The Hermit of Gully Lake, by Joan BaxterWritten by admin2 on December 8th, 2007
Filed under: Themes, Bum Deal, The Wandering Agoraphobe, Books & Book Reviews
A hermit’s home
by Joan Baxter
(an excerpt from the book The Hermit of Gully Lake: The Life and Times of Willard Kitchener MacDonald)
“The world knew him as the Hermit of Gully Lake, a lean and bearded elderly man in rags who lived on his own for more than half a century in the deep woods wilderness of northern Nova Scotia. By the time he disappeared in December 2003, his legend had spread across Canada and beyond.”
Some of Kitchener’s oldest friends, Ruth Smith, for example, never made their way up to Gully Lake to visit him. Rather, they stayed at home and let Kitchener come down to see them when he wanted their company or was passing through on his bicycle, headed to River John or across to Pictou [Nova, Scotia] to sell some pelts from the animals he trapped-muskrat, beaver, mink, otter, fox-or perhaps to distribute a little home brew.
Ruth says that despite what the outside world might think, Kitchener was not the only loner who had taken to a life in the woods around Gully Lake. Another man, Hardy Halbrett, a very skilled mechanic, lived in similar conditions and solitude on Gunshot Road not too far from Gully Lake, coming down to the Smith house to repair the tractor. But unlike Kitchener, Ruth says he would spend the night in their home.
Although David Smith knew Kitchener well from his many visits to their home in Loganville, he was already a teenager before he first saw the hut that had become Kitchener’s home at Gully Lake. He and his brother were out hunting when they heard the familiar strains of fiddling, and they followed the melody until they came across their friend and his hut.
That was the now-famous little structure, six by eight feet (two by three metres) that stood about one hundred metres from the shallow lake itself. It afforded a clear view of the surrounding hills but was well hidden from view and easily overlooked if you did not know it was nestled in a small clearing surrounded by thick woods. Some say that Kitchener constructed the hut; others say it was already there, originally a stable, which he merely modified to suit his own needs.
Its cramped interior left Kitchener-who was over six feet tall-precious little room to stretch. The wooden plank that served as his bed ran along the short side of the tiny cabin, and in early years, a moose hide served as his mattress. The rough-hewn logs and boards of the walls provided shelving, on which Kitchener kept his treasures-his rifle, papers, his peace pipe, and all sorts of miscellaneous things he made or collected over the years.
He had constructed his own guitar, a large heavy instrument that sounded remarkably good considering his lack of tools and materials. And he had also inserted glass lenses into wooden frames he shaped himself, which he used as reading glasses until, much later in life, his friends gave him store-bought ones.
Over the years, Kitchener adopted cats that strayed his way. Lloyd Bogle has a photograph of one, grey and long-haired, that slept on the shelf just beside the rifle in the 1970s. When it was no longer there and friends asked about it, Kitchener replied that it had run away because it was “awful scared of strangers” and then he broke into the children’s song “The Cat Came Back.”
Before the widespread use of snowmobiles in the 1970s and ATVs, or all terrain vehicles, in the 1980s and ’90s, the only real paths into the area were those that Kitchener himself had cut. These were not the broad and hard-packed trails they have become in recent years as Gully Lake became a favourite haunt for four-wheelers.
Back then, before Kitchener became well-known and drew visitors almost every weekend to his hideaway, he lived almost entirely on what he was able to hunt, trap, grow and collect, supplementing his diet with a few staples-flour, potatoes, salt-that he obtained at the General Store in Earltown, fourteen kilometres away.
Over the years, he tried to grow a few vegetables himself near his hut, but his crops were not particularly successful in that rocky and shaded garden plot. Some of his nearest neighbours with property bordering on the Gully Lake woodlands say he used to “borrow” vegetables from their gardens, even a chicken or two from their coops. Others say he always left something in return when he did this kind of “trading,” taking a few vegetables and leaving an animal pelt or rabbit in exchange.
However, it has to be said that he also annoyed some people by pulling up their potato plants, removing the tubers and then returning the plants to the garden as if to cover up what he had done. With a very few exceptions, there seem to be no hard feelings about this, given the widespread affection and respect for and, failing that, tolerance of Kitchener in the area.
And there were people in the area who did little more than tolerate Kitchener. One elderly man says Kitchener was “smart as a fox” when it came to avoiding people to whom he owed money. While others toiled on farms or in sawmills and in the woods day in and day out, year after year to survive those difficult years of the 1940s and ’50s, Kitchener would order firewood in to his camp on Jack Gunn’s Hill then arrange not to be there when it was unloaded and whenever they went in seeking payment afterwards.
But even his critics sigh and shake their heads when they contemplate how difficult life must have been for him. They recognize that without the support-voluntary or otherwise-of the community, friends and family, Kitchener would have had trouble surviving.
