The enigmatic outdoorsman’s paradise wants to entice ecotourists via new transportation routes
by Rick Grant
It’s Anticosti’s mystery that hooks you: a remote island wilderness steeped in the history of European adventurers and native lore, and a rugged coastline strewn with shipwrecks. Generations of hunters and anglers have succumbed to its spell. Soon geo-tourists may experience it, too.
Anticosti Island is seeking UNESCO World Heritage status and an air transportation link with Halifax, as part of an ambitious plan to greatly expand its tourism. The move would re-orient the economy after a decade of uneasy involvement with oil exploration and fracking.
Central to Anticosti’s appeal is its remoteness.
Situated in Quebec, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, north of Gaspé and west of Newfoundland, there is no easy or cheap way to get there. At 8,000 square kilometres, it is one-and-a-half times larger than Prince Edward Island with only a fraction of the population. The 2016 census shows 218 inhabitants and the number is declining. There are more beds in the hunting lodges of the island’s three outfitters than there are in Port Menier, where permanent residents live.
There are only two ways on to the island: a charter flight, or the twice-weekly cargo/passenger ship, Bella Desgagnés. On the St. Jean Baptiste long weekend in late June, Anticosti mayor John Pineault chartered flights to bring mainland delegates to a forum on the island’s future. Approaching the western tip of Anticosti, after a 45-minute flight from Bathurst, NB, all you see is dense evergreen forest, a few roads, and the tiny village of Port Menier.
On the island, there are no resident police, only mainland officers who fly in every few months. Upon their arrival, Lynn Lemire, an island municipal worker, says the community radio station usually gets a tip off from a spotter at the airport. “The radio station then plays a song, ‘Bonjour la Police,’” she says. The Rock et Belles Oreilles tune is a well understood signal on the island.
Says Lemire: “We know we have to wear our seat belts, and cars and trucks that shouldn’t be on the road are parked until the police leave.”
Landlines remain the surest method of communication. There’s almost no cell service on the island, just a few sweet spots, although Wi-Fi is available.
On the 10-minute drive to the village, you quickly recognize the dominant species is white-tailed deer. They rule. They’re everywhere—on top of the island’s crest, darting out of the forest in front of the truck, walking the town’s streets, munching grass in someone’s yard, and on every souvenir.
Deer outnumber residents by about 550 to one. Every Sépac truck [the Quebec crown corporation that manages public territories] is fitted with a hefty bumper in case of collisions. In 2012, Outdoor Canada estimated that up to 160,000 deer roamed the Island. Being non-native to Anticosti, they have no natural predators, only hunters and weather.
The animals are the descendants of 220 white-tailed deer imported to the island by Henri Menier, a wealthy French chocolatier, businessman and adventurer, shortly after he bought Anticosti in 1895. They were part of a menagerie of moose, bison, rabbit, beaver, mink, grouse, and frogs he introduced to establish his private game preserve.
Menier also brought in silver fox for fur farming but gave up and released them into the wild to join the island’s native red fox. They interbred and still thrive on a diet of snowshoe hare and other small mammals.
There are no snakes, ticks, skunks, raccoons or squirrels. You can take a walk anywhere without fear of harm from wildlife. Noticeably absent too are dogs. To make Anticosti self-sufficient, Menier brought in beef and dairy cattle as part of his farm operations. When the cattle became ill, his veterinarian blamed dogs for spreading disease so dogs were exterminated and banned from Anticosti. Unless they are service dogs, canines are still prohibited.
The mayor has no intention of lifting the ban either. He says, “We’re leery about changing the law with the deer population and fear that you’d end up with wild dogs.” Cats and pet deer are allowed, though.
Deer are a precious resource. They account for hundreds of outfitting jobs and bring in about 8,000 hunters a year who spend about $10 million. The revenue comes primarily from three outfitters: Sépac, the biggest outfitter on the island; Safari Outfitters, owned by wealthy Quebec businessman, Marcel Dutil, and Pourvoirie Lac Genevieve d’Anticosti, owned by island residents.
Sépac vice-president Dave Boulet says his operation handles between 4,000-5,000 guests annually. Apart from a couple of hundred anglers who come for the salmon, the guests are hunters, but the season is short and confined to the fall.
Mayor Pineault is leading the drive to create new opportunities on Anticosti. From 2005 to 2017, it looked like oil was the future. It’s been estimated that up to 50 billion barrels of oil are trapped in Anticosti’s shale. He says, “We would have had to frack to get at it. Fracking uses about 30 million gallons (120 million litres) of water per well. Water we don’t have.” Fracking led to division among residents and First Nation non-residents opposed it, he says.
Last summer, the Quebec government ended oil exploration on the island and paid out the last of the $61 million in compensation to companies such as Petrolia of Rimouski, Quebec, and Corridor Resources of Halifax, NS that were doing the exploration.
So now the mayor and the provincial government have shifted their economic focus to attracting niche tourist groups—people who like to hike and bike in the wilderness, enjoy nature, or get a thrill eyeing the world’s oldest fossil.
The strategy is really about the community’s survival. Anticosti’s population has taken a 30 per cent dive in the last 10 years that no-one saw coming. In the school, there are three teachers for 10 students. It takes 280 workers coming from other parts of Quebec for six months a year to keep the island and its outfitters running. Faced with these realities, the community has decided it needs to diversify and grow in order to prosper in its extraordinary surroundings.
