It was an autumn day in Prince Albert National Park. The man known to most only as Grey Owl sat on a bench near the fireplace in the Waskesiu beer parlour. He pushed away his whiskey and stood slowly, leaning against the familiar table for stability.
“Going somewhere?” asked Mingan, the innkeeper. He was the only other soul in the building, the disappeared crowds marking the end of another season of pilgrimages to Beaver Lodge.
“I need to get back to Ajawan,” said Grey Owl. “I need to check up on Jelly Roll and Rawhide, make sure they’re set for winter before I leave for that damned tour, and Yvonne too.”
“You need to take care of yourself, Wa-sha-quon-asin,” Mingan replied.
“You need to take care of yourself.” That’s what Anahareo had always said to him, and he had once famously replied: “I must take care of those who cannot care for themselves and are not cared for by others, those who have broken the rules of all the furtive fold and are now hunted,” though not to her. But where is she now? he wondered. Where is my Sajo?
“I need my paddle,” said Grey Owl.
“You need rest.”
“Do you know how many times I have paddled Waskesiu, Namêkosis, and the Lake-Where-the-Hearts-Were-Hung in rain and wind?”
“And do you know how many men have been sent to the bottomlessness of those lakes?”
Grey Owl frowned, the scar above his right eyebrow creasing heavily.
“Morning then,” he said.
“Morning,” Mingan replied.
And Grey Owl, half-skunked, lay his head on the bar.
He awoke early the next morning, retrieved his long oar from Mingan, and went to the docks. He climbed into his birchbark canoe and began to paddle while standing—as the Ojibwe had taught him—across Waskesiu Lake, named after the Red Deer. He wove through the Narrows, portaged the Kingsmere River, and put in at the South End warden station, where he collected a bottle of whiskey for his cabin. At the river’s mouth, he found Jelly Roll and Rawhide, his famous beaver friends. Jelly Roll, the subject of several films and named after his favorite treat, was loved by all. Rawhide was another story; the mother of Jelly Roll’s kits and the matriarch of Beaver Lodge, named because she was still ‘naked’ when Grey Owl and Anahareo adopted her, did not enjoy the same public attention as her mate.
The Beavers climbed into the canoe. “Hello friends,” smiled Grey Owl.
“Hello,” Rawhide replied with the voice of a young woman.
“Why did you leave us, Shapian?”
“Chilawee? Chikanee?” he paused. “Sajo?”
“Why do you think you are Meegwon? Why do you leave us alone in the woods and travel to the villages like Meegwon when you know you are Shapian?”
Grey Owl stood frozen in his canoe. He knew why he had left, why he would leave again. Just as he knew why he had traded the isolation of Beaver Lodge for the company of seasonal pilgrims. But he could not tell Sajo why he was no longer her Shapian, just as he had not been able to tell Anahareo why he was no longer Wa-sha-quon-asin, even though, more than ever now, people the world over called him Grey Owl.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Only a distant loon replied.
Grey Owl continued to paddle up the east coast of Kingsmere Lake, standing in his birchbark canoe, his Beavers resting on the bow.
His hard eyes scanned the horizon and he wondered, where is my Sajo?
It was a spring afternoon, or at least it was supposed to be. Winter had persisted well into April. The man known to most only as Grey Owl wondered whether that winter would ever end or whether his Beavers would be trapped in their lodge, under snow and ice, forever. He would never know the answer. He was returning from his final tour. He had lectured about the Beaver People and the Pilgrims’ responsibilities to preserve nature. He had left his last wife, sick with fever, at the hospital in Regina, to make his final journey alone.
“Jelly Roll! Rawhide!” he called out.
He snowshoed from the end of the winter road, where the warden truck had left him, over the still-frozen surface of Ajawan Lake. He did not know if his beavers would reply this time. He had been gone several months, and worried that his friends had lost faith in his return.
“Lazy buggers!” His dialect had a tendency to slip when he was alone or absent-minded. He trod wearily towards his cabin. He thought he noticed something on the grey horizon, or just under the grey sky, or just above the grey snow—one can never tell which up north—but he started towards it and staggered for some time before realising it was a rock on the shoreline.
He breathed haggardly, his face taut with concern. “Rawhide? Jelly Roll?” he paused, recalling his last return. “Sajo?”
