In our piece on the top 10 creepiest places in Canada, three Canadian islands made the final cut. These spooky isles included Nova Scotia’s Oak Island, the site of Canada’s longest-running treasure hunt, said to be haunted by some unearthly presence; Newfoundland’s Bell Island, supposedly home to malicious fairies, a preternatural hag, and the ghosts of underground miners; and Cormorant Island, where sea serpents have been spotted in the water and wildmen heard shrieking in the night. In this video, we will take a look at ten more spooky islands in Canada. Enjoy!
#10: The Island of Demons
From 1507 until the mid-1600s, maps of Canada’s East Coast included this sinister-sounding island in the Atlantic Ocean not far from Newfoundland. The isle was said to be large, beautiful, and uninhabited, its external charm belying a dark secret. Legend has it that the Isle of Demons was haunted by ghosts and evil spirits, and that if any of its human visitors ventured too far into its wooded interior, they made themselves vulnerable to its malicious spectral inhabitants. Sailors who passed close by the island claimed they could hear a multitude of voices on the air, whispering incoherently.
In the spring of 1542, the island became home to three French castaways – a young unmarried aristocrat named Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, her lover, and her chambermaid. These three had all been passengers aboard a boat captained by Marguerite’s elder cousin, Jean-Francois de La Rocque de Roberval, a corsair whom King Francis I had appointed the first Lieutenant General of New France, a French colony newly established by explorer Jacque Cartier at the site of what is now Quebec City. While accompanying Jean-Francois on his voyage to his new jurisdiction, Marguerite, at the encouragement of her chambermaid, reciprocated the romantic advances of one of the passengers. The Lieutenant General learned of the illicit affair in the middle of the Atlantic, and, infuriated by his relative’s scandalous behavior, resolved to maroon Marguerite, her lover, and her chambermaid on the first island he came across, which proved to be the infamous Isle of Demons.
Three years later, a crew of Basque fishermen spotted the forlorn figure of a half-starved woman walking along the island’s lonely shore. Overcoming their fear that the woman might one of the island’s ghostly residents, they rowed over to investigate, and found Marguerite de Roberval gaunt to the point of emaciation, clad in a filthy tattered dress, yet very much alive. The fishermen rescued the unfortunate woman and brought her with them back to France. On the homeward journey, Marguerite explained how her two companions had succumbed to natural perils. She also told them how, every night she spent on that island prison, the gentle lapping of the tide was rent by the shrieks of the island’s demonic inhabitants, who emerged from the shadows to caper just beyond the light of her campfire, torturing her with their ghastly noises.
Despite a once-widespread belief in its existence, the Isle of Demons began to vanish from European maps in the mid-1600s. Today, it is regarded as a phantom island – a fiction spun from travelers’ yarns. Perhaps the Island of Demons is nothing more than a 16th Century fairy tale – or perhaps there really is an island in the North Atlantic where demons prowl, waiting for some hapless explorer to venture inland from the island’s lonely shores.
#9. Devil Island, Lake Winnipeg
On the southeastern shores of Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg, not far from the mouth of the Winnipeg River, sits a tiny speck of land known as Devil Island where, according to my Manitoban friend and fellow history enthusiast Morior Invictus, there once stood a cabin in which local Icelandic-Canadian fishermen sometimes sought refuge when caught in bad storms. This cabin was said to be haunted, and was once associated with several ghost stories that have long since been lost to history.
One strange story associated with Devil Island appears in folklorist Magnus Einarsson’s 1991 book Icelandic-Canadian Oral Narratives. Einarsson heard this story from an Icelandic-Canadian elder named Hallgrimur Stadfeld, who related it to him in an interview conducted in his home in Riverton, Manitoba, sometime in the late 1960s.
According to Stadfeld, Devil Island owed its sinister reputation, in part, to the disappearances of two men in its vicinity. One of these was a rich businessman from the city of Winnipeg, who went fishing on the southeastern shores of Lake Winnipeg back in 1914. The man’s empty canoe was later found afloat near Devil Island, with no trace of its wealthy owner in sight. The other unfortunate was a nameless native, whose particular fate Stadfeld did not recall. The island’s notoriety was matched by that of a proximate ghost town called Welsh Harbour, which once boasted a sawmill. When the town was still a thriving community, five sawmill employees were killed on the job, and according to local legend, returned to haunt their old workplace after death.
