Sara Keddy article for The Regiister

THE REGISTER, Berwick, N.S., Wednesday, July 23, 1997

Article & images courtesy of Sara Keddy

Elusive Isle Haute captures scientists' imaginations

By Sara Keddy
ISLE HAUTE – Isle haute doesn’t "look right" to a team of scientists who spent last week studying insects, plants, rocks, archaeological sites and the natural environment.

They aren’t referring to the folklore of buried treasure, or New Brunswickers’ idea the island moves around the bay at certain times of the day, or even the three-masted schooner seen on sunny days in the bottomless depths of a brackish pond. They are talking about variations in insects and small mammals, the way the forest grows and adaptations island populations have made to survive.

"The island doesn’t look right when you walk around it – it’s dry and it has trees. The number of species is low. We expected some old growth forests, but it’s quite heavily altered. There are big thick alders. The kind of forest this is to support an ecosystem is strange – there’s no understory." Andrew Hebda said July 16. He is the curator of zoology at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

"It looks like a jigsaw puzzle – you get everything put together and there are a few pieces missing. We’d expect the island to be relatively self-contained – balanced – or everything dies."

Not that there hasn’t been a varied history of life on the island in the most recent centuries of its 200-million-year-existence. Isle Haute is a lava formation, like the basalt rock of the North Mountain, dating back to the Jurassic period. The island may once even have been connected to the mainland, before the Bay of Fundy was formed 8,000 years ago.

Native Mic Macs often stopped on the island, although historians are unclear why. Stone chips from tool making have been found along the beach. Champlain stopped on the island in 1604, observing towering bluffs, timber and fresh-water springs. In the 1800’s, picnickers from the mainland came in groups sometimes as large as 300. A wooden ship was once built on the beach, and fishermen used the beach while out in the Bay. In 1878, a lighthouse opened to caution passing ships of shallow rock spurs at the east end of the island, and rocks to the west. The lighthouse was manned until 1956, when a fire collapsed the tower and home of the keeper and his family. The lighthouse was replaced by a steel tower and is now checked by helicopter. People still visit the island, but it is a complex trip against the tides, weather and distance.

What is on the Isle of Haute?

The scientists’ study is the first comprehensive survey done on Isle Haute. Records go back over 100 years, but damage from treasure hunters and visitors, and time, has affected the island environment and heritage.

"The museum has the responsibility to catalogue in various ways the rocks, minerals, fossils, animals and plants of this province," said Alex Wilson, the collections manager for the museum of natural history.

"Isle Haute is elusive, not an easily visited spot. The team last year was very excited by what they found on a recognizance, and we’re back again this year."

There is nothing bigger on the island than a deer mouse, besides the migrating birds and the harbour and grey seals who sit on the rocks to the west. However, there is life on the island different from that found on mainland Nova Scotia. Flying insects and plans with wind-blown seeds are understandably living on the island, but what about centipedes, snails and other creatures?

"One of the lighthouse keeper’s sons missed the sound of frogs – or he wanted to scare his sister – so he brought some over," said Mr. Hebda. "Now, the population structures are odd."

There are twice as many male frogs as females living in a small pond on the top of the island. There are also dark forms of silverfish in basalt crevices –darker than any on record with the province. Even the deer mice are slightly larger on Isle Haute than on the mainland.

This could be in part due to a weaker form of "island effect" experienced in the ancient-style lizards of the Galapagos Islands. Still, over the years, there have been introductions by Isle haute visitors, either purposely or accidentally. Rabbits were once on the island, until the early 1900’s, when foxes were introduced to perhaps provide elegant ladies with stoles and coats. The rabbits were quickly eaten, the foxes either starved or went over ice to the mainland. Other creatures, such as European land snails, likely arrived with the first bale of hay to feed the keeper’s horses.

The hunt for pirate gold

Some people have come to the island looking for treasure. First, for a continuation of the copper vein found in Cape d’Or mined by the Mic Macs. None has been found – yet – although there are prospectors with rights to island exploration. The next theory was Acadian treasure, left on the island as Acadians were forced to leave Nova Scotia. That never gathered much attention, at least not as much as pirate gold.

"It starts off as a lonely island in the middle of the Bay – "Hey, there must be treasure on it," said marine historian Dan Conlin, who grew up in Welsford and at the family cottage in Turner’s Brook, looking at Isle Haute. "And the pond, it must have been artificial because it’s triangular."

Treasure hunters have dug holes all over the island, some quite large; mistaken basalt rocks revealed by erosion for marker rocks, covered territory with metal detectors and even tried to drain the pond. In 1952, American treasure hunter Edward Snow dug up a human skeleton with what then was $1,100 worth of Spanish and Portuguese coin scattered nearby.

Whether or not that was the first indication of pirate Edward Low’s stash seems never to have been validated. It could simply have been the body of a sailor, drowned and washed ashore after a shipwreck, then buried by the tides.

"It’s quite dramatic the damage done by treasure hunters," said archaeologist Dave Christianson. "If there was ever a case of too little information spread too far, this is it. We’re here to find out what is left of the native habitation site."

Pieces of stone used in native tool making found on the island are over 1,000 years old. The stones don’t seem to have come from Isle Haute, but were brought here and worked on the beach, either on purpose, or as an odd job while other work was done, perhaps fishing, hunting for medicinal plants or visiting with family from bands around the Bay. No signs of a major habitation have been found.

A natural draw

The team of scientists doesn’t have to tell people who live around the Bay what kind of attraction Isle Haute has. Sheer cliffs rising 300 feet above the water, with a dark forest on top, creates its own elements of mystery.

"We weighed the idea of bringing media here to see what we were doing, but in the long-term, it won’t hurt," said Bob Grantham, who spent 22 years with the museum of natural history and spear headed this expedition before moving to the Department of Natural Resources. "We’re here because of the unique island aspect of Isle Haute. It’s a natural draw."

Team members studying different parts of the island expect to have months of work from their collections and field notes. A one-day workshop in the fall will bring them together again to share what they know. The museum organization in Nova Scotia will use the information for its records, exhibits and research. Once a base of information is gathered, field trips every few years will record any changes on Isle Haute.

In the meantime, Isle Haute is federal crown land, included on maps with Cumberland County. Visitors to the island are supposed to have permission from the coast guard, which looks after the lighthouse and wants to know who is on the island in case it is damaged. The same challenges exist today for people who would like to see the island: weather, tides and distance; but it doesn’t lessen the allure.

"The island seems so isolated here now, but in fact it has been a meeting place for centuries," said Mr. Conlin. "People came for all sorts of reasons – and that continues today.

"With one glance, you’ve got two provinces, six counties, all the different landmarks, the shipwrecks and the cliffs. I came over in 1977 with the 2nd Berwick Scouts, and I had stared out at it since I was two. It was always there on the horizon, and I was very excited."

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Please note: - I don't know how to duplicate the format that Sara Keddy (Register editor) used for this article when it was printed in the Register, so I will be linking the images that appeared with this article at the end of this page (thumbnails to larger images) with the accompanying notes . The top right image was not published with the original article. I have posted the images at a high resolution and they are therefore quite large. - P.Vogler