Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Magdalen Islands, Part 1

The Magdalen Islands, Part 1
By W. Lacey Amy
Illustrated with photographs by the author.
From The Canadian Magazine, Feb. 1911. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Dec. 2015.
Year by year in Canada it is becoming more difficult to find a spot with the fascination of the “new.” The advent of the tourist, Canadian and foreign, as such an important factor, has covered the country with a people who, while ever anxious to discover nature at its origin, are not content to leave it so.
But there is still one accessible spot, far removed from the dust of the automobile, the studied négligé of the summer tourist and the commercialism of the tourist-spoiled servant—a place where the people, the life, as well as the scenery are yet unspoiled. As such it is not advertised with pictured folder and enticing description. It has had no recommendations of pleased patrons; but it has provided for the privileged few who have visited it the rest from turmoil and rush that makes it almost vandalism to assist in introducing it to the average traveller.
It was by mere chance that a talk with Kellogg, “the bird man,” several years ago, and the casual remarks of the Intercolonial folder aroused the wish to spend my holidays in the Magdalen Islands. And further attempts to learn more of these out-of-the-way Islands but added to the attraction. An exhaustive search in the Toronto reference library revealed but three articles on the Islands, two of them in United States magazines more than twenty-five years old, and the other written by one who had not left the steamer that makes the semiweekly trips between the mainland and the Islands.
Correspondence with the owner of the steamer brought nothing but the names of a number of possible houses at which board might be secured, and inquiries addressed direct to these houses added information of varying importance. One woman was unable to take boarders because “my husband has been drowning since—.”
Another answered the requests for information by saying that her rates were “six dollars a week. When are you coming?” A man in a little French village, where, I discovered afterwards, only two or three could speak English, assured me that: “The rate of board is generally five dollars a week and fifteen dollars a month, this is what tourist give, but will say, what, being you are from, we may reduce it some.” And this delightful unconventionality continued to the last moment of my stay on the Islands.
In many ways it is difficult to discover why this group of Islands is neglected by the tourist. Easy of access they are, and the transportation comforts are surprising. The Intercolonial carries one to Pictou, Nova Scotia, in the unsurpassed accommodation it affords. From Pictou a staunch little 650-ton. 165-foot steamboat runs twice a week to the Islands, just making both ends meet by means of a $15,000 subsidy from the Government. From the obliging Captain Burns to the single waiter the service is surprisingly good.
On the Islands themselves the visitor experiences all that quaintness of people and life that is the result of long generations away from the toil and competition of the outside world. Seven thousand French and a thousand English, the former the descendants of old French-Acadians exiled from the Annapolis Valley in the time of history, and the latter offspring of the immigrants brought by the English Admiral who owned the Islands for so many years, thickly cover the group. These families have grown up together for generations, or have lived side by side in different sections of the same island, working at the same business in the same indifferent, satisfied way.
Perhaps not one out of a hundred of the present population has ever been on the mainland. The fishing grounds are the limits of their wanderings. Even those who have taken the steamer over to Pictou know only that town, or perhaps Halifax, where the store supplies come from, and Quebec, the seat of Government, hundreds of miles away.
The location of the Magdalen Islands may have been more or less familiar to us when the name came in the list of Canadian Islands, but geography does not keep fresh unless business or public affairs revive it periodically. And assuredly the Magdalens would provide no reason for remembrance, except to those who visit them.
Away out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence they lie, a series of mountain tops that managed to get above the water. And, without a break in their fury, the wild waves of the Gulf sweep down for two hundred miles from the cold shores of Labrador. Eastward a hundred miles stands the bleak western coast of Newfoundland. Cape Breton is seventy miles to the south, and Prince Edward Island noses out into the Gulf the same distance westward. From Pictou, the mainland port, to Amherst, the nearest port of the Islands, is 127 miles.
At high tide there are thirteen islands, but when the slow-moving ebb is completed, with three feet of water lost, seven islands are joined by a low strip of land, making a continuous stretch of fifty-three miles. Over this sand road, treacherous with its quick-sands and dangerous to any but the resident, it is possible to drive from Amherst Island at the southwest, over Grindstone, Wolf, and Grosse to Coffin in the northeast. The disconnected islands are Deadman, on the west, Entry and Alright, on the southeast, and Bryon and Bird Rock, far away to the northeast.
Deadman Island is but a long peak of rock with but sufficient shore to allow the erection of a few rough shacks for the sealers in the spring. Entry is peopled exclusively with English, has no port, and is worthy of notice only for having the highest peak in the group, 530 feet high. Alright is divided from Grindstone by a mere channel over which a rope ferry makes the transfers. The convent is situated here. Bryon Island is a small fishing island eight miles north of the main group, where but a few families remain in the winter.
