You first notice the sound as a low rumble in the distance, it is distinctive.
You see it skyward, it grows larger, and the drone increases, always in harmony, the Pratt & Whitney engine echoes its presence. The big red floatplane swings around for a landing. The silver, yellow-tipped prop stops and the working antique effortlessly glides to the dock. This 1956 historic Beaver will be the taxi to find what remains of the hermit of Whitewater Lake.
There are many adventurers or thrill-seekers who plan extraordinary pilgrimages into the wilderness. Their motivations are varied the subsequent experiential accounts different. Humans are meant to seek adventure it is part of our DNA.
Solitude can provide an opportunity for self-reflection, creative expression, or spiritual renewal; it also has its challenges and risks.
Have you ever wanted to retreat to the woods in search of solitude?
Early philosophers Henry David Thoreau did it for two years at Walden Pond. Aldo Leopold considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology authored, posthumously A Sand County Almanac through his ongoing retreats at ‘The Shack.’
More contemporary Canadians, Adam Shoalts, author of Alone Against the North, ventured into unexplored wilderness he hoped to set foot where no one had ever gone before.
It happened to be in northeastern Ontario. He is a professional adventurer, in 2013; he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for “extraordinary contributions to geography” and in 2017 completed a nearly 4,000 km solo journey across Canada’s Arctic.
Survivor Man, Les Stroud, initiated his career through a year-long story and video, Snowshoes and Solitude.
In the spring of 1994, Les Stroud and Sue Jamison bade farewell to modern society and followed their hearts north, into the remote reaches north of Lake Nipigon. Les and Sue were attempting to replicate life in North America some 500 years ago before Europeans first set foot on the continent. These adventurers came back to civilization and went on to plan more treks.
Wendell Beckwith is another story of twenty consecutive years.
He was an engineer that had patents, including inventing the sapphire nib for Parker Bros. Ball Point Pens. An inventor, master woodworker, and free-thinking scientist, he did his “science” in his own unique way far from a traditional laboratory.
He sought out such a wild place, lived there consistently and naturally died within the solitude he sought and appreciated. He called it ‘The Center of the Universe.’ (I am anxious to get there; this has been on my mind for a few years.)
Beckwith’s destination was the Wabakimi wilderness or Provincial Park. On a table, spread out a paper copy of an Ontario Road Map the green space sticks out like a sore thumb, second only in size to Polar Bear Provincial Park. It was created through the ongoing stalwart and never-ending citizen conservation efforts of Bruce Hyer, another longer story.
It is a massive place protecting 850,000 ha (approximately twice the size of PEI) of undeveloped, ecologically significant boreal forest and hundreds of kilometres of interconnected waterways. Bruce knew Wendell and why Wabakimi beckons, he has lived some of the same solitude.
“Wendell talked about a pending apocalypse and climate change.” See the Back Roads Bill Village Media story on Bruce. Bruce’s legacy goes beyond his MP status and Green Party transition; it is the creation of this coalition of parks known affectionately as Wabakimi.
“By my criteria, it is far wilder than Quetico and infinitely wilder than Algonquin” and “It’s just plain &^&%$#$$ beautiful!”
He continues the fight against logging companies pushing roads into the interior.
Shannon Walshe is the provincial park’s biologist. She says the interconnected rivers and lakes with numerous rapids provide opportunity for excellent white-water canoeing which is unique to Wabakimi.
It is also a cultural landscape where the indigenous peoples have lived and travelled for thousands of years. Paddling through the park, you see predominantly black spruce forests mixed with jack pine and a little white birch bordering the granite bedrock shorelines.
Red sphagnum mosses and other mosses or lichens carpet the forest floors which grow on very shallow soils over bedrock. These forests, on the rolling granite topography, are interspersed with wetlands, including ecologically significant, species-rich patterned fens. You may also paddle through areas regenerating from wildfires which also adds to the beauty and diversity of the landscape.