Over the years, friends and well-wishers provided him with bicycles, skis and snowshoes to make the long trek into Earltown for shopping a little less arduous. But in the late 1950s and the ’60s, he was still a strong man, and he seems not to have had a great deal of trouble getting about and finding what he needed to survive.
The lake was full of red-bellied trout and, according to one man who used to run across Kitchener up in Gully Lake, he also had a small boat that he would lend to fishermen who went up there.
Melvin MacKay agrees that Kitchener had no trouble providing for himself in those years. “Willard was quite a trout fisherman,” says Melvin, with his raspy laugh. “He could catch a trout in the lake but they wouldn’t bite for me.”
Kitchener had his army issue .303 rifle, and was able to obtain ammunition for it in Earltown, for hunting deer, as well as moose and rabbits. He would smoke and dry the meat, and store it out behind his shack in a lean-to of plastic and spruce bows. At one point, the stove that sat in the middle of the hut was fashioned from the body of an old wringer-washer. He then replaced that with a five-gallon barrel and, much later, a small woodstove that someone had given him or he had found somewhere-but the flue was still a treacherous length of thin aluminium hose for a clothes dryer that poked through the log walls.
Hector MacKenzie had not seen Kitchener in more than twenty years when he first made his way to Gully Lake to renew his acquaintance with him in 1968 or 1969, whichever year it was he got his first snowmobile-he’s no longer sure when that was. He says at that time, Kitchener was pretty much independent of the outside world.
“He had plenty of meat and there was plenty of fish in the lake. He also did some trapping. He’d have a few hides to take out, and Murphy at the General Store in Earltown would help him sell the hides. He made axe handles too. He told us one time he could get pretty near a year out of a moose. He would dry the meat.”
Hector recalls, with his trademark laugh that must have rocked and ricocheted in Willard’s tiny hut at Gully Lake many a time, that Kitchener was generous with these provisions he had laid up to see him through the long and hard winters. “It was pretty hard to turn him down, but pretty hard to accept that moose meat too,” he says. “It was pretty unappealing with hair all ground into it.”
Robert Clark, who used to see him frequently both in the camp near Earltown and later the one at Gully Lake because of Jessie’s regular visits with her son, says even in the summer Kitchener would have a deer strung up that he was using for meat, not concerned that it was rotten.
“But he never got sick,” says Hector MacKenzie. “He said that he never even had a cold, not until all those people started coming in from all over to see him.” Ruth Smith says Kitchener told her exactly the same thing.
The only entrance to the hut was the south-facing window through which he crawled to get in or out. Those who visited him regularly in the last two decades of his life say he always kept that window locked, placing saw blades across it when he wasn’t there, to deter nosy passers-by from intruding.
Some people, individuals who certainly had no romantic illusions about Kitchener and did not count themselves as his friends but who did go up to Gully Lake to fish or hunt, speak of other less savoury things he used to frighten off unwanted visitors. They call his place “very creepy.”
“He mounted animal skulls on trees around his hovel,” says one man. “And he put reflectors in the eye sockets and if you shone your flashlight on one of those in the night, I tell you it made you run.”
In the winter of 1971, Lloyd Bogle began heading up to Gully Lake on his snowmobile with his friend Bobby Matheson, searching for the deserter said to be living like a hermit in the woods there. It took them two Saturdays to find his place, but when they did they found him very friendly.
“He was cutting wood and we helped him cut wood. He took us in and we had a cup of tea, we had our tea with us, and we spent all day there talking to him,” says Lloyd. “He made us feel welcome, or else we wouldn’t have stayed. And we had a tremendous lot of fun that winter, going back there and cutting wood for him. Playing music, laughing, whatever.”
After that, Lloyd forged a friendship with Kitchener that would last till the very end. Lloyd became one of Kitchener’s most influential connections with the outside world, his conduit to the media that made him “famous” and to those who would eventually get him social security and then pension money.
Lloyd generally came with a friend or two, usually fellow musicians and lovers of old-time fiddle music. They always brought along a bottle and some tobacco and the mandatory musical instruments to turn a weekend day into a lengthy jam session in the woods. Although they might also bring along some food-sandwiches and other homemade delicacies prepared by their wives-Kitchener often refused to touch this food and if he did, took only tiny amounts. He said he couldn’t eat much at a time after all those years of living with so little.
Hector recalls how he and his friends used to take their own dinners in with them. They would offer Kitchener some beans or hot dogs or whatever they had along, and he wouldn’t eat one bite. He remembers that his wife once sent some baked biscuits in with Hector and his friends. They were fresh out of the oven, he says, but Kitchener wouldn’t even touch them. “Put them there,” Kitchener said, pointing to the front step of the house.
Lloyd Macintosh says that even when Kitchener came out of the woods down to Loganville to visit with him, he rarely accepted anything to eat. The only time he recalls Kitchener sitting down for a cup of tea and a meal was one morning when it was snowing hard and had been all night, and the recluse showed up at the door saying he had been caught by the storm and had frozen his feet.
