CHAPTER I. THE APPROACHES TO THE WATER-WAY OF THE CONTINENT.
ISLAND OF ST. PAUL. - THE PORTALS OF THE GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE. - THE EXTINCT AUK. - ANTICOSTI ISLAND. - ICEBERGS. - SAILORS' SUPERSTITIONS. - THE ESTUARY OF THE ST. LAWRENCE. - TADOUSAC. - THE SAGUENAY RIVER. - WHITE WHALES. - QUEBEC.
While on his passage to the ports of the St. Lawrence River, the mariner first sights the little island of St. Paul, situated in the waste of waters between Cape Ray, the southwestern point of Newfoundland on the north, and Cape North, the northeastern projection of Cape Breton Island on the south. Across this entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence from cape to cape is a distance of fifty-four nautical miles; and about twelve miles east-northeast from Cape North the island of St. Paul, with its three hills and two light-towers, rises from the sea with deep waters on every side.
This wide inlet into the gulf may be called the middle portal, for at the northern end of Newfoundland, between the great island and the coast of Labrador, another entrance exists, which is known as the Straits of Belle Isle, and is sometimes called "the shorter passage from England." Still to the south of the middle entrance is another and a very narrow one, known as the Gut of Canso, which separates the island of Cape Breton from Nova Scotia. Through this contracted thoroughfare the tides run with great force.
One hundred years ago, as the seaman approached the dangerous entrance of St. Paul, now brightened at night by its light-towers, his heart was cheered by the sight of immense flocks of a peculiar sea-fowl, now extinct. When he saw upon the water the Great Auk (Alca impennis), which he ignorantly called "a pengwin," he knew that land was near at hand, for while he met other species far out upon the broad Atlantic, the Great Auk, his "pengwin," kept near the coast. Not only was this now extinct bird his indicator of proximity to the land, but so strange were its habits, and so innocent was its nature, that it permitted itself to be captured by boat-loads; and thus were the ships re-victualled at little cost or trouble. Without any market-value a century ago, the Great Auk now, as a stuffed skin, represents a value of fifteen hundred dollars in gold. There are but seventy-two specimens of this bird in the museums of Europe and America, besides a few skeletons, and sixty-five of its eggs. It was called in ancient days Gare-fowl, and was the Goiful of the Icelander.
Captain Whitbourne, who wrote in the reign of James the First, quaintly said: "These Pengwins are as bigge as Geese, and flye not, for they have but a little short wing, and they multiply so infinitely upon a certain flat island that men drive them from thence upon a board into their boats by hundreds at a time, as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admerable instrument for the sustenation of man."
In a copy of the English Pilot, "fourth book," published in 1761, which I presented to the library of the United States Coast Survey, is found this early description of this now extinct American bird: "They never go beyond the bank [Newfoundland] as others do, for they are always on it, or in it, several of them together, sometimes more but never less than two together. They are large fowls, about the size a goose, a coal-black head and back, with a white belly and a milk-white spot under one of their eyes, which nature has ordered to be under their right eye."
Thus has the greed of the sailor and pothunter swept from the face of the earth an old pilot - a trusty aid to navigation. Now the light-house, the fog-gun, and the improved chart have taken the place of the extinct auk as aids to navigation, and the sailor of to-day sees the bright flashes of St. Paul's lights when nearly twenty miles at sea. Having passed the little isle, the ship enters the great Gulf of St. Lawrence, and passes the Magdalen Islands, shaping its course as wind and weather permit towards the dreaded, rocky coast of Anticosti. From the entrance of the gulf to the island of Anticosti the course to be followed is northwesterly about one hundred and thirty-five nautical miles. The island which divides an upper arm of the gulf into two wide channels is one hundred and twenty-three miles long, and from ten to thirty miles wide. Across the entrance of this great arm, or estuary, from the high cape of Gaspe on the southern shore of the mainland to Anticosti in the narrowest place, is a distance of about forty miles, and is called the South Channel. From the north side of the island and near its west end to the coast of Labrador the North Channel is fifteen miles wide. The passage from St. Paul to Anticosti is at times dangerous. Here is an area of strong currents, tempestuous winds, and dense fogs. When the wind is fair for an upward run, it is the wind which usually brings misty weather. Then, from the icy regions of the Arctic circle, from the Land of Desolation, come floating through the Straits of Belle Isle the dangerous bergs and ice-fields. Early in the spring these ice rafts are covered with colonies of seals which resort to them for the purpose of giving birth to their young. On these icy cradles, rocked by the restless waves, tens of thousands of young seals are nursed for a few days; then, answering the loud calls of their mothers, they accompany them into the briny deep, there to follow the promptings of their instincts. The loud roarings of the old seals on these ice rafts can be heard in a quiet night for several miles, and strike terror into the hearts of the superstitious sailor who is ignorant of the origin of the tumult.