As if the fire we were fleeing was not enough of a reminder of the fragility and temporary nature of all things (see our Smoke Over Wabakimi: Canoeing In A Season Of Wildfires post about paddling past the Wabakimi fires of 2011), we spent our last day on Whitewater Lake at two sites that are in a state of abandonment and decay. It was sad to walk around and realize that if action isn’t taken soon, it will be too late. It seems such a waste of something special.
[Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topo of the area – Grayson Lake 052 I 14 ]
The fatalistic take on it all, I suppose, is summed up in the line from the George Harrison song – “all things must pass away”. Or as the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes put it more than two millennia ago- “There is a time for everything under heaven …a time to be born and a time to die.” There’s nothing we can do to escape the essential impermanence of all that is.
The Ogoki Lodge:
In the case of the Ogoki Lodge site, you wonder how the owner(s) could just let it go like that. As is usually the case, a lack of money is probably the explanation. Maybe the whole thing was a crazy idea to begin with. The Lodge, originally owned and run by members of the local indigenous community at Collins, was meant to provide ongoing work for local Ojibwe and Cree by attracting guests – most often that meant Americans – who would be flown in for a week of superb fishing on Whitewater Lake. Not clear is how many of the lodges and outposts indicated on the map above were open in the 1970s; the more there were, the more competition for paying guests.
The teepee-like main lodge is still in pretty good shape and seemed to be inhabited when we were there in 2012. Some locals I talked to attribute the teepee design of the structure to Wendell Beckwith, the hermit of nearby Best Island. Apparently, he originally envisioned varnished moose hides to cover it but when that didn’t work out he suggested the more conventional cedar shingles.
Correspondence I’ve received from Sheldon Rosen tells me that the design was actually the work of his Toronto architectural firm, then known as Group 33. In particular, Rosen noted the design contribution of Eneri Taul, the Toronto-based but Estonian-born architect in charge of the project. Also mentioned were the project engineer Roger Bayley and his younger brother Tim, who took his place on-site.
The workers came mostly from the non-reserve status community of Collins, as well as from Armstrong Station, Mud River, and Ferland. (See the above map for locations.) Many brought their families along to Whitewater Lake where they set up camp near the worksite. Local materials – logs, stone, sand – formed the bulk of the construction materials and the rest was either flown in or hauled over winter roads from Armstrong Station, a stop on the CN rail line indicated above.
Near the central lodge are the five-sided guest cabins, two of which are visible in the satellite image above. The newest part of the site, probably dating to the late 1980s or early 1990s, is a two-storey motel-like structure with 10 guest rooms on each floor. It is the rectangular building with a green roof located on the point. The doors of many of the units are open and windows are broken; it is well on the way to becoming unsalvageable.
According to a book by Edward Hedican, The Ogoki River Guides: Emergent Leadership Among the Northern Ojibwa, the original motivation for the Ogoki Lodge project came from the three Patience brothers (identified in the 1986 book as the McTavish Bros. to preserve their privacy). They were the sons of a Scottish HBC post manager at Fort Hope and an Anishinaabe mother whose father was a chief and one of the signatories of Treaty No. 9.
The Patience brothers hoped to use the construction of the Ogoki Lodge and then its operation as a way to provide the people of nearby Collins with employment opportunities, as well as a chance to learn new work skills, both in the construction and tourism industries.
The work on the site began in May of 1974 and was funded by the provincial government of Ontario, although the Anishinaabe of Collins – and in particular, the Patience brothers and their Ogoki River Guides Limited – seemed to call a lot of the shots. Funding added up to a bit over $1,000,000., a sizeable sum of money in the 1970s. The Hedican book mentioned above states that once in operation after a shaky beginning, the lodge managed to come close to breaking even, although occupancy rates hovered around 40%.
The Patience Bros. decided early on to hire a non-Anishinaabe to operate the lodge for them. This was the situation in 1986 when Hedican’s book was published. Here is a passage from his book on the state of the lodge at that time –
“…for the last three years the lodge has been leased to individuals who operate two other lodges in the area. However, the lodge still hires Collins people as guides and maintenance workers, thus fulfilling one of the main reasons for the construction of the lodge in the first place.” (Hedican, 159)
Given Joe Warpeha’s comments below, this must be around the time when his father stepped in and bought the property and then hired Bill Ferring as the operator. Joe writes that his father sold the property about fifteen years ago (i.e. late 1990’s). Still unclear is who bought the property in the late 1990s.
