Manitoba History: The Great Adventure

by Grey Owl (Archie Belaney)

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Editor’s Introduction

The following manuscript, written by the famous conservationist Grey Owl (Archie Belaney, 1888-1938), is part of a collection of original documents from Riding Mountain National Park where Grey Owl resided for a brief time in 1931. These documents, which also contain official correspondence between Grey Owl, National Parks Commissioner James Harkin and park superintendent James Smart, have been used for a number of years by park staff in Riding Mountain in researching and developing public interpretation programs in the park. “The Great Adventure” is published here for the first time.

Claiming to be of Scottish and Apache ancestry, and an adopted member of the Ojibwa nation, Archie Belaney from Hastings, England achieved fame throughout the English-speaking world in the 1930s as a conservationist and, according to the press of the time, a “modern Hiawatha”. In his book From the Land of Shadows Grey Owl biographer Donald Smith suggests that “The Great Adventure” was penned by the naturalist in April or May of 1931 shortly after his arrival at Beaver Lodge Lake in Riding Mountain National Park. In it Grey Owl relates his early efforts to establish a beaver colony in the Temiscouata region near the town of Cabano and at Metis-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec, and his subsequent move, at the behest of Commissioner Harkin, to the new park at Riding Mountain as the “caretaker of park animals.” Grey Owl also tells the story of how he erroneously suspected that a passing trapper had killed “Jelly Roll” and “Rawhide,” his two tamed beavers, and describes his subsequent journey west with the two kits to Manitoba. It would appear that portions of “The Great Adventure” were later used by Grey Owl as the basis for a chapter in his 1935 autobiography Pilgrims of the Wild, although according to Donald Smith certain key details were altered in the later version. Smith also notes (p. 259) that a copy of “The Great Adventure” is located in the park library at Prince Albert National Park in Waskesiu, Saskatchewan. The Grey Owl file from Riding Mountain has been deposited with the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Manitoba History would like to thank Parks Canada and Riding Mountain National Park for permission to publish “The Great Adventure.

Grey Owl.
Source: Prince Albert National Park

Nearly six months had elapsed since the time when, their winter preparations being completed, the Beaver People had made their last long hazardous swim beneath the new ice to the camp, had eaten their final meal of rice, and had danced for the last time their bizarre Pleasure Dance on the landing, and had returned to their skillfully constructed hut at the head of the lake. Goodbyes had been said with no inconsiderable feelings of regret, as the uninterrupted companionship of these fun-loving bristling little workers had become more or less indispensable to me in and around the lonely camp at the outlet.

The knowledge that they would spend the winter in comfort and security on the fruits of a summer of intense industry, did but little to lift the pall of solitude that immediately fell over the landscape, and that same night the patch of open water that the beaver had maintained at great labour before their domicile became frozen over completely and they were in for the winter.

The constantly recurring thought that my little friends, now entirely beyond my influence, would revert to the ways of their kind, and that answering neither call nor entreaty would go sailing by on the spring flood to pastures new and unknown, cast a gloom over the bright sunshiny days of early winter.

Grey Owl’s cabin at Beaver Lodge Lake, Riding Mountain National Park.
Source: Riding Mountain National Park

Never, perhaps, again would I see the rippling, ever-widening V’s forge swiftly down the lake as they came to visit me exactly at the golden hour of sunset, and I knew I would sorely miss the clumsy gambols of welcome, the bleats and whimpers of protest and the mock battles as they stole impartially from each other tidbits of apples, bread and chocolate.

Many were the pilgrimages made to the lone crow-shrouded house half a mile up the lake, and often I carefully opened up the white coverlet and spoke through the hollow air-space beneath it the well-known words and phrases that so far had seldom failed to provoke weird contortions and paroxysms of joy or a series of rapidly executed inflections that closely resembled those of the human voice. But now no sound rewarded me save the echo of my own voice across the empty solitude. Yet beneath that shapeless white mound standing high above the level of the wind-swept muskeg, was life, and two plump furry bodies lay sleeping soundly and pitifully in fancied security, little knowing that the very defences on which they so depended served but to advertise their presence to every passing vandal. Well I knew that did I but betray my trust, and neglect to guard these living creatures committed to my care, they would be immolated within the week.

Came a day on which I discovered a hole in the ice, cut with an axe, and beside it a smear of frozen blood! A storm had obliterated all other signs save in this spot swept clear by the wind.

