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The curse of Gamache

Is Quebec's Anticosti Island the weirdest place in Canada? Probably just ask the sorcerer, cannibals, ghosts, geologists, frogs and 166,000 deer
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I bag my first deer on l'île d'Anticosti from a plane. Not, like most of the visitors here, with a high-powered rifle, but with sadly under-powered irises. And I'm not even trying.

We've hop-scotched for hours along the ever-widening St. Lawrence River, when a lawn ornament appears - a perfectly poised whitetail deer, head cocked to the side, unperturbed by the high-pitched whine of a descending turboprop.

Then I see another deer. And another. A dozen. At least.

As elsewhere, the airfield at Port-Menier - the only town on Anticosti - is ringed by a high fence. But not for security; it was specially designed to keep out deer. Anticosti has at least 166,000 of them, which - at 20/km 2 - is the highest density of Odocoileus virginianus anywhere.

I've come here because I'm fascinated that an island some 50 per cent larger than P.E.I. could remain virtually unknown in Canada - and also virtually unvisited. Strange then, that my first observation of this uninhabited wilderness is that it seems, well, a tad crowded.

 

As a school kid looking at classroom maps of Canada , certain shapes and patterns struck me: Hudson Bay and its swollen appendix, James; the sinister eye in the west-facing wolf's head of Lake Superior; and, in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, just above the unfurling tongue of Gaspé, a large pink pill about to be gulped. The name of that pill was Anticosti Island, but that's all I'd learned. Over the years, Anticosti remained a complete mystery. What the hell was there?

In graduate school, studying amphibians in Atlantic Canada one April, I sought to make an exploratory voyage to Anticosti. But all inquiries were met with flat discouragement. Don't bother. The ferry doesn't run until May. There's no way to get around. Nowhere to stay. Only open during hunting season. So I'd put the idea on the shelf for another couple of decades.

In the meantime, along came Google and I was able to discover that Anticosti is choc-a-bloc with intrigue. Over time, the island had been variously exploited, controlled or owned by the Montagnais-Naskapi Innu, the Mi'kmaq, France, Britain, Newfoundland (twice), a chocolate maker, lumber companies and the province of Quebec - which bought the 8,000 km 2 island from lumber giant Consolidated-Bathurst in 1974. Even Nazi Germany had tried (unsuccessfully) to purchase the largest privately owned island in the world. Despite this considerable transit, no more than a few hundred people have ever called Anticosti home. Indeed, long stretches saw only squatting fishermen, hermits, criminals or the castaways tossed with regularity upon a shore that, claiming 400 known shipwrecks, is the de facto Cemetery of the St. Lawrence. (When Jacques Cartier sailed past in 1534, he cursed Anticosti's pernicious reefs as "the land God gave to Cain.")

The island's history also includes tales of piracy, disease, starvation, cannibalism, lunacy and sorcery, lending Anticosti the handle of "Strangest Island in the World." Perhaps the most interesting chapter began in 1895, when French chocolate baron and multimillionaire Henri Menier purchased Anticosti from a British lumber company with the intent of creating a private hunting and fishing paradise. He succeeded, though biologists might counter that he actually turned Anticosti into the world's largest wildlife experiment - a lesson in the dos and don'ts of boreal ecology. Menier's agents introduced elk, moose, caribou, buffalo, snowshoe hare, mink, grouse, red fox and beaver. Most notably, in 1896 and 1897, they uncrated 220 Virginia whitetail deer. Of the large mammals, only the whitetail prospered, the population soaring to around 50,000 by 1934, its only real predator the harrowing winters. Today, you can't take five steps on Anticosti without running into the results of Menier's experiment. Literally.

 

Back to the airport. Sorry. But that's where the monster-truck rally starts. To find out more, I've enlisted the help of Marie-Josée Legare, who works for Sépaq - Quebec's park service, which oversees most of the island - but even she is taken aback by the leviathan pickups that every visitor to Parc National d'Anticosti requires. The vehicles have giant tires and roll bars and metal deer-catchers mounted on the grill like a locomotive. When a Sépaq employee walks you out of the terminal to your rig, it's like the start of some reality-TV treasure hunt. Here's your truck. Here's your spare tire. Here's your map. Here's a radio to call for help. Au revoir! Bon chance!

