difficulties than was the woodsman of an earlier day.
From the time of the conquest of Canada until about fifty years ago, the land now under cultivation was covered with hardwood and pine forests with little or no undergrowth or other obstructions to retard progress. The woods-runner of that period had the best of timber for manufacturing his equipment. As a contrast, I once saw in the far North a party of Indians equipped with tamarac axe-handles and poplar toboggans; a condition of affairs about on a par with using wooden wheels on a locomotive, or cardboard soles on boots. The woods in those days were full of deer, a more prolific animal than the moose, far more easy to handle when killed, and with a much more useful hide. The old-time trapper had not far to go for his hunt, once settled in his district, and he had no competition whatsoever.
The modern hunter has to cover more ground, largely by means of trails laboriously cut through tangled undergrowth, sometimes not setting over three or four effective traps in a ten-mile line. The country so far North is more broken, the rivers rougher, the climate more severe; the forest, amounting in some places to little more than a ragged jungle, offers resistances unknown to the traveller of earlier days. Steel traps have supplanted to a large extent the wooden deadfall, and the snare, and better firearms have simplified still-hunting (stalking); but game is scarcer, and harder to approach, except in very remote sections.
Conditions have changed, and the terrain has shifted, but the kind of a man who follows the chase for a living remains the same; the desire to penetrate far-away hidden spots, the urge to wander, is there as it was in his prototype of two hundred years ago. The real trapper (by which I mean the man who spends his days up beyond the Strong Woods, not the part-time hunter, or "railroad" trapper out for a quick fortune) is as much an integral part of the woods as are the animals themselves. In tune with his surroundings, wise in the lore of the Indian, he reads and correctly interprets the cryptograms in the book that lies open before him, scanning the face of Nature and forestalling her moods to his advantage. Dependent entirely on himself, he must be resourceful, ready to change plan at a moment's notice, turning adverse circumstances and reverses to what slight advantage he may. The hardships and privations of the trapper's life have developed in him a determination, a dogged perseverance, and a bulldog tenacity of purpose not often necessary in other walks of life. At the outset, before the commencement of the hunt, the trapper may have to spend one or two months in getting supplies to his ground, after spending most of the summer searching for a likely spot. His exploration work is of great value to those who follow him, but it is all lost time to him. He expects, and receives, nothing for his labours, but counts it all in the day's work, and hopes his ground will produce the goods. On such trips these men are sometimes called on to perform seemingly impossible feats, and probably no trip coming inside my recollection would illustrate this better than the journey undertaken by a white man and an Indian, three winters ago in Northern Quebec.
These men came from further south and, having made no allowance for the difference in climate, on their arrival found the freeze-up already in progress. Travelling during this period is considered by even the most enduring as being almost, if not quite, impossible.
Nothing daunted, these two hardy souls commenced their pilgrimage, for it was nothing less. Each had a canoe-load of about 600 lbs. On the first lake they found ice, which, whilst not capable of bearing a man, effectually prevented the passage of a canoe. This had to be broken, the two men armed with poles first breaking a channel in an empty canoe, from one expanse of open water to another. This entailed the unloading of 600 lbs. of baggage on any kind of shore, into the snow, and the reloading of it on the return of the empty canoe; work enough, if frequently performed. They proceeded thus at the rate of about three miles a day, carrying the loads and canoes over seven portages. It snowed steadily day and night, increasing the difficulties on portages, making camping out a misery, and preventing at the same time the ice from becoming thick enough to walk on.
For five days they continued this struggle, making camp every night after dark, soaking wet and exhausted. It now turned colder, and this did not improve the ice under its dogging mass of snow water, while in the channel so laboriously broken, the cakes of ice and slush often cemented together, during the return trip, into a stronger barrier than the original ice had been. Held up at length on the shores of an eight-mile lake by these conditions, they passed around the entire shoreline of one side of the lake on snowshoes, the ice being too weak to carry them otherwise, and even then, within a few feet of the shore, driving their axes through the ice at one blow every few feet. A fifth day was consumed on the outward journey, and they returned by the light of a clouded moon, splashed to the head, their garments freezing as they walked. But they were well repaid, as the water flooded the ice around the holes they had cut, and slushed up the snow on it. The whole mass froze through, forming a kind of bridge, over which they passed in safety, drawing the canoes and loads in relays on improvised sleighs.
This style of progress, alternating with the usual portages, continued for several more days, one man going through the ice in deep water, and being with difficulty rescued. The men were in no danger from starvation, but wrestling with hundred-pound bags of provisions under such trying conditions, and carrying ice-laden canoes over portages on snowshoes, was too severe a labour to be long continued. Worn-out and discouraged by their seemingly hopeless task, too far in to turn back, not far enough advanced to remain, faced by the prospect of passing the best part of the winter on a main route denuded of game, these companions in tribulation plodded with bitter determination, slowly, painfully, but persistently ahead.
Mile by mile, yard by yard, foot by foot, it seemed, those mountainous loads proceeded on their way, as two steely-eyed, grimfaced men opposed their puny efforts to the vindictive Power that vainly inhibited their further progress.
Their objective was a fast-running river, some forty miles in from the steel (railroads), knowledge of which had caused them to retain their canoes, in the hopes of finding it unfrozen. This proved to be the case, and on its current they travelled in ease and comfort, as far, in two days, as they had previously done in the two weeks that they had been on the trail. When the water no longer suited their direction, they camped several days to rest up; and winter coming on in real earnest, they cached their now useless canoes, and making sleighs moved on into their ground by easy stages.
My own first introduction to a district celebrated for its topographical irregularities was a muskeg two miles long, of the same width and of indeterminate depth. These muskegs are frequently little more than moss-covered bogs that offer not one solid piece of footing in miles. Between two of us we juggled dose on nine hundred pounds of equipment and provisions across this morass, besides a large freighting canoe, taking three days to complete the task. It rained the whole time, so we were wet on both sides, at both ends, and in the middle. Two nights camp had to be made on a quaking bog, where a small cluster of stunted spruce offered shelter and a little dry wood, whilst mosquitoes in countless myriads swarmed on us from the pools of slime on every side.
At no place in this swamp could we carry over a hundred pounds, owing to the treacherous nature of the footing, this increasing the number of trips.
On one occasion, bogged to the knees, I was unable to extricate myself, and, unwilling to drop my load in the mud, had to wait in this position till my partner passed on his return trip. The whole thing was a hideous nightmare. Four trips apiece we made by quarter-mile stretches, and the labour involved was nothing short of terrific. Yet the, feat, if so it could be called, excited no comment; such things are commonly done.