TURTLE ISLAND

    In 1953, Gwendoline Cooper, a 16 year old living with her family in Toronto, fell in love with a young Indian guide working in Algonquin Park. Their relationship was brief and did not develop. After almost 50 years, they saw each other at the Curve Lake Reserve. They married in the spring of  2004. This is her story.

A LOVE THAT WOULD NOT DIE

 BY GWENDOLINE GREYEAGLE

In 1951, when I was 14, my family immigrated from England and lived in Toronto for the next five and a half years.

            In the summer, Dad used to take us camping up north, to Opeongo Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, home of the Algonquin Indians.  Lots of pine trees, lots of lakes, crazy call of the loon, the lakes patrolled by park rangers in sea planes, fishing, hunting, very wild and untamed, except for the campgrounds and lodges in the park.

            In fact it was so untamed that Indian guides were used by those campers and hunters who camped far away from the campgrounds or on other lakes.  The guides accompanied their clients and made sure they didn't starve to death or shoot themselves in the foot.  They set up camp and took care of them, hunted and fished with them.  I had been enthralled reading about Indians since I was a little girl and I was in my element.

            There was this one Algonquin Indian guide who became 'attached' to us, and we were with him each summer.  When we first met 'something' happened for me (for him too he now tells me) but unlike him I was too immature to know what was happening  I was 16 and had never been kissed.  Times were different back then and Mom and Dad were very strict.  Mom told me if I was kissed too hard I'd get pregnant.  I believed her.

Gil Lavallee and Gwendoline Cooper
prepare for a canoe ride in 1953.

            The guide's name was Gilbert Lavallee and he was four and a half years older than me and I was smitten.  He was so handsome.  The Lavallees were canoe builders, and built all the birch bark canoes in the area.  Gil spent the summers doing guide work in the park and spent the rest of the year working in logging camps and building birch bark canoes with his family.

            He was raised in a log house by the lake and the family had no car.  They didn't need one.  They used canoes.  They traveled across the lakes by canoe and portaged between them.  Gil could swiftly paddle across a lake and run with a 14-foot smaller canoe on his back the two miles to the next lake.  Only the Algonquin language was spoken at home.

            At Opeongo Lake there were lots of regular canoes and regular boats for the guests and campers at the campground and lodge.  There was, however, one birch bark canoe hanging from the beams inside the lodge.  It was a beautiful handmade traditional canoe built by his cousin, Matt Lavallee.  It was a Christmas gift to Myra Avery, she and husband, Joe, had Opeongo Lodge gift shop and the store.  It was a showcase piece that had never been in the water.

            Gil used to take me out in canoes and boats whenever he came in from taking campers out.  I would wait for him at the boat dock.  He also took Dad fishing in his spare time and taught him how to really catch fish.  Gil said his time spent with us was 'free' and he would never charge us guide fees.  Dad thought a great deal of him.  In fact he was the only guy throughout my life that Dad ever really liked.  Dad never seemed worried about me when I was alone withGil.  Amazing!

            During our outings on Opeongo Lake, Gil renamed Wolf Island, Gwen Island.  An island named after me. Wow!  

Gil Lavallee in 1953

           Well, you guessed it.  Gil and I became pretty much an 'item', as much as a 16-year old could back then.  He was the first one outside of my family to kiss me (I didn't kiss another man until I was 19) and I was the first girl (white or Indian) he had become 'attached' to.  He would teach me Algonquin Indian words and I was an eager student.  When we were out in the canoes he would tell me 'folk stories' from his tribe's legends about the Gitche Manitou (Great Spirit) and Manibozho (the great Hare).  He was a traditional Indian living among his people and lived their ways.  Many know these ways only by attending pow-wows, butGil actually lived them.

            One day Gil asked the lodge to take down his birch bark canoe, and said he was going to take me for a ride in a real canoe.  Everyone was surprised and a bit worried because the canoe never went in the water.  Gil simply explained to everyone that the Lavallees didn't build canoes that leaked.

            When the canoe was down he carried it to the water over his back as one would 'portage'.  There were quite a lot of folks on the dock with cameras (including my Dad) when we set out.  We went quite a way out in the lake.  When the ride was over he brought the canoe out of the water, dried it out and it was hung back in the lodge.  For as long as the lodge was standing, I learned later, no one else used that canoe.

            By this time Dad had realized that this thing between Gil and me was progressing,  Dad had plans for me in the big city, not in the backwoods of Algonquin, so that Autumn he invited Gil to Toronto to stay with us for a weekend.  Gil came by bus, not his car, because the big city was alien to him.  At one point Dad suggested he consider getting a job in the city but it was obviousGil was out of place and not about to give up his Indian way of life.