With the next plane seven days away, you have a week to check off as many experiences as possible. Often you are the only one experiencing. In three hours of driving that day, we will see only two other trucks. Mostly because, like us, everyone is headed away from Port-Menier on the dusty, 220-kilometre TransAnticostian Road, and last week's visitors have already cleared off in the turnaround flight. My second observation of Anticosti: This place will never get crowded. With people.

In Port-Menier proper we stock up and tour the town: general store, artisan shop, eco-museum, and, of course, liquor depot. In the plaza fronting what seems a massive church for a population of 200, a totemic sculpture guards a plaque paying homage to Saint Menier. It says - and I'm paraphrasing - Thanks Henri, for filling the island with non-native animals that have thrived and turned this into an awesome place for wildlife viewing! Through a riflescope!

A clutch of deer watch impassively as I read this. How can they not know?

Lunching at Sépaq's Auberge Port-Menier, a utilitarian hotel that once housed Consolidated-Bathurst's lumbermen, waitresses hover in Sépaq ranger uniforms, suggesting it's still a company town. Outside the window, a large buck nibbles the lawn down to a putting green.

As we bounce out of town on stiff springs designed to deal with the gravel washboard, I continue counting deer. They're everywhere. By the time we reach the seaside lodge at Chicotte-la-Mer two hours later, the tally is 60 healthy, decidedly relaxed deer - plus four skulking foxes and five panicky hares. Oh wait, the four cervids munching around the compound - including one with its wet nose in my pocket - make 64. I go from patting deer to the dining hall, where the venison steak on the menu has suddenly lost its appeal. Until I find out it's from some farm elsewhere in Quebec; Anticosti's deer are considered wild game, which can't, by Canadian law, be sold in a restaurant. Bon, moi je prendre l'entrecote venison si'l vous plait!

 

We're clopping along a raised beach, our shaggy horses sidestepping mounds of seaweed. Though full-fledged ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is as still as a pond under clear skies; a giant reflector on which all manner of evening light swims like maple syrup - clear, warm, rich, amber. When the horses stop to reconnoiter a crossing of crystalline Rivière Chicotte, the bizarre depth of field makes it feel like we're standing in a museum diorama. We should be, for this island is a museum in every possible way. In one gallery are artifacts of Anticosti's many human iterations, failed industries and Menier's enterprises. In another, nature's bounteous contribution: rare plants, 160 bird species, dolphins, seals, whales and untold lesser sea life; geological history, diverse fossils, even a hint of past and present life converging - atop a nearby bluff lies the bleached, fossil-in-the-making of a 30-metre blue whale washed up in 1991. Yet, despite logging, animal introductions and a painful history of quasi-occupation, Anticosti remains redoubtably pristine. Were our institution to require a savvy, tourist-drawing title, it might be the Museum of Enduring Wilderness. Harbour and grey seals bobbing offshore, strung like whiskered buoys between mats of kelp, appear to nod agreement. Beyond their curious crania, a ship materializes on the horizon, then drifts slowly along, a lingering thought in the sunset.

Next morning, to beat the heat - the average July temperature here is 15˚C, but this week it reaches 30˚- we hike up Rivière Chicotte. It's remarkably quiet, as if the canyon's porous rock dampens even the sound of rushing water. Maybe clearer water makes less noise: there's nary a speck of organic matter in the icy stream. Stepping in up to my knees, the view to my foot is as if there were no intervening liquid. Yet you can't drink this elixir - the water table is contaminated by the prodigious daily shit of 166,000 deer.

The river's marbleline bedrock has eroded into a polished, wavering countervail to the swift currents. Pretty, yes, but also a geology course. Anticosti lies just north of Logan's Line, a whimsical stitch in time: to the south lie rocks affected by the colliding tectonic plates that created the Appalachian Mountains; to the north, on Anticosti, seven different Ordovician and Silurian strata have lain undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. Of these, the Chicotte Formation, exposed here, is youngest. It's also the continent's most fossiliferous rock, crowded with brachiopods and cephalopods, crinoids and corals. Even a few trilobites crash the party. It's just like going to the beach - 445,000,000 years ago.

We head back on a height of land that renders the magnificent coastline even more so. The still sea lies aquamarine over azure reefs; it could be the tropics save for glabrous heaps of umber kelp gathered on the sharp, tilted ledges responsible for tearing boats asunder. Near the lodge, deep in cool woods, a pair of deer and two spotted fawns move not an inch as we brush past. Well, excuse us. By the end of the day the count is 106 - and #100 was a trophy buck with a 12-point rack.

