Life on Bird Rock is either a battle with winged hordes or a “vigil atop an iceberg”
EVERY evening, between seven and eight o’clock, radio receiving sets at some points in the Maritimes suddenly choke with interruption. The hollow, static-like roar lasts for two or three minutes.
Many listeners, with frowns of disgust, switch their dials. Others, patient enough to see it through, may detect, amid the medley of noises, a human voice. It has that monotonous, singsong tone of a crier at a railway terminal calling stations. The words are pretentious and cryptic; the figures might be a code.
ft is the voice of the lightkeeper on the Bird Rock, in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He is droning the weather log by radio telephone to the wireless station at Grindstone, Magdalen Islands.
Around and about him, above and Ixdow him, is a feathery realm of birds that swarm like locusts gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, gulls, razor-billed auks. Bedlam.
The lightkeeper seals himself within the small radio cabin. Otherwise, he wouldn’t lx; heard above the clamor. The radio racket, which bursts in u|xm dinner music on the mainland, while it is not caused by the birds, oddly enough gives one an idea of the din they create.
Grindstone relays the report to Cape Breton; thence it is flashed by land wires to the Dominion weather bureau at Toronto. Together with data gleaned from other sources, it forms the basis of the "probabilities.” Sometimes it causes storm warnings to be sent to ships at sea.
Bird R(x k is one of the malicious pranks of Nature an oval outcropping of the great Magdalen reef. It rises straight up on all sides to a tabular summit 115 feet above the tossing waves. Its surface measures 11 ¿ acres. All around it are deep, jagged crevices made by the violence of the waves.
It would lx* hard to find a lonelier, bleaker or more detestable sjx>t. The lightkeejx?r and his two assistants, their lives governed by duty and rigorous vocation, leant the secrets of solitude under conditions of hardship endured by few Canadians.
In summer, a reeking atmosphere rising from a labyrinth of nests, putrid fish, rotten eggs and dead birds, and the hideous, incessant uproar, make the Bird Rock a marine Gehenna. When autumn comes, the birds migrate in droves to a warmer clime. But the trio of Acadian watchmen, dedicated to the cause of safe navigation, must stay. The mercury ranges from ten to thirty degrees below zero, and, sweeping across the top of the rock, come fifty, sixty and eighty-mile-anhour gales from Labrador. Time and again they dig themselves out of snowbanks pik'd up by lashing blizzards. All around them, as far as the eye can see, there is
nothing but the dead whiteness of a sea ol floating ice. From November until April, for all practical effect, they live atop an iceberg.
Yet Montague Arsenault*, the keeper, is able to laugh. He has been on the rock ten years, with only one winter’s respite.
"When I can’t laugh,” he said, “then it is time to quit.”
Except for a pair of low, cruel ledges sticking out of the water a quarter of a mile to the northwest, the Bird Rock stands alone, dominant and sullen, a repulsive blot on a majestic seascape.
Ocean liners and other ships give it a wide berth. None go closer, if they can help it, than a dozen miles. Which explains, perhaps, why it is so little known and talked about, save by mariners. On a clear day it stands out ominously against the sky; at night, a great revolving light from a fifty-foot tower flashes its warning around the dark horizon. When fog or mist shroud the gulf—which is often—and gales whip the water into tumult, the rock lurks unseen like a masked bandit in an alley. The ghostly wailing of its fog alarm makes the blood of seamen run cold.
Sixteen miles in a general westerly direction lies Bryon Island, isolated outpost of the Magdalens, and twenty miles southwest is Grosse Island, of the same group. This is the nearest practical medium of contact with the mainland. The tip of Cape Breton is fifty miles southeast.
A Cloud of Wings
IT WAS from Grosse Island that the writer made the journey over the open gulf in a fisherman’s motor dory. Fortunately, the gulf was in an unusually placid mood. The gaunt outlines of the rockloomed almost at the start.
Three hours run. and we came up about a mile to windward. It was a melting hot day, yet at that distance it appeared to be covered with snow and its sides crusted with frost. It was a strange illusion.
Though tipped off beforehand regarding what to expect, the actuality was incredible. It was almost impossible to believe that the sheath of whiteness was formed by birds.
John James Audubon, the famous naturalist, when he visited the spot a century ago. wrote in his diary:
“No man who has not seen what we have this day can have any idea of the impression the sight made upon our minds.”
