A nature writer who has been my idol for about 60 years is the late Sigurd F. Olson of Ely, Minnesota. The title of his first book was The Singing Wilderness. Now, how can that not make you want to read it?
His home ground was the Quetico-Superior canoe country northwest of Lake Superior. But he wrote about wilderness areas in Canada as well as the U.S., with nine books to his credit.
It’s hard to describe the affinity Olson’s readers feel with him. Perhaps it’s the way his descriptions, based on knowledge and experience, ring true with us, even we “wannabes” who only scratch the surface as nature lovers compared to Olson himself.
Yet he put himself on a lower rung when he wrote about some of the people he met in his travels. People who were so in tune with their wilderness surroundings they left him, and thus us, in awe.
One was Walt Hurn, a Canadian living on the Quetico side of the border. There was something unexplainable about him, Olson wrote, “that was always there, a certain indefinable feeling of belonging, integrity, and lack of emotion.” I think I get it: Hurn was completely comfortable with who he was, where he was, and how he lived. No higher ambitions. No wanting to change things. Simply calm acceptance of his life.
There have been people similar to that at Georgian Bay, and maybe still are. We have already written on this blog about several: James Drummond, Joe Corbiere, Juanita Rourke and Frank Rourke. You may have others to suggest, or can expand on these. Please do so by Replying, below, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another from the same part of the Bay was Wilfred France. He lived most of his life raising his family year-round at Franceville, on the Freddy Channel between Cognashene and the Musquash River (Muskoka Mills). His family’s roots were in Yorkshire, U.K. After coming to Canada they were eventually deeded their land at the Bay and operated a boarding house for workers at the nearby mill. (See Franceville on Wikipedia)
After the mill closed the Frances ran the place as a tourist lodge and provided services to area cottagers, including aircraft pioneer Orville Wright who owned Lambert Island nearby. Their hotel clientele included Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson and his friend amateur painter and co-developer of insulin Sir Frederick Banting, who both delighted in sketching the area’s scenery. Wilf (junior) was the third generation at Franceville.
I didn’t know Wilf France personally except as the re-builder of a large dock at Wahnuhke Island over several years. He used to drop in to discuss the project with Dad. But I did see first-hand an example of his uncanny familiarity with his land.
A friend and I had been told of a bay near the Musquash where we might flush some ducks during the fall hunt. We were complete greenhorns at hunting. Well before dawn we made our way to that bay, moored the boat in the next inlet, and trekked through the woods to the place our guide had told us we might find a duck or two.
I admit I knew that Franceville was just past the other side of the bay we were watching, but I believed that — if in fact the property we were on was Wilf’s and not Crown land as we had hoped — and we were lucky enough to nab a duck, we could retrieve it, run to the boat, and be gone before Wilf might come out to see who was shooting.
I told my companion this as we sat in the tall reeds awaiting daylight. He began to worry that we were trespassing. Then, so did I, and my confidence in my belief began rapidly waning.
Our nervousness grew as dawn broke at last and we heard a hound baying in the direction of Franceville. Oh-oh. As we peered through the reeds across the little bay we no longer were watching for ducks, we were watching for Wilf.
But how could he possibly know we were there? Surely he and his family had been sound asleep when our boat slipped as quietly as possible into the inlet. After all, we didn’t want to alert any sleeping ducks either, let alone Wilf France.
I was almost certain that in the dim dawn light Wilf would not be able to see us squatting in the thick reeds if he came. But when he did at last emerge from the woods across the bay it seemed to me his eyes were immediately rivetted on us.
That was enough for us. “Let’s go!” I whispered loudly, but my friend was already on his way. We tried to sneak out of the reeds without being obvious but as we reached the trees we forgot caution and made a beeline for the boat, fired up the engine and took off before, we hoped, Wilf could identify it or us.
Thinking about it now, I’m quite sure we were on France land and that our guide had given us bad information. I am also certain that Wilf knew we were there all along, no matter how quiet our arrival, and he knew exactly where to find us. But I believe he was more curious than wanting to challenge us, because I knew he was a generous man. I’d go as far as to guess he would have given we neophytes a lesson in duck hunting and maybe even one of his own ducks, if we had stuck around.
There were other stories about Wilf France by people who knew him well that describe a man in tune with his surroundings, who had learned to trust his own judgement when choosing priorities about the well-being of his family living in their isolated home. The man behind his humble exterior was respected and admired simply for who he was, much like Olson’s Walt Hurn mentioned above.
Footnote: My hunting prowess never did improve. One fall day Dad and I went partridge hunting down the island. Not a bird to be seen. Didn’t fire a shot. When we got back our smiling mother/wife held up a nice plump partridge. It had flown into the window and succumbed to its injuries. Nice work, Mum. Since then I have given up hunting, and wild creatures no longer need to fear the Ancient Islander.