 

Next day is short hikes and long hours in the truck, but the day's gem is the valley of the Jupiter River, Anticosti's largest and most beautiful watercourse, spoken of with reverence in Atlantic salmon-fishing circles. Fishing guide Rene Bourque has worked on Jupiter since 1974. We meet him on a gravel bar at the river's mouth, where, over sandwiches, he explains how Menier's Cleopatra boats-canopied, flat-bottomed vessels with runners on the hull - were pulled upriver by horses through areas too shallow to paddle. The pool known as Jupiter 6 was midway for these hauls; Jupiter 12 - the most famous salmon pool - was a seven-hour journey. Now home to a sprawling, well-appointed lodge in the wilderness, Jupiter 12 has been visited by U.S. presidents and celebrities who don't wish it to be known that they found their way there. True anonymity veils this outback operation, and people like Bourque keep mum on the subject of who comes and when. After all, these monied, private-plane-flying customers are the island's bread and butter, the legacy of Menier's vision of a sportsman's paradise.

We head next to recently built McDonald Lodge on the island's north side. By now, I've seen nearly 400 deer, and stop counting. Along the way we cruise an extensive marsh for rare flowers and find... frogs. These were also introduced and, like the deer, have run amok thanks to a lack of predators. There are tens of thousands . A genuine plague. Exactly what Menier envisioned when he had his minions sow the island with frogs fetched from the mainland - an amphibian swarm to control the usual boreal insect swarm. He may have succeeded; Anticosti is the least buggy wilderness I've visited in Canada, especially surprising given a latitude comparable to Winnipeg.

In the morning we make the seven-kilometre hike to the base of towering Chute Vauréal, following the staircase bed of a rapidly drying stream. At points we cross lengthy limestone shelves riddled with tracks of ancient marine organisms. When we hit Rivière Vauréal, we steer upriver, and are quickly engulfed by towering walls boasting thousands of layers of marine sediment. It isn't easy going; the rocks underfoot wobble and challenge with every step. A bazillion trillion of them - each with a fossil. At the end, I'm not ready for the sight of Chute Vauréal. The falls cascades 100 metres - 40 metres more than Niagara - and what's left of its misty plume showers a deep, black pool. Like a scene from a South Pacific epic, we swim out into it. Afterwards, sore and satisfied, we make our way out of the canyon and point the truck back to McDonald. Along the way we check out Anticosti's most accessible shipwreck - the Wilcox , a decommissioned World War II minesweeper that arrived from Vancouver via Panama in 1946. In those roadless days the ship delivered supplies up and down Anticosti's coast to lighthouses and river keepers. It foundered in a sudden storm in June 1954, and the crew swam to shore. Unable to dislodge it at the next high tide the Wilcox was stripped and abandoned.

Next day, we hike into Grotte à la Patate, an enormous cave discovered only in 1986. At 600 metres, it's Quebec's third-longest cavern system. Sweeping headlamps through one chamber we catch a foot-long cephalopod, ancient relative of today's squid and octopus, bulging from the wall. No one knows how Grotte à la Patate remained a secret for so long - perhaps because it was isolated along a river that received little attention. But since this is the Strangest Island in the World, at least some believe it was not created by natural forces. After calculations of latitude, longitude and the sun's angle at the solstice, one "archaeologist" is convinced that this cavern - with its 10-metre-high, perfectly symmetrical entrance vault - could only have been designed by aliens.

Islands in general are magnets for eccentrics and seekers, but Anticosti seems on a different scale.

 

We spend our last night in Port-Menier and visit the island's original settlement, Baie-Sainte-Claire, about 10 kilometres northwest of town. It's a pastoral half-moon reminiscent of much of the Irish coast, but the long, tidal flats of exposed rock made for an impossible port, so Menier moved the town. Only two houses, a lime oven, and a few cemeteries remain.

Hundreds of deer graze through the waist-high meadows. I'm struck by how animals adapt when constraints are removed. This is a protected area with no hunting, and, of course, no predators. Freed of the need to hide in the forest as individuals, these deer have formed a bona fide herd, sweeping across a Serengeti-like grassland interrupted by patches of spruce.

