I remember the very first time I visited this cabin. It was mid-August 2010. I had recently left my old life in the city behind and was now in search of a new home “in the bush.” I spent many days searching, driving down quiet country roads off the beaten path just waiting for that special gut feeling when I’d know that I had found it. I had explained to a realtor that I was looking for a secluded property surrounded by wilderness and was annoyed with him when he announced that he was showing me yet another cabin on Pigeon Lake. The last time we were out here he had shown me a tiny clapboard cabin on a property the size of a postage stamp with neighbors just a few feet away on both sides. Oh yes, and an asking price that was double my budget. I reminded him that I was not looking for a lake property and that Pigeon Lake was far too expensive for me.
“This one is different.” He replied as he drove us toward the lake. “It’s a special property. You have to at least take a look.”
We pulled up to a large pan-abode cedar cabin with a huge stone chimney. It was beautiful but my eyes were drawn to the woods beyond it. I got out of the realtor’s car and the first words out of my mouth were, “Show me the land.”
The owner, Terry, was there and I was happy that he was available to answer all of my many questions. As we walked through the property and cabin he told story after story of the local history here and the significance of this special place.
In the 1940s the Freiman’s owned and operated a mill here and many homes built in the city of Leduc (40 minutes away) were built with lumber from this very mill.
But here is where the stories got really interesting. Forty years ago, Reverend Dr. Gerald Hutchinson and his wife, Miriam, retired, bought this land from the Freiman’s, and built this cabin here. Hutchinson had worked in the area as a United Minister since 1949. Being of a deeply curious nature, he had asked the simple question, “Why is this area called Mission Beach?” No one around here really knew the full story and so he spent the next fifty years of his life researching the early contact between the local Aboriginal peoples and Protestant missionaries.
He was particularly interested in Reverend Robert Rundle, chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Edmonton. Rundle started a mission here with the First Nations people of this area in 1840. Having lived in Banff when I was younger, I was familiar with the famous and picturesque Mount Rundle and was surprised that a man who had had a mountain named after him in the Rockies had also spent time working with Aboriginal peoples, helping them farm the land, right here on the shore of Pigeon Lake.
Very little was known about Rundle and so Hutchinson knocked on doors speaking with local peoples. Then he and Miriam travelled to England and Australia gathering fragments and piecing together the stories and history of Rundle and the time he spent here on Pigeon Lake. He wrote and published three books on this findings, including The Rundle Journals, 1977; The Meeting Place, 1990; and A Mission on Wooded Soil, 2009.
In 1956, he established the Rundle’s Mission Society and two years later, the Rundle’s Mission Lodge was built just a few minutes’ walk up the road from here. In 1965, the Mission was formally recognized as a National Historical Monument.
In his university days, Hutchinson had studied agriculture at Olds College. Having grown up on a farm in Duhamel, Alberta, he had a lifelong passion for the grey wooded soil of this area as well as a deep desire to help the farmers and Aboriginal peoples who lived on this land. Gerald and Miriam lived here in this cabin for thirty years until Miriam needed to be closer to the city for medical reasons. They sold this property to Terry who was a close friend and board member at the Rundle Mission Society. He and his family had owned it for ten years but were now moving west and wanting to sell it to the right person.
The property for sale was only 1.7 acres but it was backing onto 150 acres of protected land (220 acres in total if you count land across a highway), which were donated by Gerald and Miriam to the Conservancy of Canada.
As we continued to walk the land and tour the cabin things just felt right. I loved everything about this place, the ramshackle greenhouse made of reclaimed window panes, the huge slabs of stone and petrified wood that Rev. Hutchinson had singlehandedly hauled back from Jasper on a homemade wooden trailer behind his Volkswagen Beetle, the botanical fossils in the grand fireplace, and all of the other interesting rocks that he left behind here. I loved the eleven huge spruce trees (I call them “Grandmothers and Grandfathers”) who stand in a protective line behind the cabin (Miriam made Terry promise that he would never cut those down) and the way that the property was so interesting with its sloped land and the absence of any straight lines. I love the way the property was edged by two small canyons and surrounded on three sides by the protected land and the lake on the other side (across the road and behind some trees).
As Terry and I talked, I shared my Metis background, that I also was a writer, educator, and gardener; and that I also had a deep love of the land. Terry was warm and friendly but as I was leaving he let me know that his asking price was firm and that he could not go a penny less. My best possible offer was considerably lower and I was amazed when it was accepted! Terry told me later that he knew I was “the one” the moment I got out of the car and said, “Show me the land.” He really could not imagine selling Gerry’s cabin and land to someone who was just looking for a recreational lake property and said that he had actually turned down a few offers already. After spending time with me he knew that I would love Gerry and Miriam’s cabin and land as much as they did and that I would take very good care of it. He also thought it was right that after all of the work Gerry had done with Aboriginal peoples that this place would now be owned by a Metis woman who could appreciate the scope and significance of Gerry’s work.
Six weeks later, on September 30th, I finally took possession of the cabin and arrived in the late afternoon with the key and a U-Haul truck full of my possessions. The sun was shining brightly and it was as hot as a summer day despite being early Autumn. The sky was a vivid blue and the trees had all gone bright yellow and orange. A breeze was teasing the leaves out of the trees and they fell like a gentle, swirling rain. I sat alone on the front deck of this beautiful cabin watching the indescribable beauty of the falling leaves for a long time. The beauty of surrender, letting go… I realized that I was in a mild state of shock and not fully able to understand how it was possible that I was even sitting here… That after waiting for years—decades—in the city that this gorgeous cabin and land were my new home…
As I continued to sit and marvel at the beauty of the falling leaves the sun began to sink lower in the sky. Suddenly the light shifted and everything was now bathed in a rich golden light. The sky was now golden, my bare arms and legs looked golden, I am sure that my red hair must have looked like it was on fire, and the leaves that continued to fall and swirl were also pure gold. A few landed on me and I did not brush them away, but instead, completely surrendered to the medicine and magic of this place.
I spent that first night sleeping on an air mattress in the living room. When I awoke I opened the living room curtains and was amazed to see a huge Great Horned Owl sitting on the arbor about 15 feet away. I held my breath as I watched it for a few minutes, then it swooped down to the base of a large apple tree where it effortlessly caught a mouse and then flew away. A few days later I saw the owl again in the back yard.
A year later, I had the honour of having Gerry, his son, Ken, and Ken’s late wife, Jean, over for a visit here. We also attended his huge 100th birthday party at the Mission where he gave a delightful speech and received a plaque from the Queen.
Rev. Dr. Gerald Hutchinson passed away a year later on April 14, 2015 (Miriam passed away in 2010 at 94 years of age). Gerry and Miriam’s ashes were mingled and their gravestone in Fisherton Community Cemetery located behind Rundle Mission reads, Together forever in the land they loved.
What you may not know, is that a small portion of their ashes were reserved and sprinkled under a patch of wild blueberries at the edge of this property by their three children, Ken, Beth and Rob. Nowhere on earth will you find blueberries that taste quite like this. They are shockingly sweet, grow in wooded soil, and belong to this land.
This is my tenth year of living in this cabin and I never forget that I am living in a very special place with a very special story. Although I am 50 years old now the stories of this place never grow old. My son (who also attended Gerald’s 100th birthday party as a baby) is eight years old and he loves living here. He can show you on a globe the exact location of Pigeon Lake, Alberta (he once claimed he could see our cabin on the globe). As he grows, I tell him the story of two very special people, Gerald and Miriam Hutchinson, and how they dedicated their lives to telling the story of this area of Pigeon Lake, our tiny spot on the globe, known as Mission Beach.