For generations, this family has shared their Northern Ontario home with the rare white moose

These rare white moose and the family who loves them have decades of history in a quiet patch of Northern Ontario.

Jane Armstrong was in a canoe with her elder sister Betty, nosing up a small stream that empties into Groundhog Lake. It was 1990, and the two were setting traps for beavers in the tradition of their parents, but they were also keeping an eye out for more fantastical fauna. A few weeks earlier, a CN Rail employee had reported seeing a white moose. “He said he was sure he had seen one, but had never heard of it before, and didn’t know if he was seeing things,” says Jane.

Jane was in her mid-40s at this time; Betty, her late-50s. Neither had encountered an ivory ungulate before, despite countless hours in the bush but, unlike the rail worker, the concept wasn’t new to them. Their dad, George Dingee, had fired their childhood imaginations with tales of a white cow that had frequented the shores of Groundhog in earlier decades. The local Ojibwe revered this spectral animal, he said, and refused to shoot it. George even claimed to have glimpsed it once, around the outbreak of the Second World War. “I wasn’t alive at that time, but my sister remembered him saying he’d seen one,” says Jane. “I guess that moose died eventually of old age. And then there was a 50-year span before the next one showed up.”

Three, in fact. All presumably descended from that initial legend. “On that day, my sister and I looked up and there they were, staring at us,” Jane recounts. “A cow with twin calves—all white.” Given the half-century hiatus, the sighting came as “quite a shock,” she says. “And, of course, I had no camera. But we watched for them after that, and I’ve got quite a few pictures at different times since.”

The youngest of five children and the only one still alive, Jane was born and raised at Groundhog Lake, on the site of a former trading post. She currently lives in nearby Foleyet, Ont., but still makes frequent trips to the family homestead, which her nephew David Ethier—Betty’s son—inherited after his mom passed away in 2017 and now stewards as a seasonal getaway. A newer building installed in the 1980s has become the cottage, while the ancient, square-log abode in which the Dingee kids grew up remains rooted to a patch of shore closer to the water.

The cabin was the only post building still standing by the time George, a Philadelphia native and saw-filer by trade, arrived in the area shortly after the First World War and obtained the 10-acre property from the Hudson’s Bay Company for a mere $600. His British-born wife, Lily, a coworker at the Disston Saw company in Toronto, joined him here and the two made it into their home. The structure is now well over 150 years old but lives on, and not merely as a thick-walled shed or bunkie in a pinch. It’s a rare relic of the fur trade era and the heart of the family’s story at Groundhog Lake, which now spans five generations and twice as many decades.

The fort itself goes back much further. It was established around 1800 by the North West Company and taken over in 1821 by the HBC. The company dubbed the spot Flying Post—a name also assigned to the First Nation whose people had camped here seasonally, long before it became a trading hub—although neither the cottagers nor the current band members are quite sure how that aerial attribute came about. The site occupies a sloping, grassy point in the westernmost corner of Groundhog, with views over both the sprawling lake and the river that flows into it.

The tongue of water coming down out of nearby Horwood Lake is not much wider than a hockey rink, its current slower than syrup. It used to be more fierce: a dam installed in the late 1920s has ironed out rapids that previous travellers had to navigate. Still, there’s a persistent wildness to this setting that you don’t find on many cottage lakes. Look in any direction from the Dingee dock, and you won’t see another dock or building. (There are fewer than two-dozen camps on the lake, which spans 900 hectares and more than 27 km of shoreline.) On this day in late July, not a single boat, let alone a PWC, churns by. It’s not hard to picture the bark canoes of First Nations people and fur traders gliding in here after a hard slog across the lake from the east, or a bouncy ride (or portage) from the west.

Jane is now 75. Her face is largely unwrinkled—the few faint spokes around her eyes speak mostly to a life spent outdoors, squinting into sun and wind—and typically stoic in expression. A bit more crinkling will occur, though, when she thinks back on her bush upbringing. “There was a lot of hard work,” she says. “But a lot of funny things happened.”

Like the time the sled dogs crashed the cabin. The family kept a team of five or six canines, Jane recalls, which helped them with chores such as meeting the train to gather supplies, or hauling firewood out of the bush. “Of course we always had cats too,” she says. “One day, my sister and I were coming back with a sleighload of wood, and Mom had the door open. The lead dog hated cats and, well, everything ended up inside, toboggan included.”

For most people, a glimpse of the white moose, which owe their chalky hue to a genetic mutation, remains extremely rare. Their presence in Ontario is mostly confined to a small pocket around Foleyet, particularly around Groundhog Lake and the river that flows out of it. Their numbers are few—perhaps a dozen in any given year, depending on how many are victims of wolves, vehicle collisions, or poachers—and even in summer they can be hard to pick out, as their fur tends to get duller and streakier in the warmer months. In winter? Not likely.

