Early in this deer season on Anticosti Island, which lies off Canada's eastern shore in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a hunter took careful aim through his scope and dropped a fat buck. Then he trotted merrily through the coniferous forest to claim his prize and discovered that he had killed not one deer but two, the bullet passing through the first and hitting the second in the vitals. As every high school algebra student knows, this sort of thing is bound to happen when x million hunters swarm into the woods to peg y million shots at z million deer. It all comes under the heading of "probability and chance," the same mathematical area that explains winning streaks by the Mets, 10 straight passes at craps, a good meal on Route 66 and other extreme improbabilities.
The difference is that Anticosti Island does not have x million hunters or even x thousand. Each year during the three-month season its hunters are numbered in the low hundreds, all of them grinning and hopeful that nobody will tell a soul in the outer world about the deer hunting on the island. Or the salmon fishing. Or the seal hunting. Or the sea-run trout.
But mainly the deer hunting. Anticosti has so many deer that hunters who accomplish the two-deer-with-one-shot accident get only a bored look from the natives when they tell the story in all its personal wonder. Anticostians hear the story every fall, because it happens every fall. And the natives have even better stories of their own. They tell of the mother provincial of the Sisters of Charity Convent on the island. On July 20 of last year she counted 307 deer on a 40-mile drive on the island. This year a certain Mr. Hollings-worth of Rhode Island, who hunts Anticosti with several cronies each fall, made his yearly wager as to which side of the road would produce more deer sightings on the drive to the hunting lodge. Hollingsworth lost; the winning side of the road produced 171 deer in 57 miles. This was extremely nettling to Hollingsworth, who remarked to Edmond Pincault, the deputy chief game warden of the island, that the deer herd seemed to be falling off from previous years.
Falling off or not, Anticosti remains the Broadway and 42nd Street of the deer world. It has 200-pound bucks, fat hornless does, silly-looking does with horns, young bucks with spike horns, white deer and deer that are colored like white-faced Herefords. They have never seen a purple deer on Anticosti, and they never hope to see one, but if one were to come scampering out of the forest, nobody would be surprised. In the summer the deer are so bold that every night five or six of them graze in the meadow behind the island's only hotel, another couple of deer keep the island superintendent's lawn in trim and each morning a sassy fawn trots out of the deep woods, barges down a lumbering road and demands handouts at back doors. Then, bang! The first shot of the hunting season is fired, the deer fade into the woods like the Viet Cong and for three months Anticosti Island becomes the best deer-hunting spot on the face of the earth.
October 6, 1963
And yet there was not a single deer on the island when Jacques Cartier, searching for a fast route to the East, claimed the island by serendipity and named it, in the grand French manner, He de l'Assomption. Nobody paid any attention to that name. Years before, Basque fishermen had seen the island, observed that it was some 30 miles off the mainland (of what is now Quebec), and dubbed it Antecosta, or "precoast," in a wild stroke of place-naming creativity. With minor vowel changes, the name has stuck. Cartier claimed the island for France in 1534, but he did not get overexcited about his prize. Anticosti was, after all, only an elliptical-shaped island 135 miles long by some 35 miles wide, covered with shale and conifers and all but devoid of animal life. Like Ireland, it did not even have snakes. Unlike Ireland, it did not have Irishmen. So Cartier made the proper notations in his log, shrugged a Gallic shrug and sailed on.
More than a century went by before Louis XIV, trying to select a gift for the explorer who has everything, gave Anticosti to Louis Joliet as a reward for bold journeys on the Mississippi River and in the Hudson Bay area. Joliet lived on the island for 10 years, but his heirs abandoned it. Around 1800 a dumb-Iike-a-fox eccentric named Louis Olivier Gamache became Anticosti's only inhabitant, building himself a house at the west end of the island and carefully spreading the rumor that he was a killer and a pirate, thus guaranteeing the privacy he had wanted in the first place.
Gamache lived by trading with the Indians—which was forbidden. He would fill his 60-foot goélette with fish and outrace the authorities to the mainland, where he would quickly trade the fish for meat and other provisions and outrace the authorities back to the island. One night when the police boat was hot on Gamache's tail, he doused his running lights, put oil-soaked rags on a small raft, ignited them and dropped the raft behind his boat on a towline, finally cutting it adrift just off the reefs of Anticosti. The police boat gave chase and foundered. Another time Gamache invited a sea captain to his Anticosti home, regaled him with spooky stories and finally locked the old salt in a room. With a Comanche yell, Gamache burst into the room, held two pistols on the captain and announced, "I have come to give you your last shot!" Then he poured a slug of brandy for his guest, cackling wildly at his own joke. He was a laugh a minute, that Gamache.
