Ramblings of an Old Hiker – The Isle Haute Expedition
By Steve Grant
Back in 2009 a very good friend of mine (Moose) asked me if I was interested in going out to Isle Haute for a few days hiking. Apparently, when he was in grade school, local fishermen would take small groups out to the island for a day trip and he got to be part of one of those and he always wanted to return as an adult.
There’s always been a bit of mystique around the island for me, not growing up in the area, living in the area for 30 years or so. When you are entering the village limits of St. Martins, you can see out across the Bay of Fundy and one of the things you see is this tall island off in the distance. Sometimes known as flying island because of its appearance to hover above the water when you get a layer of bay fog close to the water. There are also stories of pirates treasure associated with and Mi'kmaq history that predates the Europeans coming to the area, a truly intriguing place.
Without too much discussion I was up for the adventure, now the island is only about 3 Km (~ 2 mi) long, 0.5 Km (~0.3 Mi) wide and about 100m (~325 ft) tall. The journey from St. Martins harbor would be about 30 Km (~20 mi.) and as luck would have it there is an established campsite on the eastern end of the island which is the only part of the island that is accessible by boat as the rest of the island’s coastline is large cliffs.
Moose contacted a local fisherman who was willing to take us out, he gave us a price and indicated that he could take about 12 people aboard his boat and though he had never actually been on the island himself was willing to take us out, drop us off and come back and get us a few days later. We pulled together a small group of men who would bring their sons along, myself (my son was in his teens and working so he wouldn’t be coming), and John (the stand-in pastor of our church at the time) to make a total of 12 people (then math worked out to be less than $100 per head for the trip). Our original plan was to go out to the Island early Sunday Morning and come back on Tuesday afternoon but a weekend storm kept the boats in the harbour and things got pushed to Monday through Wednesday.
Tip: Whenever I plan a multi-day excursion I add an extra day to my vacation plan in case things slip by a day. In this case, it was nice having the flexibility of pushing the schedule a day at the last minute. Though I’ve never come home from a hike a day late there have been times when we have been unsure on whether the journey was really 3 days or 4 and I was the guy on the trail completely relaxed about spending an extra day on the trail.
If I remember correctly we all met at the St. Martins wharf at 4:30 am. Side note, for some reason I hate getting up before 6 am, unless I’m going hiking, fishing or some other outdoor activity (something more important than work) then there’s not issue. We got our gear and ourselves aboard with what lights are at the harbour and on the boat and headed out of the harbour. Since the tides in the Bay of Fundy are 40+ feet (50+ feet at the head of the bay) the tidal currents are strong so it makes sense to my be traveling up the bay when the tide is going out, that combined with a shallow St. Martins Harbour that has the boats sitting on the mud a low tide means the boat’s skipper gets to choose when we leave and return to the harbour.
Our trip to Isle Haute was about 4.5 hours, the Bay wasn’t calm but also wasn’t sea sick weather so we all did OK. I must admit though I don’t do great on boats (I can canoe all day with no issues), I can feel nauseous and I need to stay up on deck or I feel worse. I don’t get sick so the people around me aren’t aware of the way I feel but it is just uncomfortable so I probably didn’t enjoy the journey to and from the island as much as some of the others and my friend John was chowing down on the Solomon Gundy (Pickled Herring), I tried a piece but it wasn’t going to make the situation better so I decide to not push my luck.
We anchored just off the Nova Scotia side of the East end of the island dropped the Aluminum boat in the water to shuttle people and gear to the stone beach of the island. I went on the first trip so I could assist in getting gear off on that side, it was still foggy enough that the little boat disappeared on the way to the fishing boat. Once we had everything landed we walked up the beach to the campsite to find it was not what we expected, nothing but rock and fire pit. We looked across the point of the island to see what looked like another campsite on the other side of the lagoon, probably only a half mile away. The problem was that we really weren’t packed for hiking, John had milk crates full of stuff (frying pan, cast iron griddle and groceries, this guy knows how to travel). Once there we found a very nice spot with lots of room for our 6 tent, a makeshift kitchen shelter built out of driftwood, a huge fire pit, a pipe coming from a spring in the bank and an open to the air pit toilet around the corner. There was also a small plastic fish box top labeled “Island Log Book” and beneath of it was a sealed container containing the Island Visitors logbook and a trail map of the island. We set-up camp and we all individually cooked some lunch. Since John and I were the only two without our sons we agreed to share the kitchen shelter and since I had some eggs and John had pancake mix we decided to collaborate on meals as well.
After lunch, we had a bit of a scrum to create a plan where we decided to wait to explore the top of the island the next day so we would spend the remainder of this day exploring the beach and lagoon area. It was a leisurely day walking the beach, exploring the fresh water lagoon (I expect it’s brackish) and walking out onto the bar that appears at low tide but is well underwater at high tide. The rock formations are super interesting (fractured vertically instead of horizontally), the boys played in the water, we gathered driftwood for the fire and after supper we sat around the fire pit, did some reading from the island log book and enjoyed.
In the morning, we had breakfast and armed with the map we found on the previous day we headed up the trail to explore the island. At one time, there was a lighthouse and a full working farm, the foundations are still there. There is also a foundation from the second lighthouse, a beacon tower (about 70 ft) and a helicopter pad for when the beacon tower needs maintenance. The trail goes from one end of the island to the other including a narrow land bridge that connects the western end of the island and you get to look down about 300 feet on both sides as you make your way across. The view from the western end of the island is spectacular. We spent most of the day exploring the trails, saw hundreds of seals hanging out on the beaches visible from the land bridge and even had lunch on the helicopter pad. We headed back to the campsite for supper and after we eat John and I journeyed back up to the top of the island to climb the beacon tower (I hope this confession doesn’t get me arrested) to get an aerial view of the island. We spent another evening around the fire pit re-experiencing the day, reading the island log book and even leaving some of our own comments.
On day three we had breakfast, backed up and got ready to meet the boat. At this point the boys (some of the elementary school age) were getting a bit bored so the time we spent here was probably well calculated for the group we had. When it arrived, on the right side of the island this time, we saw the aluminum boat coming to shore and the skipper and his hand took a bit of time to check out the island before we started shuttling gear and people aboard and off we went. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water and instead of heading directly back to St. Martins he took us directly across to the coast of New Brunswick and then we traveled along the coast to our destination. I’ve hiked the complete coastline from Point Wolf in Fundy National Park to Big Salmon River outside of St. Martins but this was my first opportunity to see the coastline from the water and it is outstanding. Once back we spent a bit of time anchored outside of the mouth of St. Martins harbour waiting on the tide for enough water to get into the harbour. For those non-nautical readers, there is a buoy tethered in the channel to give the Fisherman a visual indication on how much water there is as the tide goes in and out … I love practical solutions.
All in all, it was a great excursion, the Bay of Fundy is spectacular any day of the week, any time of the year. To have a small island to yourself with no other people (only your group), at least that’s the way it worked out for us … no reservations and no guarantees. The island is a beautiful spot, the campsite is primitive but has water (they say it’s potable but we filtered ours for be on the safe side) and a pit toilet (bring your own toilet paper). Oh, a detail that I forgot to mention earlier, there are not mammals larger than a mouse, lots of birds and insects but no large mammals. This means no bears and I saw no mosquitoes so I’m speculating that they need to mammals for food.
As a bonus; here’s a picture of a sunset taken from the toilet seat …… who could ask for more. As I write this I’m thinking that it might be time to plan another excursion to Isle Haute, maybe the summer of 2018.
Until next time my friends;
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