To that end, Anticosti has set its sights on attaining UNESCO World Heritage designation. In December 2017, the island was shortlisted by Ottawa as one of eight candidates from which Canada will choose only one to submit to UNESCO for the prized status.
University of Ottawa professor André Desrochers, a geological engineer renowned for his research on sedimentary basins, says Anticosti Island is ideal for the UNESCO accolade. The first of the earth’s five mass extinctions occurred 450 million years ago when, Desrochers says, “85 per cent of all species living in the sea became extinct.” That’s about 385 million years before the fifth mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Anticosti, he says, is the world’s perfect laboratory to study what happened. “There’s no other place in the world where it’s well exposed, where the out crop is so continuous.” Desrochers says it’s impossible to avoid fossils from that period on the island, “They are extremely abundant. You can basically pick them like berries. The most abundant are brachiopods.” The professor says scientists as far afield as the University of Ghent in Belgium, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, the University of California at Berkley, and the University of Victoria have all been to Anticosti to research the mass extinction event.
The Quebec government is backing Anticosti’s UNESCO bid. Environment minister Isobel Melançon has pledged to pick up two-thirds of the estimated $600,000 tab to produce the dossier, making the case for Anticosti’s designation, due next February. The minister has also announced $7.2 million to expand Sépac’s visitor accommodations. Half the money will go to a new 16-room hotel and the rest to renovate some of the crown agency’s chalets on the island.
The municipality is spending $1 million on a 575-kilometre trail for hikers and cyclists. Some trails already exist following the telegraph lines that Henri Menier built a century ago. “The first 150 kilometres is fully financed,” says Mayor Pineault. “What we want to do is build a walking trail that would bring you all the way around the island.”
There are bikes for rent in town now, but really the only way to get around is to rent a big half-ton truck from Sépac. They aren’t cheap. Rentals run about $400 a day, plus hundreds more to fill the tank.
A good trail would allow hikers and cyclists to see the spectacular 71-metre-high Vaureal Falls, accessible now only by a half-ton rental. It’s the same for the Jupiter River, one of the few rivers where Atlantic salmon can be fished.
The island’s craggy coastline has its own attractions. More than 400 ships have smashed on Anticosti’s rocky shores and several can still be seen. Five of the seven lighthouses built between 1831 and 1919 are still standing.
Because the outfitters primarily use their chalets in the fall, the mayor hopes to offer some of them for tourist accommodations outside the hunting season. Broulet, the Sépac vice-president, says that if the marketing is successful, a lot more rooms will have to be built.
Critical to attracting those tourists will be getting cheaper and regular transport to the island. This issue is being tackled on two fronts. The Quebec government is studying the economics of a daily ferry service to the island from Gaspé. At the same time, the mayor is exploring potential connections with Halifax including establishing a regular flight between Halifax and Port Menier, which would be a 90-minute trip. Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport could be a vital connection for international tourists from the northeastern United States and Europe. The mayor says “it’s easier to get from Paris to Anticosti going through Halifax than it is from Montreal. He also wants to develop the Atlantic Canadian market: “I think that would be a really good market to tap into.”
Maritime Air’s director of operations Kathleen Legge says if the company were to operate flights between Halifax and Port Menier, they would not have to be chartered. Individual tickets could be sold. Together with the outfitters, the mayor is planning a meeting to probe the feasibility of such a service.
Setting a new course has risks for this small resilient island community, but there is plenty of optimism too. If the mayor and his determined island residents succeed, they could provide a beacon to other unique coastal communities struggling for survival. As for the rest of us, a trip to the wildly beautiful and difficult to access island of Anticosti could suddenly become within reach, a scant 90 minutes from Halifax.
Anticosti’s complicated ownership
Fully 440 years before Quebec bought Anticosti, Jacques Cartier “discovered” it in 1534, which would have been news to the Innu and Mi’kmaq who had hunted there for thousands of years.
Cartier christened it Isle de l’Assomption. Almost a century later, Samuel de Champlain settled on the name, Anticosti. Although Cartier claimed the island for France, its ownership changed hands many times over the next 400 years.
King Louis XIV granted Anticosti to Quebec-born adventurer Louis Jolliet in 1680. The island remained in the Jolliet family until 1763 when the Seven Years’ War ended between France and England, and the Treaty of Paris transferred Anticosti to Newfoundland. Ownership of Anticosti flipped four times between 1763 and 1825. Confederation in 1867 settled the matter, and it became part of Quebec.
Throughout its history, private owners claimed or bought Anticosti. Louis-Olivier Gamache and family arrived on the island around 1810. The absence of documents did not prevent the French-born sailor and fur trapper from claiming ownership. Gamache, known as “The Sorcerer of Anticosti” claimed he had a deal with the devil. That deal didn’t give him immortality, and following his death other owners took on the island.
Finally, an honest to goodness sugar daddy arrived: French chocolatier, businessman and adventurer, Henri Menier bought Anticosti in 1895 for $125,000, roughly $3.5 million in 2018 dollars. Although it was Quebec territory, Menier viewed it as his own principality, building a fabulous mansion, issuing his own currency, introducing hydro electricity, telegraph, a sewage system, a small railroad for forestry and his own game preserve. In 1926 the Menier family sold out and logging companies took over for the next half century.
Private ownership ended in 1974 when Quebec bought Anticosti for nearly $24 million—about $128 million today. Residents at last could own their own homes and direct the future of the island.