Around the 1880s French-speaking fishermen from the Bay of Chaleur began coming to Anticosti, and soon a small colony of several dozen families was in residence. The living was good if you liked snow. For seven or eight months a year Anticosti was paralyzed; the rest of the time there was a living to be made off fish and shipwrecks. Between 1870 and 1880, for example, 49 sailing vessels and four steamships were wrecked off Anticosti. Even today there is hardly a house on the island that does not have a few specimens of Dresden china or Meissen porcelain or Spanish-silver candlesticks salvaged from one of the wrecks.
Before lighthouses were built and the profitable salvage business came to an end, there was one wreck right out of Joseph Conrad. A British ship went aground at uninhabited Fox Bay, and 18 survivors swam ashore with little more than the clothes on their backs and several barrels of salt salvaged from the wreck. Fall came on, and the survivors realized they would have to spend the winter on Anticosti. One night the strongest of the survivors, a giant mulatto, went from shelter to shelter knifing his shipmates in the neck. He quartered the 17 bodies, salted them down and thus survived the winter. In the spring he was discovered by a boatload of seamen who had rowed ashore for fresh water. They found him lying in his hammock; he was fat and sturdy and dead. He had liked shipmate, but shipmate had not liked him.
None of these early visitors, from Cartier to the dyspeptic mulatto, made any real imprint on Anticosti. They left it as they found it: windswept, desolate, partly covered with spruce and fir trees and partly with muskeg, all but animalless, a mere way station for commuting birds and a handful of fishermen. Then along came Henri Menier, a latter-day Noah who manufactured chocolate in Paris and had millions of francs. And in those days a franc was really a franc. In the 1890s Menier decided to give up the mad whirl of Paris and find an island retreat. His agents found Anticosti, and Menier built a half-million-dollar castle, founded the village of Port Menier and set about developing community farms, lobster packing plants, seal fisheries and a pulp-wood industry. All of these operations proved as lucrative as the Kansas City Athletics were to prove later; so Menier abandoned them and returned to his original hedonistic devices. His Villa Menier became the scene of fancy-dress affairs, with an orchestra imported from the mainland and guests staying for long weekends in the 13 bedrooms. In one vast room of the villa, Menier installed a kind of throne in which he could sit and stare back at dozens of European stag heads arrayed around the wall. For his more dynamic pleasures, he fished for the salmon in which the island abounded and shot gray seals. He also kept a secret bedroom with a secret entrance off his own master bedroom, for whatever purposes the leering historian may only guess.
Still, Le Roi de l'Anticosti was bored. So in one sweeping stroke he imported 100 pairs of whitetail deer, not to mention elk, moose, caribou, black bear, fox, beaver, rabbit, mink, otter and a musk ox. This last-mentioned individual wandered off into the brush and has not checked in since. The elk and caribou did not take hold (nor did 100 reindeer which were introduced later by the Canadian government). But all the others thrived, and the deer began a population explosion that still goes on. There now are about 50,000 deer on Anticosti and, despite the fact that each year some 2,000 are killed either for meat or sport, the herd continues to increase. There has never been a year, according to island game officials, when the normal winter loss of deer has not far exceeded the numbers killed by humans in the fall. Charlie McCormick, chief warden for Anticosti, says: "Every deer hunter who has ever come to Anticosti has filled his bag. There are no exceptions." It is possible that the last person who failed to fill his limit was old man Menier himself.
Part of the reason for this superfluity of deer is the fact that they have no natural enemies on Anticosti. Dogs are not permitted on the island and never have been. Black bear and red fox have been known to kill deer, but in such small numbers as to have no discernible effect on the herd. The only functioning predator, then, is man, and he is restricted to 7% of the island, serviced by 1,400 miles of logging road. The remaining 3,000-odd square miles are a sort of natural refuge for wildlife.
