Box 08-001 CANOEING AT GASPE
Aug 24 1928 [approximate date]
To: Hamilton, Ontario
Canoeing At Gaspe1
Rev. Calvin McQuesten
The celebration this year of the 400th Anniversary of Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada has drawn the attention of the whole Dominion to that great Peninsula of wildly lovely hills and valleys which juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as the Eastern extremity of the part of Quebec lying South of the Great River, and is still known by its Micmac (Indian) name of Gaspe, which means Land's End. For here, as we know from the great explorer's own journal, he made his first landing on the spot where Gaspe Village now stands, and took possession of the country in the name of the King of France. But six years ago when I caught my first glimpse of this delectable land, the Perrault Boulevard around the peninsula had not yet been completed; and even the name of Gaspe was scarcely known west of Quebec.
It was at a luncheon which Leon Garneau, K.C., gave in my honour at the Montreal Reform Club, with six other past-presidents of this great Liberal Club as fellow guests, that Senator Casgrain first gave me the idea that Gaspe Peninsula was a good place for canoeing. And it was B.J. Kaine of the Marine and Fisheries Department in Quebec, whose tours of inspection made him familiar with every bit of that beautiful coast, who directed me to Gaspe Village and the Hotel Morin as a good starting point. To all of them I owe a debt of delight, I can never repay. I dare not start to rhapsodize on the joys of canoeing, or I would never get underway with my story. But to me it is the great Canadian Sport.
I regard with pity poor chaps who are content to chase a pill around a pasture, and think it the greatest sport in the world. And of all the places I know for enjoying a canoe, Gaspe stands in a class by itself. I still remember my first summer there as a dream of delight. For I acted with promptness on the genial Senator's suggestion, and that very day took the Clark Steamship Company's staunch little steamer Gaspesia from Montreal. And in order to lose no time after I arrived, I got my canoe, a cedar-strip Peterboro cruiser with torpedo bow, up on the boat deck soon after we left port. And there, where I missed none of the splendid scenery, First Officer Fraser not only showed me how to take off the accumulation of many coats of varnish, but himself worked on it with me, so that it was bright and shiny with its new coat by the time we reached Gaspe Village.
Here I found comfortable and spotlessly clean quarters and excellent fare at the Hotel Morin, where I could lie in bed and watch an osprey hovering over a fish-trap nearby, and great three-masted and four-masted oceangoing sailing vessels coming up the Basin. At first it looked as if the difficulty of getting in and out of my canoe from the high wharves, made it necessary by the tides, was going to be a serious one. But Mr. Wilton Guignon, a kindly hardware merchant, not only allowed me to use his boathouse but borrowed a raft from Baker's Hotel to make me a floating dock. Mr. Wilton Guignon's house boat at Gaspe where the author kept his canoe, 'Sea Fox', the only craft in 'King George's Navy.'
I shall never forget the sheer delight of those early mornings of Gaspe Basin. As I stepped into my canoe from its low floating dock, starfish of assorted sizes were to be seen clinging to the face of the boathouse cribbing, and here and there a jellyfish, looking like a red anemone in the bottom of an inverted glass bowl, propelled itself gently along by expanding and contracting the lips of the bowl. At that hour the waters of the great landlocked harbour lay in unawakened calm. And as soon as I was clear of the wharves, the sandy shoal of St. George's Cove spread a garden of seaweed of various shapes and shades beneath my smoothly slipping paddle.
To my left the pine clad bank of Jacques Cartier Point poured forth a flood of melody while Song sparrow, Vesper Sparrow and Whitethroat sang matins with me as on my knees, an orthodox canoeman, I made my morning prayer. In the open water to the right, black, long-necked cormorants dove for their finny prey. In the shallows off the point in front of me, Great Blue Herons stooped their long necks to snatch their living breakfast, unheeding my approach.
Except where a low sandpit held the line against the storm troops of the open Gulf, the hills lay all about, some wildly wooded, other tamely tilled, some gently sloping, some abruptly steep; but all rich green in the abundant moisture of the coast. The sandy shoal of St. George's Cove spread a garden of seaweed.
