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The conversion of Grey Owl

His bride Anahareo describes moment when trapper became conservationist

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In this excerpt from Devil in Deerskins, it's fall 1928 and the newly married 22-year-old Anahareo and the 40-year-old Grey Owl have just arrived in Jumping Caribou River, a settlement in northern Quebec, for a season of trapping.

 

I was in love with a trapper, and a life in the woods lay before me. Unless I was prepared to vegetate in the cabin from October to May, I knew I must find something to do. Trapping, of course, was the only choice, but I thought of the marten that Archie had killed. Could I bring myself to do that? Why couldn't I? There were slaughterhouses by the millions. We are all part of killing. Perhaps I could do it if I tried hard -- tried real hard. Thus I argued with myself, and finally I did learn to trap. How I wish I hadn't! The fact that I hated to kill and my ever-present remorse over this now will never right the wrong. I can still hear the screams of the suffering animals -- the mink, marten, fisher, lynx. I still see the poisoned foxes and wolves lying on the frozen lakes, and the drowned beaver and otter at the bottom of the lakes and streams.

It was in March 1928, my second season of trapping, that I came upon a lynx in one of my traps. Judging from his tracks he'd been there all of ten days. The weather hadn't been cold enough to put him out of his misery. He had stripped the bark from everything within his reach. The only thing that kept him alive was eating snow. I would have let him go, but he was in too poor a condition. He had gnawed at his trapped paw until the bones were bare of flesh.

This was the end! I vowed that I would never trap again.

Archie continued the hunt, and for me the time now dragged. What now, I wondered. Was this to be my way of life then? The thought was unbearable as was the alternative -- to leave Archie. I'd had a taste of that when I went to Rouyn. At last the spring hunt was over. Archie asked me if I would like to go with him to pick up the last of his traps. I was only too glad of the chance to leave and be relieved of the monotony of camp. And that was when we got two live kitten beaver. The mother had been caught. She'd cut the anchor line and made off with the "drowning-stone" and the trap, to die at the bottom of the pond. We searched but never found her, so it was a dead loss all around.

Kitten beaver are unable to remain under water for any length of time, so these two were easily caught. I lifted them from the pond and put them inside my shirt, and there they stayed without a sound or movement. When we got back to camp, Archie emptied the grub box and made a bed of moss and leaves. When I put the beaver in the box, they crawled shakily to a corner, huddling together, holding each other with their little hands. We covered them over with a towel and walked quietly away. I was worried and anxious as to whether the kittens would live, or die like one that an Indian had once brought to Jim. Of course, that baby beaver had scarcely a spark of life when it was dumped from a sack onto the hotel floor. In an attempt to revive it, I had put it in a tub of water, but this hadn't helped. We had also tried to feed it milk, but due to the peculiar shape of a beaver's mouth it had been impossible to spoon-feed it. The beaver has a mouth within a mouth, an upper lip that covers the long, chisel-like teeth used in cutting down trees, and an inner apparatus that is, in fact, the real mouth.

Though it was beyond our power to save that little beaver, we had stayed with it until it died. I meant to bury it by the lake, but when I returned to it after a few hours of sleep, the beaver was gone. To my enquiry, Jim said, "When I seen it was dead, I threw it in the slop pail." I went to my room and cried.

I was determined that nothing like that would ever happen to the two mites that we had just brought home. I loved them and meant to keep them. It wouldn't be easy to get Archie to agree to this, because his fur catch was small and to make it harder for me to have my way about the little creatures was the fact that a man in eastern Quebec had started a beaver farm, making beaver more valuable alive than dead.

Wanting to discover just how difficult it was going to be, I said, "They're sure going to make great pets, aren't they?"

"Pets?" questioned Archie.

"Yeah, them."

"Pets nothing," he stated, "we're selling them to Jim. There's a good price for live beaver."

And that was supposed to be the last word on that! I was boiling. "Oh no," I said, "Jim will never get these!"

The argument that erupted then showed no signs of ending until morning, but we were interrupted by a sound from the box. Instantly we were at their side, and there they were, standing on hind legs, with upraised arms, looking straight at us. It was quite obvious that they were looking to us for help. Instead of quarrelling, we should have been planning a diet for them.

We were at a loss until Archie remembered that there was some tinned milk under the bunk. The brand of milk, which Jim had given us by mistake, was sweet and sticky, the consistency of honey--just fine, since it didn't spill easily.

In spite of our unsuccessful attempt with the beaver in Doucet, we tried feeding these with a spoon, but again to no avail. I was in tears. Then Archie exclaimed excitedly, "Say, this stuff is sticky enough to stick to a stick! We'll poke it into them!" And this we did. I held the inner mouth open while Archie thrust in a glob, pulled out the feeder, and quickly clamped the jaws shut. They caught on to it in no time.

 

From Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl (University of Manitoba Press, 2014) by Anahareo, edited and with an afterword by Sophie McCall.

Devil in Deerskins, first published in 1972, is also the first book in UMP's new First Voices, First Texts, which aims to re-connect contemporary readers with some of the most important Aboriginal literature of the past, much of which has been unavailable for decades.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 D4

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