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August 11, 2000

Grey Owl and his life in Temagami

Guests at Dan O'Connor's Temagami Inn on Lake Temagami in the summer of 1907 would hardly have noticed a teenage chore boy named Archie Belaney who had recently arrived from Hastings, England. 

Twenty-five years later he was Canada and the Commonwealth's best known writer, lecturer and conservationist and had transformed himself into his new persona, Grey Owl. 

In 1999 $40-million dollar film on his life was produced.  

Grey Owl's writing is still in print and numerous biographies and articles have been written about him, including two long books in the 1970s when his books were reprinted as a part of the new conservation movement. 

By far the best biography is that of Donald B. Smith, a professor at the university of Calgary who studied Grey Owl for twenty years before publishing his definitive profile, From The Land Of The Shadows, in 1990. 

Smith believes that Archie's unique personality and genius was created by a combination of a strange English upbringing and his experience in the Canadian wild that "led him to enter a fantasy world of his own making, one which would totally devour him." 

For a man who did not make it to his fiftieth birthday he led an incredible life. 

Smith quotes from Grey Owl's "masterpiece" autobiography to show the quality of his writing about the years he spent in Temagami and elsewhere in the north: "The feel of a canoe gunnel at the thigh, the splash of flying spray in the face, the rhythm of the snowshoe trail, the beckoning of far-off hills and valleys, the majesty of the tempest, the calm and silent presence of the trees that seem to muse and ponder in their silence; the trust and confidence of small living creatures, the company of simple men; these have been my inspiration and my guide. Without them I am nothing." 
Grey Owl on one of his canoeing excursions. From a copy of an old postcard,

Archie Belaney, born in 1888, was part of a strange family and was raised and educated to love language and music by two aunts. He lived for his animals and his fantasy world of "red Indians." 

He left for Canada in 1906 at age eighteen, stayed briefly in Toronto and eventually took the train to Mattawa and on to Temiscaming. 

In Temiscaming he met Bill Guppy, a trapper, and wintered with him and his family where he was taught many outdoor skills. The Guppys had a piano and Bill recalled that Archie was "a wizard on the keys, rattling out tune after tune, picking up the songs we sang." 

In the spring Archie travelled by canoe with Bill and his brothers to lake Temagami where Bill was a guide and where Archie got work. Archie soon made friends with the Native people of the area, especially those summering on Bear Island two kilometres away near the Hudson's Bay post. He also worked at losing his English accent and learning the local Ojibway dialect. 

Archie noticed an attractive Native girl, Angele Eguana, who worked in the kitchen of the Temagami Inn. She only spoke Ojibway but Archie persisted and a friendship soon developed. Angel introduced him to her uncle John Eguana, whose wife was the sister of Chief Frank White Bear, and to Ned White Bear and Michel Mathias, who had a great influence on him. 

John Eguana called him "the young owl who sits taking in everything." Archie liked the owl connotation and later added Grey to it. 

Archie made a trip back to England but soon returned and immersed himself in the Temagami way of life. He later said that he was "adopted" by John Eguana. 

He also renewed his friendship with Angele and married her on Bear Island in the summer of 1910. Their daughter Agnes was born in the spring of 1911. He learned everything he could, including the Native language, and worked as a trapper and a guide. 

The pattern of restlessness that drove him all his life began in Temagami. Besides going back to England, he took a bet that he could cross the 150 miles of Algonquin Park without detection by the rangers. 

It was apparently a protest of the expulsion of Native people from the park. He got caught, escaped, froze his feet and limped back to Temagami. 

In the summer of 1911 he left his wife and daughter and relocated to Biscocasing, 100 miles to the west, where he held various jobs, drank a lot, got a woman pregnant, got into trouble with the law and hit rock bottom on several occasions. 

Over the years he came back to Temagami a number of times, and on one occasion fathered another child with Angele. In 1925 he again stayed with Angele and spent time with is teenage daughter Agnes. 

That summer, as I stated in an article here on June 16, his life changed toward his remarkable transformation to Grey Owl the author, lecturer and conservationist when he met Gertrude Bernard (Anahareo). 

Archie's wife remarried but always remembered Archie with affection, as did daughter Agnes who married Albert Lalonde, a boat man on Lake Temagami and had four children and had numerous grand and great-grands before she died in 1997 at age 89. I interviewed her in 1995 and found her to be warm, frank and articulate about her life. 
The late Agnes Lalonde, Grey Owl's daughter, and her son Albert Lalonde, a resident of North Bay, pictured in 1998.

She recalled that Gertrude Bernard was her "chum" in 1925 and that she was disappointed when 19 year old Gertrude went with her 37 year old father. Years later Agnes released some film on Grey Owl which was shown in Toronto, and Gertrude was there. Gertrude left early without seeing Agnes, however, and Agnes was hurt. 

Agnes received a third of Grey Owl's estate when he died in 1938. Dawn, Grey Owl's daughter with Gertrude Bernard, visited and corresponded regularly with Agnes and they became good friends. 

The Ontario government officially recognized Grey Owl's contribution in 1959 when it erected a historic plaque at Findlayson Provincial Park in Temagami. 

It stated in part "alarmed at the rapid despoilation of the wilderness, the wanton slaughter of wildlife and the threat to Indian cultural survival, he became an ardent conservationist." 

Grey Owl's grandson, Albert Lalonde of North Bay, and his family and other relatives who still have a cottage on Lake Temagami, are proud of Grey Owl in spite of his faults. 

Albert and his wife and some family and friends, visited the site of the recent Grey Owl movie and were very well received, meeting Pierce Brosnan, who played Grey Owl, and Sir Richard Attenborough, the director. They were later guests at the opening of the film. 

Undoubtedly Grey Owl's complex and fascinating story will continue to be told as a part of the history of Temagami and beyond. A new book, Grey Owl's Collected Works was recently published and is available in local bookstores.
Pierce Bronson, left, visits with Albert Lalonde, Grey Owl's grandson, right, and Colin Taylor - President of the Grey Owl Society of Hastings, on the set of the movie Grey Owl. 
Bronson played Grey Owl in the movie. Photos courtesy of Albert Lalonde.

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