Illus. credit: alibris.com
“Tales of an Empty Cabin” by Grey Owl (pub. 1936, reprint 1998, Key Porter Books, Toronto, Ontario, 295pp.)
Grey Owl dedicated his book “for those whose souls are longing for the freedom of the open road, but who are prevented by the invincible decrees of Fate from ever seeing the wonders of the Wilderness save in the pages of a book.” Grey Owl knew the Wilderness, not a woods as most of us know them, but real barren wilderness, devoid of nearly any human contact or convenience. In such an area, where self-sufficiency is critical to survival, few woodsmen will ever admit to being lost in the wilderness. Grey Owl admits to getting turned around for a few hours, and even Indians native to the area will find themselves guilty of “negligence” for an hour or so. He says there are many interpretations of “lost”, but the best was from an old bushwhacker who got so twisted that it took ten men over a week to find him. The old woodsman would admit only to being “right bewildered”, -----for eight days.
The greatest pleasures coming from the pages of Grey Owl’s writings are finding a man as closely in harmony with nature as any man could be. For example, for an alarm clock, he would freeze a piece of meat to a metal tin and place it on the metal roof of his log cabin. If it was to be a fine day, the first hint of a lightening sky would find a bird, usually a whiskey jack, pecking at the tin, which rattled on the metal roof. This was better than most alarm clocks in that if the weather was to be bad, or it was snowing, the birds wouldn’t show until much later, allowing him to sleep-in when there was no need to get up.
A bull moose moved into his camp, and became fast friends with Grey Owl. Moose are usually wary, aggressive, and often dangerous, unpredictable animals. This bull, however, loved the company, and would wander into camp to sit near the door of the cabin, follow Grey Owl around while he tended to his chores, and lie down to nap next to the canoe, the delicate, flimsy little craft this thousand pound animal could destroy with one swipe of a pointed hoof.
Grey Owl had a couple generations of beaver living next to his cabin. In fact, at one point he provided for them to continue building their lodge into the interior of the cabin through an opening in the wall. He could pet the adults and kittens alike, join in their play, and they would join him for canoe paddles as they cuddled between his legs while he knelt in the bottom of the canoe. They knew his habits and personality, and likewise, he each of theirs. Once they started living in part of his cabin, they soon learned how to open and close the door, so he provided a leather lanyard attached to the door latch so they could come and go at will. Besides, this ended the knocking and scratching at the door until he got up to let them in or out. He described their walking as erect as a human, and carrying large bundles of sticks and mud until they couldn’t see over the top. The kittens would sit on top of the mother’s tail, and she would drag them around. On one occasion they all climbed aboard, but there wasn’t sufficient room. They solved the problem by riding with one foot each on her tail, while peddling on the ground with their other foot like they were riding a scooter. Grey Owl established relationships with many species, like deer, loons, birds, nearly any critter that chose to stay near his cabin. The exceptions were wolves, coyotes, bear, mountain lions, and weasels, whose presence usually meant death for members of his community. In short, for anyone who loves nature, this is a great book to curl up with for hours. Also listed in the Paddlers’ Reading List is “The Complete Works of Grey Owl.”