Suddenly, a great swarm of gannets took wing with a rumble like thunder. An enormous white cloud of them, hundreds of yards in extent, swooped overhead. It had the odd effect of a snowstorm suspended in mid-air. So dense were they that a battery of machine guns would have
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had no effect. The clatter was deafening. Then, another army corps of them rose from the southern side of the rock and drove eastward.
As long ago as 1720, the Jesuit explorer, Pierre Charlevoix, wrote:
“What is so wonderful is that in so prodigious a multitude of nests, every bird finds its own. We fired a cannon shot that spread the alarm over all this feathery commonwealth, when there rose over us a ! thick cloud of these fowl at least two or three leagues in circuit.”
The calmness of the sea permitted an easy approach. In circumference, the rock is about half a mile, and we made the circuit at a distance of about 100 yards. On all sides was the same amazing sight, tier upon * tier of birds squatting in their nests. Gannets, with their black-tipped wings, ruled the vast roost.
j 'Three ways are offered to reach the summit, but two of them call for the nerve and agility of a circus acrobat. On the southwest side, an iron ladder descends vertically for a distance of sixty feet. To reach the bottom rung, it is necessary to climb a series of slanting ledges; and there is the added risk of being nipped on the ankle by some outraged razor-billed auk. A similar but even shorter ladder is located on the east end of the rock. To scale either may lx; just a passing stunt for a seaman used to the rigging of a barque, but to a landlubber the feat is far from inviting.
A more conventional method is offered on ! the north aspect. Here, there rises from the water an iron stairway of 147 steps. Still, it is hard to imagine a dizzier one. The thought of climbing it produces a funny, gulping sensation in the throat. But it has the advantage of a fissure in the rock which j permits a slant of alxmt twenty degrees.
1 By its side runs a ramp, on which supplies are hoisted by means of a winch and derrick.
To secure a footing on the small jetty is a trick in itself, and there are numerous complications. One might cruise around for a fortnight and lx: unable to get near enough to try. The lighthouse tender has been ! known to stand off for as long as three ! weeks. For a successful approach, wind and wave must almost suspend activity. A small boat, caught by one of the swells that normally plunge in against the rock and swirl about in eddies, would be dashed to j pieces.
Even under the favorable conditions we encountered, it called for keen helm skill and dexterous use of a boathook before the I craft was lashed to the iron stanchions.
I The fisherman followed me up the steps, j As we reached halfway, he turned and looked out over the sea.
I “Remember,” he warned, “if the wind ! shifts and she begins to blow any, we’re stuck. So don’t lose no time if you don’t want to stay here a month.”
The insufferable odor that arose from the ledges told me emphatically that I desired no such lengthy visit. On both sides, scarcely two yards away, were endless rows j of nests. Countless heads were cocked in our ’direction. Overhead was a nerve-racking clucking and screeching from myriads of small throats.
A stocky, weatherbeaten, grey-haired man in overalls, with glasses and wearing a peaked cap, was standing at the top. He 1 smiled amiably, and in broken English told me I was the first visitor, apart from officials and an odd fisherman, who had arrived in two years. With him were his two assistants.
The surface of the rock was almost as level as a billiard table. Here and there were spaces of green verdure. The habitation was concentrated toward the east end, the lighthouse towering over everything. Around it ! were grouped a number of small buildings —a dwelling, nidio cabin, paraffin storage house, toolhouse and cooking galley.
But everywhere - birds, birds, birds Î 1 Already 1 was sick of them, even nauseated. I The aerial was jammed with them. They
perched on the nxjfs. wing to wing. Anywhere where tiny claws could get a grip were birds. It seemed that all the feathered denizens of the seven seas were gathered in convention.
Arsenault explained that all they could do was to keep the occupied part of the rock free of nests. It was a constant task of elimination. All windows and doors had to be kept shut—a nuisance in warm weather.
“But you can’t stop the clatter,” I said. “Doesn’t it drive you dippy?”
He shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
There was only one answer. He was used to it. At first, ten years ago, it had got on his nerves and made him want to scream, but now—well, if by some miracle the birds were rendered dumb, it would be the silence that would become intolerable.
“And the odor?”
He had got more or less accustomed to that, too. Which proves the limitless elasticity of human endurance. Besides, he added, there was a six months’ respite in winter.
