Book Review: Grey Owl and Me
In the early 1900s, an Englishman named Archie Belaney came to North America in search of adventure and became one of the first to romanticize the notion of canoe-tripping in the Canadian wilderness. Belaney quickly fell in with the Teme-Augama Anishnabe, the “Deep Water People”, a native Ojibwa tribe whose traditional lands encompass present-day Temagami, a 1,000-square-mile network of lakes, rivers and canoe trails in northeastern Ontario. Belaney learned the Ojibwa language and customs and became proficient as a canoe-guide, trapper and forest ranger. He dyed his skin and hair and reconfigured his heredity. Belaney became Grey Owl, and authored outdoor-lit classics like Tales of an Empty Cabin and Pilgrims of the Wild.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, when Hap Wilson (see C&K’s Heroes of Paddling, a disenchanted, adventure-seeking youth moved north to Temagami to escape the hustle and bustle of Toronto. Like Belaney, Wilson was assimilated by the Anishnabe water trails of Temagami. He’s since become one of Canada’s most experienced canoe-trippers, guidebook author and talented artist. In his most recent work, Grey Owl and Me, Wilson juxtaposes his life as a wilderness guide and environmental activist with that of Belaney’s. The similarities are striking: Both battled to save the Canadian wilderness (Belaney was instrumental in resurrecting beaver populations in the 1930s, and Wilson has played a prominent role in the ongoing battle to save old-growth Temagami forests from clear-cut logging), and both share an insatiable lust for wilderness travel-often at the expense of wives, friends and family.
Wilson’s raw, unfiltered prose is no match for the polished style of Grey Owl, but he excels as a storyteller. Grey Owl and Me is all the better for its occasional spelling mistakes and sometimes awkward sentence structure. Wilson’s stream of conscious writing style has the feel of a campfire story: It’s impossible not to be engaged by his tales, which range from idyllic summer canoe trips to winter dogsled expeditions, and standing at the frontlines of environmental debates with the likes of Paul Watson, the founder of the notoriously radical Sea Shepherd Society. The book is hard to put down.
Wilson doesn’t go so far as to admit to being Grey Owl’s modern-day equal, but in many ways he’s picked up where Belaney left off. As celebrated he was as an author and orator in England, Belaney died young, consumed by alcoholism and depression. Wilson, on the other hand, has logged almost 40,000 wilderness miles and is still going strong. In his outspoken passion for the land, lakes and rivers of northern Canada, he’s inspired a new generation of canoe trippers-and no doubt more to come. -Conor Mihell
Grey Owl and Me: Stories from the Trail and Beyond, by Hap Wilson. Dundurn Press, $26.99. www.dundurn.com.