Retracing a Family Legacy

It was with much anticipation that I ventured north, to a place where roads don’t go. I did not know what to expect when I set out on this journey. For me, to travel north was always to leave denser civilization in the rear view mirror, and immerse myself in a land of thicker forests, clearer waters, brisker air, and slower time. As my trip to Whitewater Lake was an exponentially longer distance north, so to were all these characteristics exponentially greater.


To get to Wilderness North, I transited through the seemingly endless sea of trees in remote Ontario, only to arrive in the village of Armstrong, and then, to take off in a seaplane, gliding above the land to glimpse nature’s dueling collage of emerald forests and sapphire lakes. Something about the journey felt unprecedented. Some things literally were. With each mile traveled, I was at a higher latitude than I had ever been before. I had never flown in a seaplane. I couldn’t help but feel like an explorer, like this seaplane was a spacecraft vaulting me into the unknown. At last, we touched down on Whitewater Lake and I was immersed in this exceptional place.

Photo by Ron Poling

The cabins dotting the lake were mere specs in the expanse of bays, coves, and an ocean of trees. The cabins at Striker’s Point were log structured and met every need. It was impossible not to sleep well, eat well, and be grateful for the pleasures of a wood stove and a cold beer at the end of the day, and have the zealous energy to seize the next one. Time did not reach this place. Each day felt infinitely long. The omnipresent employees of Wilderness North always ensured that each day was fulfilling, attentively enabling whatever you wanted to accomplish that day. They walked around with a buoyant gait and cheerful demeanor like they themselves were as independent of time as the trees and the fish.

Myself and my company were not the typical traveler to the Wilderness North lodges. I came with my father and my brother. We three were not the adept fishermen so drawn to this place for the angling heaven that it is. We were pilgrims in search of a different sort of nirvana: the kind that our ancestor set out to find. And not a symbolic ancestor, but a literal one. Wendell Beckwith (1915-1980), the legendary hermit of Northwestern Ontario, is my grandmother’s brother, my father’s uncle. The family stories that have preceded this trip have been larger-than-life and we three traveled to see them for ourselves, for evidence, for respect, for posterity, before his story, his creations, and his legacy, are lost.


Our trip was to immerse ourselves in the life and mind of Wendell: the inventor, the American who left his successful engineering career and family to live on Best Island, the scientist who collected data and searched for a mathematical unification of celestial bodies with water with magnetism with the history of civilizations with everything in nature, the architect of extraordinary dwellings in ecological harmony with the land, the adopted family member of the First Nation community, the unlawful settler who had the audacity to call himself “a citizen of the world” to the chagrin of the Canadian government and the sphinx who declared to all society that “the center of the universe” was Whitewater Lake.

And his life is still woven into the fabric of this place. Wilderness North team arranged many of our meetings, and shepherded us around the vast landscape. We talked with friends of Wendell’s, and spent hours upon hours reminiscing and reflecting. And we visited the sites of Whitewater Lake, still with the fingerprints of Wendell’s touch.

 

We also went to Ogoki Lodge, a cluster of cabins, suites, and outbuildings, which Wendell partially designed and oversaw the construction of. It’s resort-like layout felt out-of-place in the remoteness of Whitewater Lake, with its vast patio, group-sized sauna, and a dozen employee cabins to compliment the scores of guest suites. The great hall was especially imprinted with Wendell’s unconventional designs: the doors were emblazoned with wood carvings and arranged into a pattern of sunrays rising over the water, hexagonal motifs in the floor, and a massive, central spire adorned with skylights and a central chimney coming out of a teepee-like peak supported by six massive timbers leaning skywards. Inside was a posh dining hall, bar, and balconies where one could imagine absconding from the din of a boisterous party to the discordantly still environment of the Northern wilderness. It hasn’t been in operation for over a decade, but Wilderness North was fortunately keeping the structures in a stabilized state.