To be sure, mere numbers of deer do not guarantee good deer hunting. The sportsman does not want to act out his primordial hunting drive in a place where the deer go in the tank in an early round and thus take all the fun out of the hunt. Since man is their only real enemy, Anticosti deer have learned to concentrate their attention, at least during the season, on avoiding any contact with Homo sapiens. Hunters are advised to have a fast-handling gun and a good scope, since the 100- or 150-yard shot is the average during the season. But the main difference between Anticosti hunting and most deer hunting is that the hunter will get a plethora of shots at fine specimens. A day's hunting in season will turn up glimpses of 50 or 60 deer. The hunter soon finds himself seeking out prize animals instead of simply trying to butcher an animal, any animal. And beyond all these considerations, there is a delight in being on Anticosti, just in being there, because of the nature of the place.
Anticosti, in prehistoric times, was under water. Marine organisms, falling in layers atop each other, formed the limestone base. The waters receded and the island was exposed. On the highest parts of the island one still finds sea-shell fossils. A plant took hold and began laying down a footing for other plants, and one day a tree seed wafted over from the mainland and found enough nourishment to sprout, and in turn laid down its own humus, until the Anticosti of today was formed: a broad base of limestone of various ages topped by a thin layer of humus soil supporting mosses, lichens, sedge grass, thistle grass, ferns and trees, many of which meet an early end because they topple in the loose footing during the wild winters, when winds up to 115 mph blow across the island. One result of such a growth pattern is a tough, springy soil, entwined with roots and thick moss carpets, a soil that seems to push back as one walks on it. (Anticosti deer, like all whitetail deer, move in short steps and big leaps, but because of the unusual soil the Anticosti whitetails seem to jump record distances. Such records must be marked with an asterisk.) This sort of soil is spongelike; Anticosti always seems wet, and it takes 23 rivers and innumerable streams to drain the island. The soil is also dark and rich, so rich that it imparts a yellowish-red tint to some of the rivers, and dandelions grow five feet tall. Thistles and daisies stand as high as men, and trees like balsam, white and black spruce, birch, poplar and tamarack grow in profusion. Quebec's Consolidated Paper Corporation Limited, which bought the island from the Menier heirs for a paltry $6 million in 1925, cuts the island's wood for its mills on the mainland and has made about as much dent in the forests as the hunters have made in the deer herds. Indeed, the deer probably are harder on the tree farming than the paper company is. Each spring, when the snow is still down and the supply of browse gets short, the deer nibble the life out of sprouting balsams and chew away the tender tops of other young trees.
The present-day Roi de l'Anticosti is a young French-Canadian named Louis Letourneau, who runs the island for the paper company with a velvet hand. Létourneau's favorite winter sport finds him patrolling the snowfields in his snowmobile, looking for the biggest buck he can find. The animal sighted, Letourneau gives chase and with a blood-curdling cry jumps from the snowmobile onto the back of the terrified buck. And then what does this savage man do? "I geeve 'eem a pat and let 'eem go," says Létourneau.
Consolidated's lumberjacks fell the trees far back in the woods, and truck drivers load the wood and drive it pell-mell to Port Menier, where it is dumped into the bay for transshipment by boat. Then the truck drivers jump into their big camions and roar back to the camp for more wood. They are paid by the cord-mile, and they laugh at the signs all along the dirt roads which announce: Vitesse Maximum: 40 Milles. The result is that quite a few deer are hit and killed, and then a new cycle of nature begins. The first to arrive at the course are the ravens, clucking and chattering among themselves as they rip slivers of meat out of the dead animal. Then come the foxes: red, silver and cross foxes, digging in at the deer's soft hindquarters and eating their way right up through the entrails and actually disappearing into the inside of the body. Side by side, ravens and foxes, usually the unfriendliest of creatures, enjoy the feast. Once in a while a bald eagle will drop in (but it is more its style to grab small salmon out of the rivers with its talons, fly them to prodigious heights and drop them on rocks, swooping down to reclaim the meal and gorge for hours). When the ravens and the foxes are sated, they stumble off and leave the crumbs for the Canada jays, popularly known as whisky jacks, who have been policing the area for years. The whole process, from the death of the deer to the last morsel for the last whisky jack, takes about eight hours, and then nothing is left of the deer but bones.
