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.
LOVE THAT WOULD NOT DIE
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
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
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.
During our outings on Opeongo Lake, Gil renamed Wolf Island, Gwen
Island. An island named after me.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
"I knew you when you were a guide at Opeongo Lodge."
"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
"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
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
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..
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
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
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."
Lavallee is currently seeking recognition under
the Indian Act and is a member of the AGGLFN.
Page created by: muckwa
Changes last made on: April 14, 2005.