There's one final place to visit, the site of Menier's former house, a magnificent, historic building that was abandoned in the 1930s and burned to the ground in the 1950s. Menier bought Anticosti for $125,000; he built the house - a Scandinavian-style mansion with wood-carved wall murals - for $130,000. Despite making only six visits to the island before his death in 1913, his tenure is now referred to as the "Menier Epoch." Indeed the Roi de Chocolat poured considerable resources into making the island more habitable, but he also ran it as a fiefdom, expropriating land in return for guaranteed employment. He paid lighthouse and river keepers both for their work and to run off poachers and squatters, but allowed no opposition to his grandiose plans.

Today the house footings remain, angles and doorways apparent, rooms labeled like some giant blueprint. Beside the site is a small tower emulating the turret of the old mansion. Standing atop, gazing out with the sea air in my nose, I feel how Menier must have felt overlooking his world. But I also notice a white cross tucked up against the woods enshrined by a white picket fence-final resting place of the mysterious Gamache.

After sailing for years on English frigates, Quebec-born Monsieur Louis-Olivier Gamache settled into a strange existence on Anticosti. Heavily armed and garrisoned, his reputation as a sorcerer protected him from pirates and allowed him to live in peace until his death in 1854. Neighbors seldom visited, for they feared Gamache and the long, lonely path to his log castle. After all, there were rumours: he'd sold his soul to Satan for gold; he neither went to Mass nor confessed to the priest; he changed into a loup garou (werewolf); he caused cows to drop their calves, withhold milk, become frantic and run into the forest; his evil eye summoned measles, smallpox, and other diseases. In short, many believed he commanded the powers of darkness, his enduring curse the island's mantra: it's easy to founder upon these shores but difficult to leave.

In reality, however, Gamache more often seemed all ice-cream and balloons: he was easily pacified by a small offering, which, strangely, he always refused. Thus, he was usually simply a wise man with insight into the ways of the world and the hearts of men; he predicted weather; understood medicinal plants; was on friendly terms with birds, beasts and fishes; gave advice that healed the sick, turned up lost property, united estranged friends, and helped the troubled find prosperity and peace. Maybe, some reasoned, Gamache wasn't really an evil sorcerer, but a practitioner of White Magic and a vessel of good.

Either way, neither the island's owners (nor the church) liked the power he wielded, and each tried to vanquish him. Though what really happened remains a mystery, stories of Gamache far outlived the man. Even 21 st century residents still recount his real or imaginary exploits. Indeed most unexplained occurrences on Anticosti lead back to Gamache - even the deer, which some believe to be Gamache's disseminate spirit taking over the island in one final, humorous curse. It almost makes sense.

 

We dine that night with Denis Duteau, a deer biologist and mayor of Port-Menier, conversing largely about the fall hunt. The island's "economy" relies on those three months, and the 8,000-10,000 deer killed each autumn makes not the slightest dent in a continually rising population; it's far less than the 20,000 to 30,000 that will die in a particularly savage winter. According to Duteau, the estimate of 166,000 is probably low to start - more likely it's 200,000.

Of course, the effect of all those deer isn't entirely positive. They eat practically everything, which explains the unusual appearance of many trees. Eating new growth each spring, deer have sculpted spruce into pyramidal bonsais and "ballerina trees" with noticeable waists. Balsam fir, the once-dominant tree of this ecosystem, has been scarfed outright; none has grown naturally on Anticosti since the 1930s.

Previously, the island's only indigenous veggie-eating mammals were mice and black bears. By the 1970s, however, bears were almost non-existent; the bruins couldn't find enough food to fatten up for hibernation - berry-loving deer had grazed the once-abundant crops to the ground. Bear birth rates fell and winterkill soared until they were officially extirpated; the last bear was seen some 17 years ago. Biologists believe it the only known case of an herbivore putting a large, well-established omnivore out of business.

The next day, I'm thinking over the outdoor world of wonders we've traversed in the past week. Things I could never have imagined concealed in that pink pill on the map. I'm thinking because there's nothing else to do: we're stuck at the tiny, empty airport, unable to take off because it's pea-soup foggy - shipwreck weather - after days of glorious sun. The curse of Gamache. But then, looking out the window and through the fence, I realize the curse comes with a silver lining. There actually is something to do: I can always count the deer.

 

 




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