Frank Mallory, a professor emeritus in the biology department at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., says the moose aren’t full-fledged albinos. They lack the pink eyes associated with that condition. “With a true albino, there is no pigmentation in the retina, so the pinkness you see is from the blood vessels,” he says. “These animals may have blue eyes or brown eyes.” They can also be partially white or piebald. “I’ve seen pictures of moose that are white with black spots like a Dalmatian.” The scientific term would be leucism, and it can occur in many species.

Mallory attributes the concentration of white moose near Foleyet to habitat fragmentation. “We have so many roads and rail lines here, and in Northern Ontario there is lumbering, so there are big swaths of clear-cut areas separating patches of mature forest,” he says. “The animals get stuck in these little ecological islands and can’t disperse as much, so as a result you get a lot of inbreeding.”

The white moose may be more vulnerable to predation at the times of year when their coat offers less camouflage, says Mallory, but are otherwise no different from their chocolate-coloured kin and luckily are spared the predisposition to glaucoma and other health issues that can afflict an albino. But while these moose can see just fine, spotting one yourself requires a lot of luck, or patience, or both.

Jane says she tipped off an American wildlife enthusiast to the presence of a white cow in a particular spot near Groundhog Lake, and he spent “practically the whole summer” holed up in a blind before he finally got a picture. “He sat through a forest fire; it rained and everything else,” she says with a laugh. “He was getting ready to pack up and go home and decided to give it one more shot. He came back that day, flying through the door, saying: ‘I seen her, I seen her!’ ”

Troy Woodhouse, a member of the Flying Post First Nation (the Kukatoosh Indian Band is the traditional name), has only spied a white moose twice, despite having been born and raised in Foleyet and having paid many visits to Groundhog Lake, where his grandfather homesteaded and ran a tourist lodge. “It’s one of those things where if you get the chance to see it, it’s almost like unicorn status,” he says.

Jane figures she’s seen them more than 50 times, with the latest sighting—a cow and calf—occurring within the past year; David has had nearly 30 encounters. The cottager spent his earliest years at Groundhog Lake and now keeps a shrine to the animals in the Northern Lights Restaurant that he and his wife, Cindy, operate in Foleyet. One wall is crammed with photos and framed articles from newspapers, while the head of a bull, its antlers as snowy as its brow and oversized snout, juts from a corner. The impressive specimen was sadly struck by a train in 1996 and quickly ID’d by Jane as one of the two offspring she beheld with their mom six years earlier.

“I remember being here one time as a kid, fishing with my cousins, when Nan shot a bear,” says David. “It had got in the shed and took out her bag of flour.”

We’re standing in the historic cabin, now used mostly for canoe storage. It’s a short stroll to the waterfront, although it used to be shorter. “My dad moved it farther back after my sister Nancy (the eldest daughter) was born, because he was afraid she would fall in,” says Jane. George died in 1968 from pneumonia, but Lily, 17 years his junior, stayed on at Groundhog for years to come. The widow may have been born in England and named after a flower, but she was far from prim or flimsy. The young anglers returned from their fishing trip to find the ursine splayed on the ground, bag of flour in its arms, a hole in its chest. Lily was in her 60s at the time, but steely for her age and stature. “I think that rifle was as long as her,” David says. The matriarch was also known to shoot moose (although never a white one, of course), and the family has a photo of her in the cottage with a big brown bull she harvested.

The same spirit ran through Betty, who trapped, fished, and hunted well into her golden years, shooting her last moose at 84—just a couple of years before she died. Of course there is a photo of that too, which closely echoes the one of her mom. Jane, keeping the frontierswoman theme alive, shot a moose this past fall. She figures that is probably her last, however. “I’m just getting too crippled up for it,” she says. “If I sit in a canoe, I’m all stiff and have a hell of a time getting out.” David will hunt on rare occasions, but Cindy has no interest in carrying on the tradition. “It stops here,” she announces, swiping her hands out to the side like an ump calling safe at home plate. “I don’t even own a gun.”

She and David do keep some wildlife-related equipment in the cottage—namely five sets of binoculars, of various vintages and magnification ratios, that perch atop a bookshelf by the door. They also have a painting of the trading post, as it would have appeared in 1814, displayed prominently on a wall. Created by David’s cousin Joanne from an old photo, it depicts eight rudimentary buildings, along with a teepee, nestled in a bright green field encircled by birch and spruce trees.

The current cottage is not connected to that time, but it does have an interesting provenance of its own. David’s dad worked at the generating station a kilometre upstream from Groundhog Lake; upon retirement in 1984, he and Betty relocated the smaller of two dam-keeper houses to the Flying Post property. “They skidded it over on two 14-by-14-foot square timbers that had been used for booms,” says David. While more spacious and comfortable than the HBC cabin, this dwelling remains relatively modest—1,200 sq. ft., two bedrooms—and low-tech. There was no hydro here until 1992, and there still isn’t any cell service. That sometimes frustrates the younger generation (David and Cindy have two daughters and four grandkids in their teens and early 20s), but the elders are okay with it. “I think it’s a good place for everybody to unplug,” says Cindy.