There are other animals. A polar bear has been killed on Anticosti. It dropped in on an ice floe and didn't live to tell the tale. Beavers leave their calling cards in the form of thin circles of bark gnawed from around small trees, and you can tell exactly where their domicile is located in the dam by looking for the puffs of vapor flitting in revealing regularity through a tiny vent into the cold air. Muskrats paddle around nervously, and an occasional imperious mink is seen. Birds are all over; an entry in the logbook of one hunting camp reports the sighting of 51 species, including the ptarmigan, and another entry says succinctly: "Saw one Arctic three-toed woodpecker. Female. V. busy." There are black ducks, Canada geese, teal, plover, herons, fishhawks, kingfishers, crows, owls, and loons that come in three delicious sizes: small, medium and large. "I do not underston eet," says Guide Georges Noel. "The small loon, he still make as many noise as the big one." The biggest of the three loons is an ocean bird; it dives on herring and tomcod by trade, and, loonlike, it stays underwater until you are just about to notify the next of kin. Then it pops up, fat and noisy, riding slightly lower in the water.
Some hunters come to Anticosti, see sights like these and never take a shot. Or they get so absorbed in nature study that when a deer comes along they forget everything they ever knew, like the one who took 17 quick shots at a deer last year, missed with them all and then happily went back to his compulsion of the moment, which was the study of the mushrooms proliferating on the island. It is the opinion of such observers as Guide Noel and Chief Warden McCormick that a sort of temporary insanity frequently comes over the most rational of men when they reach Anticosti, its huge herds of deer and its unexpected wonders. McCormick remembers a hunter who shot a deer, dressed it out and then left it overnight while he dashed off looking for a second deer to fill his bag. When he returned in the morning he found a pile of bones and a belching whisky jack. "Another time a hunter saw three big bucks banging their horns together in a mating fight," says McCormick. "He fired a shot and all three of them went down. He must have hit them right in the horns. So he started going toward them, and one by one they got up and ran off. The hunter stood there without firing a shot, he was so dumfounded." Frequently an Anticosti hunter will see a deer rack pop up in the tall grass, whereupon he will fire a shot and see the deer duck down out of sight. A few seconds later the rack will come up again, and the hunter will shoot again. Then he will walk to the spot and find he has killed two bucks. Such things happen because it is a rare deer hunter who can accustom himself to the idea that he is ever going to see more than one nice rack in any one day (and in some parts of the U.S., in any one season).
The ultimate experience in Through the Looking Glass hunting is the beach stalk (as re-created on the cover), an Anticosti specialty of the house. The best time to begin a beach stalk is about an hour before sundown, when the deer grow bolder. They start to appear along the shoreline and feed on the scrub growth just behind the beach. Now and then one will walk to the water's edge for a helping of kelp. "The deer, he cannot take pills," explains Edmond Dresden, head warden of the Ste. Marie River Camp, "so he eat the seaweed for the vitamins." Theoretically, it should be easy to get a clear shot at a deer on the Anticosti beach, but I didn't find it so. In the first place, the beach is itself a distraction of formidable proportions. It is made up, at the shoreline, of tiny pebbles of limestone, rounded and smoothed by the sea and growing progressively larger as you back away from the water's edge until they are fist-size. Everywhere there is driftwood, from tiny bits and pieces up to whole trees, and all of them polished like the rock in exactly the same cool shade of gray as the limestone. Here is a wrecked dory, done up in the same color; and here is an almost new lobster pot full of kelp; a life preserver still inflated; a green bottle bearing the words "Bacardi Brasil"; and another bottle with a cap that says "Dujardin"; there is the jawbone of a deer, with the teeth intact and sharp; the jaw of a shark; and a larger bone from a whale. Down the beach, terns and plovers are poking at the kelp wrack, and still farther away foxes are scavenging for mussels and tomcod washed up by the tides. My guide and I are walking along the shoreline, our boots slopping through the littoral, when a sea serpent snorts and blows and quickly vanishes below the surface. It is a gray seal, known on Anticosti as the horse-head because it has an elongated head and a body six to nine feet long and weighs up to 800 pounds. There is no limit on the horsehead, because it feeds heavily on salmon, but it does not reappear. Instead, a deer comes into sight 300 yards down the beach. It is a big buck with 10 or 12 points, and it does not see us. "O.K., monsieur," the guide says. But I have hesitated for just a second; the deer's white tail flicks straight up in the classical danger signal, as visible at a distance as a heliograph message from the U.S.S. Forrestal, and then the big animal plunges into a stand of small spruce trees so thick that there doesn't seem to be room for a field mouse. Now we are moving after him and back into the forest, along a rutted path, past uprooted stumps, denuded birch trees, miniature evergreens a foot tall, stands of Christmas trees, larger trees snapped in half by the winter winds, stacks of dead brush, through berry bushes and thorns; across an old tote road with a yellowing cardboard sign advising: Attention au Feu, and on and on stalking the flickering tail of a deer. And suddenly it is evening, and everything has become edges. We come into a clearing, and the guide gestures me to a stop. "There he is, there!" he whispers. A hundred yards away, squarely behind a tree, is the buck. Its face is hidden; its horns are visible on either side of the trunk. Therefore it cannot see us, but neither can we shoot it. There is nothing to hit but rack. And so we stand, and so it stands, and it is almost dark, and finally I click the safety back on the gun and whistle as loudly as I can. Instantly the horns disappear; there is a glimmer of movement, and then that white tail slices the air in a vanishing arc, and the deer is gone in the shadows.