Most interesting of the smaller islands is Bird Rock, a tiny peak of six acres, 125 feet above the water, accessible only by means of windlass and bucket. On its top the birds flock in white clouds, and the only human beings are the light-house keeper, his wife and two assistants. All year round they are forced to remain, since the ice of early spring and late fall prevent access to the rock, and in none but the quietest weather and water can a boat approach. Twice a year the supply boat carries provisions, but for the rest of year the lonely family is cut off from the outside world.
All that is geography; but there is most interesting history to make the Magdalens worthy of more attention than they receive. It need but be touched here. Cartier himself made the first visit to the rocky, inhospitable shores in 1534, but it was not until 1663 that the first settlement was established by Honfleur fishermen. A Frenchman placed them there, and, sailing away to France, returned in the spring to find that a Cape Breton official had sent a colony over and the two groups had combined and sailed away to Gaspe. The Frenchman tried again and was more successful. His son attached the name “Madeleine Islands” to the group, using his mother’s name; and, although this was gradually changed officially to Magdalen, most of the people still call it “Madalens.”
In the course of time Admiral Coffin acquired the Islands for services rendered, and to his descendants they belonged until three years ago, when they were sold (or at least what remained to sell) to the Magdalen Island Development Company, a group of Montreal men who are even more anxious to dispose of their rights than was the English family.
Now the only remnants of the M. I. D., as the company is called, is a group of large, deserted buildings, into which $200,000 was sunk to develop fishing in cod, mackerel and lobster, sealing or anything else in which there might be money. Now but one man remains on the Islands for the company; he is anxiously looking for a purchaser or a re-organisation scheme.
Each island is but a peak of soft sandstone into which the wild waves are gradually eating their way. Small, vari-shaped mounds rise from the water along the shores in all directions, the remains of what were at one time stretches of solid land. Every storm claims its piece, and in time the serious inroads of the water will leave the Islands but a memory.
On Entry Island the former lighthouse was engulfed by the steady wearing away of the rock at its foundation. The present beacon is a quarter-mile inland from the sheer cliff over which it sends its light to add to the other dozens of light-houses that make navigation possible amongst the dangerous shoals and islands.
My first sight of the Islands was in the early morning as we cast anchor off Etang du Nord, a small French village on the west coast of Grindstone Island. Just back of us loomed the forbidding rock of Deadman, its cold whiteness standing out mysteriously against the lighting sky of the morning. Over the peak of grindstone the sun was just showing, scattering little rays through the clouds on the rippling water. In under the shore the fishing fleet was stringing out for a mile—a hundred of them—on its way to the fishing grounds. The black sails, prepared with a tamarack solution, made them like phantom ships in their strangeness.
From the shore a dozen herring-boats were paddling leisurely out to us, or moving along under small sails. The fishermen were coming with their boxes of fish and would unload the salt, which is the principal freight. Lazily they came, and my first impressions of them were fully justified by further experience. From both sides of the boat they unloaded, handling their awkward craft in the ocean swells with careless ease.
The passengers for this stop were unloaded with some difficulty into one of the boats, and, with the mail, they set out for the shore. The mail would be taken by a driver four miles across to Grindstone, then fifteen miles to the top of the Islands and return to Grindstone by the time the boat made the trip of forty miles around Amherst Island to Grindstone in the afternoon.
After four hours unloading, the fishermen going back and forward to the shore as if the boat had the whole day ahead of it, we got away for Amherst. At Cabin Cove, a small group of houses snuggled under the highest peak on Amherst Island, another stop was made for the fishermen to unload salt.
Rounding between Entry Island and the long Sandy Hook of Amherst harbour, which extends but a couple of feet above the water for three miles, we approached the first wharf on the Islands. There are but three of these, and the unprotected harbours expose them to the waves to the dangerous sinking of the ends. At the other calling-places the weather is the deciding factor, weeks elapsing before some of the stops can be made.
There is but one protected harbour among the Islands, Grand Entry, and the entrance to it is so shallow that it can be made by the steamboat only in calm weather and at high tide. In a storm the bottom of the entrance shows up through the waves, and a visit is impossible. Pleasant Bay is a nice-sounding title for the large body of water enclosed in the instep of the long boot that is the general shape of the group, but a wind from the east makes it more dangerous than the open.