Grey Owl feeding a young beaver kit.
Source: Prince Albert National Park

With scathing self-condemnation, I tried vainly to reconstruct the tragedy that now seemed to have been inevitable from the first. Hard times had come onto the not distant habitant village, and hungry hunters swarmed in the woods. No doubt advantage had been taken of an absence of a couple of days for supplies, to kill my small companions. This idea, however, I was unable to substantiate or disprove, until many weeks later the further disappearance of feed and the renewed thawing out of the air-space in the apex of the lodge assured me that one beaver at least was still living. So I continued the daily trips to speak to furry ears that heard not, and to listen vainly for the child-like treble of voices that I might never hear again.

Thus passed a dreary winter.

In early March I cut a hole near the feed raft and found it to have been almost entirely eaten up by rats (muskrats), and this I replaced at intervals by (with) fresh birch, poplar ad willow, which was always taken away piecemeal, al-though I never saw any signs of activity on my visits.

April came, and with it warm days, melting snows and shaky ice. I was called West at this time on an undertaking connected with Canadian National Parks, by virtue of which the beaver were to have a new home free from the haunting fear of death that is the inescapable heritage of the Beaver Folk; for noxious animals thrive on every hand whilst one harmless useful national animal goes daily to his death in ghastly torturing and unnamable misery.

Grey Owl at his cabin on Ajawaan Lake, Prince Albert National Park.
Source: Glenbow Archives

Thus it became necessary to, if possible, reestablish communication with my long absent friends, or at least with the one remaining. Being now two years old, and having been completely out of contact with me for over five and a half months, and at a period in their lives during which they usually desert their own home and parents, and branch out to establish for themselves, I doubted much but that their spirit of independence might be stronger then memory or affection.

My experience with beaver although wide and life-long, had not hitherto included any such situation as now presented itself. None-the-less I filled in the specifications for transportation tanks and boxes, and carried on my preparation for the removal with all confidence.

I have found that a vacillating and uncertain attitude of mind in dealing with animals, appears to communicate itself to them, especially the highly perceptive wild creatures who seem to possess a sixth sense, of which I have already had sufficient demonstration to cause me to take it into some account.

I transported my entire equipment save a few actual necessaries to the railroad ready for shipment, and gave away my remaining provisions. I thus burnt my bridges behind me and must needs make good. I then cut two holes in the ice opposite the house and placed in them a choice assortment of poplar and willow already budding and succulent with sap commencing to rise in the warmth of the early Spring sun.

This provision was persistently destroyed by the constant nibbling of the hungry parasitic muskrats, whom I frequently saw, and I as regularly replaced it.

Grey Owl on tour in the U.S.
Source: Prince Albert National Park

One evening after about a week of attentive watching, l saw the swirl and large bubbles of the passage there of a beaver, and nothed [sic] that although he eventually took away a stick, he passed around the hole far enough back to be out of sight, apparently systematically searching for one that dwelt beyond the open water under the ice. I set the next bait further into the centre of the hold so as to be in plain view, but nothing was then taken till after dark. The reason for these manoeuvres was I believe greatly owing to the extreme sensitiveness of the eyes to light after a long period spent in darkness and much sleeping. I am also convinced that although beaver will keep open water before the house and at landings to the last minute, breaking ice half an inch thick with ease, once this freezes over nothing except perhaps heavy rain will induce them to come out on the surface till March. They actually seem to fear ice in the springtime, being tender footed and nosed, as a bear is, avoiding broken edges that they would crunch with great gusto in the fall. So far I had seen no evidence of the presence of two beaver any more, and I began to feel certain that there remained but one, although I could get no sight of him.

The weather turned soft and the ice began to give out. At this juncture my wife returned, and we took turns or sat hours together, motionless a little distance from the holes for three nights, calling softly with the inflections that had in the past always elicited a response, until one evening after a preliminary and very lengthy inspection from under a hollow shelf of ice, a beaver broke water, emitted a long low call and disappeared with a mighty splash. Two hours or so later he reappeared, swan around uncertainly for a few minutes, and being apparently satisfied with my appearance, climbed out on the ice beside me, and commenced the well-known and oft repeated toilet—Jelly Roll—, The Boss, in person; - the same voice, the same clumsy waddle, and the same air of arrogant self-sufficiency as he took an apple, and shaking it back and forth with little squeals, ate it with evident enjoyment within reach of my hand. Triumph! After nearly six months in the wild state he had retirned [sic] to me, faithful is [as] the rising and the setting of the sun. But I grieved for my little wild fellow who had stayed with me unasked and of his own accord, and whose gentle trusty ways had made for a more amiable companionship than the rough and tumble good fellowship accorded me by “The Boss.” However, I continued calling over two more nights, and once by the light of the young moon I saw a dark object laying motionless on the water some distance away. I am an old hunter, and the shape of a beaver was unmistakable; there was one beaver fussing around my feet, the other must be Rawhide, a wild beaver tamed by my hand but never a captive, and he had returned to me from his natural state after nearly half a year of absence!

