Shirley Peruniak – Farewell to a Quetico Legend


For over three decades Shirley compiled information about Quetico’s natural and human history. To accomplish this, she took extended fact finding canoe trips into the interior of Quetico, worked with the Elders of the Lac La Croix First Nation to make their history and contributions to the area available to others, read Quetico Park research papers and reports, did extensive research in the Ontario and Canadian Archives, and recorded hundred’s of hours of interviews with loggers, miners, trappers, park rangers and others who were part of Quetico’s history. She also wrote the authoritative, comprehensive book “The Illustrated History of Quetico Provincial Park.” This body of work, along with her accomplishments in her hometown of Sharbot Lake, resulted in Shirley receiving the Order of Ontario in 2010.

The real story of Shirley Peruniak’s life, however, is found in her relationships with others. The life of the Shirley I knew centered around her family and friends and her ability to communicate in person and in writing with people interested in Quetico’s natural and human history. Without a doubt, Shirley had a bigger impact on Quetico Park than anyone I knew or know. Most importantly, she accomplished all that she did with a unique blend of grace and humility. She was truly, as former Park Superintendant Dave Elder stated years ago, “the heart and soul of Quetico.” 

A canoe paddle, binoculars and a tape recorder

With the opening of Highway 11 from Thunder Bay to Atikokan in 1956 there was, for the first time, road access to the northern part of Quetico Park. One of the people who drove that road and started a canoe trip at French Lake that summer was a young woman named Shirley Peruniak. That canoe trip was the beginning of a love affair with Quetico that continued until she passed away at the beginning of February. She was 93 years young.

Shirley was hired as an Assistant Park Naturalist in 1974. She had an academic background in Canadian history but was also an accomplished naturalist. She started the Breeding Bird Census in 1959, initiated the Christmas Bird Count for Atikokan the following year, and wrote a two-part article called “Birds of the Atikokan Area” for the Canadian Field Biologist. 

Shirley was a Quetico Park naturalist and historian until she retired in 1993. She felt she still had a lot to give to Quetico and returned as a volunteer for the next nineteen – yes, that is 19 – summers. Shirley spent a lot of time in the John B. Ridley Resource Library at French Lake working with librarian Andrea Allison. She spent as much time as she could on canoe trips gathering information about Quetico Park. Bettina Siebenmann, a friend from Atikokan, said that Shirley was “an amazing canoe trip partner.  Everywhere we went was coloured with layer upon layer of history; each birdsong was a friend she recognized; every plant had a name and a story”……. In her company, I felt the landscape imbued with a human presence going back millennia and stretching to the present.”

In her endeavours to find out more about what had occurred in Quetico’s recent past, she interviewed hundreds of people. It was obvious from the first interview, that Shirley had a knack for getting people to talk freely about their past. Fergy Wilson, Quetico Park Superintendent for many years, said that “I am convinced that only Shirley could have collected the vast treasure of interviews she amassed for the Quetico history.”  

In retrospect, it seems incredible that some of the earliest non-native permanent settlers in the Quetico area, such as Benny Ambrose, Art Madsen, Jock Richardson, and Russell Blankenberg, were still alive when Shirley began doing interviews. All of these people arrived in the Saganaga Lake area shortly after World War I and stayed to create their homes. Shirley’s interviews with them detail life at a time when the area was wild, but not yet a restricted wilderness.

Because she had to ask people to slow down or repeat things when she couldn’t take notes fast enough, Shirley found that these early interviews sometimes lacked spontaneity. She then switched to using a small cassette tape recorder to allow conversations to flow more freely. Shirley’s interviews have grown to over 300 hours of tapes, a treasure trove of information that have been already used by many writers and researchers. They become more precious and valuable as the years go by. 

Shirley was relentless in seeking out people who had worked, or were currently working, in Quetico. From them, she learned about others who would have additional information. In addition to interviewing past park rangers about working in the park, she also talked to local loggers about logging, to bush pilots about flying in Quetico, to trappers about trapping and even had conversations with poachers about their adventures in Quetico.  The barriers that people put up are often absent in Shirley’s case. Her quiet, non-threatening manner and obvious love of Quetico brought back memories that people thought they had forgotten.