Rounding Jacques Cartier Point the valley of the Dorchester River reached out, a noble vista, tier beyond tier of hills in varying shades of gray, fading into the dim distance, a soul-lifting view not unlike the valley of the Clyde where smoke and buildings do not mark it. Sometimes a gentle mist rose with the sun, but fogs are not frequent in 'Gaspesie au Soleil.' And here my memories are of pink and gold clouds of dawn crowning this glorious scene. Here is for me God's own true temple. Here I can sing:
I to the hills will lift mine eyes
From whence doth come mine aid.
Here on my knees in my beloved canoe with my bible open before me I worship, morning after morning, with a soul-satisfying sense of God's blessed presence, such as I have seldom experienced elsewhere.
Usually at dawn, I have the whole place to myself. Once I met a black-bearded fisherman looking for a lobster for his breakfast. (So he told me.)
'How far can I paddle up the river without portaging?' I asked him.
'Well.' He began translating the French idiom literally, 'you go about five miles up, and den you fall in de pool where dey ketch de salmon.' The rest of his direction I have forgotten. But one afternoon I did paddle up toward that beckoning vista of hills, past a sawmill, where a three-masted oceangoing sailing vessel loaded lumber for a West Indies Port, past a log boom held in by a long line of posts. On these posts sat a row of thirty crow-black cormorants, each on his own pedestal, stretching his wings as if beseechingly, but actually to dry them in the sun after his submarine pursuit of breakfast.
After twenty-five years of canoeing in the fresh water lakes and streams of Muskoka and the Laurentians, I found a fresh fascination in following my favourite sport on salt water; and so I purchased an old pair of maple beaver-tails with slender flat bevelled handles and small tops, the most beautifully balanced paddles I have ever handled, and the only hardwood paddles I have really liked. And there the tides were a new factor to be reckoned with, and one that added greatly to the interest of the game. When I turned home to breakfast after my morning diet of worship, I sometimes found it slow pushing against the tide in the channel that leads to the inner harbour; and I had to find out where the current was strongest and where it was most amenable. At other times the tide was with me and the return trip was made with ease and speed. But when other engagements permitted, I preferred to make my own breakfast with a little spirit stove set on the floor of the canoe or a thermos flask of coffee. Then I would spend the forenoon paddling to some objective in the spacious Basin or stretched against an easy-back reading or writing or just dreaming. About the middle of the forenoon a breeze usually sprang up, and after lolling in my sea cradle for a while, I must perforce, strike for the shore. Sometimes, if wind and tide, were both against me, this meant a long stiff pull for a single paddle. But the protection of the harbour made it safe enough and it was exhilarating exercise, where the sun was sparkling on the water and 'the sheep were jumping,' as the French-Canadians say, before a brisk breeze.
One evening the tide played a trick on me that was not so pleasant. I had gone some three miles up the York River, (Gaspe Village lies on a Cape, where the mouths of the York and Dorchester merge to form the Basin), when the ebb caught me in the middle of a mud flat; and I had to wade half-a-mile to shore, dragging my canoe. There I left it for the night and took the road home to the village. But I got some of my own back next morning. When I had launched my little craft at 7 o'clock, I lit my spirit stove for breakfast, and by the time I had finished eating, the tide had carried me to the village.
At Perce, the most spectacular part of the Gaspe Peninsula, I enjoyed a quite different set of experiences and thrills. As President of the Hamilton Bird Protection Society Incorporated, I was filled with a desire to make a thorough and leisurely survey of the great cliffs of Bonaventure Island, which lies out from Perce in the open Gulf of St. Lawrence. On the seaward face of these cliffs nest seabirds of many varieties, Sea Parrots and Sea Pigeons, Razor-billed hawks, Murres and Kittiwakes, but, most notable of all, great flocks of Gannets, a bird like a large white gull with a long yellowish neck and a sharp straight bill, which breeds nowhere else in the Atlantic Coast of Canada except on Bird Rock, off the Magdalin Islands. Unlike the Gulls, however, the Gannet is not a scavenger but a hardy fisherman, scorning the haunts and offal heaps of men, and ranging the open sea to dive for herring from the wing. A trip around this island with a party in a motorboat failed to give me sufficient time and opportunity for observation, so I decided to bring my canoe.