            When Gil left for home he wanted to take my German shepherd dog with him.  We took it camping with us to Opeongo and he liked it a lot.  Since I couldn't part with Fang, I bought him one like mine and Dad helped me to ship it up to him.

           Gil called to say he received it okay, but about two weeks later he called again to say he had to destroy the dog because it was becoming too aggressive toward guests at the lodge while he was out guiding.  He had hoped to crate it up and send it back to me to keep for him but said there wasn't time, he had to leave hurriedly to do a committed guide job and the wife of the man who ran the lodge insisted he put it down.  I was devastated and furious.  Dad said he thought it was the Indian way of saying that Gil was letting me go because he couldn't live in my world and I was not ready to live in his (what did he know?)

            This broke the ties between us.  I believed my Dad and was upset to say the least.  Gil didn't call me again.

Gwendoline Cooper in 1953 at
the lodge where she met Gil.

            When I was 19 my Dad announced we were immigrating to the U.S.  I was just maturing, working for the telephone company, owned a horse, had been thinking about Gil and what went wrong.
I certainly did not want to leave the world I had just gotten used to to immigrate again.  I told my Dad that I would finally go to Gil and he would take care of me, my horse and dog.  I just knew in my heart he cared.  The couple of years of being apart meant nothing.  Such things dreams are made of.  My Dad smiled and said he probably would take care of me..

            When I called the lodge I was told he had left---moved south somewhere and was MARRIED to a WHITE girl.  I was devastated.  It didn't seem possible he would do this.  Marriage meant everything back then.  I had to face reality, Gil had fallen in love with someone and I was out of his life, so I went on with mine.  I immigrated to the U.S. with my family.  I did write my first poem though, using Algonquin words Gil had taught me.

            After living in Buffalo, N.Y. and Arizona briefly, I ended up in California about 1960 and lived there ever since.  I eventually married.  I was married to a Cherokee Indian (Gil had started my 'involvement' with all things Indian), and it lasted 27 years.  There was plenty of excitement, performing Indian dances around the world, on television, becoming pilots, but when the showbiz was finished there was nothing there to hold me to him.

           Gil's name came up once when Dad was dying of cancer in 1987 during the time my marriage was falling apart.  Dad said , "I often think of what your life would have been like with Gil."  I was speechless.  That's all that was said.  There was no need to say, "Gil, who?"

            I also was married to a man from India, briefly.  I met him over there and brought him back here.  That didn't last either.

            The last few years I suffered a number of minor strokes, only two of which I realized I had had.  The rest were discovered with an MRI.  They left me with some temporary, minor paralysis that was pretty much dealt with through therapy.   All things considered, I'm not in bad shape.  Just a lot more dependent on medication.

            After my most recent stroke, I had become quite weepy, dreaming of lakes, pine trees, canoes and that crazy loon, causing me to wonder what had happened toGil.  Was this an omen, had he died?  Was he thinking of me?  It had been 49 years.  I spent a lot of time on my bed  listening to native American flute music and crying.  Here I was, 65 years old, my life had been so full, yet was so empty.  I had never wanted children with the men I had married.  I felt like a lost soul.

            Then, in October , we had visitors from Toronto.  They had been our next door neighbours when we lived there and they come out to see us about every four years.  Somehow the conversation got around to my dreams and how depressed I was and it was suggested that perhaps it was being triggered by memories of when I used to go camping at Algonquin.  One thing led to another and it became clear that I needed closure on the issue ofGil, even if it meant that I would find he had died.

            Our friends suggested I start with the Park Ranger headquarters outside the park at Whitney, Ontario.  If the Lavallees were canoe builders, there must be relatives and since traditional Indians don't stray too far from their ancestral home, it was reasonable to assume that someone might know where Gil was---if he was alive.

            Over the next three days I made several inquiries which did, indeed,  lead first to relatives in the Whitney area, and then to Gil.  The relatives were quite friendly and a little amused.  I didn't realize at the time that they knew of me.

           Gil was alive and living at the Senior Center on the Curve Lake Ojibway Indian Reserve near Peterborough.  His own Reserve was Golden Lake (since he was Algonquin), but he was at Curve Lake due to his step-daughter and daughter living there, married to Ojibways.  The lady he had lived with for 30 years had passed away eight years earlier and he was alone.

            I called him there on Oct. 18, 2002.

            It took a while for him to come to the phone and I was a basket case. 
           
But the moment the spoke I knew his voice, even though it was older:

            "Gilbert, I'm calling from California, this is a voice from your past."