One horror traded for another, I thought.
As he piloted me about the rock, we came upon a space about eight feet square, enclosed by a low fence. In the centre stood a crucifix. Apparently, it was a shrine.
“No,” said Arsenault, “it’s a cemetery.”
I asked who was buried there.
He smiled grimly.
“Nobody . . . We wait for that.”
It was a consecrated burial ground all ready for a victim.
Then I learned something of the morbid, gruesome history of the Bird Rock. Around it has grown a halo of superstition, of illfortune. hardship and privation. In the minds of Magdalen seafaring folk there is a fixed belief that atop the rock there dwells a jinx. Almost every succeeding group of men who have manned it have met with disaster of some sort.
The Cow That Went Mad
THE lighthouse was placed there in 1870.
During the first winter the keeper, a Gaspé man, went insane and threw himself over the side. The second group of men ran out of food and nearly perished from starvation before help arrived.
Their successors suffered a worse tragedy. In those days, an obsolete cannon was used for a fog alarm. The instructions were that only three charges of powder should be carried to the cannon at one time, but this time they rolled a keg. The gun backfired and a spark flew into the keg. In the explosion that ensued the lighthouse keeper was blown clean off the rock, and a second man and a boy were ripped to pieces.
The cannon still stands on the northeast comer of the rock, a souvenir of the disaster. A subsequent trio met the most curious
fate of all—for a place like the Bird Rock. They were poisoned. How. nobodv to this day has discovered. At any rate, two of the men died.
Tour years later, the lightkeeper of the time and one of his assistants were lost on the ice floes while chasing seals. Their bodies were never recovered. And as Arsenault told me of this episode, he admitted that he himself had a narrow escape under similar circumstances three winters ago. He confided, however, that he had bagged no less than eighty seals during his sojourn on the rock.
Finally, as an odd climax to the tragic recital, he told me the sad episode of a cow. The animal was brought to the rock, after considerable difficulty, by his predecessor, who had a yearning for fresh milk. Within six weeks it went mad and jumped into the sea.
When he had finished I saw the force of Arsenault’s cynical, cryptic, “We wait for that.”
Radio an Enjoyment
THEN we talked about winter. How did he and his assistants survive the bleak, dreary months on top of this windswept plateau? W’hy did they have to stay at all since St. Lawrence navigation was then dosed?
“If we left, we’d never get back in time for the opening,” he explained. “Then, there’s the sealing fleet from Newfoundland. They use my light as a pivot.”
Arsenault said that since wireless had been installed, winter life on the rock had been at least bearable. He had his private radio, and reception was extraordinarily clear. Stations at any distance could be brought in —sometimes London and Paris music, direct. And when radio failed, there were the fiddle and concertina of his two assistants.
Perhaps, too, when he makes his daily weather reports—the readings of barometer and anemometer—by radio telephone to Grindstone, he sometimes talks with his wife and family. They lived, he told me, less than a mile from the wireless station.
In summer, the tender brought them to visit him. As a matter of fact, he was just then expecting his daughter, Aldee. All of them had spent months at a time on the rock and were inured to its environment.
The previous winter, Arsenault had spent ashore; his son, Alphonse, relieving him at his duties. Alphonse, he said, had put in the time making a detailed model of the rock to scale. His own hobby, he announced, was cabinet-making.
From the edge of the rock I looked down upon the two ledges standing out of the sea to the northwest. They are called the Little Bird Rocks, and they, too, literally are white with winged life. Arsenault said that on their limited surface there were at least 25,000 birds.
Landing on them was most difficult, he said, but sometimes fishermen made a raid to kill birds for codfish bait. The birds rose in such density that they beat one another down, piling several feet high. They were then easily slaughtered with clubs.
I had spent half an hour on the Bird Rock. It was more than enough. I was dizzy and quite ill, and craved untainted air. All around me were nests—rows and rows of them, like a potato patch or the tents of a military camp. I never wanted to see a bird’s nest again. When I thought of the boatman’s warning I broke into a panic.
Going down the iron ladder wasn’t nearly as bad as making the ascent. Every step was toward escape.
In a few minutes, the dory was cleared, the engine sputtered and the boatman, boathook in hand, waited for a receding swell.
Overhead a vast chorus of feathered imps of Satan gave a raucous farewell.