Historic & Cultural Heritage
Riding Mountain National Park of Canada Overview:
"The Parks are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment...and shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of the future generations." National Parks Act, 1930.
Two cyclists overlooking the Manitoba Escarpment in RMNP © Parks Canada
A proposal that a national park be established in eastern Manitoba was under consideration as early as 1919. The area near Whiteshell River was proposed but the implementation lay dormant for several years. In 1927, Dr. E.D.R Bissett, Member of Parliament for Springfield, had received written assurance from the National Park Service that a recommendation to create a park in eastern Manitoba would commence. Not everyone favoured the prospect of a National Park in the Whiteshell area. City and town councils and rural municipalities were urging the establishment of a national park who had supported the Whiteshell River site now supported the Riding Mountain Forest reserve. The Forest Reserve was more accessible in the highway system, more centrally located and had one of the largest elk herds in Canada. Therefore, it was more preferred area than the Whiteshell.
After many months of deliberation and input from the public, it was decided that both the Whiteshell River site in Eastern Manitoba and the Riding Mountain Forest Reserve in Western Manitoba would become national parks. The Manitoba government advised that there would only be one national park in Manitoba. An assessment was done on both areas and it was decided that the Riding Mountain site was favoured over the Whiteshell area. It was recommended that a summer recreation area be created taking in an area of 180 kms surrounding Clear Lake. Again towns and municipalities rejected this proposal and recommended that entire Riding Mountain Forest Reserve become a national park. It was looked at as being: "an island of wilderness surrounded by a sea of farmland." In 1929, the Riding Mountain Forest Reserve was set aside as a national park and on July 26, 1933, Riding Mountain National Park was officially opened.
To the Indigenous people, the forests, prairies, and lakes of Riding Mountain were favourite hunting and fishing ground. Two hundred years ago, the Cree were in possession of the highlands while their allies, the Assiniboines, roamed the prairies in pursuit of the bison. These people followed the retreat of the bison herds to the west and were replaced by the Ojibway, who still live in the area today.
Between 1731 and 1749 Pierre de la Verendrye and his sons explored and traded on the plains around Riding Mountain. A post was established on Lake Dauphin in 1741 and soon the Hudson's Bay Company followed suit. By 1800's, the mountain was surrounded by posts and a rich harvest of furs flowed outward to distant countries. Resulting from 150 years of exploitation, the populations of fur bearers were greatly reduced. Species such as the otter, marten, fisher and wolverine disappeared completely.
Since riding was the easiest means of exploring the rugged highland in search of furs and game, the original name of Fort Dauphin Hill was changed to Riding Mountain, which is still used today. Among the first settlers were Robert Campbell and his son Glen Lyon, who cleared the Strathclair Trail.
After Canadian Pacific Rail reached Brandon in 1881, settlers from Eastern Canada, Europe and the U.S.A. established themselves on the plains around Riding Mountain. These settlements used the highland as a source of timber for building, railroads, firewood, and wild meat to supplement their food supply. The need for conservation of our natural resources was recognized in the closing years of the 19th century. The highland was withdrawn from settlement and made a forest reserve. At this time, the area was still noted for its hunting.
It was under the forest service that the system of issuing permits to lease land and build cottages was initiated in 1925. Prior to that time, only hunters' camps existed for short periods on the shore of Clear Lake. A hunting camp existed near what is now referred to as Deep Bay (formerly known as Seaplane Bay and previous to that Montague Bay, named after a doctor from Minnedosa). After 1912, George Clark and his wife from Newdale camped on the shores of Clear Lake and for years this area was officially known as Clark's Beach. Some of the first campers to the area were the Gusdal, Lee and Hanson families of Erickson.
On May 30, 1930, the Forest Reserve became Riding Mountain National Park and at the official dedication on July 26, 1933, a bronze plaque on the cairn on the main beach was erected to commemorate the event. It reads:
"This Tablet commemorates the official opening of Riding Mountain National Park, an area dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education, and enjoyment."
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Historic & Cultural Heritage
When the last glacier retreated northward from southern Manitoba about 10,000 years ago, early hunters and gatherers began moving into the area in search of game. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Indigenous peoples have inhabited the area of what is now the park for 6000 years, possibly longer. Today many sites exist within the park which represent habitation, fishing, hunting, tool and pottery making, and burial activities.
