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LEGACY OF A FRENCH NOAH
Jack Olsen
October 07, 1963
At the turn of the century Henri Menier imported 100 pairs of whitetail deer to add to the wealth of natural wonders of his Anticosti Island. Menier is now only a memory, but the 50,000 deer that roam the island keep hunters happy and busy
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October 07, 1963

Legacy Of A French Noah

At the turn of the century Henri Menier imported 100 pairs of whitetail deer to add to the wealth of natural wonders of his Anticosti Island. Menier is now only a memory, but the 50,000 deer that roam the island keep hunters happy and busy

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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.

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 go�lette 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.

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