            "Oh!"

            "I knew you when you were a guide at Opeongo Lodge."

            "Yes."  

            "You used to paddle me around in canoes."

            "What canoe?"  (Interesting to note, he must have already guessed).

            "The canoe your family built, hanging in the lodge."

            He sighed.  "Gwen Cooper," he said.  "Where have you been?"

            I almost choked, hearing my name said the way it used to be.

            "Uh huh," was all I could mumble, I was so choked up and afraid he would hang up 
              on me.

            "I can't be paddling you around in canoes anymore," he went on,  "I had a bad
             stroke about 27 years ago.  I'm in a wheelchair, paralyzed on the left side."

            I was unable to speak.  My handsome Indian love, struck down in the prime of life.

            "How are you, Gwen, your Dad, Mom, Maurice, Chris?"

            My God, I thought.  He remembers everyone.

            I told him about my dreams.  He didn't laugh.  It seemed like it was natural.  We exchanged news about deaths, marriages (he ended up with a white lady while I had married an Indian.  Big laugh!)  But he had NOT been married when I tried to find him years ago.  A jealous lady (he figured who it was)  had lied.  She knew his feelings for me and that he would come and get me if  I spoke to him again.  He had not married until he was in his thirties.  He had tried to find me when he thought I was mature enough---too late, we had immigrated to the U.S.

            No more Lavallee canoe builders, all passed on.  He was the last and he couldn't do it any longer with only his right hand.  He was proud of me, he said, for doing the Indian ways.  I was getting pretty weepy by this time, and promised to write and send photos and hung up.

Now came the hard part.  I wanted to see him and I was afraid he would say no.

But he didn't.  He seemed as though he was resigned to it, had even been expecting it..

 I flew to Toronto on my frequent flyer miles Dec. 3, 2002.  I couldn't wait any longer. 
I brought him a peace pipe and a stuffed German shepherd dog as gifts.

            I was greeted with the surprise of my life when I arrived at the Senior Center.  I hugged him and he said if I had come all that way to see him I could at least kiss him.  Which I did.  I said I was afraid he wouldn't want to see me and he said he would NEVER send me away.  He had never stopped loving me, thinking about me.  He had never forgiven himself for not coming to look for me sooner.  He still  had photos of us together and a lock of my hair.  His daughters had been keeping them for him in a locker at their house.  They knew all about me.

            As much as I had loved canoes, he figured we would have made a good husband and wife canoe-building team.  The incident about the destroyed dog had nothing to do with ending our relationship.  He said he would never end it.  Destroying that dog had haunted him all his life.

            Before the day was over, he asked me to marry him, saying, "I don't want to let you get away from me again."

            The lady he had married already had a baby when they moved in together and he helped raise her, later they had one of their own.  They each have a daughter of their own so Gil is a Granddad.  He is very proud of them.  Of course, he said we would have raised our own baseball team if we had married back then.

            His family knew how much he loved me.  He had made arrangements to be cremated when he passed on and his ashes were to go to his homeland of Algonquin Park and sprinkled on Opeongo Lake and Gwen Island.  He had his daughters promise him this.

           Gil's love for me is so intense, I feel truly blessed.  His family and I get along well.  They are happy their Dad is so happy.  His daughter said, "Thank goodness you came."

            We were to be married in April, 2004 but found out that we are in the same situation as many people our age---can't marry legally or we will lose half of our pensions.  So, when I went back in April it was to set up a bank account and look for a cottage to buy so we could live together as soon as I retired from AMTRAK.

            The whole Reservation knows about us---Moccasin telegraph travels fast.

            I retired from AMTRAK in August 2004 (years earlier than planned), sold my house in California and drove the 2800 miles to Curve Lake in a 26 ft U-Haul towing my jeep and with my two white shepherd dogs in the front seat with me.  It took 8 days.  I left September 7 morning and crossed the border at Buffalo, NY into Canada on September 14.

            We have a cottage with a boat right on Buckhorn Lake on the Curve Lake Reservation.  There is fishing from our dock.

We have to get Gil 'one-handed' fishing equipment for the summer---he misses fishing.

            I am now 66 and Gil is 71. (In 2003) He has a lot of medical issues we have to work through.  We may not have many years left together, but they will be wonderful, and we have been together in our hearts these past 49 years.

            Dorothy L. Sayers, the English novelist, said it best---

                        "I love you, I am at rest with you, I have come home."

Gilbert Lavallee is currently seeking recognition under
the Indian Act and is a member of the AGGLFN.

Turtle Island

Page created by: muckwa
Changes last made on: April 14, 2005.