Life on Winoga Island
Nan and Richard arrived in the northern Ontario bush in May 1941. “Our first sight of [Winoga] island was a teardrop of green against the turquoise of the water. … The cabin, about 100 feet inland from shore, nestled in a protecting stand of birch. We suddenly felt very small and humble in this overwhelming greatness of the wilderness,” Richard Morenus writes in “From Broadway to Bush,” Maclean’s, September 1, 1946.
Their first task was to repair the camp in preparation for tourist season. The log walls were solid and in good condition, but after years of freezes and thaws, the windows needed new casements and screens, the doors needed to be refitted, and the roof, which leaked in at least a dozen places, had to be fixed. Blankets had to be mended and mattresses patched. Firewood had to be sawed, split and stacked.
By October of 1941, they had things in good shape. According to Richard’s description in his 1952 book Crazy White Man, their 18’ x 20’ cabin was partitioned into three sections: a kitchen-dining-office-living space; a bedroom with closet; and a food storage-wash room. “There was a cookstove and table at the kitchen end of the room,” Richard writes. “Pots and pans were suspended Dutch-fashion from the logs behind the stove.” At the other end of the room were bookshelves and a table they used as a desk. Homemade rag rugs covered the floor.
“Up to our arrival the hardest work Nan had done was to hold a script in soft, well-manicured hands and stand before a microphone, or swelter under the blaze of klieg lights before a camera,” Richard writes in Maclean’s. But by that October sore and painful blisters had developed into work-toughened calluses.
Richard asked Nan if she missed New York. “This isn’t half as bad as trying to get a part on Broadway, or auditioning for a new radio show,” Nan replied. “That’s work. This is the bush, and I love it. This is fun.”
Ninety-four-year-old Dorothy Maskerine met Nan when she was a teenager. Dorothy told me in a phone call in June that Nan “always kept herself immaculate.” She was attractive – “a real lady,” Dorothy said. Her hair, nails, and make-up were always perfectly done. Her clothing was of good quality. Dorothy particularly remembers Nan’s rust-coloured suede slacks. It’s hard to imagine how Nan managed to maintain these high standards in a bush camp.
That was the winter we learned to make bannock and to bake bread.”
Within a year, Nan had learned how to snare rabbits, make bannock and bake bread. She could hunt her own deer and skin it herself. She could repair her snowshoes, weaving a new babiche from deer hide.
“When will we go back?” Richard asked Nan. She said: “My moccasins are soft on my feet when I walk in the woods. I’d miss my canoe. My dog team would be lonesome if I should leave them. I have more freedom than anyone else in the world. And where else is there anything so beautiful. Go back? Go back to what? I have nothing to go back to. I’m where I belong now. I’m home!”
Nan and Richard did not move back to New York but, in October of 1941, they did close up their tourist camp on Winoga Island and move to Chicago. Richard had been offered a job as radio director for an advertising agency there. But Nan was not happy. “The five months we spent in Canada put her right back on her feet and when we packed up to leave in October she had never felt better in her life,” Richard wrote to his friend Herman Stern on February 12, 1942. “Now, the city is beginning its insidious work, and something has to be done about it. My only interest in life is to see that she has the comfort and happiness that is most certainly due her. … She has to live somewhere where she can see the sky and see things living and growing, and a chance to get out into the open.” They ended up moving back to Winoga Island, but happiness did not return with them.