"Monsieur!" says the guide. "Why do you do that?" But he is smiling as he talks. He has been around, and he knows why I did that. Sometimes a man is a raging killer, and sometimes a man knows ultimate grandeur when it smacks him in the face.
ANTICOSTI TRAVEL FACTS
GETTING THERE: The island can be reached by plane or ship. There are daily flights from New York to Montreal by Eastern and Trans-Canada (first-class round trip about $67, economy about $50); Trans-Canada has daily turboprop flights from Montreal to Sept-Iles on Quebec's north shore (first-class round trip $86, economy $64). Air Gaspé flies from Sept-Iles to Port Menier on Anticosti. This leg of the trip takes 40 minutes and costs $34 round trip. Air Gaspé will also fly sportsmen in and out of Anticosti on a charter basis; and private aircraft, including float planes, can land on the island (Consolidated Paper Corporation Ltd. suggests that "all aircraft should circle Port Menier two or three times before landing, in order to attract the attention of members of our organization who will supply the visitors with ground transportation"). Consolidated Paper runs the M.S. Anticosti, a comfortable 500-ton ship, from Rimouski, Quebec City and Gaspé Village to Port Menier. Rates, which include berth and meals, vary widely from season to season. Interested sportsmen should write to Consolidated Paper, Anticosti Division, P.O. Box 69, Montreal, Que. (Information about Anticosti's superb Atlantic salmon fishing is also available at the same address.) All reservations for hunting and fishing on the island must be made in advance with the company.
STAYING THERE: Sportsmen stay either at the river camps situated on or near the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the salmon rivers, or at the island's only hotel, the Staffhouse, in Port Menier. The river camps, designed for four to six people, are more expensive, but they offer better food, more experienced guides and scenic wilderness settings. The camps have electricity, the plumbing is inside and the wood-burning stoves are always stoked with sweet-smelling birch logs. Bedding, linen and guides (one for every two hunters) are provided, as well as transportation—by four-wheel jeep or pickup truck—to and from the best hunting areas. Although the camp menu often includes salmon (canned at the camps), turkey, chicken and fresh duck, a taste for venison is almost a prerequisite. Sportsmen can have pan-fried deer liver (or deer heart) and onions for breakfast, along with eggs and pancakes, and p√¢té de foie chevreuil (chopped deer liver, prepared and canned by the camp cooks) for lunch. A dinner specialty is thin venison rump steaks, sautéed in sizzling black butter and served medium rare.
HUNTING THERE: The deer season runs from mid-August to mid-November. Guides on Anticosti like to still-hunt the overgrown tote roads that pass through cut-over forest. Because of the large deer population, organized drives are unnecessary, but Anticosti deer blend so well into the color of the forest margin that the native guide, whose eyes are trained to penetrate thick cover, is as important to the hunter as his gun. Still, even the hunter with an aim less than true will get his limit of two deer. Most hunters use .30-caIiber rifles equipped with four-power telescopic sights. Consolidated Paper offers numerous package deals for hunters, ranging from three days' hunting (transportation to and from the island excluded) for $175 to six days at a river camp for $335, including transportation by ferry to and from Gaspé Village. Nonresident hunting licenses, which should be secured before arrival on the island, cost $25.50. Waterfowl licenses are $15.50.