Still, no response. The landscape was barren, save for the rock now near his feet, the copse of trees in the distance, and the handsome log building nestled amongst them, hanging over the edge of the shore with countless sticks bundled underneath: Beaver Lodge.
He made it home in a cold sweat—he had not been allowed to drink at the warden’s cabin or in their truck. He stabilised himself on the rough hand-hewn logs as he leaned over, searching for a whiskey bottle in the low carved-out pantry. The floor, he noticed, was surprisingly clean: most of the strewn branches, wood chips, pine needles, and beaver feces coated in a layer of dust that veiled the smell of home he had come to welcome, and longed for while on the road. He found a bottle, mostly full, under the heavy, cast-iron stove. After only six years of use, it was beginning to rust from the humidity let in through the open floor that lead out of Beaver Lodge, straight into the lake. At that moment, the lodge was silent; Grey Owl sat on his bed waiting for the true season of spring to be announced by the slapping of beaver tails on open water.
He considered checking the guest cabin, the first ‘pilgrims’ (he often used the word sarcastically while in private company during his later years) would be arriving within six weeks and there would likely be much work to do after a long winter of disuse. But he simply sat in bed, nursing his bottle. His notebook lay on the small rough-topped desk, where it had sat untouched for the better part of two years. He had not expected the cabin to remain empty for so long, or for it to tell so few tales.
Eventually there was too much silence and he called out to his Beavers once again: “Jelly Roll! Rawhide! You can’t sleep and get fat on bark forever. Spring is coming and this place stinks of dust and soggy wood.”
He received no answer. He sat in silence, holding his bottle, staring at his notebook.
“Maybe they’ve gone and left without me,” he wondered aloud. “Maybe they’ve gone and died without me.”
Three days later, Grey Owl’s fever was so severe that he knocked his last bottle of whiskey off his desk, spilling it across the dusty floor that still bore only tracks from the door to his bed. It was at that moment that he picked up the direct line to the warden cabin and called for help.
He was mumbling and slurring his words, blending his British and Ojibwe accents, dialects, and languages into an incoherent babble.
“What the hell did he say?” one warden asked the other.
“Something about either a flower or the floor, and something called an Oh-moo-day… maybe?”
“Totally wasted! Probably burnt himself on the stove and now he’s crying for help.”
“Kind of figured this day would come sooner or later, though. Best just to get to it.”
They went and got him, those two park wardens. With a half-ton truck and a dog sled loaded in the back. They drove up the winter road, mushed across Ajawan, and loaded the man they suspected was not born Grey Owl onto the cargo bed. Back to the truck they mushed, then they lifted his semi-limp, dead weight into the back seat and left Ajawan.
He mumbled to them. All the way from the north end of Kingsmere—then called Namêkosis, or Big Trout—to the townsite of Waskesiu. He told them of his trials, his beavers, his journeys, his returns. He told them of Jelly Roll and Rawhide, of Sajo and Chilawee and Chikanee, and of how he was Meegwon and not Shapian.
And while the wardens thought that all they were hearing were the ramblings of a man left too long in isolation, of a ‘drunken Indian’ one of them would have said, still they listened. Listened to every sentence he said. And found later that they could recite every last word that he had pronounced on his final journey.
Upon arriving at the townsite it became obvious that Grey Owl required medical attention, and so the wardens drove him to the hospital in Prince Albert, unconsciously absorbing every word he said about his voyages. Along the way they asked if there was anyone they should contact for him, knowing that his most recent wife was in Regina and unfit to travel.
“Sajo,” was his only response. Sadly, the wardens, one new to the Park and the other hostile to the man, were unfamiliar with Grey Owl’s works and did not have the faintest idea as to who Sajo was.
The man known to all but one of his lovers as Grey Owl died of pneumonia in the hospital the next day. Anahareo had not come to visit, and no nurse was present to record his final words, though they could only have been, “Where is my Sajo?”
Jordan Bolay studies questions of trace—the politics of presence in the archive—as a doctoral candidate in the University of Calgary’s English Department. His readings and writings sprawl across the imagined boundaries, metaphorical grey zones, and ideological hinterlands of the creative and the critical, the original and the adapted. His poetry has appeared in Found (Malform Press, 2016), his fiction has appeared in NōD (vol. 21, 2017), and his long-poem “how to make an English exam interesting” is forthcoming from The Blasted Tree.