That he was very much alive was evidenced by his abrupt disappearance at my excited movement. The next night he took an apple from me with every sign of confidence, and the following evening spent a considerable time out on the ice in company with the Boss and myself.

I later ascertained that a passing hunter had cut the hole in the ice that I had found, to take a drink, and a muskrat had evidently used the aperture to climb out into the open some soft evening to be killed by an owl, as the half eaten body exposed by spring thaw revealed. And I had laboured for months under a harrowing but erroneous supposition. The atmosphere lightened considerably after this, and I began to find the world was not such an empty place after all; and I went out to town and wired Canadian National Parks that the beaver had surrendered themselves.

Now to capture them, remove them from a home to which they were attached, and to inflict on them the terrifying alarms and hardships of a thousand mile journey or more, without imparting this wonderful trust, confidence and fidelity in the simple mind of a wild animal. You have but to fool them once and the work of years becomes null and void, and only by the most delicate tact and diplomacy can the lost ground be recovered, if at all, especially with the more intelligent species.

I attempted to secure Jelly Roll the following evening, but found I would be unable to pick him up without a terrific struggle, the very thing I wished to avoid. So a wooden box was constructed and laid down on its back, lid down, facing the water at the playground the beaver had cleared near their domicile, and with this, all unsuspicious walked the Boss. With the guilty feelings of those who betray a friend, even if only for his own good, we promptly stood up the box and clapped down the lid. Swiftly adjusting the tump line we were quickly away with a thirty pound beaver in a twenty-five pound box, on snowshoes for over a mile on a broken down trail, the ice being now unsafe. Voiceless, motionless the Boss stood the gaff until liberated in the camp, when the first dumb bewilderment gave way to wild clutchings and wailings as he seized hold of parts of our apparel. His fright was quite pathetic and he had to be pacified and reassured much as a child is, while he buried his head in our clothing. Gradually he commenced to look around, and finding himself in the camp with which he was well acquainted, eventually recovered his composure.

Rawhide was captured by hand an hour or so later, and gave a similar performance, but became quickly reconciled on recognizing his surroundings.

The beaver made no attempt to escape during the night and slept soundly with us in the blankets, and the next morning they submitted quietly to being placed in a large sheet steel ventilated tank provided for the purpose, and all hands hit the trail for town.

We said goodbye to the looming mountains, the empty camp and the now deserted lake that had been ours and the beavers’ home for almost two years, and we were not a little lonesome as we trudged on over the snowshoe trail. For we were leaving behind two well-loved old time beaver friends who had answered always to the names of McGinnis and McGinty, and had descended on the spring flood two years before and became lost. They had been the original cause of our staying so long in an uncongenial country, and we had searched on, hopelessly, for them long after there had been any possibility of their recovery. And all the work we are trying to do for the Beaver People was commenced in devotion to their memory. And now the thought persisted that perhaps they were not dead, and we were deserting them, as we were compelled to leave two of their wilder brethem [sic] that we had hoped to bring with us had there been time to consolidate a fast growing familiarity. And now we were going forward on the impetus supplied by them to prosperity, leaving them behind in a strange country to an unknown fate. So it was in silence and with dragging feet that we followed out the trail we had come to know so well, and even the stern mountains seemed to look down on us in sorrowful reproach for our desertion.

We opened up the box at intervals and found that the exhalations from the beaver were being condensed in the metal receptacle by the searching bitter wind, almost a hurricane, that swept across the country, so that they had become soaking wet, and were in imminent danger of catching cold, a common cause of mortality amongst wild animals in course of transportation.

The force of the wind was such that we were at some pains to hold our footing on glare ice, and on Temisconata lake were often blown, sleigh, people and all, completely off our course. On landing at Cabano a team awaited us, and on arrival at the station, the beaver were quickly transferred to the large metal tank awaiting them there, and none too soon, as it could be seen that the animals were shivering and quite miserable. On our closing down the lids against the cold air, and with a water supply to clean up in, and feed and bedding already placed they quickly recovered their customary spirits. The beaver is an animal that exhales much heat and they soon warmed up the tank.