Now the village and shore of Perce is five miles from the railway station, and five miles on a truck over a rough and hilly road is not good for any canoe and I dreaded its effect upon my most cherished possession, (I have no wife). At 'Corner of the Beach' about six miles from Perce by water, however, the station is right on the long beach of Malbaie, an open stretch of blue water as beautiful as the Bay of Naples itself. And so I decided to detrain there and paddle myself over to Perce. It was a bit awkward that the only train in the day from Carleton on Baie de Chaleur, where I had gone with my canoe from Gaspe Village passed the beach at half-past seven, and it would be quite dark by half-past eight, as there was no moon. But the route lay alongshore all the way; and I have always found starlight enough to navigate in familiar waters, so I made careful observation of the landmarks and skyline along the way and of the lights including a useful red one, at the beach where I would land, and decided it was a safe enough scheme. I wrote to some friends at Perce asking them to meet the train at Perce station, as I passed through and take care of my baggage for me. And I intended, when I saw them, to ask them also to be at the beach to help me make a landing, if there were breakers to reckon with, but they, not knowing what was in my mind, and thinking only of the baggage, did not, unfortunately for me, reach the Perce station until after I had gone on in the train. At 'The Corner of the Beach' (the French name, Coin Du Banc, is handier), I found long gentle swells making quite visible breakers on the smooth sand. But I saw that, once launched, it would be safe and pleasant. I had stripped to my swimsuit in the baggage car, and arranged with some of the train crew to help me get off. And though a by-stander wailed, 'You'll be drowned,' I got away without shipping more than a gallon of water. But the decent chaps who helped me launch, got rather wet, I am afraid. It was a never-to-be-forgotten evening in more ways than one. The long oily swells recalled Tennyson's melodious phrase, 'The long wash of Australasian seas.' There was no wind to make more than the gentlest effort necessary. And in the soft and silent twilight, a lotus-feeling wrapped me like a lovely dream. When darkness fell, there came the phosphorescent effect which I had thought belonged to tropic seas alone. Bow-waves became an opalescent stream; the paddle dipped in glowing molten metal and, in the gentle undulation of that oil-smooth swell, all was forgotten but that moment's bliss.
Then came the rude awakening. As I rounded the scalloped cornice of the Three Sisters, and in came in sight of the lights of the North Beach of Perce Village, where I was to land, heavy clouds shut out all starlight, and darkness fell pitch black. This caused me no uneasiness, as the shore lights gave me my bearings perfectly. But to my ears there came the roar of breakers on the beach; and I knew that my canoe was in for trouble, though it was safe enough for me. It was so dark that the white crests of the combers were invisible, even when I judged myself almost upon them. The flat electric torch hung round my neck failed to reach far enough into the gloom. And I saw at once I would be better without it, and snapped it off. When I felt myself actually in the breakers, I quickly slipped overboard in water up to my waist, and grabbed my canoe to pull it ashore. But before I could do this it filled and swamped.
Now the struggle commenced. Full of water it was too heavy for me to haul out alone, as I have only one good hand, and it seemed as if I simply could not turn it over and empty it in any way. With someone's help, it could easily have been done in half-a-minute, but I was alone in the dark; and the deafening crash of the combers made it useless to call out, although there were houses within a hundred yards. For two solid hours, from nine o'clock to eleven, I fought and prayed to save my canoe. Again and again, through sheer exhaustion, I almost gave up the battle. But I hate to lose that precious craft. It suited me better than any other I had ever used; it had a movable centre thwart which helped greatly to circumvent my own physical handicap; and I knew so well what it could do under varying conditions of wind and water. Then we had seen and done so much together. And all the memories of brisk workouts on crisp breezy, sunny mornings, and of languorous dallyings on soft summer evenings, either alone or with companionship appropriate to each occasion, would have made me cling to it, even without those recollections of stiff tussles and dangerous escapades that bound it to me like a loyal comrade. Finally I know not how, (perhaps at the turn of the tide), I got my friend ashore, thanked God for it, and went home.
