The hike to Grey Owl’s cabin in the Prince Albert National Park – a 40-kilometre out-and-back through pristine wilderness along picturesque Kingsmere Lake to the former home of famed conservationist, Grey Owl, his wife, daughter and, of course, his beavers. And, no, that is not a typo, nor is it a joke. Still funny, though. This well-marked trail is lined with 4 different campsites and is one of the most famous long backcountry hikes in all of Prince Albert National Park. Oh, wait, it is basically the only well-known backcountry hike in the park. And even the term “well-known” is probably a bit of a stretch unless, you know, you spent every summer at Waskesiu since you were too young to swear at the TV whenever the Blue Jays ran into an out at 3rd or missed the cutoff again. In that case, it would actually be sort of weird that you had only done the hike once in your life to this point and, that time, only under the slight duress of it being a Grade 12 class outing that you weren’t necessarily excited about but obviously weren’t about to skip in order to stay back and work on your chemistry diorama or continue failing to rebuild that Briggs & Stratton engine you’d been working on since the start of high school. My point is, it seemed like a good time to try the hike again.
We started the planning process using a complex mathematical calculation that included our anniversary, my birthday, the moon cycle and all the latest COVID stats, then ignored all that and went with the only 2 warm days showing in the 14-day Accuweather forecast. A wise decision, as it turns out, since we enjoyed terrific weather other than a brief sprinkle of rain just as we started setting up our tent that really just served to keep us focused and vaguely panicky.
Who was Grey Owl?
Born in 1888, Grey Owl rose to fame as an author and conservationist in the 1920’s and 30’s. While his name would suggest he was of Aboriginal descent, in fact, he was an Englishman born Archibald Belaney (not to be confused with the Archibald Belaney that has been “hearting” every slide in your Facebook stories – copycats are everywhere these days). Of course, it wasn’t just his name that suggested that, he suggested it as well, living his life as an imposter, the truth of his origins only coming to light after he died in 1938. For quite some time he was actually a trapper, then reputedly changed course one day thanks to steady berating of his teenage mistress, Anahareo, and, supposedly, the final straw was trapping a mother beaver and hearing the cries of the orphaned babies. As the story goes, he returned the next day to adopt the beavers, naming them Rawhide and Jelly Roll (it seems he wasn’t quite ready to give up animal cruelty entirely). Yada, yada, yada, after a stint in Riding Mountain National Park and publishing a number of books on environmentalism and conservationism, all 4 members of the happy family relocated to remote Ajawaan Lake deep in the forests of Prince Albert National Park, his tiny cabin built to incorporate a pretty elaborate beaver lodge right inside next to his bed, while he built a separate cabin slightly up the hill for Anaraheo and, later, their daughter, Shirley. Fast forward to today, when visitors drop in daily to enjoy homemade trail mix on dock, then say “Is that it? I thought it would be bigger”, before taking a couple saucy selfies for their Instagram.
Trail to Grey Owl’s Cabin
Waskesiu Lake is located about an hour’s drive north of Prince Albert. The trail to Grey Owl’s cabin starts at the Kingsmere River parking lot 32 km from Waskesiu Lake townsite. The parking lot has been recently expanded so there is now always space to park there.
Look for the sign for the Kingsmere River Trail and Grey Owl Trail, they both follow the same path for a couple hundred meters and then you need to pick the right option at a clearly marked fork. Shortly before that there is a great overlook photo op of the river, a popular spot where people come to enjoy the Lazy River Float along the Kingsmere River.
The trail to the final campsites (Northend) is 17 km long, relatively flat, and mostly runs alongside Kingsmere Lake. From there it is another 3 km – first along the beach, then through the bush across to Ajawaan Lake, to reach Grey Owl’s cabin itself. Although the hills are quite small, the trail is riddled with roots, meaning hikers need to watch their step and bikers (yes, biking is allowed, although maybe not recommended) need to either have some very cushy suspension or a fatbike with tires the size and forgiveness of freshly-baked bread.
We left town around noon, hiked to Northend, quickly set up camp (nothing motivates a camper like the threat of rain), then hurried off to see the cabin before dark, making it back just in time for sunset. It made for a pretty long 23 km day, but meant we only had to tempt the Saskatchewan September Weather Gods for a single night, hiking 17 km back out the following calm, sunny morning.
Camping on Grey Owls Cabin Trail
There are actually 3 more campsites along the trail – Westwind at 3 km, Chipewyan Portage at 7 km, and Sandy Beach at 13 km. Many people will use these alternatives to stretch the hike out over 3 days. It is also possible to canoe in to all of the campsites, a much quicker option that saves wear and tear on your feet, as well as making it much more feasible to pack in large amounts of alcohol. Boats with 40hp or less are also allowed on Kingsmere Lake and can be brought up the Kingsmere River using a simple trolley system.
All the campgrounds are neat, sheltered, well-spaced and have relatively clean outhouses. Northend also features a covered camp kitchen in case the weather turns on you, and each site has a fire pit and metal grate for cooking. We heated up burritos in tin foil for supper. Then we heated up breakfast burritos in tin foil for breakfast. It made sense at the time.
Tips for Visiting Grey Owls Cabin
Black bears are regularly spotted along the trail and in the area. Their spoor (just a fancy word for feces, which is actually just a technical word for shit) often litters the trail, filled with berries and flies in equal measure, and all food needs to be stored up high in bear caches at each campsite. The bears are definitely less interested in you than you are in them so as long as you make enough noise along the way and don’t leave raw bacon lying all over your campsite you shouldn’t have any problems.
There is no potable water along the trail so you either need to carry all you need, boil water or bring a filter or purification tablets. We just used tablets on water from streams and but the lake is always an option as well.
There is a guest book inside the cabin to document all visitors – which is how I learned that we missed running into a friend from elementary school (whom I had recently seen for the first time in 30 years) by mere hours. I also began to wonder if the guestbook system was implemented after Grey Owl’s death or was actually part of some more intricate, mysterious activities that explained both why Anahareo’s lived in a separate cabin and why the beaver lodge was located inside the cabin, suspiciously close to his bed.
Sure, Grey Owl may have been a semi-imposter who was raised less on bannock and archery than tea and learning to handle an umbrella in a jaunty manner but, in the end, he was a very influential protector of nature. Plus, the man certainly knew how to spot a great place to shack up with a couple rodents. The hike to Grey Owl’s cabin is well worth spending 2 or 3 days to enjoy the quiet wilderness and amazing northern scenery and, in case I forgot to mention, don’t forget the mosquito spray.
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