Historic Post Card picture of the Administration Building © Parks Canada
During more recent historic times, various Indigenous groups inhabited the region. The Ojibway migrated from eastern regions to inhabit the Riding Mountain area, previously the home of the Nakota (Assiniboine) Nation. The Nakota are known to have traveled widely and regularly between the Souris, upper Assiniboine, South Saskatchewan and Missouri rivers long before horses played a significant role in their travels. The Nakotas shifted west and south due to their declining numbers caused by European diseases, shifting tribal boundaries, declining local bison herds and resources for trading, and a westward shifting of the fur trade establishments, particularly up the Missouri River.
The Ojibway, active suppliers to the fur trade, roamed the Riding Mountain area in pursuit of fur as well as maintaining a traditional lifestyle of fishing and hunting. The creation of Canada necessitated the signing of treaties between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples in the 1870s. These treaties created the reserve system and today there are several First Nation communities around the Park.
In 1896, a Fishing Reserve was established on the shores of Clear Lake for the Keeseekoowenin Objiway First Nations at Elphinstone. This Indian reserve was wrongfully removed in 1930 by the Department of the Interior at the time of the establishment of the Park. This land was returned to the Keeseekoowenin Objiway First Nation in 1991 after a land claim by the Band. Additional lands in this area, commonly referred to as the 1906 lands, are presently the focus of a land claim by the Keeseekoowenin Objiway First Nations. Oral histories of various First Nations' elders have added to this archaeological and geographical knowledge. Understanding of the strong spiritual meaning that the mountain provided to Indigenous people has grown. The sacredness of the mountain is linked to its abundant water.
Settlement by Europeans occurred in the region in the late 1800s. During the depression of the 1930s the park supported a large work camp. Many of the facilities that visitors still enjoy today were constructed at that time. Domestic timber harvest, haying and livestock grazing took place but no longer continue. Grey Owl, a well known spokesman-advocate for conservation in Canada, lived in the area for a short time. His cabin has been restored for public viewing. In 1994, the East Gate entrance to the park was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Historic Post Card picture of the Visitor Centre 1935
© Parks Canada
This information is from the:Riding Mountain National Park Management Plan - Historic and Cultural Heritage
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East Gate Registration Complex
The East Gate National Historic Site is a nationally significant example of the Rustic Design tradition of the 1930's in Canada's National Parks. It is the last of three log entrance gates in Riding Mountain. This gate was constructed of indigenous materials by skilled local craftsmen hired through the Federal Government's Depression Relief Program. Comprised of a registration building and two staff cabins, the East Gate Complex has symbolic value because its association with early autotourism and outdoor recreation. It is an enduring landmark for visitors to Riding Mountain National Park of Canada.
Visitor at the Riding Mountain East Gate in the 1930's
© Parks Canada
Riding Mountain obtained National Park status in 1930 and was officially opened in 1933. Typical of Canadian National Parks at this time, all development at RMNP was oriented towards recreation and tourism; parks were not simply set aside but had to be "developed" in order to be made "useful." The construction of the East Gate Complex is associated with the development of Riding Mountain as a National Park and as a product of the Depression relief work.
The complex was built in 1933 and 1934. It is located at the eastern entrance of the park on Highway 19 (formerly known as the Norgate Road) at the base of the Manitoba Escarpment. Access through RMNP along this route is extremely steep and prior to the advent of automobile would have been impassable. The Norgate Road, which was built by the depression Relief workers, supplanted the McCreary and Ochre River Trails. These trails had traditionally provided access from the eastern edge to the interior of what is now the park. This road was constructed to lead to Clear Lake, providing direct access to the main area being developed for recreation and leisure. This development reflected the changing use patterns of the park area at that time.
Registration buildings or park entrance buildings appeared in the national parks as by-products of automobile tourism.
The building's primary purpose was to accommodate park attendants who registrations, and dispensed information (e.g., road and weather conditions). The National Parks Branch saw their value in both functional and symbolic terms, and designed them as visual landmarks that heralded mortorists' arrival at the park's boundaries. Because many of the building were situated at considerable distance from town sites, basic living accommodation for the attendants was often provided either in the registration building or a separate cabin.
The quick pace and wide spectrum of development at RMNP throughout its first decade could not have been accomplished outside the depression of the 1930's. Failing economic conditions had put a huge labour force out of work and resulted in widespread financial hardship among Canadians. The mounting severity of the situation prompted the Federal Government to enact relief measures designed to make work for the vast population of unemployed.