“The size of the park was determined to be the minimum area required to protect a herd of caribou and one of the primary reasons for establishing the park. These shy and highly secretive animals need large forests free of roads and other disturbances to thrive. They also rely on a fire-driven ecosystem, like Wabakimi for habitat renewal,” Walshe said.
Her advice, "If you plan a canoe trip to Wabakimi, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one while paddling through the park, or at least know they’re watching you. The park not only protects the endangered woodland caribou, but also an incredible diversity of species including plants, mammals and an incredible diversity and number of breeding or migrating boreal songbirds. In May and June, the forest is alive with bird song.”
(Saw the caribou and calf, five nesting pairs of bald eagles, bears and a lynx and listened to those new songs; more wildlife during one time when compared to countless other trips. But this is the setting for the Beckwith story.) To order maps go to the Friends of Wabakimi website.
The de Havilland Beaver is considered by aviation historians to be the classic Canadian bush plane, a single-engine, short takeoff and landing utility transport aircraft.
It is the ticket to Whitewater Lake and the Beckwith cabin. Gear stowed away you climb on board, buckle up, click the waistband floatation device and then then the Wabakimi wilderness appears to be a never-ending view.
Pilot Cameron Hoyle has flown small commercial planes in exotic places throughout the world looking at landscapes from an aerial seat. For now, he is working for NDK Air and has a unique perspective of the Wabakimi wilderness. He is glad to fly in hunters and fishers.
“Wabakimi is a special place for those others wanting to go beyond the metaphor of what wilderness truly is," Hoyle says. "It is one of those intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.”
That was something Beckwith realized. (It is time to set up camp and then paddle around Best Island to get a sense of the “hermit’s life.”)
Tom Potter has visited the Beckwith site more than a dozen times with his Lakehead University students. The professor is committed to optimizing the intrapersonal and interpersonal growth found in outdoor groups and believes very strongly in a need for a holistic and experiential approach to outdoor recreation.
He actively works to engage learners as whole beings and strives to inspire them to find and express their truth of the world and the truth within themselves; reasons to frequent Wabakimi.
“Developing a sense of place through stories that resonate is important, to connect them to place - Wendell's place and the park. I would hold reflective discussions on-site about Wendell and his life - his life choices and the benefits and drawbacks of that. Also - how it may have affected others - such as his family.” Beckwith left his young family of five for Wabakimi and never looked back. “I have very sadly watched it degrade over 27 years - it was once a truly remarkable and beautiful place.”
In 1978, Beckwith made the news when he appeared in the National Geographic Magazine (Vol.154, No.6 – Dec.1978, pages 780-1). This was within an article on “Ontario, Canada’s Keystone.” There are two pictures of Wendell and only one of Ontario’s Premier Bill Davis and he was an American from Wisconsin.
The cut line of one photo read: “Helped by Native Americans, Wendell Beckwith builds a "snail home” of logs; the moss-chinked roof will sprout an early vegetable garden warmed from within,” (the snail is one of the remaining Beckwith cabin names).
Jim Hyder produced the 2020, 90-minute documentary entitled In Search of Wendell Beckwith. He first pitched the idea for a film to the National Film Board forty years ago.
He partnered with the Thunder Bay Museum to produce a documentary that tells the story of Beckwith’s life through his many intricate scientific gadgets, his artistic woodwork, and the people who met and created the legendary folklore figure of Northwestern Ontario, much like “the hermit of White Otter Castle,” Jimmy McQuat.
His film explores the life of this enigmatic figure, the relationships he forged with local indigenous peoples, canoe trippers while highlighting his scientific theologies and aberrations.
“I met Wendell in the mid-seventies. My brother Bill, who was working in the area, and had met Wendell and thought I should meet him too. I was working with the National Film Board at the time, for the Challenge for Change Studio, and Bill thought Wendell would make a good film.”
Hyder wanted to make the film when Wendell was alive.
“I returned to Best Island, this time to take some super eight film and make a short pilot to pitch the film to the National Film Board. As an aside, Wendell said I should contact Harry Wirth since he was Wendell’s benefactor at Best Island. I phoned Harry who was in San Francisco at the time to tell him about my plans to make a film and his quick reply was “if you do I will sue you.”
