Digging into the History of Grey Owl’s Cabin with a Parks Canada Archaeologist and Restoration Crew
Riding Mountain National Park
Parks Canada is working to conserve and restore park buildings that have been designated by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO). Some of these projects require archaeological assessments to determine whether there are any objects of cultural or historical significance that could be impacted by the restoration work. This gives the Parks Canada archaeological team an opportunity that they might not have otherwise had to explore these places further, which sometimes leads to exciting finds.
This is how Parks Canada archaeologists found themselves at Grey Owl’s Cabin this past September. The cabin is a heritage building due to its historical associations and its architectural and environmental value. Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney) was a famous conservationist who resided there for six months in 1931. He was known for his work in beaver conservation and even had two pet beavers, Jellyroll and Rawhide. The cabin is now set to undergo a series of repairs to the foundation, deteriorating logs, windows and shingles. The Parks Canada restoration team began work in September but due to poor weather conditions their efforts have been postponed until May 2019.
The cabin was built according to Grey Owl’s specifications and was constructed with unique chutes for the beavers to easily enter and exit the cabin. “We’re hoping to find things related to Grey Owl,” said the Parks Canada archaeologist, “We also want to document what the beaver chutes look like, how they work, and if there is a trench that extended out from the chutes towards the [nearby] pond.”
The archaeologists are also interested in collecting archaeological information about the land-use before and after Grey Owl. “The cabin piles are sitting on ash and burned wood indicating that there was an older structure here at one time that burned down.” The archaeological investigations were focused on exposing the concrete piles and sill logs from Grey Owl’s cabin which the restoration work will replace. Therefore, the excavations occurred around the cabin’s perimeter and lead to the discovery that there was a burned area underneath only a portion of the cabin.
After Grey Owl left the park the cabin was occupied for a short time in the winter of 1933. Beavers had been moved to the area from Lake Audy and park officials, concerned that the beavers would not survive the winter, hired three men to live there and keep an eye on them. The men were also instructed by the park superintendent to build a barn and two outhouses.
The archaeological assessment also found “debitage” or waste material from making stone tools. This exciting find indicates an older Indigenous occupation at the site. More recent finds included items left behind by visitors such as broken bottles, metal cans, a coconut shell and bags. One of the bags had legible writing describing the conversion of weight to metric indicating it is from the early 1970s, around the time that Canada first adopted the metric system. The restoration crew found a more recent artifact: a memory card from a camera with photos from 2012. The owner was tracked down in Brandon and the card was returned to her thanks to some clever sleuthing by parks staff.
Further archaeological investigations could be conducted at the site to document the use of the area before and after Grey Owl’s stay in the park to help enrich our knowledge of the park’s history.
Grey Owl’s Cabin is being revamped! Parks Canada’s Restoration Workshop team is working on this popular cabin located 8.9 km down the Grey Owl Trail in Riding Mountain National Park.
The cabin was built in 1931 and served as a home for Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney) during his short stint as a conservationist in the area. He worked to reintroduce the beaver which had been trapped to near extinction.
Restoring old log buildings is not a straight forward process. “Half the job is good logs,” says Kym Terry, the Restoration Services Coordinator of the Parks Canada restoration workshop, which is located at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site and does heritage restoration work across the country.
“What we’re finding all the way across the country is that trees are much more tapered today, whereas in the past the trees that were used to make these buildings were less tapered and much straighter,” says Terry. This is due in part to the fact that these buildings were constructed from timbers cut from old growth forests.
This adds challenge to their work in selecting logs to replace the rotting ones in federal heritage log buildings. When selecting logs the restoration team needs to consider if the logs are straight enough, if there are cracks in the log that water will get into, and if the log spirals. Both left and right hand spirals are bad, but left hand spirals indicate that the log will continue to twist and move forever.
The cabin is now level and sitting on new concrete pads. “We used the window casings to make sure the cabin was level,” says Terry. The windows were all removed and restored in the workshop over the winter. These old log buildings were not necessarily built to last 150 years, but as Federal Heritage Buildings, it’s the Parks Canada Restoration Workshop’s job to restore them and make them last.
The logs need to be as smooth as possible to ensure a tight fit. It takes approximately two days for each log to be replaced. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Terry. Each log comes in and out of its spot several times before it is finally notched in place to stay.
Terry Danyleyko uses a log scribe, an ancient tool brought to North America early in the 17th century, to transfer the shape of one log to another log by following the contours of the log and marking it. The log is then removed and cut to fit. According to Danyleyko, scribing is an art that requires time and patience.
The restoration crew is wrapping up their work at Grey Owl’s Cabin on June 19, 2019 and heading to Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site to do restoration work there for the summer. Any outstanding work at Grey Owl’s Cabin will be completed in the spring of 2020.
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