Also not clear is who decided to expand the lodge complex by adding the two-storey building with 10 guest rooms on each floor. (I wish I had been thinking like a journalist and taken a few photos of this structure during our visit so that you’d have a clear image in your mind! )
Perhaps one day someone will write the definitive Wikipedia entry on Ogoki Lodge. If so, it will join the entry on Minaki Lodge, still the ultimate grandiose northwestern Ontario lodge project. It was located some 400 kilometers west of Whitewater Lake but had the advantage of being right by the CN rail line. The Ogoki Lodge, on the other hand, is sixty kilometers from the rail line and requires a bush plane ride – or three days of paddling and portaging – to get to! The Minaki Lodge finally met its end with a fire that destroyed the main building in 2003. (For a satellite view, see here to download the kml file which will open in your Google Earth app.) It would seem the fate of the Ogoki Lodge complex is to fade away less dramatically.
In June of 2017 VE3FAL1_Fred uploaded a video of the visit his paddling crew paid to the Ogoki Lodge and posted some video. The part from 2:30 to 16:30 takes the viewer on a ramble around the property.
Update: Ogoki Lodge Under New Ownership!
In January of 2021, a Thunder Bay Museum/Jim Hyder movie – well worth the time spent watching it! – titled In Search of Wendel Beckwith was uploaded to Vimeo. You can see it here.
A very brief bit of the documentary (1:22-1:24) has some archival film footage of the Lodge being built, as well as an interview with Alan Cheeseman of Wilderness North (an NW Ontario fishing lodge and outpost company). Cheeseman talks about plans to revive the Lodge, now a third Wilderness North property on the lake.
Included in the documentary was a video clip with one of the Patience brothers attributing the original design to Wendell Beckwith and then an architect taking over from there. This may explain how both Beckwith and Eneri Taul from that Toronto-based architectural firm I mentioned above could be credited with the distinctive main Lodge.
See A Two-Day Paddle Across the Ogoki’s Whitewater Lake for twenty or so images showing the state of the Beckwith Cabins in late August 2021, as well as a couple of the Ogoki Lodge.
The Beckwith Cabins On Best Island
A 10-kilometer paddle from the Ogoki Lodge takes you to another Whitewater Lake landmark. The route is a tranquil alternative to the more round-about way that motorboats will have to take. It does involve a short (but easy) portage into “Secret” Lake and then an exit via a channel which has been quite shallow the two times we came through. The reward – a chance to see the cabins on Best Island built by Wendell Beckwith in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the Beckwith Cabins are in even worse shape than the Ogoki Lodge complex. One building had a large hole in the roof which will allow the rain and snow to do their work even faster. Here is a property that could play a key part in the Wabakimi Provincial Park “story”, a hook other than fishing to sell a visit to the park. We felt like pilgrims at a shrine as we walked around the site but, in the end, we realized that we were two of maybe 50 people who would visit Beckwith’s Center of the Universe that summer.
The satellite image below shows the approximate location of the cabins. They are about 40 meters in from a landing beach. Just above the beach is a shaded clearing that has hosted camping groups.
To provide a bit of background on the man who constructed the three cabins on Best Island, here is the biographical sketch found on the Thunder Bay Museum website:
Wendell Beckwith – Biographical Sketch
Wendell King Beckwith (born 9 Sept. 1915 at Whitewater Wisc., died August 1980 at Whitewater Lake, Ont.) was the son of Raymond Beckwith and Laura Imogene King. His father was a design engineer and inventor. Wendell had a high-school education and attended the University of Alabama (Botany) for one year only. His knowledge of engineering and science was to a large extent self-taught. He worked for a time as a draughtsman and, in the late 1930s to the 1950s, as a research engineer for the Milwaukee Electric Tool Co. as chief development engineer and/or vice president where he designed and patented for the company several pieces of equipment. In ca.1945 he left to set up his own development lab in Whitewater, Wisc., and also worked until 1955 as a freelance consultant with Parker Pen, one of his major clients. He did not invent the ball-point pen as is sometimes suggested, but received four patents covering writing apparatus and machinery.
In ca.1955-56 Beckwith left his job, wife (Betty Mobert) and family (five children: Wendell Jr., David J., Laura, Imogene and Kathleen, who later married Harry Worth) probably due to his desire to do “pure research” into gravitation and radiation. In 1957-1958 he was known to be working for the Gravity Institute in New Boston analyzing submissions for funding. By the late 1950s, however, he was searching for a place of solitude in which to conduct his research. After spending three years at various locations in Northern Wisconsin he moved, in 1961, to Best Island on Whitewater Lake in Ontario. There, with funding from Mr. Harry Wirth, an unrelated American businessman, a cottage was built and Beckwith began his research. Until 1969 he wintered in Wisconsin and spent the rest of each year at the cottage. From 1969 onwards he stayed at Whitewater Lake year round and received frequent visits from friends, members of the group “Outward Bound”, and the local Native people. From Feb. 1971 to 1980 his friend Rose Chaltry of Minneapolis lived with him during the summer months.