It is in these storms that rage so frequently around the Islands that lies one of the reasons for the limited number of those who make the trip out. Within two hundred yards of the house where I stopped for a week were the wrecks of four large schooners driven on the shore last year. A quarter of a mile out in Pleasant Bay the spars of another protruded from the water, the result of the shifting of a load of loose herring purchased for bait. One day during my visit the fishermen brought in on their little charettes cod thrown overboard from the wreck of a 100-foot schooner that was being lightered by the owner in the hope of saving the hull.
Just a mile away the Lunenburg, the predecessor of the present steamship, ran ashore in a snowstorm of late 1905. Only five of the sixteen on board were saved. And all along the shores as we steamed could be seen the hulks of former wrecks, not many seasons old, for the drifting sands quickly cover them up.
Light-houses adorn every point as the limit of precaution, but the shoals and reefs, the hundreds of projecting bars and points, the shifting winds and fierce waves of this district prove too much for the most experienced of mariners. Pleasant Bay has been the scene of one of the most disastrous calamities of fishing experience. The Lord’s Day gale of 1873 caught in this deceptive harbour hundreds of fishing schooners fleeing from the wind outside. The sudden shifting of the gale caught them in the trap, and the shore was strewn with the hulls of boats and the bodies of fishermen. Within sight of the boarding-house mentioned a stretch of four hundred yards of beach was covered with forty-five schooners.
So many old hulls lie under the water and on the sands that the fishermen claim the clams of Amherst harbour are unfit for use because of the rusty poison they have drawn from the metal. Whether this is the reason or not, the fact remains that the clams caught on the shore are poisonous and of a rusty colour, fit only for bait.
There is little that is attractive in the distant appearance of the Islands. At one time covered with large trees, the inhabitants cut so recklessly for shipbuilding and firewood that entire islands are without so much as a shrub. Grindstone Island is the prettiest, because of tracts of short spruce and fir, unfit for use, but taking away the bald look that makes Amherst Island, for instance, appear so bleak.
Approaching the landing-place it is a pretty sight to see the white-washed houses stretched out irregularly over the land. There are no villages, as we understand them, the houses being placed without regard to the location of the stores or post-offices. In fact, there is little of the Islands that is not peopled. The population is much too numerous, and it can only be a year or two until migration must take place to make room. The tiny farms that occupy the fishermen between fishing seasons are not large or productive enough to support the rapidly-increasing population.
The houses are whitewashed, and with few exceptions shingled all over. The roofs are treated with a coat of whitewash or tar, not only to preserve them, but to assist in keeping out the bleak winds that roar over the Gulf in the long winter. Inside, many of the houses are papered over cloth which blows and waves in the winds outside.
When the winter comes the Islanders are cut off from the outside world save for the cable which connects the north-east point with Cape Breton. (During the past fall a wireless connection has been established). For five months no boat can weather the ice-floes and storms of this section of the Gulf. The Magdaleners must provide their own amusement, with only such information of the outside as comes over the wire to the little telegraph stations that are used only in emergency. The boat runs as long as the ice will allow, usually being forced to stop before the first of December. In April it sometimes starts again, but May more commonly sees the break in the long isolation.
There are sixteen telegraph offices under the direction of M Le Bourdais, a French sailor wrecked thirty-nine years ago, in winter, on the north shore, his legs cut off above the knees owing to the exposure. He was obliged to take this means of earning a living. And the number of messages does not overwork him. One office had not sent or received a message for fifteen months, but the operator received $150 for his share of the idleness. Another operator was paid $100 for one message.
Two years ago the wire broke in December. It was impossible to mend it at that time of year, and the isolation after years of cable connection which was seldom used worried the islanders. At last one of them rigged up a molasses cask with a tin sail and set it adrift, with letters sealed in lobster tins. Ten days later it was picked up at Post Hastings, Cape Breton, and the letters were delivered. From the first of December to the first of May that was the only connection the Islands had with the mainland. Then the government ice-breaker smashed its way through the unusually late ice-floes and brought relief.
And what of the simple, quaint fisher folk who inhabit these Islands, who fish for cod and lobster and receive little for their labour? Their life, their happiness and innocence, their limited wants, their toils and sports are worthy of separate attention. Living in all the dangers of ice and storm and wind, content with little and not working hard for it, their life is the relief from strain and struggle that would send a business man back to his work with renewed energies and revived strength, with a mind that has been unable to do anything but rest. A quaint, old-fashioned people, I found them, as yet unspoiled by the outside world, uncommercial, unambitious, and ignorant of life as others know it, but unique in their simplicity, friendliness and habits.

This is the first of two articles by Mr. Amy on this interesting part of the Dominion. The second will appear in the March Number.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.