Most Canadians have heard of Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier,” or folk hero Paul Bunyan, or Crocodile Dundee. But what about our own spirited Joe LaFlamme from Northeastern Ontario, who tamed wild wolves and took them to sportsman shows in Toronto, Boston, and even New York City?
Though born near Montreal, LaFlamme lived most of his life in Gogama, where he was famous not only for his size and strength (and his oversized personality) but also for his expertise with wolves. Working them to the point where they would pull a sleigh, he would mush his team over snowy terrain wherever he travelled.
And he did travel! It was quite the sight, for example, to see wolves pulling a sled in around Toronto’s High Park during the annual winter carnival or seeing LaFlamme mushing along big city streets. The Toronto Star reported that when the sled reached Bathurst Street one day, LaFlamme’s Parisian wife, “just arrived from the north, took a seat on the sled, and a wolf sat up in front of her.” Like the Pied Piper, the reporter continued, “the children raced after him on foot.”
During one winter, LaFlamme even took a team of eight huskies, one half-bred wolf, and four full-blooded timber wolves to New York City where he directed them down Broadway, and later, onto the ice during a hockey game at Madison Square Garden!
THE UNTAMED WOLF MAN
As local author Suzanne F. Charron relates in her wonderful book, Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed, LaFlamme travelled throughout Eastern Canada and the U.S. with huskies, wolves, and even a moose. You might even call him “Canada’s Dr. Doolittle” in honour of the storybook physician who loved all animals, and talked to them in a language they understood.
“LaFlamme said you could never tame a wolf,” relates author Charron, who herself has trained with wolves while spending four years researching and writing this story. “They were wild, and the wild was always underneath,” she reports. “But he studied the animals so much that he knew what they were thinking and how they would react. He was definitely the Alpha Male of the pack!”
LaFlamme also worked as a bootlegger, and a forest firefighter—even starring in The Forest Commandos, a 1946 movie produced by Warner Brothers that was filmed in Gogama. “In the movie, Joe lifts a 150-pound pump as if it was a feather,” reports Charron.
AN AUTHENTIC LOVER OF ANIMALS
As his exploits with wolves, moose, and other animals progressed, LaFlamme became a true conservationist. He often toured with a chosen menagerie whether it was to educate a Rotary Club luncheon at the Royal York Hotel, or to fly with three moose and a deer to a Sportsman’s Show in Boston. One photo in a 1948 Life magazine shows LaFlamme coming out of an elevator at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with a wolf and a moose. The caption read, ”Visiting Moose gets Tangled with a Wolf acting as Chaperone. Bearded Trainer finally Unwound Them.”
Wherever he travelled, LaFlamme brought postcards and brochures that showed the beauty of Northeastern Ontario, always insisting that it was beautiful place to visit! “LaFlamme must have had a certain type of energy that was very special,” says Charron. ”He really sold the idea of the North as a tourist destination.” To see this beauty for yourself and follow in LaFlamme’s footsteps, head to Gogama.
GOGAMA’S NATURAL PLEASURES
The Town of Gogama, situated on Lake Minisinakwa some 190 km north of Sudbury, offers many surprises. Start at the former 1922 Hudson’s Bay Company store, lovingly restored with original shades of classic green and Hudson’s Bay white. It’s now the Gogama Heritage Museum. “We renovated the building to look like the old days, replaced the siding, kept the style of the windows,” says Museum Curator Gerry Talbot. “It took five or six years,” he adds, “but it was a worthwhile project.”
Inside, visitors will find many interesting items such as historic photos and LaFlamme’s 12-foot-long sleigh. “He used to practice on the long stretch in front of the museum,” explains Talbot. “It was the only place in town with enough space!”
You’ll also see photos of LaFlamme, hear his voice as well as the call of a bull moose, and view film footage of the forest fire fighting commandos. Talbot has also dedicated one room to a former local enterprise, C.D. Payette & Sons General and Hardware Store, where you can examine early tools and learn a bit about the area’s lumber history.
Then grab the brochure for a self-guided walking tour of the town. Discover Joe and Lillie’s home, or LaFlamme’s (and his moose’s) favourite drinking spot, or the former air base from where the "Wolf Man" set off to deliver mail during Gold Rushes of the 1930s to prospectors’ camps.
Most visitors find that just the pristine wilderness or the brilliant night sky is a joy. Pick wild mushrooms or plump blueberries, star-gaze under a brilliant canopy of stars, or set a fishing rod into the numerous lakes. As Gogama is Ojibway for “jumping fish,” no surprise that opportunities for walleye, northern pike, and smallmouth bass abound.
After 29 years in the area, LaFlamme and his wife returned to Québec where he worked as a crossing guard and night watchman. But his story, a true legend of Northeastern Ontario, remains. “It’s a fascinating story that really shows the hardiness of living in the north,” says Charron, “and the sense of peace. We still have busy lives but here, nature is Number One.” I’m sure that LaFlamme and his brood of wolves and other critters would agree!