Canadian naturalist made Quetico Provincial Park his life's work

QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO — QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario -- Mike Barker remembers the day he was paddling down a lake in Quetico Provincial Park when suddenly the canoe began veering toward shore.

At the same time, there came a cry from the rear of the canoe.


"Oh, my gosh. That's maidenhair spleenwort."

The cry came from Shan Walshe, who was by then powering the canoe toward the delicate fern growing from a niche in a cliff. Barker was not surprised. Anyone who has traveled many miles with Walshe, as Barker had, knows those kinds of detours are nothing out of the ordinary.


Walshe, for 20 years the naturalist at Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, has never met a spleenwort he didn't like. Nor an Indian pictograph. Nor a set of lynx tracks. Nor, for that matter, a portage.

Walshe is not merely a plant ecologist and naturalist of the first order. He is a tireless paddler, a seasoned woodsman, a photographer, a pianist, a long-distance snowshoer, a moose hunter, an author, a voracious reader, a teacher, a student of the universe and an ambassador for the park he loves.

"I think of him as Mr. Quetico," said Dave Elder, Quetico park superintendent from 1973 to 1987. "The very essence of the park and what it stands for is embodied in Shan."

Quetico is a 1-million-acre-plus canoeing wilderness in Canada, just north of the Minnesota border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a U.S. National Forest wilderness area in northern Minnesota.

For the past 17 years, Walshe, now 55, and his wife, Margie, have lived in a log home on French Lake within the Quetico park. They have raised four children, fed the birds, talked to the campers, watched the stars, enjoyed snowshoe picnics and reveled in Quetico's raw beauty.

Now, part of that picture is changing.

Walshe discovered in late January he had a brain tumor. The signals had come only a couple of weeks before. As he wrote in longhand, he was unable to form some letters correctly. He noticed that his short-term memory seemed spotty.

After the initial diagnosis, Shan and Margie flew to Toronto, where a neurosurgeon told them the tumor was likely malignant and inoperable. Walshe declined radiation or chemotherapy treatments.


He seemed to accept his fate philosophically.

"I've had a good life. I've done lots of things," he said.

He and Margie came home to Quetico. Until mid-February, Walshe could still snowshoe and walk. One day, on a walk, he began leaning to the left. Now he has lost the use of his left side completely.

The end of February, he lay quietly in his bed. He offered a firm handshake to a fellow paddler. The two of them smiled at recollections of days on the trail together.

Margie and two of the couple's four children tend to Shan's needs, visit quietly with him and say the things that need to be said.

Patrick, the Walshes' 18-year-old son, moved a bird feeder from his own bedroom window to his dad's so Walshe can watch the flittings of the chickadees and the pine grosbeaks.


Bridget, the couple's oldest child, came home from Vancouver, British Columbia. She and Margie fielded phone calls from friends and tried to find foods that Shan found appetizing.

There have been tears, both in and out of the family. But there also has been love -- lots of it -- and time spent poring over family scrapbooks, or with color slides around a low fire in the fireplace, or merely reminiscing about a good man, a father, a husband and a lover of all that is wild and natural.

As he lay resting at home, those who know him painted a picture of a dedicated naturalist and an unforgettable character.

Physically, Walshe has always looked skinny to the point of appearing frail. His long arms hang like noodles from a frame that appears to have been crafted from old hangers. He wears two pair of rimless spectacles, one for inside work and a tinted pair for bright days.

He looks as if he spends most of his time deep within a library on some university campus.

His standard summer garb includes olive-green pants, a long-sleeved poplin shirt and a tan, Jones-style cap. In winter, Walshe prefers wool pants held up by wide red suspenders, a red mackinaw coat and customized caps.


The caps are a trademark. They're buffalo-plaid wool, red and black, earflaps down. He has had Margie sew a plaid scarf around the back of some of them to protect his neck. He looks, in short, like some sort of North Woods Arab. The scarf's loose ends flap free in the breeze or are tucked around his neck on the coldest days.

Anyone who ever spent a day in the woods with Walshe learned immediately that the appearance of frailty was just that. Walshe was a hard-core walker, snow-shoer, paddler and portager.

"His cure-all for anything was exercise," Margie said. "Somebody had something wrong -- they're not getting enough exercise. It was his cure-all, too."

The stories about Walshe's travels through Quetico, and his hikes at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay where he worked a few summers, are the stuff of legends.

"Paddling way too late, cooking mosquitoes in the dark -- it was an experience," said Caryl Langford of Walnut, Ill., a close friend of Shan and Margie.

"He had tremendous stamina, that man," said Bob Hayes, a former Quetico Park ranger who lives in Winton.


A few winters ago, Walshe strapped on his snowshoes and walked from his home on French Lake through Quetico top to bottom, emerging near Ely, Minn. He traditionally led an all-night winter snowshoe hike for the Atikokan High School Outers Course.

So powerful was Walshe's reputation as a tenacious back-country rambler that Jay Leather, the current Quetico Park superintendent, never allowed himself a trip with Walshe.

"I refused steadfastly to travel with him, given all the stories I'd heard about people and blisters and sore knees and paddling into the middle of the night and going without food," Leather said.

Said Dave Elder, Leather's predecessor at Quetico: "That's the way [Walshe] was. He liked to live on the edge. If it was windy and tough going, that was better than clear sailing. And you didn't go directly from Point A to Point B. You went the longest way possible."

Walshe, born in Toronto in 1935, went the long way about becoming a naturalist. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1959 with a degree in languages and taught foreign language for seven years. He returned to the university from 1967 to 1969 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in plant ecology.

In August 1970, the Quetico naturalist position came open, and Walshe snapped it up.


Walshe went the long way about his wilderness travels because his keen eye and his insatiable curiosity pulled him hither and yon. He had to check out an osprey nest he had heard about. Or he spied a sprig of maidenhair spleen-wort. Once, in the winter, he followed the tracks of a lynx for three days just to see where it had gone and what it had eaten.

He preferred rich, wet, mucky areas and their variety of plant and animal life to the more scenic but sterile stands of big pine.

He kept a cabin on a beaver pond near Lake of the Woods, where he would go each fall. He hunted deer there. He was a moose hunter as well, and a fisherman, too.

"He recognized that hunting was necessary, that fishing was necessary, that logging was necessary for people to live," said Mike Barker, a former district manager for the Ministry of Natural Re-sources at Atikokan, Ontario.

As much as he believed in the importance of harvest, Walshe believed that some areas -- Quetico among them -- must be set aside as natural and wild.