Stadfeld went on to relate a story told to him by an Icelandic immigrant named Jonas, who was known throughout the region for the large pack of dogs he kept, consisting of both wolfhounds and sled dogs. One winter night, Jonas hitched his dog team to his sled and headed out over the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg, intending to hunt for wolves around Devil Island. In the day, the area was a popular ice-fishing destination, and at night, the small, undesirable fish left behind near the fishing holes attracted timber wolves, of which Jonas’ wolfhounds would make short work.
“He travelled a lot at night when there was moonlight outside,” Stadfeld said. “Well… as soon as it was past midnight, the moon clouded over so badly that he didn’t’ see well enough, and it occurred to him that he should go into Welsh Harbour and… have a rest.”
Jonas mushed his way to the old ghost town and ushered his dogs into an abandoned shack. Unfurling a thick blanket made from moose and bear hide, the wolf hunter made his bed by the door, hoping to catch any of his hounds that had an inclination to stretch their legs.
At about 2:00 in the morning, Jonas’ sleep was interrupted by the appearance of a gigantic arm which reached in from the open doorway, grabbed his heavy blanket, and tore it away from him with apparent ease. For a brief moment, Jonas caught a glimpse of an enormous man standing outside the doorway, his features obscured by the darkness. Before he had a chance to react, his loyal wolfhounds lunged at the intruder and chased him toward the lake, leaving the meeker sled dogs cowering in the shack with their tails between their legs.
Before long, the wolfhounds returned to the shack with their ears flat against their heads and the fur of their backs standing on end, starling with fear and rage at the monster that had clearly driven them back to their master. Jonas, now wide awake, stood on the threshold of the shack, rifle in hand, peering into the night. Although he was unable to see the mysterious intruder on account of the darkness, his wolfhounds clearly did, and lunged in unison, snapping and snarling, perhaps when the giant turned his back to leave. Like before, they were soon put on the defensive, and returned to huddle around their master, baring their teeth at the menace in the darkness.
“Well,” Stadfeld said, “this goes on for the rest of the night… When it dawned, it occurred to Jonas that he should go out to see… what kind of trail, or tracks, this thing had made. Not a single track in the snow, anywhere, except the trampling of the [wolfhounds] back and forth… down to the edge of the lake and back up to the doorway. No trail, or… any tracks in the snow…”
#8. Devil’s Island (Lake Winnipegosis)
West of Lake Winnipeg are two large bodies of water that parallel it, one lying directly north of the other, which together run up the length of the province. The southern lake is called Lake Manitoba, and the northern Lake Winnipegosis.
On April 7th, 2020, my friend Morior Invictus told me about another Manitoban isle with a diabolical epithet, namely Devil’s Island, which sits off the northeastern shores of a long peninsula near the southern end of Lake Winnipegosis. Morior told me an old family tale about this sinister island, which he generously allowed me to publish here for the first time. The following is Morior’s story, in his own words.
“My dad’s mother’s side is Icelandic, and the Icelanders are very superstitious people. In the 1880s, my Icelandic side of my family came to Manitoba due to starvation caused by volcanic eruptions on Iceland. The Icelanders who settled in Manitoba on the Lakes were commercial fishermen by trade, and my great-great uncle ‘Big Leo’ was one such man.
“The story goes that one day, as he and his two fishing partners were on Lake Winnipegosis, they were caught by a storm in the middle of the lake off of Campberville [Camperville being a small Metis community on the lake’s southwestern shore]. They managed to make it to Devil’s Island, where they intended to wait out the storm. This was not long before WWI, so circa 1910-1913.
“It so happened that on Devil’s Island there was a fishing/trapping shack. It had been built years before, but apparently there had been a grisly murder there sometime in the 1800s. The shack was a single room affair with a table and chairs, woodstove and a small loft where one could place bedding for sleeping. Big Leo and his companions were actually pretty pleased that they were able to find shelter until the storm passed. So they decided to spend the night so they made up their beds in the loft, and fell asleep.
