The trail skirts the shore of sprawling Kingsmere Lake, winding serenely through the trees for mile after mile. The going is easy. No towering peaks or steep canyons mark the landscape here in the wilds of Northern Saskatchewan, but the backcountry traveler here will find a unique experience. This is Canada’s great Boreal Forest, the billion acre ribbon of trees stretching from one end of the continent to the other. The forest teems with wildlife. In just four days I’ve seen lynx, black bear and gray wolf. What I haven’t seen are other hikers. This pilgrimage I’m undertaking to the home of one of Canada’s iconic conservation figures is turning out to be a genuine adventure.
There’s no better way to experience the great northern forest of Saskatchewan than to make the 25 mile hike through the wilderness of Prince Albert National Park to pay homage to one of Canada’s earliest conservationists. The story of Grey Owl could hardly be more improbable. Born an Englishman, Archie Belaney immigrated to Canada in 1906 to pursue a frontier fantasy. But a funny thing happened along the way: he honestly embraced the ways of the First Nations people. He married into the Ojibway tribe, and became an accomplished woodsman and trapper, no small feat in the unforgiving regions of northern Canada.
On his evolution from pretend frontiersman to authentic conservationist, Belaney married a Mohawk woman he christened Anahareo, took the name Grey Owl, gave up his ways as a trapper, and went to work as a naturalist for the Canadian park system. He and Anahareo built a cabin on the shores of Ajawaan Lake in a remote corner of Prince Albert park, and lived there with a pair of beavers, Jelly Roll and Rawhide. It was a hard life, but idyllic in its way. The complicated, oft-married, and wily Grey Owl wrote books that became best-sellers in Canada, making a celebrity out of him, and the rustic cabin he called Beaver Lodge. Today, the two or three day journey to visit his home, the birthplace of an iconic movement, is a fascinating backcountry outing.
Prince Albert National Park, a big one at almost 4,000 square miles, holds greater allure. The landscape here is an “eco-tone,” an overlapping of prairie and boreal forest that creates a unique “edge effect” with unreal botanical diversity. This rare environmental juncture makes good habitat for the mixed forest of birch, spruce, tamarack, aspen and jack pine of the southern boreal forest, as well as some of the few remaining remnants of native prairie. Peat bogs, wetlands, taiga and tundra are components in the complex, interconnected habitat. This is something special, a place where rare fescue and mixed grass native prairie bumps up right against the boreal forest. The edges of such distinctly different eco-zones come with wildlife in abundance and variety, including more waterfowl on the lakes than you can believe.
The sleepy village of Waskesiu Lake sits right on the eastern shore of Lake Waskesiu. It is here where visitors can find accommodations, campgrounds, beaches, and park offices. The town can get pretty busy in high summer, but even then remains relaxed and informal, and small enough that you can walk from one end to the other. Campgrounds, inns and lodges offer accommodations, and the local restaurants provide a range of dining choices. Pick up your hiking permit at the Parks Canada visitors center right in town, on the lake shore by the public beach. You’ll pay a fee both for the hiking permit and the camping permit. It’s wise to choose “active deregistration,” especially if you are hiking alone. That way, if you don’t return on time to deregister, the wardens will know you are missing and come looking for you.
The hike itself is unlike any other, but quite manageable: the trailhead is just a half hour drive from the small, comfortable town of Waskesiu Lake. The drive out to the start of the route is a veritable wildlife park, so take your time and pay attention. From the trailhead, it’s about 11 miles out to the most appealing camp, right at the head of Kingsmere Lake. From there, it’s a pleasant half day hike up and over the ridge to Ajawaan and Grey Owl’s modest cabin. You can do it in two days easy, but three is better. The extra time lets you absorb the majesty of the great forest, enjoy the quiet and the solitude, and maybe get a little freaked at night out by all those unfamiliar noises floating in to camp on the breeze.
From the trailhead, the route to Grey Owl’s cabin follows the eastern shore of Kingsmere Lake, often within sight of the water, for 11 miles to the north end of the lake and the Northend Campground. The trail crosses a large marshy area to start, but soon enters the forest. Elevation is not an issue here. The terrain sits at about 5,800 feet with only a few hundred feet variance. The hiking topography is mostly flat, with moderate ups and downs as the trail takes you on a rare forest excursion with few distractions. The trail drops down to beaches twice in the hike out to the north end of the lake, and passes two intermediate campgrounds along the way: Westwind Camp and Sandy Beach Camp.
I recommend camping at the Northend Campground, which sits appropriately at the top of sprawling Kingsmere Lake, offering expansive views to the south. The location makes it sunny in good weather. The tent sites are run out in the trees just yards from the lake. Sunrise happens on your left, sunset on your right. Mosquitoes and flies can be annoying up here in the forest, but I found the breeze at the north end of the lake kept that to a minimum. From the Northend Campground, the hike over to Ajawaan Lake and Grey Owls cabin takes about an hour each way. Camping is not permitted near the cabin, or even on Ajawaan Lake, so you have to use one of the Kingsmere Lake campsites.
I spent two nights at Northend Camp, where I had the whole place to myself the whole time. From camp, the route to Ajawaan Lake and Grey Owl’s cabin follows the north shore of the lake for a few hundred yards before turning north off the beach and into the forest. The route climbs up and over a small ridge before reaching the south end of Ajawaan Lake, which offers the classic, picturesque view of the cabin. From there it’s just 20 minutes along the west shore of Ajawaan Lake to the cabin site itself, where you’ll find two cabins, not one.
The main cabin is down on the lake shore, and has an opening on the water side that permitted access for the beavers to actually enter the cabin from the lake, where Grey Owl and Anahareo built a sort of pen inside for the animals. It’s frankly hard to believe they could live there, with beavers, which are nocturnal, but they did. The other cabin is up the hill a few hundred feet, near the grave sites for Grey Owl, Anahareo, and daughter Shirley Dawn. The little graveyard is surprisingly moving.
Saskatchewan’s biggest city, Saskatoon, is the gateway to Prince Albert Park, but the hamlet of Waskesiu Lake, about three hours away, is the place from which to stage the hike. Saskatoon’s airport has good connections from all over North American, and an easy rental car counter. From the airport, take Highway 11 up through the wheat and canola fields to the town of Prince Albert, two hours north of Saskatoon. This bustling town has big grocery stores and an outdoor shop for last minute shopping. From the town of Prince Albert, drive up Highway 2 another hour, turning off at Highway 245 for the short drive into Prince Albert National Park, and the hamlet of Waskesiu Lake.