The most regrettable result of the episode I did not learn till later, I had a big room in Alfred Flynn's house right on the beach, where I could lie in bed and watch the sun rise gorgeously over Perce Rock itself, coming up a little farther South each day till finally it came glinting over opal ripples to flame through the mighty arch-way several minutes before its former time of appearing. But I got my meals at the South Beach Hotel with a most friendly and interesting Company of French-Canadian gentlefolk, including Abbe Bouiller and Abbe Rolland of the great Church of Notre Dame in Montreal, a gracious white haired daughter of the centenarian Senator Dessaulles, whom her friends addressed as Comtesse, Monsieur Louis Trudel, whom I had known as Deputy-Sherriff of Montreal, with his wife and daughter, a married sister of that redoubtable independent, Henri Bourassa, Monsieur Lucie Dansereau, Chief Engineer in charge of the Port of Montreal, his very charming wife and family, and Madame Dansereau's sisters and brother-in-law, Dr. Archambault. Those all had taken me to their hearts with true French-Canadian warmth. And when a nervous lady, who had seen me start from Coin-du-Banc and then lost site of me as my canoe disappeared from view in the long hollows of that lovely oil-smooth sea, telephoned to ask if I had arrived safely, and I, knowing nothing of any such alarm, omitted, owing to the lateness of the hour, to report at the hotel, but went straight to my room, there kind friends were in pitiful distress. And next morning, when I, the innocent cause of their sleepless night, appeared quite unconcernedly for breakfast, they welcomed me as arisen from the dead.
But my really great adventure was yet to come. It had not been conceived as such, but merely as a piece of leisurely observation for scientific purposes. As so often happens on canoe trips, it turned out quite differently. There was certainly nothing leisurely about it; and if any science came into it, it was not that of ornithology.
Beyond the Perce Rock lies Bonaventure Island, the most exposed spot on the East end of the Southern shore of the Great Gulf, with nothing between it and Newfoundland, but many miles of open sea.
It had seemed a quite safe and simple undertaking to paddle a canoe around Bonaventure Island in the calm of the early morning, and when I broached the idea to Jean Palardy, a young Montreal artist with a beautiful golden beard, he responded with enthusiasm. He said he had done a lot of paddling on lakes and rivers and would like to try it on salt water. We went out several times together, paddling easily around the Perce Rock and through the 80 foot arch, which gives the name 'Pierced Rock' to this famous island, which lies like the vast bulk of a derelict ship, 1200 feet long and 300 feet high, cast up, bow on, at the foot of Mont Joli. And we reveled in its rich colour, a lovely rose tint shading into golden bronze, which softens the grim outline of the rock itself.
One afternoon we spent a jolly hour riding the rollers when 'the sheep were jumping,' and Palardy found himself well pleased with my staunch canoe, and I with him as a bowman.
So we came to fix a morning for our voyage round Bonaventure island, Friday, August 24, 1928.2 The morning came, the weather was not ideal, being slightly foggy with some wind. But I had planned to leave the next day; and even under these conditions the project did not seem at all formidable. What I did not realize was that the wind being from the Southeast, the waves rolling in from the open Atlantic on the bleak, exposed, seaward shore on Bonaventure Island would be much larger and heavier than on the mainland where I was, which was protected by Bonaventure Island itself. Then, although I rose early, as I like to do in the summer, I was slow in getting away; and it was half-past seven when I got launched instead of six o'clock as we had planned in order to have the benefit of the early morning calm. Fortunately my bowman, Jean Palardy, a young Montreal artist with a beautiful golden beard, peddled a powerful steady stroke that always gave me steerage way.