“In the early morning hours they awakened to the sound of a man screaming. Jolted awake, the three men looked at each other and quickly realized that none of them had made the scream. They then looked down to the floor below, from the loft, and watched the apparition of a headless man run around the table and right through the closed door of the shack leading to the outside.
“The shack is now long gone, but campers on the island insist that strange lights, apparitions, and screams can still be encountered on Devil’s Island off Campberville in Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba.”
#7. Deadman’s Island
In the middle of Coal Harbour, between downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, and Stanley Park, lies Deadman’s Island. As its name suggests, this small West Coast isle has seen an inordinate amount of bloodshed and pestilence over the centuries, and is said to be haunted by the souls of those who lost their lives on its rocky shores. Some say it is the most haunted island in Canada.
According to an old Squamish legend, a great Indian battle took place on Deadman’s Island long ago. Indigenous Canadian author Emily Pauline Johnson, who first heard the tale from the famous Squamish chief Joe Capilano, included a dramatic rendition of this legend in her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver. In this version of the story, the battle was fought between a tribe from the north and a tribe from the south. Although the northern warriors were better fighters than their southern enemies, the southerners were crafty. One night, a party of southern braves snuck into the northern camp and kidnapped many wives, children, and elders, corralling them in their island camp. At dawn, they threatened to execute their hostages unless an equal number of northern warriors volunteered to give up their lives in their stead. Amazingly, the northerners consented to this terrible ultimatum, two hundred warriors willingly throwing down their weapons and walking boldly into the hands of their enemies.
“Out before a long file of southern warriors they stood,” Johnson wrote. “Their chins uplifted, their eyes defiant, their breasts bared… A thousand arrows ripped the air, two hundred gallant northern throats flung forth a death-cry exultant, triumphant as conquering kings – then two hundred fearless northern hearts ceased to beat.”
The gruesome exchange having been made, the northerners retreated in their canoes and the southerners retired to their island camp, both parties leaving the bodies of the sacrificial victims lying where they fell. The following morning, the southern warriors discovered that the bodies of the slain had disappeared, and that in their place grew a profusion of fireweed. Terrified, the southerners fled to their canoes and abandoned the island.
In the 1860s, Deadman’s Island attracted the attention of John Morton, one of three English veterans of the Cariboo Gold Rush who bought up land in what would one day become Vancouver’s West End; known locally as the Three Greenhorns for their apparent lack of real estate savvy. In 1865, Morton rowed out to the island for the purpose of assessing its potential as a land asset and found painted, age-silvered cedar boxes suspended in the trees – unmistakeable evidence of a Squamish burial ground. On the advice of Chief Capilano, who told him the same legend he later told Johnson, Morton abandoned all plans of purchasing the island, loathe to desecrate the Indians’ sacred grounds.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Deadman’s Island served similar macabre functions, being employed as a pioneer cemetery and as a sanatorium for smallpox patients. Since 1942, it has housed the HMCS Discovery naval station, whose personnel have reported hearing phantom footsteps, the scraping of moving furniture, the opening and slamming of doors, and even fragments of disembodied conversations in the middle of the night, when no one else was on the island. Some visitors to the island have returned with stories of disembodied shrieks issuing from the forest, glowing red eyes peering at them from behind trees, and an eerie glow that sometimes hangs over the old burial ground – undeniable proof, some say, that the dead of Deadman’s Island wish to be left in peace.
#6. Caribou and Michipicoten Islands
In Ontario waters near the eastern end of Lake Superior sit a pair of islands, both of which feature heavily in the legends of the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, and French-Canadian voyageurs.
Michipicoten Island, the larger and more northerly of the two, is located at the mouth of the Bay of Michipicoten, a place which both whites and natives once regarded with superstitious awe. The Bay, incidentally, is home to a cluster of tiny volcanic islands which the local Ojibwa believed marked the final resting place of their legendary ancestor, Nanabozho, for whom they left gifts whenever they passed by; and its corresponding cape named by French-Canadian voyageurs after a giant which appears in French Renaissance literature. Michipicoten Island itself was once known to the French as the Isle Maurepas, named in honour of the one-time Count of the French domain Maurepas, a military man and statesman named Jean-Frederic Phelypeaux.
