FEATURE: Reversing the ravages of time

Restoring the grave of Jimmy McOuat, who died in 1918, is one of the items on a new repair and maintenance schedule for which The Friends of White Otter Castle are hoping to draw funding from the MNR. Photos by Chris Marchand

Friends of White Otter Castle seek MNR funding for repairs and maintenance

By Chris Marchand

It’s a place best understood in person, with the weight of your solitude pressing in amidst the relentless churning effort of the boreal bush to tear down and return everything to the soil.

Yet it stands as it has for well over a century, three storeys tall on a sandy shore of White Otter Lake — a monument to perseverance, bushcraft and the pioneering spirit.

It’s simply remarkable.

If you’re going to ask Thunder Bay/Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro to see to funding to further preserve such a site for generations to come, getting him there is key to a proper understanding of the place it occupies in Northern Ontario’s frontier heritage.

Media from around the northwest conduct interviews inside White Otter Castle.

Mauro arrived at the popular canoeing destination by float plane, June 22, joined by MNR officials and Friends of White Otter Castle.

The idea of a ‘castle’ somewhere out there in the remote Northwestern Ontario wilderness is difficult idea to process for most. Even among the hearty bug-bit denizens of the region, the feats of Jimmy McOuat (pronounced ‘McKewit’) seem almost otherworldly now.

McOuat began construction of his ‘castle’ in 1903 at age 51 – singlehandedly felling trees, preparing the beams and hoisting them into place with a block and tackle. He finished the building in 1915 and lived in it for just three years before he drowned in White Otter Lake.

McOuat’s legacy has had a lot of help withstanding the ravages of time. Volunteer group The Friends of White Otter Castle formed in 1984 and embarked on a major fundraising and restoration project, practically rebuilding the structure throughout in the mid-90s.

The group re-activated in 2016, producing a 20-year repair and maintenance program which they hope will draw funding from the province.

“It’s my favourite place in the whole world,” said Friends of White Otter Castle’s Jackie Smyk who lives in Ignace. “I first came here in 1971 and if I had my way I’d stay. We need about $400,000 to get it back to where it should be. It’s quite a process to get things out here. Jimmy himself brought all the windows out here by canoe — 14 portages.”

An adornment on the gravestone of White Otter Castle builder Jimmy McOuat.

By the time a single replacement log finds itself in a position to be installed at the White Otter Castle site, The Friends estimate they will cost $5,000.

With over 600 days spent on the site replicating Jimmy McOuat’s original efforts, Dryden’s Don Marion has an intimate appreciation for the man’s skills and resourcefulness. He was part of the team in the 90s who, using old MNR photographs of the castle taken in the 1950s, rebuilt much of it from the ground up.

“When we started the bottom two rounds of logs were rotted right into the ground, and there was a dirt floor in here,” said Marion. “The building’s been lifted. We have a fairly heavy-duty foundation with a breathable panel that keeps the rodents out. About 80 per cent of the logs that were facing the lake were rotten. Now they’re solid. Right now there’s about five logs that need to be replaced and repaired. If we could get that done and get the logs treated to preserve them, some new roofing and window panels, then that would last another 20 years with some proper upkeep and maintenance.”

The Castle lies within Turtle River/White Otter Provincial Park though has yet to establish much in the way of operational funding through the Ministry of Natural Resources. Despite its remote nature, the site attracts hundreds if not thousands of visitors per year. During our visit, three distinct parties of paddlers and boaters come ashore to visit the site.

Minister (of Municipal Affairs) Mauro said he’s hopeful that his department can meet the requests of the group, adding that the numbers are not overly daunting in his opinion.

“They’ve given us a bit of a plan, a financial expectation and hoped-for amount of money that they feel would meet their needs over 20 years — so it’s really not that intimidating in terms of its cost,” said Mauro. “Remembering there was a major retro-fit back in 1994, so the building’s quite sound and in good shape.”

Members of The Friends of White Otter Castle join Ontario Minister of Natural Resources Bill Mauro and Regional MNR Parks Superintendent Scott Ellery at White Otter Castle, June 22.

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