This federal aid was earmarked for relief work in Canada's National Parks. In 1930, the Unemployment Relief Act was passed. It supplied funds for the establishment of work camps in national parks such as Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Prince Albert and Riding Mountain Parks. Riding Mountain sustained the largest relief camp operation employing over 1,200 men on various projects between 1934-35.
Depression relief aid also took the form of direct funding supplied through the 1934 Public Works Construction Act. A large portion of these funds was in turn allocated for construction for specific types of buildings in the parks, namely administration and community buildings, garages, warden cabins and staff head quarters. Many of the local craftsmen hired to design and construct these buildings were Swedish immigrants who had settled in the vicinity of the park. With the aid of relief workers through the Depression relief program, park administrators were able to exploit the craftsmen's expertise in log and stone construction. In RMNP 86 buildings of various descriptions, including those at the east gate entrance, were built between 1930 and 1936 through this program.
Rustic Design Tradition
Major public buildings such as registration complexes, museums, administration buildings, etc. were purposefully designed to function both as landmarks and as a visual cornerstone for the architectural themes being developed within the respective parks. Between 1902 and 1930, a distinctive rustic architectural style emerged that was uniquely evocative of the natural environments within a national park. The Rustic Design tradition reached its zenith in Canada's National Parks during the Depression of the 1930's. Between 1922 and 1936 Federal architects applied English Arts and Craft stylistic elements (e.g., Tudor style) to scores of designs for both public and private buildings in the national parks. The use of local materials, whether as structural components or as decorative features were used to develop distinctive sub-themes within various parks. The use of logs and stone was typical at RMNP. The rustic design traditions is closely associated with Canada's national parks since the system was established at Banff in 1887. It remained as an important design policy for the next 50 years.
East Gate Registration Complex
This three-building complex consists of a portal-style entrance building and two nearby staff residences. The grouping well illustrated the rustic theme prescribed for Riding Mountain National Park during the Depression relief period. For entrance buildings in this park, staff architects devised a portal design which consisted of twin kiosks linked by an overhead bridgework. This design was used for facilities at all three road entry points to the Park, and was unique to Riding Mountain. The buildings were constructed in 1931 (south entrance), 1933 (east entrance) and 1936 (north entrance). The east gate is the only one that has survived.
Sun shining on today's Riding Mountain Park East Gate Registration Complex National Historic Site of Canada
© Parks Canada
The Whirlpool Warden's Station is a simple structure built primarily of log. It is one of the three houses originally built for the Park. It is a rare example of a log residence designed to the guidelines adopted by the Architectural Division of the National Parks Branch. The house is positioned near the highway entry point and is highly visible to motorists, giving both a sense of authority and protection.
The gatekeeper's residence was built in 1933-34. It is a similar structure to the warden's station. It was originally constructed as a summer residence, but was later modified to facilitate year round use. The building occupies a clearing in the forest in a prominent location along the entrance road. Together with the warden's station and the east gate entrance building, the gatekeeper's residence contributes to a unique historic setting.
In November 1992, The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended that the East Gate Complex be designated as a site of national historic significance. In July 1995, the complex was officially established as a historic site, commemorating its historical and architectural significance as one of the most noteworthy expression of the rustic aesthetic in Canada's National Parks.
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Prisoners Of War
WHITEWATER P.O.W. CAMP (1943 to 1945)
Riding Mountain National Park of Canada
The Second World War interrupted both the recreational development of Riding Mountain
National Park and any of its goals to eliminate resource extraction activities within its boundaries. Out of respect for the men fighting overseas and with federal financing directed to the war effort,
recreational development was curtailed. A fuel shortage brought on by the requirements of war left many Canadians dependent on cordwood, shifting the importance of Riding Mountain once again to its wood resources. Prior to the establishment of the Park in 1933, Riding Mountain was a Forest Reserve supplying lumber and fuelwood to surrounding farms and communities.
To alleviate undue hardship and contribute to the war effort, Riding Mountain was made accessible to rural municipalities for the cutting of fuelwood. Urban centres such as Winnipeg were also supplied with fuel from the stock cut by German prisoners interned at Whitewater Lake from 1943 to 1945. The use of German prisoners to conduct this essential work was the result of the absence of a Canadian labour force during that time. They cut wood from a fire-killed stand located east of the lake.