The mecca of the trip was, of course, Best Island itself. I was surprised at how resilient the buildings are, even after having been abandoned for almost 40 years. The first building Wendell lived in, however, was almost completely destroyed from the roof failing; it had a front wall, a massive stone fireplace and chimney, and between these, it was a pile of rubble. Right next to it was the second structure Wendell built, in stunningly good shape. It exhibited many of Wendell’s ingenious improvements such as a cabinets and drawers of all shapes and sizes, a handmade locking mechanism to a Dutch door, a crank to turn a bed into a couch, a dryer for clothes that used the convection of air from the woodstove, and Wendell’s iconic hexagon tiled flooring. Well placed skylights entirely illuminated the interior. Remnants of Wendell’s mundane possessions as well as scientific tools and models still littered the place. I could picture Wendell at the large, broad writing desk, writing his prolific research notes, fastidious drawings, and his meandering, digressive correspondence. The last building Wendell constructed and occupied was the architectural and ecological masterpiece, the Snail. It had a welcoming cottage-like façade sticking out of the Earth. Within was a one-room, spiraling building designed around the number pi. It was small, yet met every need and whim, complete with a kitchenette, an expansive writing desk and workbench, and a comfortably sized bed. Everything was illuminated by light from a central skylight and the huge front windows. Every area was not far from the central wood stove, whose radiant heat was insulated by the earth itself. Every space was maximized for storage in creative ways: drawers and cabinets of every shape and size, shelving above and below, a subterranean refrigerator. The designs were a celebration of the natural world: the walls were vertical, rounded beams, accentuating the snail-like Fibonacci spiral that was the shape of the room, with ceiling beams that converged into the skylight, mirroring the light energy that emanated from above. The floor was a tessellation of hexagons, cut perpendicular to the trunk to reveal the annual growth of the tree rings, like a forest of circles. Everything about it was efficient, and told a story of iteration upon iteration, measurement, improvement, maximization.

Despite the Snail’s architectural brilliance, it was starting to structurally fail. It had been 38 years since Wendell built and lived in the snail. The ceiling was starting to sag, distorting the shelving and constricting the feeling of the room. The disarray of rubbish, both old and new, both relics of Wendell’s and the garbage of irreverent visitors, betrayed the building’s organizational mastery of design. The powerful odor of subterranean decay within betrayed it’s comforting, cozy character.

Being inside of the Snail brought into focus for me what Wendell was doing up here on Whitewater Lake. The Snail was a masterpiece of resource efficiency, so it was a masterpiece of time efficiency. It was an invention, a machine, like so many of the engineering works he built, and the ingenious, lucrative patents he left behind in America. The Snail gave him the maximum amount of freedom. Just like living on Best Island, way up here on Whitewater Lake gave him the maximum amount of freedom. Here, he was free to pursue his research, to write, to study nature, to search for the insights into the mathematical unity of the universe in this place he called, “the center of the universe.” To spend time there was inspiring. I glimpsed insights not just into Wendell’s visionary creations and lifestyle, but his philosophy. The lesson I left with was to examine my own life for what I could do without, what I could make more efficient, what could I make or do to become freer, enabling me to pursue whatever I regarded as the most important, most rewarding things in life.

I suspect that spending time in these sacred places meant something a bit different to my father, and my brother, but was no less meaningful. The balance of our time in which we weren’t pursuing the spirit of Wendell was spent eating, drinking, playing cribbage, hiking, and lastly, we couldn’t overlook, fishing. Even for us relatively amateur fishermen, once we stumbled into a hotspot one afternoon of crisscrossing the lake in our boat, we were hauling in walleye every third cast. We caught more than enough fish for two mighty dinners. We also spent one afternoon hiking along the lakeshore of Whitewater. The lakeshore offered a more deliberate view of the lake than one gets from a motored boat. The mosquitos left us unharassed once we were a mere 5 meters from the edge of the wood, and the unblocked wind cooled our sweat with crisp Northern air. We took in the splendor of the sandy beaches, hop-scotched along boulders, and walked upon the moss-covered, pink-granite speckled outcroppings of the Canadian Shield.

By the time time caught up with us, we felt fulfilled. It was a multifaceted paradigm shift. The treasures of Whitewater Lake are not only the prizes under the waves, which most visitors seek, but they are all around here, in the woods, in the land, and in the people. I will never forget visiting Wendell’s “center of the universe,” meeting the people who knew him, and what it was like to be inside of his constructions. I pray his legacy can be preserved, so more adventuring individuals can come to this place, and see his creations, glimpse his mind, meet the people he lived amongst, and find as much inspiration as I have, for themselves, in their own way.

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