It’s also a place to learn. Halfway between the cottage and the cabin is a mini museum—an outbuilding packed with artifacts from the trading post era, as well as the earliest years of the Dingee period on the lake. “We had all this old stuff lying around and didn’t want to throw it out,” says Cindy. Among the treasures are square nails, clay pipes, and axe heads, along with old bottles bearing obscure brand names for booze. There are also wooden skis, crosscut saws, a squirrel trap (picture a mousetrap, just twice as big), a stand for repairing the sole of a shoe, and a clothes iron you heat up with kerosene.

The past isn’t confined to the antique shed, or the cabin near the water’s edge. The land itself holds the imprint of the old days, whether it’s the rutted lane that was originally a wagon road, heading to another HBC post at Ivanhoe Lake, or the hawberry bushes that were planted to deflect predators from the cows and rabbits kept by post inhabitants for milk and meat. The property remains sparsely treed, not far removed from the fields that were sown for vegetables, and there’s an old plow displayed on a rock, amid lots of other rocks that poke from the thin soil.

The cottagers have planted a few things of their own, but mostly wildflowers, which complement the fireweed and milkweed that flourish here. Monarchs flock to the latter, and chipmunks dart among the highbush cranberry and river ash. Waterfowl visit too, and grouse are plentiful. The Ethiers welcome such company. So did their forebears, who may have shot moose and trapped beavers and martens, but had a soft spot for other species. While Lily didn’t hesitate to take down a bear that was after her baking supplies, Betty was known to take her finger off the trigger when a groundhog was rummaging through her garden.

On this day, there no groundhogs poking their snouts up at Flying Post (the original name for the lake, Kukatoosh—or Kukatush—means groundhog in Anishinaabemowin, so the species has obviously had a stake here for some time), nor, sadly, are any white moose, although a regular-hued version has visited earlier in the day. “You just missed it,” says David, gesturing toward a weed bed where the leggy beast dined shortly after dawn.

After seeing her first trio of white moose in 1990, Jane led the charge to have this variety of the animal protected from hunting. “I wrote a lot of letters to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and then the photographer who came from the States got in on the act too and wrote the head honcho at the MNRF,” she says. “I also wrote letters to the Timmins Daily Press, which wound up in other papers, and pretty soon I was getting phone calls from all over the country.” Jane figures the clincher was a meeting at the Northern Lights Restaurant in 2005, during which she spoke out against a tourist operator who was “more or less asking for a hunt of the white moose.” The chief of Flying Post First Nation just happened to be there, she says, and overheard the exchange. He didn’t say anything, but soon after that meeting the protective legislation was passed.

It had taken 15 years of advocacy, but that year the MNRF finally declared both fully and partially white moose off-limits for hunting in two wildlife management units encompassing the Foleyet area. The measure has helped, although the strain still faces pressure from trains, highway traffic, and the odd person who either doesn’t understand the rule or doesn’t care.

As the family members talk about their passion for the pale friends that pay visits to their doorstep (shorestep?), and their concerns about their future, a loud chirping emanates from the other side of the lake. The noise isn’t an echo of coureur de bois flutes, or some new vocalization that a moose has added to its repertoire, but it feels connected somehow to both. “That’s the bald eagle,” says David, pointing to a tree with a nest. I’ve stupidly left my camera with zoom lens in the car, and the binocular shelf in the cottage is not within easy reach. I consider a dash for either, but before I can do that, the eagle alights and flaps off, becoming blurrier and smaller. “Our daughter Jennifer and her husband saw five of them a couple weeks ago, all flying in a row,” says David.

“Come again?” I say.

Bald eagles are typically seen alone, or in pairs, sometimes with a juvenile. Fifty years ago, you would have been lucky to spy a single one in Ontario. Like the white moose, which seemingly disappeared from Groundhog Lake, the raptor did its own vanishing act. Decimated by DDT, these birds risked extinction; Jane can only recall seeing a few in all the years of her youth. Now they are back, in numbers to boot—the same number, in the case of Jennifer’s sighting, as the kids who grew up here and the generations of family linked to the place.

White moose have also materialized here, but you never know when one will show up. “It’s usually late evening, or early morning, but it could be afternoon,” says David. “It’s very unpredictable.” Most recently, David saw a female on the side of the highway; in the fall, not far from the cottage, “there were two white ones, a cow and calf,” he says. “I came up on them in the motorboat, as I was going around the point to the other side of the lake.”

For Jane, the thrill of encountering a white moose has not faded. In some ways, it only becomes more special, as their ongoing presence is far from guaranteed. “They’re just something to see,” she says. “They’re beautiful, especially in the fall, when they’ve got their winter fur. They stop you dead in your tracks.” Her reaction every time one pops out of the bush is a mixture of awe and relief: “There’s a white one. There’s one left.”

Sudbury, Ont., writer Jim Moodie wrote “The Queen of Baie Fine” in our June/July ’22 issue.

This story was originally published as “The Ghosts of Groundhog Lake” in the March/April 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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