There is an island off the coast of Quebec called shikuan-misiwe. A visitor would find it very pleasant, and teeming with animals and wild berries. The seas surrounding it are rich and calm, and the skies always clear. Only on its southern edge can any trace of civilization be found, and that merely the broken remnants of an old fishery and church house. But the island’s pleasing appearance belies its dangerous history, and the dark reputation it has earned among the local populace.
My travels took me there in the Summer of 1845. It was difficult to find a crew willing to make the trip, even with the promise of an exceptionally large sum as compensation. Fishermen give the area a wide berth, and some consider it bad luck to even see the island. I finally persuaded a young captain to provide transportation, and set out under a blue sky to see it for myself.
On the way I interviewed the crew about the island’s lore. Much of what they said I confirmed in a later trip to the county archive, where newspaper articles and official documents bore out their tale.
The first attempt to settle the island had been in 1534. Basque whalers used the island as a home base, returning every autumn to butcher their kills. At the end of the season in 1534 they left behind a contingent of 39 men, women, and a few children to build facilities for their return. Those people were never seen again.
In 1611, a group of French frontiersmen established a settlement with the goal of harvesting the island’s generous supply of fur pelts. At first the trappers were successful, shipping out hundreds of furs each day. A few months after their arrival, however, fog descended over the island. For 60 days no ship could penetrate the mist, much less contact its inhabitants. When the haze finally lifted, the trappers and their cabins had vanished.
The final settlement lasted a little longer. Quakers divided the island into homesteads in 1765, and built a town center on the southern coast. They kept to themselves, and had little interaction with the French-speakers of the mainland. Then, one day in 1767, boats from the island arrived at nearby Percé’s harbour in a panic. They claimed that the ocean had risen over their town, drowning the island and leaving only treetops uncovered. A hastily organized rescue fleet arrived to find the island as it had always been, but devoid of human residents.
In addition to this grim history, the men shared a number of more colorful anecdotes. Most were of the inevitable variety that grows up around any subject of local myth; devils had been seen dancing under a full moon, or those who spoke the island’s name were cursed.
Yet some of the accounts were quite interesting. Several men claimed that strange artifacts had been found on the island, evidence that it had been inhabited in ages past by a people more advanced than the native Indians. One old sailor told me that the island was the first place that Europeans had set foot on in Quebec, and was cursed by the land as a result.
When we arrived none of the sailors would disembark, and I set out to explore alone. Given the warnings I had received this may strike you as reckless, but the aspect of the island was so inviting that I refused to remain cooped up on that fishy boat any longer.
The island was peaceful and beautiful. I found the remains of the third settlement, but of the first two I found no sign, save perhaps for fragments of whale bone on one of the beaches. Of wildlife the island held a stunning diversity, including several species of fowl and rodent that I had not previously observed. I spent the afternoon mapping the island and sketching its inhabitants before reluctantly setting back to the ship.
At the halfway point of my trek the earth began to shake, and I heard the loudest noise of grinding and crashing I have ever experienced. I threw myself down in a sudden panic, afraid of being struck by a falling branch. The noise seemed to be loudest in the west, and looking over I saw trees swaying and falling as though some massive creature were charging at me through the woods. Around me, the animals I had been admiring all day stood silently, as though at attention, their eyes fixated on me in uncanny concentration.
I retreated as quickly as possible, nearly flying onto the boat and shouting at its captain to set sail. The crew reported seeing and hearing nothing amiss, though we were alike in our enthusiasm to leave that place behind us. I do not know what force makes its home on the island, but it will take a soul more adventurous than I to unearth any more of its secrets.
The Innu have their own tales of shikuan-misiwe. They say that it is a blessing, that in times of famine it provides food and shelter for those who need it. In the days before the Europeans, they say, shikuan-misiwe was open to all peoples.
But one tribe grew greedy, and tried to claim the island for themselves. One night a caribou walked into their camp and showed them its throat, saying, “kill me and be nourished, but leave this place so that all may benefit from it.” The people ate the caribou but ignored its words. The next night a bear came into the camp and showed its throat, saying “kill me and take my meat, but leave this place so that any person who is hungry can enjoy it.” Again the people ate the bear and took its fur but ignored its words. Greedily they waited to see what delicacy the next night would offer. But the spirits of the earth and the sky and the sea grew angry at the tribe's selfishness. In their anger they destroyed the people of the island as a warning to all who would abuse it: no men can ever claim the island as their own.
- Sir Gideon Maxwell
Book of Eleven Hours, Volume VII