That was the end of our conversation. After many months the Film Board declined the project because they had already made a film of a recluse in the bush. By this time Wendell and I had become friends and I had a summer camp near Armstrong so being close by I would go up and spend time with him on Best Island.
By this time Wendell was even more popular and I would spend at least part of the day at Wendell’s request being a tour guide for numerous visitors. I did this over the next few years and continued to hear his stories and explore his science. Wendell actually came once to Thunder Bay and to spend some time with my family. So for many years, the Wendell tapes and pictures remained in a box in the basement until a young couple up the road who had canoed to Wendell’s place and convinced me to try and make the film again.”
The first impression you get is the contradiction of discovering these beautiful handmade cabins in the middle of the wilderness. You automatically ask yourself why? Why would anyone go to all this trouble to build such unique and artistically crafted cabins and why was would this man Wendell Beckwith be here in the first place? He was always described as a hermit or recluse but upon meeting him he was friendly, talkative and welcoming.
“I think it is in our nature to make this primal connection, something we lost through whatever we defined as 'progress' for society. There is nothing like the sounds or silence, the smells, and the overpowering visuals that the wilderness has to offer as well as the challenges and dangers one discovers. I think in the film Rose is the one that describes it the best. She hated it at first then discovered how much she loved it; it was really a contradiction to her life in the states.”
“While there, Beckwith pursued his interests in science and engineering, crafting intricate devices out of wood to make scientific measurements, as well as artistic models and sculptures. The cabins are a wonderful piece of woodwork and artistry that have been left and not maintained.”
According to Hyder, Beckwith was not much of an outdoorsman and he did not hunt or fish. He became close with local Indigenous people in the area, who most likely helped keep him alive during the first few years on the island. Beckwith remained on Best Island until his death in 1980 at the age of 64. Watch the video. (Watched it four times now, three pre-trip; while trying to understand this wilderness sense of place and the drama within Wendell’s life not unlike our own.)
Visit the Thunder Bay Museum, it has an array of Wendell’s artifacts Michael DeJong is the Curator/Archivist, they are working towards an exhibit in tandem with the film for the summer of 2022.
“The museum ended up with the archival records and artifacts Wendell left behind – Jim (Hyder) had wanted to this film since meeting Wendell himself in the 70s, and so when he finally did we were the logical partner.
"Speaking more conceptually, even if sometimes the story seems very ‘isolated’ in terms of the broader narrative of the history of this region, I think it speaks to the fascination that this region has for people because of its natural beauty and vast reaches of wilderness, which inspired Wendell and Harry in the first place. I also think the story of how he developed a relationship with the Indigenous people in the area such as the Slipperjack family is important as well, along with how the site became a pilgrimage for canoe trippers.
"And frankly, Wendell is simply an incredibly fascinating character; it’s been rewarding to see this project take shape from our perspective.” For more museum and Beckwith files click here.
Epilogue to Trip
This story is not about preserving his cabins; by visitation, these are almost irrecoverable.
There has been continued talk about making the site an interpretative centre but it is now too late. At the same time, it is a historic site as there is a story worth telling, a Wabakimi story. It is about a sense of place and how it impacts people’s lives and values. The title might be: ‘Wabakimi - A Magical Place.’ The byline will be “the hermit” and many others like you. The lead may be: “Nature brings values to all of us. Wendell Beckwith is someone who recognized a special place, he called it the 'Center of the Universe'. You will “take back somethin’ worth rememberin’,” from the lyrics of the Three Dog Night environmental song Out in the Country. Have a listen.
The wilderness philosopher Thoreau said, “Wildness is an attitude, not a place.”
As I sat on the glacial smooth bedrock with the trail leading to the collapsing remains of the cabins, I scribbled down notes in my journal about my time in this place of chi.
It is one of those back roads’ destinations that cause you to wonder, to reflect. Did I see a little of Wendell within myself? It was time to paddle again, to wander on. See the map.