“He was suspicious of everyone,” says Lloyd Macintosh. “He seemed to like me, probably because I didn’t disturb him or ask him questions. But it seemed he thought people might want to poison
Lloyd Bogle’s wife Helen says the only thing Kitchener did seem to like that she sent with her husband, or took up when she accompanied him to Gully Lake, was her molasses cookies.
But Kitchener didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, at least not back in the 1970s and ’80s. He lived primarily from the pancakes he made in that hubcap-cum-stovetop lid, using flour, sugar and salt he obtained from the General Store in Earltown, and from wild game he hunted or trapped.
Eels were also an important component of his winter diet. These, Kitchener said, he caught in the brooks around the lake, and after smoking and drying them, he dangled hundreds of the small eels head-down from the low ceiling of his hut. Visitors who asked about the eels, how he caught them and what he did with them, sometimes got more than they bargained for. That is, Kitchener would start pulling the little dried fellows down from the low rafters and generously share his winter food supply, giving handfuls of desiccated eels to his visitors to take home and try They were dandy in stew, he said. You could soak them for a day and then pound them to put in soups, he
said, or just fry them up as they were.
“They kept well,” says Lloyd Bogle, with a chuckle. “I never ate them but they lasted.”
Lloyd says at that time, Kitchener was doing a lot of trapping, mostly muskrat and the odd beaver, otter, mink and fox, and that his friend and fellow musician Bobby Matheson would take those pelts out for him to River John to sell for about two hundred dollars a batch. He also helped sell the axe handles Kitchener crafted.
Kitchener’s knowledge of the flora and fauna of his forest home could probably have filled several volumes of nature guides. Some people who visited him say he wrote down everything he observed about the nature around him, filling pages and pages. In this pursuit, he was following in the time-honoured tradition of many a hermit, writer and philosopher down through the millennia. In the 1800s, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for example, all cherished solitude and revered nature and wrote copious amounts about how the two were almost mystically linked; one could only be fully appreciated in the presence of the other.
Kitchener told visitors that he collected wild berries, nuts, mushrooms and wild plants that constituted not just food but also medicines. He was fascinated by and had enormous respect for Native understanding of nature, and often spoke about this to friends, saying Native people were “smarter than the white man in some ways.”
He said he particularly liked something he called “wild cucumbers” that he found in the bog. He described this plant as one having a straight stem and a circle of leaves around the top, like a core, with the “cucumber” part underground. He ate that raw, he said, as he did the hazelnuts he collected.
Lloyd Bogle asked him how he managed to learn which plants tasted good or could be used as medicines, without poisoning himself. Kitchener told him that he started out consuming only very tiny amounts at a time, and if there were no adverse effects, he continued to consume that plant in increasing quantities. He seems to have experimented very much the way any scientist would with an unknown food or medicinal plant, except that he used himself as the guinea pig.
Living as he did more with nature than with human beings, Kitchener also developed an extraordinary repertoire of animal calls, and he spent a fair amount of his time in the woods learning to commune with the moose, squirrels and birds-owls, ravens, blue jays-with which he shared the forest. He could also perform a very impressive yodel, worthy not just of Gully Lake but the Bavarian Alps.
He said he yodelled to cheer himself up.
The Hermit of Gully Lake: The Life and Times of Willard Kitchener MacDonald is written by Joan Baxter and published by Pottersfield Press.
The book retails for $15.95. (ISBN: 1-895900-70-0)
to place a toll-free order, call 1-800-nimbus9 (1-800-646-2879).
Joan Baxter is an award-winning Canadian author, journalist and anthropologist. For more than two decades Joan lived with her family in Africa, reporting for the BBC World Service, CBC Radio, Reuters, Associated Press, Toronto Star, The Sunday Telegraph, The Washington Post, and The Chronicle Herald in her native Nova Scotia. Many of her reports and photographs have appeared on the BBC News Online website and have been posted by international NGOs concerned with development issues in Africa. She also worked as a Senior Science Writer at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, a position that offered her the privilege of visiting with farmers in remote villages throughout Africa and also in Indonesia, to hear their stories, learn from them and then write about sustainable natural resource management and research efforts to improve their livelihoods.
Joan’s book, A Serious Pair of Shoes: An African Journal, won the Evelyn Richardson Award for non-fiction at the 2001 Atlantic Writing Awards. The late Peter Gzowski included her letters to CBC Morningside in his series of Morningside Letters books, and described Joan’s first non-fiction work,Graveyard for Dreamers: One Woman’s Odyssey in Africa, as “a magical book.”
For the past year, Joan has been serving as the Executive Director of the Halifax-based Nova Scotia – Gambia Association, a non-profit organization based in Canada and Africa which works in partnership with West Africans to pursue initiatives for equitable and sustainable futures for youth. Joan recently announced that she is stepping down from her post there, and moving to Sierra Leone in 2008 to live full-time where her husband heads a development project, and where she hopes to return to her writing career.