Due to its remoteness and available wood supply Riding Mountain was a desirable place to have a Prisoner of war (P.O.W.) camp. The Camp was surrounded by bush and conveniently distant from the park boundary and outlying communities. Located within central Manitoba, and the centre of Canada, escape from the country was considered to be virtually impossible. The Camp was unique though in that it had no fences or walls enclosing it.
Prisoner of War Camp in Riding Mountain National Park in 1944
© Parks Canada
Preparations for the Camp
The Department of Munitions and Supplies, which later became the Wartime Housing Commission, was responsible for the construction of the camp and the maintenance of proper living standards. Construction began in the summer of 1943 and by October, 450 German prisoners (captured in North Africa) arrived at the camp to take up residence and work. In November 1944, more than 31 000 German prisoners of war were detained in Canada.
Lumber for the camp was sawn at Dewitts Mill, which was located on the northwest shore of Lake Audy. A contingent of Alternate Service Workers (i.e., pacifists, conscientious objectors) was stationed at this mill camp. For four months they aided in preparations and assisted contractors hired to do road repairs and camp construction. Most of the pacifists at this camp were single young Mennonite men from surrounding villages and farm districts.
In total there were fifteen buildings erected at the Whitewater camp, including: five bunkhouses (with complete washroom and bathing facilities), administrative staff quarters, an administration
office, a large cookhouse (with a dining room to accommodate the entire camp), a commissary store, a garage, a blacksmith shop, a power plant, a machine shop, barns for horses, and a small
hospital. The Winnipeg Free Press (1943) described the completed project as "the largest work camp yet constructed in Canada to accommodate prisoners and ...[to] use prisoners in fuelwood production."
A group of prisoners
© Parks Canada
The area designated for cutting cordwood occurred on both sides of Central Trail and extended two miles beyond the camp. It was comprised largely of poplar, but also contained a small quantity of spruce and pine.
Most of the area was clearcut with isolated green poplar being taken along with the fire-killed trees. Spruce were the only species left standing, in hopes that seed generation might occur within the area.
All trees were of sufficient size and quantity to adequately meet the requirements for fuelwood. The regulations governing the extraction of timber were the same as those, which applied during the logging days of the early 1930's. To ensure the enforcement of these regulations, a park warden was assigned to the camp to supervise the cutting and scaling of cordwood, as well as to record the dues owing to prisoners for their work.
For the most part, these duties fell to Warden David Binkley, who was stationed at Lake Audy during the operation of the camp. Binkley was also in charge of taking the prisoners to the cutting area, assigning work duties, and returning them to camp.
Civilian Guards (from the Canadian Armed Forces) present at the camp were responsible for standing guard while the prisoners cut cordwood. They also accompanied the prisoners to Dauphin to pick up daily rations. Each prisoner was paid 50 cents a day for cutting the required amount of wood.
Although bonus rates were offered as an incentive to the prisoners cutting cordwood, the best
production achieved by the men was a cord per day per individual. The first winter of wood cutting was a dismal failure - largely because of discipline problems. After approximately seven months of cutting, the total fuelwood production only amounted to 33 000 cords.
The cut wood left the park by two routes - via the Lake Audy road South to Elphinstone, and North along the Strathclair Trail to Dauphin. From these destinations the wood was shipped to Winnipeg and other communities.
Riding Mountain was a "minimum security" camp, and the prisoners took advantage of the situation. They fraternized with guards and often slipped away to the outlying communities. Rumor has it that some prisoners attended dances at Crawford Park, a small community south of Lake Audy. They also organized themselves and exerted a certain amount of control over camp operations. The prisoners entertained themselves with a choir and an orchestra, and played numerous sports. Others occupied themselves with the care, feeding and raising of pigs, which were eaten to vary their meat diet.
One popular hobby at the camp was wood carving, especially the handicraft of making
replicas of battleships to scale. Most captivating of pastimes was the building of dug-out canoes, some of which can still be found on the banks of Whitewater Creek or in the Fort Dauphin Museum.
The idea for construction came from a Canadian magazine that circulated in the camp. It featured a picture of a birch bark canoe and inspired the men to become actively involved in duplicating the vessel. Instead of frame and birch materials, however, a spruce or poplar log was chiseled out by hand, the feat requiring many hours of labour. One man canoes measured approximately ten feet in length, whereas two man vessels were fourteen to sixteen feet long. They were launched in the creek to the south of camp (which was narrower and deeper at the time), and Whitewater Lake, which provided the scenic views and adventure for the paddlers.
