It’s hard not to become all doe-eyed at the most dominant feature of Quebec’s largest island.
Bigger by some margins than Canada’s smallest province — Anticosti Island clocks in at nearly 8,000-square-kilometres, compared to Prince Edward Island’s 5,600 — its largely untrammelled natural wonders are reachable only by air or boat.
With a resident population of 250 or so — P.E.I. has roughly 160,000 — it is not troubled with traffic jams.
What it does have is an estimated 120,000 white-tailed deer, the highest concentration in eastern North America.
This makes the island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence a honey pot for hunters, but shooters packing only cameras are equally welcomed. The animals’ numbers are managed by Sépac, a provincial recreation agency that oversees conservation and works with outfitters to arrange hunting expeditions.
Surprisingly, the Bambi bonanza owes its origins to chocolate. More precisely, to a certain French chocolatier whose dreams of a private island paradise where he could hunt and fish for salmon in splendid isolation would lead to a wholesale upsetting of the ecological apple cart.
Dubbed the King of Chocolate, industrialist Henri Menier purchased Anticosti in 1895, and began construction of an elaborate hunting lodge-cum-château while stocking the island with several species of game animals.
This included 220 imported deer. With no natural predators, the ungulates soon began remaking the island in their own image, grazing furiously on the balsam firs and birches to the point where enclosures were built to help save the forests.
Menier’s grand vision never quite materialized — he died in 1914 and his heirs sold the island to logging interests 14 years later — but the island’s only settlement, Port-Menier, is an enduring legacy to his vision. Situated on the west of the island, it’s the only place with paved roads.
On the outskirts, tourists can visit what remains of his castle, destroyed by arson in 1953, as well as a museum and reconstructed tower that overlooks its original foundations.
Known to Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, the island was first described in 1534 by French explorer Jacques Cartier, but wasn’t settled by Europeans until a century later. It changed hands and names many times before settling on “Anticosti” in the 17th century.
In 1974, the provincial government took over the island and eventually granted Port-Menier municipal status, with Sépac administering most of the rest. The mid-1970s saw a push to protect the island’s wilderness, and many years later the 570-square-kilometre Anticosti National Park was born. Managed by Sépac, it celebrates its 20th anniversary this April.
Forestry would define it throughout much of its recent history, but it was Anticosti’s role in maritime disasters that chilled the blood of earlier storytellers. Known as the Graveyard of the Gulf, the island’s reefs would claim some 400 ships in pre-lighthouse days. The waters remain treacherous, with vessels still running aground occasionally, despite automated beacons and modern navigational aids.
Quebec newspapers of the time recorded grisly stories of cannibalism and murder in “Wild Anticosti,” and narratives recount the tale of eccentric farmer Louis-Olivier Gamache, known as the “sorcerer of Anticosti,” an evil “moonraker” who lured ships to their ruin, the “witch of the island” and simply a strange bird. Such were his malevolent powers, it’s said he would hoodwink the local innkeeper into serving him two meals — one for his benefit and one, gratis, for the devil at his side.
“He reigned like a king over his island domain,” says Sépac.
Ghostly tales and relics abound. On the north coast, the Wilcox shipwreck is the most accessible and impressive evidence of its seafaring past, while the abandoned Pointe Sud-Ouest lighthouse to the south offers tantalizing glimpses of an old farmstead set amid grave markers and other traces of the distant past. Several small cemeteries scattered around the island provide an “extraordinary legacy of tombstones.”
Less spectral delights await at the Grotte à la Patate, one of the longest underground caverns in Quebec. At 625 metres in length, the “potato cave” can be freely explored at your own pace and is billed as the most unusual excursion on the island. Headlamps and helmets are available to rent.
Salmon fishing enthusiasts are drawn to Jupiter River, while hikers love the many canyons that cleave the landscape of the 222-km-long island and bird-watchers are transfixed by the 200-plus avian species that call the island home, including the highest concentration of bald eagles on the eastern continent.
In the national park, the Vauréal Falls tops the bill. Rising to 75 metres (taller than Niagara Falls at 51 metres), it rewards hikers who take a 3.2-km limestone canyon with wow-worthy vistas and 15,000 years of geological history. More than 600 fossil species have been recorded.
Perhaps the best way to explore the park is on a four-hour “thousand marvels” tour. Vacationers in their own vehicles follow a park warden who provides commentary through a radio system and at arranged stops along the route. The Sépac agency offers vehicle rentals as well as various vacation packages of up to seven days, including air transport from Quebec terminals. Accommodation is provided at inns, cabins or campsites.
Four-star digs are also available in former lightkeepers’ homes hard by the sea, which teems with a dozen species of marine mammals, including many whales, and with seals basking in the sun.
As the emblem of Anticosti, though, white-tailed deer “rule the roost” on the island, developing several characteristics that separate them from their counterparts on the continent, the island’s stewards state. And thanks to a chocolate baron’s ill-fated paradise, visitors can rub shoulders with these special animals up close — “a privileged contact with nature.”
A sweet treat, you might say.
— Andre Ramshaw