The structure was six feet long, three feet high and the same width, the floor being divided at different levels into a water supply, a drying off platform and a bed. Two lids covering between them the entire top, one of them ventilated, gave ready access to the beaver, besides providing the privacy and dark sleeping quarters these animals require. The whole arrangement was most satisfactory, as the animals suffered from nothing more than noise and shaking up inseparable from a team journey. One bad feature was that the movement of the car in transit splashed the water continuously onto the beaver and into the bedding, but they provided against this with the adaptability common to them by choking the entire near edge of the water supply with straw intended for bedding, which settled this difficulty (problem) quite effectively.

They much objected to the cessation of motion when the train stopped and the confusion of sound incidental to the several changes from one baggage car to another drove them to frenzy, and on opening up the tank they would clutch frantically at our hands and grip them firmly as though to pull us in with them, so that we were obliged to get into the cage ourselves, turn about, when they would crawl into our arms as far as possible, and after considerable sighting and grunting fall asleep. Any more on our part on these occasions called forth loud and long complaints, and this state of affairs necessitated our making the entire trip in the baggage cars, much of it inside the cage. In facilitating this the officials and baggage men of the Canadian National Railways were most generous, acceding readily to any request we made of them. Station masters, tourist and passenger agents and conductors gave us personal attention, and wired ahead up the line as to our needs for water, ice, etc., for the beaver, and trainmen, reinforced often by most of the personnel of the station staffs, assisted us to make speedy changes of water and bedding at short stops. At centres where changes were necessary, such as Riviere-de-Loup, Montreal and Toronto, officers of the line on which we travelled smoothed out for us knotty problems of transportation and steered us through what appeared to us a maze of difficulties. For we are not well experienced at this kind of thing, and there were times when but for the kindly assistance we would have felt a lot better off safely in the tank with the Beaver People.

The courtesy and the kind interest shown us by all ranks of the C.N.R. employees and some civilians made possible the success of what otherwise would have been a difficult and somewhat hazardous journey on account of our “family.” A little neglect and prolonged delays would have brought to the destination two dead beaver and a pair of very disconsolate wilderness folk, and we cannot but express our gratitude for this service rendered by people who have recognized the true meaning of service, its dignity and its purpose.

West of Sudbury we passed through Gogama and Folyet where we hoped we might see some old Indian and Hudson Bay friends, but we saw nothing but new faces and the developments that had taken place since I passed through that country by canoe, a matter of some years, were amazing.

At various points on the two thousand mile journey we were recognized by readers and others who had seen the film which the Parks Branch have taken of these same beaver, and a keen and intelligent interest was taken in then by many people, evidence of the ever-increasing wave of conservation sentiment that is fast gaining ground even in isolated settlements. Various district game wardens examined our credentials and our furry charges with courtesy and consideration, and we can have nothing but the happiest memories of a trip to which we had long looked forward with dread. My wife left me en route for a visit to her home. Having now the entire care of the family on my hands I was now pretty busy by spells, and whilst the Beaver People slept I listened to the tales and experiences of friendly baggage-men and mail clerks and marvelled at the efficiency borne of long practise with which they tackled the stupendous task of handling, classifying and arranging the immense piles of baggage and express from which nothing ever was lost or misplaced. The immense quantity of mail put on at some stations caused one mail clerk to remark with dry humour that “They are not using the freight trains any more, it all goes in the mail now.”

On arrival at Winnipeg we were met by the C.N.R. Colonization agent who took my caravan in tow, again making things as easy as possible for me, completing the routing to Neepawa, and he earned my lasting regard by escorting me on a long deferred visit to the lunch counter, where a representative of the press found me and put me gently but firmly through the mill.

The view of the prairie, which although prosperous looking with its vast farm lands, appeared just a little desolate to a bushman, was bare of ice and snow, in this smiling land of sunshine and prosperity spring conditions prevailed. And yet we had commenced the trip from the East in a latitude no farther north on snowshoes over three feet of snow and ice that could carry a horse. As the train speeded North from Winnipeg, the prairie land with its bluffs of poplar and willow began to give place to a scattering park-like forest growth, which was to gradually increase until in the Riding Mountain area the heavy timber became the predominating feature of the landscape.

At Neepawa we were met by Mr. J. C. Campbell of the Canadian National Parks, and Mr. J. Smart, Superintendent of the new Riding Mountain National Park, and with but little time to any more than be heartily welcomed to the promised land and to receive my instructions, was wheeled away on a waiting truck fifty-four miles in to Park Headquarters within the Park boundaries, where a good supper awaited under camp conditions that put me immediately at home.