These pastimes, however, were not always enough to ease the monotony of camp life, and when work opportunities arose, some volunteered for duty. The use of German prisoners in fire fighting had been approved by the Department of Labour in view of manpower shortages throughout the province, and on at least one occasion, prisoners were used to fight fire in the park. On another occasion they were employed to fix the telephone line between Clear Lake and Gunn Lake after a bad storm. Some were also billeted with nearby farmers and made lasting friendships with the families for whom they chored.
The P.O.W.s were treated well while at the camp and were considered to be a "good bunch." It is believed, however, that a few prisoners tried to escape once. The only unfortunate incident that occurred at the camp was the death of 33 year old Max Neugebaureer, who died when a tree fell on him.
Closing the Camp
By March of 1944, the urgency for dry wood was over. Although cutting continued until the summer of 1945 the need for fuelwood in the province had been satiated and further cutting by German P.O.W.s was to cease. For a time, the prisoners were put to work on the Central Trail and their use in other park work was contemplated.
However, three factors prevented an extension of their stay. First, there were no projects in the
vicinity of the camp to warrant the expenditure in wages which would have to have been absorbed by the Parks Branch. The second factor was the general lack of money to finance their employment. Thirdly, there was a lack of park equipment for any additional programs. Existing equipment was needed in ordinary park maintenance and since it was not in the best state of repair, it could not be spared or over used.
Consequently, in November of 1945, the camp was vacated. The prisoners were sent to do other work projects in Canada, with most going to places in northern Ontario. The equipment and restoration of the land were completed by December. In 1945, after the war ended the prisoners were sent back to their homeland.
At this time, the Park reestablished its goals. Resource extraction was curtailed and the
development of recreational facilities continued.
The P.O.W. is now a primitive campsite and can be visited by hiking, cycling or horseback riding out to Whitewater Lake along Central Trail.
Some concrete foundations and part of the incinerator still remain at the site. Several dugout canoes still rest in the quiet waters of the creek. The former campsite is being reclaimed by nature and the area is important habitat for elk during May and June.
Further information about labour camps in Canada's national parks can be obtained from the following sources:
Bell, L. 1987. Parks for Profit. Montreal, Harvest House.
Waiser, B. 1995. Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada National Parks, 1915- 1946. Fifth House Publishers Ltd., pp. 294.
The Whitewater POW Camp Archaeology Project
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Grey Owl (1931)
Photo of Grey Owl Standing
© Parks Canada
"The safety of the beaver would be guaranteed as long as they would live,... Further I would be given every opportunity to carry out my conservation ideas in a dignified and constructive manner, without the necessity for anxiety as to the means ... I myself would become a servant to the government of Canada" - Grey Owl in Pilgrims of the Wild 1935
On April 17, 1931,Grey Owl, the famous trapper - turned - conservationist, began work as a "keeper of native animals" in the newly declared Riding Mountain National Park. He and his pet beaver, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, would spend only six months in the park, however Grey Owl's stay in Riding Mountain represented a significant turning point in his career and life.
Grey Owl is a legend, well known for his love of nature and his dedication to the preservation of wilderness. In the depressed world of the 1930's, he received international acclaim as a great naturalist, a successful author, a gifted orator and a respected Indigenous spokesperson.
Grey Owl's Early Life
Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney at Hastings, England on September 18, 1888. Abandoned by her husband, Archie's mother remarried and left Archie to be raised by his two maiden aunts when he was 4 years old.
Because his father had gone to America, Archie grew up believing his father was living with Indians and as a child, he became fascinated by nature, wild animals, far-away lands and Indian braves.
After leaving school at sixteen Archie worked briefly in an office in Hastings but the lure of the wilds of North America was too much for him. On March 29,1906 Archie Balaney boarded the steamship SS Canada bound for Halifax.
In 1907, after spending some time in Toronto, Archie ended up working at a small resort near Temiskaming in Northern Ontario. Here, he gave himself a new history, growing up an Indian in the America southwest, the son of a Scottish trader and an Apache girl.
In Temiskaming, an Indigenous prospector took Archie in and trained him as a wilderness guide. He learned the language and ways of the Ojibway people. In 1910 he married an Ojibway girl, Angele.