About 22 miles south of Michipicoten Island, in the lake’s latitudinal centre just north of the Michigan border, lies the much smaller Caribou Island. Just off the northern point of this lonely isle lurks a dangerous reef called the Six Fathom Shoal, which some theorists believe contributed to the infamous 1975 demise of the Great Lakes steamer the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. On account of this hazard, Caribou Island has played host to the Caribou Island Lighthouse and its various keepers since 1886.
There is an old frontier legend which holds that one of these two islands was once home to a beach filled with gold dust or copper nuggets, which was guarded by an evil spirit which took the form of some sort of giant monster. This tale first appeared in Volume 54 of the Jesuit Relations, a report written by French Jesuit Pierre Milet to his superiors describing his attempts to convert the Onondaga Iroquois of what is now upstate New York to Christianity from the years 1669-1671.
“Upon entering [that great lake] by its mouth,” Milet wrote, referring to Lake Superior, “where it empties into the Sault, the first place met where Copper is found in abundance, is an Island… opposite a spot called Missipicouatong.
“The Savages say that it is a floating Island, which is sometimes far off, sometimes near, according to the winds that push it and drive it in all directions. They add, that a long time ago four Savages came thither by chance, having lost their way in the fog by which that Island is almost always surrounded.”
Hungry from their long journey, the natives decided to boil some meat in a birch bark basket, filling the basket with water and red-hot beach stones they had baked in a fire. “While selecting these stones,” Milet wrote, “they found that they were almost all pieces of Copper.”
When their meal was complete, the natives loaded their canoe with copper stones and prepared to disembark. “But they had not gone far from the shore,” Milet wrote, “when a powerful voice made itself heard to their ears, calling in great wrath: ‘Who are those robbers carrying off from me my children’s cradles and playthings?’ … That voice astonished them greatly, as they knew not whose it was. Some say that it was Thunder, because there are many storms there; and others that it was a certain Spirit whom they call Missibizi, who passes among these people for the God of the waters, as Neptune did among the Pagans. Other say it came from Memogovissiouis: these are, they say, marine People from somewhat like the fabulous Tritons or the Sirens, who always live in the water and have long hair reaching to the waist. One of our Savages told us he had seen one of them in the water, according to what he imagined.”
Rather than replace the copper, the terrified travellers paddled furiously for the mainland. Throughout the course of their journey, they began to mysteriously die one by one, until only one of the four remained. This sole survivor lived long enough to relate his disturbing account to some of his fellow tribesmen before following his companions to the grave.”
This story was alive and well in the aftermath of the seven Years War, appearing in the writings of Jonathan Carver, a captain in the Massachusetts colonial militia who spent the years 1766 – 1768 exploring the wilderness of what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. In his 1778 book Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, Carver wrote:
“One of the Chipeway chiefs told me that some of their people being once driven on the island of Mauropas, which lies towards the north-east part of the lake, found on it large quantities of a heavy shining yellow sand, that from their description must have been gold dust. Being struck with the beautiful appearance of it, in the morning, when they re-entered their canoe, they attempted to bring some away; but a spirit of an amazing size, according to their account sixty feet in height, strode into the water after them, and commanded them to deliver back what they had taken away. Terrified at his gigantic stature, and seeing that he had nearly overtaken them, they were glad to restore their shining treasure; on which they were suffered to depart without further molestation. Since this incident, no Indian that has ever heard of it, will venture near the same haunted coast. Besides this, they recounted to me many other stories of these islands, equally fabulous.”
A similar story was reiterated in the 1809 memoir of Alexander Henry the Elder, a contemporary of Carver’s, born in the colony of New Jersey, and one of the first of the so-called pedlars – independent Anglo-Celtic fur traders, to take over the old Great Lakes trading grounds of the French in the aftermath of the British Conquest of Canada. Rather than adorning the rocky shores of the Isle Mauropas, or Michipicoten Island, however, his informants told him that the beach with the golden sands and their formidable guardian lay on the more remote Caribou Island, which did not have an English name at the time.
