Log Cabin Chronicles


Home is where the heart is. In this case it's a 15-foot teepee

René Bruemmer
Katevale, Quebec
6 March 2000

In the woods of Katelvale, a few hundred yards off Route 108, lives perhaps the nation's most sociable hermit.

For the past two years, Léo, or Grand Chief Léo as he's known to the kids, has been living alone in a large, self-constructed teepee in a clearing in the forest.

The 65-year-old former farmer and social worker gave up most of his earthly possessions years ago and a solid roof over his head as well.

"I'm alone in the world," he says. "I didn't want to live in an old-age home with my bottles of pills beside my bed and nothing to do all day. That's not for me. So I came here."

Initially, the prospect of visiting a lonely hermit at his hidden retreat in the woods was a cause for minor anxiety. Visions of a filthy, bedraggled recluse with crazed eyes and bad hair

came to mind. A man who perhaps wouldn't take kindly to being disturbed at home while large amounts of inflammable fertilizer and writes explosive letters to people in authority who are talking to him inside his head.

Trepidation started to ease somewhat upon conversations with townspeople in Ste-Catherine-de-Hatley, who all seemed to know exactly where he lived and were happy to show me the way. I took this as a sign he hadn't shot anyone recently.

The cashier in the depanneur laughed and said Léo had just left the store, then steered me to a patron having lunch who provided detailed instructions to his tent.

"It's not at all what you think," he said. "You think he's crazy now, but you wait, after you meet him, you'll want to get yourself a tent as well."

The path to Léo's homestead is a 400-metre trudge off the highway along a snowy trail through a sparse forest about two kilometres from the centre of town.

His abode is in a large open space in the -- a 15-foot-high teepee built from orange army canvas wrapped around a sturdy frame of thin, rough-hewn poles. Piles of firewood lie neatly stacked near the open entrance. A pair of traditional snowshoes stand outside the door.

Hearing the crunch of approaching footsteps, Léo calls out in a jovial voice from within his tent and exits to greet his visitor. As it turns out, Léo is quite accustomed to having visitors.

A thin, healthy-looking man, Léo is actually disarmingly neat and sane, the slightly darkened collar of his red work shirt the only indication of an offbeat lifestyle. Clad in a sweater, work pants, and running shoes, he exudes outdoorsy robustness and vitality.

His hermitage is also neat and cozy, albeit simple.

A night table stands beside his narrow bed, covered in army-issue blankets. A lantern sits on the sole table at one end of the tent, while a wood-burning stove with a pipe leading to a hole cut in the roof of the triangular structure fills the rest of the room.

Simple shelves holding pots and pans, jam, peanut butter, margarine, bread, and coffee line the walls, and a five-gallon bucket that serves as a toilet is hidden in a corner.

With the front flap flung open and six windows cut into the canvas, complete with glass panes and wood frames, the interior is light and airy.

"I had a visit from an Abénaquis Indian a few weeks ago," Léo says. "He saw my tent and said, '500 years we've been living in tents, and never did we think of windows.'

"For me, I wanted to live here, but I want to be comfortable too. I've always liked nature, being outdoors. I'm busy, I find something new to brighten my life every day. I'm very happy here."

And unlike the solitary lifestyle of most hermits, Léo has more visits every year than most people see in a lifetime.

Léo's path to his current way of life was actually several decades in the making.

Originally from the St-Henri district of Montreal, he married and lived in the Laurentians for several years, working as a farmer and labourer, raising seven children who in turn produced twenty grandchildren.

Shortly after his divorce nearly three decades ago, he decided to sell the majority of his worldly possessions and hop on the first bus that came along. He ended up in Sherbrooke.

"I decided I wanted to let go of all the negativity in my life, and strive to only focus on the positive," he says.

Focusing on the positive meant volunteering his time with the Salesian religious order in Sherbrooke, which used to run the English St. Pat's High School, and still oversees the Seminaire Salesian school.

Léo helped with handicapped members more than twenty years ago, especially at a camp owned by the Salesians in Ste-Catherine-de-Hatley. For several years he lived in quarters at the retreat, or in sugar shacks and huts during the summer months, until two years ago he decided to move to his current location on land owned by the Salesians as part of their Aux Berges Dominique Savio outdoor camp for young people.

Each year the camp hosts about 175 groups, totaling nearly 6000 children, who come to visit the extensive outdoor facilities on the shores of Lake Magog.

Families, boy scouts, school groups, CEGEP and university students flock for an outdoor experience from spring to fall, and Léo greets most of them. There are benches lined up outside his tent, now covered in snow, that hold up to seventy at a time.

"I give a short show, I tell them about the native Indians and ecology and nature. The young ones love it. The first thing they say when they come into my tent is: 'What? No T.V.? No electricity? How can you live?" Father Christian Auger of the Salesian order, who looks after the camp, said Léo is not actually an employee of the group, but more of a boarder.

"He wanted to live in the woods, it makes him happy, so we agreed to lend him a piece of land. The children like to meet him to see how he lives, what he does, what he eats. He lives a life without the use of material objects, and we like to show that to the kids."

Léo's a 'natural', happily showing off strangely shaped wooden objects found on his meanders through the forest, or adorning a garish, feathered hat that he wears for the children. They call him Grand Chief Léo. He gives his presentations in French and English, and cites fourty years experience working as Santa Claus as part of his training.

He prefers not to give his full name. Everybody, he says, knows him as Léo. That's enough.

In addition to group visits, most of his own children and grandchildren come by regularly. Even his ex-wife and her current husband come a few times a year.

He lives off his old-age pension, which he says covers the majority of his expenses. Every day he hitchhikes into town to get a warm meal from the depanneur.

"About 70 per cent of the drivers who pick me up are ladies. It's a good way to meet women," he says with a grin.

Actually, most people in the region know him by now, so it's easy for him to get lifts on his regular jaunts into Kateveale, Magog, or even Sherbrooke, some twnty-five kilometres distant. At present, he has no ladyfriends.

Although money is not an issue, he's hoping to find more funds to improve the unlevel wooden floor in his tent, and to smooth the ground outside. He's worried the children might fall.

He's a sociable soul, and too busy to be lonely, but there are limits.

"In the morning, for about two hours, that's my time. I like to drink my coffee and do my crossword puzzles, and be alone. You better not disturb me then."

Disturbances of the natural variety are welcomed, however. He has heard bears in the vicinity, but says they're not interested in him. And deer come by frequently to visit and rub their antlers on nearby trees. One buck comes regularly to show off his latest family.

In the winter the tent is heated by the wood-burning stove, which also serves to cook his meals and heat water for coffee and bathing. He buys his firewood, because he doesn't want to damage the surrounding forest.

He has a five-gallon bag with a spigot which he can hang from a tree, or if it rains, he takes a "natural shower -- it's the best kind...and when it rains, there's not too much worry of any ladies walking by."

Plans are in the works to construct an extension to the tent to house a shower and toilet, and he wants to start a garden this spring.

He never heats the tent when he sleeps, relying on thick army blankets to keep him warm. Only when the temperature drops to minus 40 does he light the stove at night, and that's only happened twice. He stayed up all night in his rocking chair.

"Those nights were a little long."

Léo reckons he'll stay at least another five years in his tent, if not longer.

"Why not?" he says. "I feel healthier here than I have in years. I feel like I'm 45, and I'm going on 66.

"Everybody has to find what gives them joy in life, what is it that makes them happy and feel useful. I've found my source of happiness."

René Bruemmer is a reporter with the Record in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

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Copyright © 2000 René Bruemmer/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.2000