Occasionally, stories come out that surprised even her. Former park rangers talked about trapping illegally in Quetico while they were being paid to stop that very thing. People told her about using dynamite to shorten portages, about guiding celebrities like Mae West and Charles Lindbergh into the park, and poachers told tales about being persued by park rangers back to a safe refuge in Minnesota. Park rangers related getting ‘cabin fever’ so extreme during the long cold winter months that they they put the wood stove and table in the centre of the cabin. Then they drew a line down the middle of the cabin so they could cook and eat on their own side while not allowing the other ranger to cross the line. 

A personal Note

During our years in the park, Marie and I became interested in finding out more about Quetico’s natural and human history. Marie’s interest in plants, particularly flowers, led to extensive communications with Shan Walshe and Shirley.  Shirley was also the obvious person for us to turn to in order to find out more about the human history of the park and surrounding area. 

When I went back to school in Anthropology I took many of her beliefs and insights with me. Not long after Shirley retired, Andrew Hinshelwood and I worked with Lac La Elders to try to change the way archaeology was carried out in Quetico Park. We must have been channeling our inner Shirley when we wrote:  “Future archaeological research in Quetico Park should involve conducting field work and collections-based research with the involvement of Lac La Croix within a community development context. This includes involving people from the community in research, the transfer of skills to community members and ensuring that the research questions being asked include ones that are relevant to the interests and needs of the community.”

After talking with the Elders and members of the community – and with input and support from the Senior Archaeologist for Northern Ontario William Ross and many of the park staff – I began carrying out archaeological research in 2000 following their advice and within the restrictions recommended by the Lac La Croix Elders. Listening to the communities concerns and acting on those concerns was just one example of people following in the footsteps of Shirley Peruniak.

Her Legacy and Her relationship with Lac La Croix   

Shirley was born in Sharbot Lake and for decades spent her winters, and in her final years lived year around, in Sharbot Lake. A life long friend noted that “this precious woman who we love and adore in Sharbot Lake has been the driving force to gather local history, stories from our seniors and artifacts that would have been lost if not for her. Sharbot Lake has been her home and we shared her with the Park”.  Shirley continued, and expanded, her gift to gather and communicate local history when she arrived in Quetico Park.

Shirley’s experiences in her hometown were put to good use at French Lake. The interviews and writings she did there made it clear that Quetico’s real celebrities are the men and women who lived or worked in the park. Quetico has its own home-grown heroes and has no need to import others. Chief Blackstone, John Boshey, Tempest Benson, Dorothy Powell, Bob Wells and Oscar Fredrickson are some of the individuals who lived in or on the edges of Quetico and whose lives had a major impact on those around them.

Shirley was very aware that there was a human history that extends far back beyond the arrival of the first Europeans in the area. Shirley talked to many archaeologists and read archaeological reports detailing evidence for Native People in Quetico that goes back at least 9,000 years. In typical Shirley fashion, she decided that the best way to learn about, and to get a different perspective on Quetico’s native history, was to talk to Native People who lived in the area. So she didn’t just pick up the phone, she got in her car and drove to the Lac La Croix First Nation.

People at Lac La Croix are used to dealing with government officials from various departments as well as anthropologists, archaeologists, missionaries and others. They were probably surprised to meet a government employee who came to find out if she could assist them in finding out more about their history. In typical Shirley fashion, she wanted to ‘humanize’ the study of Lac La Croix’s human history by talking to them and investigating what they, not necessarily what she, were interested in. She treated everyone not as objects to be studied but as equals to be worked with.

Farewell to a wonderful friend

It has been 64 years since a young woman named Shirley Peruniak left Sharbot Lake and pulled into French Lake to begin a canoe trip. She later instilled her love of canoeing and natural history into her two children, Geoff and Jaine, and her grandchildren. By being herself and always treating others with humility and respect, she became Quetico Park’s most respected Elder. 

Working in Quetico Park in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Marie and I got to know a lot of memorable people. Shirley stood out because she had a quiet determination and an innate stubbornness that allowed her to not only accomplish a lot, but to do it on her own terms. She was not only unforgettable but was also an inspiration and role model.Former Park Superintendent Jay Leather summed it up beautifully when he said “In a Park full of great history – the story of its historian is one of its greatest pieces.”

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