By the time I had picked up Palardy, who was staying at the island, and reached the other shore it was half-past eight. As we passed a curious chicken-shaped rock, which I had hoped to photograph, we began to encounter heavy seas rolling toward us. But since we were able to take them bow on, or at worst on the bow quarter and the wind was not strong, they did not occasion us any difficulty or uneasiness, though when they crashed into the rocks on our left they threw spray high in the air. Where the outgoing tides from the two sides of the island met each other and also the heavy swell from the open sea, the cross-currents were boiling ---- the breakers crashing on the rocks threw the spray high in the air.
It was as we approached East Point that our real troubles began. Exposed on three sides to the full sweep of the open sea, the difficulty and danger of our position were increased by the fact that the tide was going out at that hour. And where the outgoing tides from the two sides of the island met each other and also the heavy swell from the open sea, the cross-currents were boiling like a maelstrom. It was the most difficult piece of water I ever attempted to put a canoe through, and Palardy, who had for several years been accustomed to shooting rapids, some of them among the most treacherous in the country, admitted that he had never encountered anything so bad. I myself was well used to meeting waves several feet high, and when they could be taken bow on or on the bow quarter, thought nothing of it. I had found also that my canoe behaved well even in the trough of a fairly heavy sea, where, having a good keel of an inch or more to keep it steady, I used to sit well over the side away from the waves, and so bring up the windward gunwale and give the shallow craft, (its depth in the middle was thirteen inches), two or three inches more freeboard. But here, between the heavy swell from the open sea, the rushes of the tide from the two sides of the island meeting it and each other, and the backwash from their perpendicular cliffs, waves of considerable height and force were coming at us from all sides at once. Each one had to be dealt with personally and individually. Some were so big that we could only meet them bow on or nearly so. Others were smaller, so that I could keep them from swamping us by simply throwing the weight of my body to the other side of the canoe and thus bringing up the gunwale to meet them. It kept me so busy looking for dangerous waves on all sides, that I had no eyes left to watch Palardy's paddle in the bow, so as to get the benefit of keeping time with him; and so I asked him to call the stroke. It was ticklish work at best, but his rythmic 'Dip! Dip! Dip!' steadied and cheered us both, and whenever he shouted back, 'How goes it?'
I answered, 'Fine! Fine! Fine!' with a heartiness I was sometimes far from feeling. It was the ugliest water I have ever handled a canoe in, during the thirty years or more which I have enjoyed this noble sport, and I needed all the confidence gained during those years in crossing wide and open channels with high seas running, all the canoe craft learned from many masters of it, with whom I have had the privilege of associating, and all the faith in God that comes from long experience of His protecting care through prairie blizzards and treacherous foothill fords, as well as among the forests, lakes and rivers of the north land in summer and in winter.
When we began to realize the danger of our position, we considered turning back. But having come so far, it seemed no more hazardous to go forward. In making this decision, I was misled by the speed of the motor-boat on which I had made my preliminary circuit of the island. From the mainland I could see the island to be five miles or so in length, but we seemed to pass these seaward cliffs so quickly in the motor-boat, that having no map which showed the island as more than a dot in the great open gulf, I pictured it as being long and narrow, with half a mile or so of these high cliffs at the outer end. As a matter of fact the island is round; and these perpendicular rocks rising up out of the sea, with the breakers against them, stretch for four miles and a half without a landing place.
This seething whirlpool, caused by the tide currents from the two sides of the island tumbling into each other, with the swell from the open and the backwash from the cliffs pitching into the melee from opposite sides, was so little to my liking that I suggested putting further out to sea to avoid it, but my comrade vetoed the idea, not being able to see how much stronger the wind was out farther, and so not knowing how much protection we were afforded by the lift of the wind to the high lee shore, I did not urge the point, but kept on countering the unremitting attack of waves from all directions by every device known to me. One moment I drove the canoe bow on into a big wave or took a less formidable one on the bow quarter. The next moment a lift of the gunwale by a body-shift was enough to repel a slighter attempt to board us broadside from another angle. It was a most interesting game and the stakes were the limit.