In the mid 1970s, Beckwith’s funding agreement with Wirth broke down after which he relied on friends, family and Rose Chaltry for supplies. Beckwith’s status in Canada was that of an illegal alien until 1974. He refused to apply for landed immigrant status, declaring himself a “citizen of the world”. Because of his “great assistance to the Indian population of the area” he was granted ministerial permission to stay. His refusal to apply for a land use permit, until 1977, led to protracted negotiations with the Ministry of Natural Resources.
His research was done mainly in the winter. He would sit down before a blank sheet of paper each day and work on whatever topic interested him. The sheets he’d put into binders or folders. He took constant astronomical and meteorological observations. He formalized an agreement with the Ontario government in September 1979 whereby he bequeathed his research notes, papers and experimental apparatus to the people of Ontario on his death.
His research interests were broad, ranging from the magnetic and astronomical forces of the galaxy and historic human migrations to the pyramids and Stonehenge. He showed a great interest in “pi”, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter and he was intrigued by such numbers and how often they recurred in nature. He was also concerned with the connections between astronomical events and the migration of large groups of people. His work suffers from several drawbacks: notably his preference for “popular” as opposed to academic works of science and history for his information and his 1930s high school math. (See here for the source of the biographical sketch)
Someone will ask -” Is it worth spending a million dollars in renovations and restoration so that fifty paddlers and fishermen a year can see some eccentric American inventor’s wilderness retreat on an island in the middle of nowhere?” Park officials are undoubtedly aware of the state of the cabins and in their inaction, they have given their response.
What would Beckwith Have Wanted?
I did find online a Globe and Mail article from 2005 written by Julius Strauss – “Odd man’s odd home now facing extinction” – which does provide a probable answer that Beckwith himself might have given to the question posed above –
Ernie Nichols is a float pilot who lives in Armstrong and is one of the few locals to remember Mr. Beckwith. “He was a very intelligent man, but he was, at heart, a recluse,” he said. “He would have wanted it all just to go back to nature.”
Not everyone would agree with this statement about what Beckwith would have wanted. Bob Henderson spent some time talking to people who knew him and this is how he summed it up in his book More Trails, More Tales: Exploring Canada’s Travel Heritage –
Click on the book title above and you can access the entire chapter (pp.41-47) at the Google Books site.
Or you can buy the book at the Dundurn Press website here – it is available as a digital download as well as in print.
The time we spent at the Beckwith cabins there was one of the highlights of our Wabakimi canoe trip that summer.
More Context & Information:
The Thunder Bay Museum, in partnership with Ontario filmmaker Jim Hyder, has released online (VIMEO – January 2021) the documentary In Search of Wendell Beckwith. Hyder first met Beckwith in 1972 when he was working for the National Film Board and had the thought of making a film about him even then! In 2018 he finally got to it.
Narrated by Tyler Beckwith Evans, a grandson of Beckwith, the film blends together archival film and photos with interviews with some who knew him well. Harry Wirth, Rose Chaltry-Minar, Ruby Slipperjack, and Bruce Hyer are just four of the many providing anecdotes and insight.
There is an interesting thread at the canoeing forum Canadian Canoe Routes about the Beckwith Cabins from 2008 that you might want to check out for more information. It was started by Kevin Callan to bring attention to his 1990s Youtube videos on Wabakimi and drew insightful responses from a number of other posters, including a friend of Beckwith’s. It can be found here.
In 2011 Dan Rachor uploaded to Youtube a series of four videos on his just-completed Wabakimi canoe trip; Episode Four shows you inside of the three cabins. You can see the video here.
In 2013 Callan’s Dazed But Not Confused: Tales Of A Wilderness Wanderer was published. Billed as “a collection of stories” it consists of forty-one short chapters and it is clear that Callan has quite the collection of tales to draw from.
A couple of pages of chapter 36, titled “Hermits of the North”, has him turning to the Wendell Beckwith story one more time with an endearing portrait of the eccentric resident of Best Island. Click here for the Google eBook version of the book or on the title above for the Amazon link.
The Google Book archives has a few pages of The Ogoki River Guides: Emergent Leadership Among the Northern Ojibwa written by Edward Hedican and published in 1986. Hedican is currently (2013) a professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Guelph.
Most of chapter 5 – “ORG and the Whitewater Project” – is accessible and makes for interesting reading. (Scroll down to page 109.) It discusses the construction of the Ogoki Lodge, focussing primarily on the tensions in the relationship between the engineers and the Anishinaabe men working on the project. You can read it here. The entire book is available as a Google download for $18.62; given that there is a copy available for in-library use, I made my way to Toronto’s Central Reference Library and read it there. The book is also still available from the Wilfred Laurier Press.