But Archie, like his father, was prone to wander. In 1912 he left Angele and guided, trapped and worked as forest ranger in various locations in northern Ontario.
In 1915 he Archie ended up in Nova Scotia, enlisted in the Canadian Army and was sent overseas to France during the First World War. He was wounded there and returned to England to convalesce.
In England, Archie married his childhood sweet-heart, Constance Holmes. They were soon divorced, as after his discharge from the army, Archie headed back to the northern Ontario wilderness.
Back in the bush, Archie was befriended by another Ojibway family and he leaned more and more towards the Indian lifestyle. Clad in buckskins with his dyed black hair hanging in braids, he became known as Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (He-who-walks-by-night) - Grey Owl.
Grey Owl's Conversion
In 1925 he moved to northern Quebec where he continued to trap and guide. Here he met and married a young Mohawk girl, Gertrude Bernard. He called her Anahareo and she would play a major role in changing his lifestyle from trapper to conservationist and author.
When two beaver kittens were left orphaned because their mother had died in one of Grey Owl's traps, Anahareo convinced Grey Owl to rescue them. The two orphans were adopted and named McGuiness and McGinty.
In 1929, Grey Owl and Anahareo moved to a place near Cabano, Quebec where they hoped to establish a beaver colony. At this time, because of over-trapping, the Canadian beaver population was reaching near extinction.
The orphan beaver had left Grey Owl more concerned with finding ways of protecting beaver than in devising better ways of trapping them. The two beavers stayed with Grey Owl and Anahareo for about a year and than disappeared.
While in Cabano, Grey Owl had his first nature article published in the British magazine called "Country Life". This led to requests for more articles, a book and lectures. Grey Owl moved on to a Quebec resort town called Metis-Sur-Mer and he soon became known for his tales as well as his new beaver kitten, Jelly Roll.
Coming to Riding Mountain National Park
Grey Owl was becoming well known across the country as the "beaver man", and in February, 1931, he was offered employment as a naturalist in Riding Mountain National Park. The national park system felt that his beaver conservation work and his positive publicity would be beneficial to their program.
By this time Grey Owl had acquired a mate (Rawhide) for Jelly Roll. He accepted the position but declined an offer to visit the park to select a site for his new home. He dared not leave while Rawhide and Jelly Roll were under the ice in a "country swarming with illegal hunters".
After several months of writing letters back and forth, the Park staff of Riding Mountain selected a site that met with the requirements of Grey Owl.
"I would clear a trail to any selected place. Isolation means nothing to me, beyond what accessibility is necessary to allow for the carrying out of any project such as demonstration or the taking of moving pictures, inspection, etc."
Grey Owl to Riding Mountain Park Superintendent, March 2, 1931.
On April 17, 1931, Grey Owl, Jelly Roll and Rawhide arrived by train in Neepawa, Manitoba and were transported by truck to a small lake, seven miles northeast of Wasagaming.
The beaver arrived in good condition, having made the 2000-mile; weeklong train trip in a large galvanized sheet-iron box. This box had been specifically designed by Grey Owl to resemble a real beaver lodge, with a water-filled swimming tank, a drying platform and raised sleeping area. Upon release, the beaver immediately took to the water and explored the lake.
"Well sir, this was some trip. The beaver made the grade and are now happy and contented with two beaver houses, in a land of coyotes, elk, jumping deer, and some darned good view.... The Parks people, who have been wonderful to us, are building a palatial house for us near the beaver....I want to tell you the world is a different place this last few months mister." - Grey Owl to his friend, Spring of 1931.
In Riding Mountain
The lake were Grey Owl and his beaver were installed became known as Beaver Lodge Lake and a cabin was built on the lake's edge by Park staff. The cabin, which was divided into two areas (a main room and an annex), met the needs of both Grey Owl and the beavers. Entranceways were made in the main room so that the beavers could come and go as they wished. Grey Owl often found Jelly Roll and Rawhide curled up beside him as he slept, safe in the protected wilderness of a National Park.
The Park staff provided the necessary supplies to insure that both Grey Owl and the beavers were content in their new home. A special chestnut canoe was purchased so Grey Owl could paddle around the lake and watch for beaver activity.
