September 22, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

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


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.")

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