It seemed as if that line of frowning, towering cliffs with the grey wolves snarling along them would never end. I was getting very tired and my right hand next the blade was beginning to cramp, as my left is too weak to change about. Occasionally a sharp fear that I might not be able to stick it out long enough brought my heart to my throat; but for the most part my mind was too busy with the tactics of the moment to let it dwell on the outcome of the battle. My comrade's situation was much more nerve-wracking. In the bow there is nothing to come between the eye and the hungry pack rushing at you; and there is no steering to occupy the mind, which is left open to the assaults of panic. Fortunately my bowman was stout of heart and hand. He never wavered, but kept up a strong and steady stroke, so that I always had steerage way, and humanely speaking that was our salvation. I appreciated it particularly on the last leg of our race with the Grim Foe, as it was a run before the wind with the threat of being pooped; which is the dread of every kind of craft in a heavy following sea. One wave did catch us and swung the stern around so that the next came over the low gunwale and we shipped about a gallon of water. If this had been repeated we would soon have lost our scant six inches of freeboard and been swamped. But that powerful paddle in the bow enabled me to bring the frail craft into line before the third wave caught us. And after that by making a terrific effort we managed to keep ahead of the pursuing pack.
It was eleven o'clock when we reached the shelter of a little cove, with curious rocks like seals and sea lions on the shore, and in its calm water breathed a sigh of relief, and a prayer of thanks to the Good God who had delivered us. Here we stretched our cramped legs and rested our aching arms. My chest felt as if someone had tried to draw the sinews out of it as a cook draws them out of a turkey's leg. For more than two hours we had fought hard for our very lives. There was scarcely a moment in that time when we were not in imminent danger of being swamped in a sea where such feeble swimming such as I was capable of would have been to no avail. I have had some pretty close shaves of various kinds, but in each case either the crisis was over almost before I knew there was one, or else there was nothing much I could do about it anyway, but let nature take its course; such as when B. K. Sandwell and I, rowing across the St. Lawrence just above Lachine Rapids, found ourselves caught in the pull of the current and he had the only pair of oars. This was a hand-to-hand fight, and I must say I found it exhilarating and the exhilaration was more than momentary. It did something to me that has made me feel more of a man ever since, when I think about it.
It even affected my theology. I recalled the time when the boat in which Jesus and his disciples were crossing the lake was almost swamped while he slept, and when they roused Him with their cry of terror, the Master's words were simply: 'Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?'
There was no injunction added that they should be more careful in future; and when I tried to think of some utterance of the Great Teacher in line with the 'Safety First' stuff so popular today, it seemed conspicuous by its absence. I do not mean to say that I think we should be reckless with so precious a thing as life, where no adequate object is to be strained. But the highest life is not lived in a swathing of cotton-wool and when a man exercises reasonable care and then finds himself with a fight for life on his hands, I think he is to be congratulated as a lucky chap rather than condemned as a reckless fool.
So tune us a lilt to the light canoe,
From the Gaspe paddle springing,
Where the cross-currents boil,
And the great seas crash,
On the rock-shod heights aringing.
As we paddled quietly home after a good rest in the quiet cove, George Duval, descendant of French privateursmen, caught up to us with a motorboat load of tourists. He had known we were making the trip, and he said: 'When I got to East Point and saw that tide rushing round the point and the cross currents boiling against the rocks, I began to look for you piled up on the rocks. It is a bad place to land. There is no good place to land all along the North Shore. The rocks are so slippery, and the is such a bad undertow.' Duval and his family have lived on Bonaventure Island for several generations, and when he and his old father declared that no one had ever been known to go round the island in the canoe before, I began to understand how Lindbergh felt after the first Transatlantic flight on record. It is a wonderful feeling.
1 We cannot determine with any degree of certainty whether or not this is an article that Calvin had intended to publish or a speech/address given.
2 As there was no date on the original document, this is the date we have assigned to it.