Now that Grey Owl and his beavers were settled Grey Owl began his work with the beavers and the public in earnest. His job was to reestablish beaver colonies in areas where they were exterminated. It was also thought Grey Owl would attract visitors to this new park with his tame beaver and his dynamic personality.
Grey Owl and his pet beaver Jellyroll
© Parks Canada
In the spring Grey Owl obtained some new beaver kittens and Jelly Roll gave birth to four new kittens. Grey Owl became pre-occupied with training the young and adult beavers. The training was done during the night when the beavers were active. Grey Owl slept from 5:30 am until 12:30 noon then rose to greet visitors. His days were filled with caring for the beaver as well as two sets of elk and moose that had been placed in his care. On several occasions, Grey Owl would come into the townsite of Wasagaming and tell a few stories at the Wigwam Restaurant.
Although Grey Owl did not have time to continue his writing while in Riding Mountain, two sets of movies were filmed and he posed for a number of still shots with Parks photographer Bill Oliver. Used in his books and on his lecture tours, the photo's and film's taken during his time in Riding Mountain would make him famous and spread his message around the world. Visitor Centre staff can show you his 1931 Beaver Family movie.
Leaving Riding Mountain
"It was an ideal beaver pond and they were well established; if there had only been sufficient water for their migrations and to satisfy my bull headed ideas about a canoe" - Grey Owl from Prince Albert National Park to Riding Mountain Superintendent 1932
1931 was a drought year in Manitoba, and in July, the water in Beaver Lodge Lake had gone down by two feet. Grey Owl stated that the conditions (shallow water table and little snow) did not make Riding Mountain suitable for the beaver. That in future years, when the beaver population had increased and the young beaver were forced to move on, there would not be enough water for their travel.
Grey Owl was also upset because, several of the young beaver Grey Owl had been training had a died. Being an avid and skilled canoeist, Grey Owl also found little comfort and enjoyment at the isolated slough that was Beaver Lodge Lake.
Grey Owl requested a transfer west, and on October 26, 1931, together with Anahareo, Rawhide, Jelly Roll and four beaver kittens (Wakanee, Wakanoo, Silver Bells and Buckshot), he left Riding Mountain National Park and arrived safely at Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park.
Grey Owl would spend seven years in Prince Albert National Park completing his major literary works. The last two years of this time was spent touring and lecturing in North America and England.
On April 13, 1938, Grey Owl died of pneumonia. His body was laid to rest on the hillside overlooking the cabin on Ajawaan Lake.
Grey Owl will always be remembered in Riding Mountain National Park as "keeper of native animals". He launched the first beaver conservation project in the Park and partly because of his efforts Riding Mountain now has an abundant beaver population.
Despite Grey Owl's dissatisfaction with Riding Mountain National Park, his six-month stay here would be an important turning point in his life. It was a time when he fully embraced his public persona as Grey Owl, "protector of the Beaver People". It was the first opportunity he had to carry out his beaver studies in a protected environment. It was also the beginning of his life in western Canada, a period that would bring him fame, recognition and financial security.
Grey Owl's Cabin Today
Grey Owl's cabin on Beaver Lodge Lake still stands, a tribute to the skills of early Park staff and craftsmen. Grey Owl's cabin is a popular destination for hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers. The 17.8 km return trip off Highway #19 is a quiet trail that passes through a forest of aspen, balsam poplar, jack pine and white spruce.
Grey Owl's cabin in Riding Mountain National Park as it is today
© Parks Canada
Displayed at the cabin are photos, letters and correspondences from Grey Owl's stay in Riding Mountain National Park. The cabin was recognized as a Federal Heritage Building on November 17, 1988. If you look closely you can see where Grey Owl's beaver chewed into the cabin walls.
"...Just the same I am kind of lonesome for the little old pond, for all I was in such a hurry to get away from it." -Grey Owl from Prince Albert National Park to Riding Mountain Superintendent 1932
Books By Grey Owl:
The Men of the Last Frontier , 1931
Pilgrims of the Wild, 1935
Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People, 1935
Tales of an Empty Cabin, 1937
Book of Grey Owl, 1940
Books About Grey Owl:
Devil in Deerskins: My life with Grey Owl, Anahero, 1972
Wilderness Man: The Strange Story Of Grey Owl, Lovat Dickson, 1973.
From The Land of Shadows: The Making Of Grey Owl, Donald Smith, 1990.
Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, Armand Ruffo, 1997.
Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney, June Billinghurst, 1999.