[ GENERAL MAP OF ROUTES FOLLOWED BY THE AUTHOR DURING TWO VOYAGES MADE TO THE GULF OF MEXICO ]
THE APPROACHES TO THE WATER-WAY OF THE CONTINENT.
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 Gaspé 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.
Frequently dense fogs cover the water, and while slowly moving along, guided only by the needle, a warning sound alarms the watchful master. Through the heavy mists comes the roar of breaking waters. He listens. The dull, swashy noise of waves meeting with resistance is now plainly heard. The atmosphere becomes suddenly chilled: it is the breath of the iceberg!
Then the shrill cry of "All hands on deck!" startles the watch below from the bunks. Anxiously now does the whole ship's company lean upon the weather-rail and peer out into the thick air with an earnestness born of terror. "Surely," says the master to his mate, "I am past the Magdalens, and still far from Anticosti, yet we have breakers; which way can we turn?" The riddle solves itself; for out of the gloom come whitened walls, beautiful but terrible to behold.
Those terror-stricken sailors watch the slowly moving berg as it drifts past their vessel, fearing that their own ship will be drawn towards it from the peculiar power of attraction they believe the iceberg to possess. And as they watch, against the icy base of the mountain in the sea the waves beat and break as if expending their forces upon a rocky shore. Down the furrowed sides of the disintegrating berg streamlets trickle, and miniature cascades leap, mingling their waters with the briny sea. The intruder slowly drifts out of sight, disappearing in the gloom, while the sailor thanks his lucky stars that he has rid himself of another danger. The ill-omened Anticosti, the graveyard of many seamen, is yet to he passed. The ship skirts along its southern shore, a coast destitute of bays or harbors of any kind, rock-bound and inhospitable.
Wrecks of vessels strew the rocky shores, and four light-houses warn the mariner of danger. Once past the island the ship is well within the estuary of the gulf into which the St. Lawrence River flows, contributing the waters of the great lakes of the continent to the sea. As the north coast is approached the superstitious sailor is again alarmed if, perchance, the compass-needle shows sympathy with some disturbing element, the cause of which he believes to exist in the mountains which rise along the shore. He repeats the stories of ancient skippers, of vessels having been lured out of their course by the deviation of the guiding-needle, which succumbed to the potent influence exerted in those hills of iron ore; heeding not the fact that the disturbing agent is the iron on board of his own ship, and not the magnetic oxide of the distant mines.
The ship being now within the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, must encounter many risks before she reaches the true mouth of the river, at the Bic Islands.
The shores along this arm of the gulf are wild and sombre. Rocky precipices frown upon the swift tidal current that rushes past their bases. A few small settlements of fishermen and pilots, like Metis, Father Point, and Rimousky, are discovered at long intervals along the coast.
In these St. Lawrence hamlets, and throughout Lower Canada, a patois is spoken which is unintelligible to the Londoner or Parisian; and these villagers, the descendants of the French colonists, may be said to be a people destitute of a written language, and strangers to a literature.
While holding a commission from Francis the First, king of France, Jacques Cartier discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, during his first voyage of exploration in the new world. He entered the gulf on St. Lawrence's day, in the spring of 1534, and named it in honor of the event. Cartier explored no farther to the west than about the mouth of the estuary which is divided by the island of Anticosti. It was during his second voyage, in the following year, that he discovered and explored the great river. Of the desolate shores of Labrador, on the north coast, he said, "It might as well as not be taken for the country assigned by God to Cain."
The distance from Quebec to Cape Gaspé, measured upon a course which a steamer would be compelled to take, is four hundred and seven statute miles. The ship first enters the current of the river St. Lawrence at the two Bic Islands, where it has a width of about twenty miles. By consulting most maps the reader will find that geographers carry the river nearly two hundred miles beyond its usual current. In fact, they appropriate the whole estuary, which, in places, is nearly one hundred miles in width, and call it a river -- a river which lacks the characteristics of a river, the currents of which vary with the winds and tidal influences, and the waters of which are as salt as those of the briny deep.
Here, in the mouth of the river, at the Bics, secure anchorage for vessels may be found; but below, in the estuary, for a distance of more than two hundred and forty-five miles, to Gaspé, there is but one port of refuge, that of Seven Islands, on the north coast.
As the ship ascends the river from Bic Islands, a passage of about one hundred and sixty statute miles to Quebec, she struggles against a strong current. Picturesque islands and little villages, such as St. André, St. Anne, St. Rogue, St. Jean, and St. Thomas, relieve the monotony. But very different is the winter aspect of this river, when closed to navigation by ice from November until Spring. Of the many tributaries which give strength to the current of the St. Lawrence and contribute to its glory, the Saguenay River with its remarkable scenery is counted one of the wonders of our continent. It joins the great river from the north shore, about one hundred and thirty-four statute miles below Quebec. Upon the left bank, at its mouth, nestles the little village of Tadousac, the summer retreat of the governor-general of the Dominion of Canada.
American history claims for the Roman Catholic church of this settlement an age second only to that of the old Spanish cathedral at St. Augustine, Florida. For three hundred years the storms of winter have beaten upon its walls, but it stands a silent yet eloquent monument of the pious zeal of the ancient Fathers, who came to conquer Satan in the wilderness of a new world. The Saguenay has become the "Mecca" of northern tourists, ever attracting them with its wild and fascinating scenery. Capes Eternity and Trinity guard the entrance to Eternity Bay. The first towers sublimely to a height of eighteen hundred feet, the other is only a little lower. A visit to this mysterious river, with its deep, dark waters and picturesque views, will repay the traveller for the discomforts of a long and expensive journey.
Where the turbulent current of the Saguenay mingles angrily with that of the St. Lawrence, there may be seen disporting in the waves the white whale of aquariums, which is not a whale at all, but a true porpoise (Delphinopterus Catodon, as he is now called by naturalists), having teeth in the jaws, and being destitute of the fringed bone of the whalebone whales. This interesting creature is very abundant in the Arctic Ocean on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and has its southern limits in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, although one is occasionally seen in the Bay of Fundy, and it is reported to have been observed about Cape Cod, on the Massachusetts coast.
As the ship nears the first great port of the St. Lawrence River, the large and well cultivated island of Orleans is passed, and the bold fortifications of Quebec, high up on the face of Point Diamond, and flanked by the houses of the French city, break upon the vision of the mariner. To the right, and below the city, which Champlain founded, and in which his unknown ashes repose, are the beautiful Falls of Montmorency, gleaming in all the whiteness of their falling waters and mists, like the bridal veil of a giantess. The vessel has safely made her passage, and now comes to anchor in the Basin of Quebec. The sails are furled, and the heart of the sailor is merry, for the many dangers which beset the ship while approaching and entering the great water-way of the continent are now over.