The problem now arose as to the disposal of the beaver for the night. Tiring in the confinement of the tank, they had become fractious and whimpered continuously, and no suitable beaver-proof building was forthcoming. And here the open hearted generosity and good fellowship of these Western men, ex-trappers and bushmen, immediately manifested itself. Twelve men, all that were present, volunteered to throw up a square roofless log building that should be beaver proof and in no time at all axes, logs and other material appeared and in an hour or less they constructed by lantern light a log pen out of which no beaver could eat his way in less than a week of nights. They, the beaver, being well contented with the arrangement, which included a good sized swimming pool, I was thus liberated to accompany the Superintendent and his assistant, a Mr. Scott, on a tour of investigation and found that a cluster of lakes of their knowledge was an ideal situation for our purpose.

The next day we loaded our little friends into the large travelling tank for the last leg of their long trip, and by noon arrived at the selected pond. Carried the short distance to its shore, the beaver were set down.

And here these stars of the silver screen, the famed and storied Boss and Rawhide, scions of a noble race, objects of interest to the people of half a continent, became just too tired and weary little beaver to whom life had become nothing but one darned thing after another, and who now saw through sleepy eyes a glorious and unbelievable expanse of blue water, poplar and willow standing on every side, and, wonder of wonders, a real beaver house all ready made not twenty feet away. The bright black eyes opened widely, and suddenly with dignity thrown to the winds they scrambled forward on inadequate legs in mad haste, like two lost children who see the doors of a sheltering home open before them. Happy again once more they stepped off from dry land, slowly and lazily, luxuriously, revelling in the slow caress of the cool water as it rose around them and the parched feet and tails and the dry noses sucked up the grateful moisture.

And so came the end of the Great Adventure, and the finish of a very eventful journey, to be their last.

At the ancient beaver house, vacated by some long gone colony of their people, they dived gracefully into the entrance with scarcely a ripple. The lodge had a big hole in the top and the sticks were a little bare of plaster, but that could be fixed later, and, meantime, they can hear through it the blackbirds and the robins outside singing of freedom, and the gentle lap of the water against the side of the tumble down shelter. And nothing matters much now save that they are far from the clangour, the smoke and strange voices and the terrifying events of many days. And these trials and troubles seem now to have happened a long, long time ago; and the drowsy heads nod, and the pleasant sounds from without fade slowly into silence - oblivion. And the spirits of the sage and ancient beavers whose spirits watch over them as they slept, look down in wise approval and whisper together “It is well.”

And there they will always be, in the peace and quiet of their silent pond amongst the poplars till they pass on in the fullness of time to join the hosts of their maimed, tortured brethren who have gone before.

Here they may fulfill unmolested their destiny, fit reward for the service they have given to the cause of the Dwellers in the Waste Lands.

Here they will be under the protection of those earnest public spirited men who willingly forego for long periods the comforts of home life and the companionship of their fellowmen, and bury themselves in the wilderness to the end that the fast disappearing wild life of our country may be saved from the hand of the thoughtless and the mercenary, and that some portion of this Canada of ours may be preserved in the state in which it left the hands of its Maker, to be for all time a lasting monument to the pioneer spirit of days gone by.

My old companions come to the camp and visit me as of yore quite as if nothing had happened. They seem happy in their new home, and have already commenced repairing the old house. And I often wonder as they sit on the new landing eying me speculatively, if they ever remember the empty house and the neglected dam in far off Temiscouata, the first they ever built, of if they have ever a passing thought for the little lonesome lake that had once been their home before they embarked on their Great Adventure.

Grey Owl in his cabin on Ajawaan Lake, Prince Albert National Park.
Source: Glenbow Archives

Editor’s postscript

Grey Owl and his wife Anahareo’s stay at Riding Mountain was brief. A summer drought in 1931 reduced Beaver Lodge Lake to little more than a stagnant slough and at Grey Owl’s request he was transferred, along with Rawhide, Jelly Roll and her kittens Wakanee, Wakanoo, Silver Bells and Buckshot, in the fall of 1931 to Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park. Grey Owl remained there, except for his extensive speaking tours throughout Canada and overseas, until his death in 1938.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Archibald Stansfeld Belaney [Grey Owl] (1888-1938)

Memorable Manitobans: Gertrude Bernard [Anahareo] (1906-1987)

Page revised: 5 December 2021