Grey Owl with a beaver kitten, one of his many wilderness friends.
Pilgrims of the Wild tells the story of Grey Owl’s and Anahareo’s life in the Canadian wilderness. It tells of their lives in the wilderness as it was stripped of its wildlife as reckless and greedy fur trapping wiped out most furred animals, especially the beaver, Canada’s symbol, or mascot. You see how a man who had previously worked as a trapper is awakened to the cruelty of the practice, how he becomes empathetic with the beaver, and evolves into a devoted conservationist and environmentalist. He talks of many encounters with trapped animals, and you can feel his perspective as it changes. The two strongest impressions were finding a beaver hanging in the air from a trap by one leg and near death. When he releases the beaver, instead of it trying to flee in fear, it crawls to him and lays its head on his knee. Then he finds a female with young, also held on the ground by her leg that has been stripped to the bone by the trap. In spite of her obvious pain, she lays still and draws her kittens to her so they can nurse.
The greatest part of this man’s transition begins as Grey Owl saves and adopts a couple beaver kittens that grow up as his companions, not his pets. He begins to study and understand these creatures that show human-like abilities and personalities. In fact, the Ojibway called beaver “little people” or “little indians” because of their human traits. They lived with Grey Owl. As soon as he gave them access through a wall, they built a beaver lodge that extended twelve feet into the interior of his cabin so he could observe them more closely.
You will find his narrative both heart-warming and humorous. There were good times when the beaver would run to meet Grey Owl or Anahareo as they returned to camp, would come into the cabin and cuddle with them at night like a couple of cats as they slept, would respond to their voices, and try to talk and show a strong sense of understanding. There were also times when Grey Owl would find that they had eaten his broom, several of them, eaten the handle off his axe, even stolen his firewood. The one place Grey Owl could put things to keep them out of the beavers’ reach was on the table, until one day when he returned to find that they had eaten the legs off the table to drop it to their level. They then stole the 400-pages of his book manuscript and took it into their lodge to pad their bedding.
We’ve talked how we can develop a bond with our canoes. The bond has to be even stronger for those whose lives and livelihood both depended on the craft, and here is how Grey Owl spoke of that feeling. “I was now, my period of war service excepted, without a canoe for the first time in twenty-five years, and felt as much a rider who finds himself suddenly afoot in a desert; and the circumstance affected my morale nearly as much. This one, in particular, had been a tried and true companion of many toilsome journeys, and I missed it as though it had been a living thing. …When I touched for the last time the worn spot on the gunnell where the paddle had worked so long, I experienced some of the sensations of a sea-captain who sees a well-beloved vessel sink beneath the waves.”