In his 1809 book Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 – 1776 (1809), Henry described a prospecting expedition he undertook on Michipicoten Island in the spring of 1769, which yielded unsatisfactory results. “Disappointed in my expectations here,” he wrote, “my curiosity was raised anew, by the account given me by my companions, of another island, almost as large as that on which I was, and lying a little further to the southward. This they described as covered with a heavy yellow sand, which I was credulous enough to fancy must be gold. All they knew, however, of the island and its heavy yellow sand, was from the report of some of their ancestors, concerning whom a tradition had come down to them, that being blown upon the former by a storm, they had escaped with difficulty from the enormous snakes by which it is inhabited, and which are the guardians of the yellow sand. I was eager to visit so remarkable a spot, and being told that in clear weather it was visible from the southward of the Ile de Maurepas, I waited there two days; but the weather continuing hazy, I returned unsatisfied to my post.”
Henry managed to visit the island two years later, in the spring of 1771, when he and a business partner named Alexander Baxter headed there on a prospecting venture. Although Henry and Baxter did not find the golden sands nor their fearsome denizens, they were hounded by a kettle of angry hawks, one of which snatched Henry’s cap from his head. They also came upon a number of large caribou, for which the island was later named.
#5. Spirit Island
One of the most iconic landmarks of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, which has appeared in many a postcard, screensaver, and motivational poster, is Spirit Island, a tiny, picturesque isle crowned with a coronet of spruce trees, rising out of Jasper National Park’s Maligne Lake against a backdrop of pine forest and snow-capped mountains. As its name suggests, this enchanting islet is associated with a haunting ghost story, the origin of which has long been lost to history. According to a popular iteration of this tale told to passengers of the Malign Lake Boat Cruise, which purports to be a traditional Stoney Indian legend, the island was the secret meeting place of two star-crossed lovers whose respective tribes were at war. When the girl’s father learned of the illicit romance, he forbade her from returning to the island, and kept a strict watch over her to prevent her disobedience. Sick with grief, the girl fell ill and died. The Romeo of this Rocky Mountain tragedy, unaware of these developments, waited for his Juliet in the shade of the island’s spruce boughs, and died there of a broken heart when it became clear she would not return to him. Today, the spirit of the young man haunts the island, waiting in vain for his lost love.
#4. Sable Island
The next island on our list takes us to the Canadian Maritimes, to the waters off the province of Nova Scotia. Not to be confused with Cape Sable Island, another mysterious Nova Scotian island characterized by folklorist Helen Creighton, in her 1957 book Bluenose Ghosts, as a hotspot for ghost, banshees, and mysterious omens known locally as ‘forerunners,’ Sable Island is a narrow crescent-shaped strip of sand and grass located deep in the North Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles from the mainland. Often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” this remote island is estimated to have brought about the destruction of over 350 ships, whose unfortunate captains ran their vessels aground its sandy shores. These shipwrecks are believed to account, to a small degree, for the island’s famous population of wild horses, and for the many ghost stories to which the island is home.
Sable Island’s most famous ghost story, immortalized by Nova Scotian historian Thomas Chandler Haliburton in his 1853 book The Sam Slick Anthology, involves the apparition of a nine-fingered lady, supposed to be the tortured spirit of one of island’s many shipwreck victims. The historic origins of this folktale are as hazy as the sea spray, some storytellers connecting it with a ship called the Princess Amelia, which fell prey to the island in 1802, and others, Haliburton included, with a more famous vessel called Francis, which foundered off the island in the year 1800s. Whatever the case, the only survivor of this wreck was a lady named Copeland, who had managed to struggle ashore clinging to a hatch cover. Legend has it that Copeland’s pitiful figure attracted the attention of a notorious wrecker who lived on the island, who made his living scrounging valuable shipwreck debris that so frequently washed ashore. The scavenger waded out to the lady, dragged her ashore by the hair, and murdered her on the beach, hoping to acquire a valuable emerald or diamond ring she wore. When the ring proved impossible to remove the conventional way on account of the woman’s waterlogged skin, the scavenger hacked off the corpse’s ring finger. Ever since, the ghost of Lady Copeland appears from time to time standing on the spot where she was murdered, waving aloft a bloody hand with the ring finger missing.
Other ghosts said to haunt Sable Island include the spirit of a coxswain said to have drowned near the island’s East End Lighthouse, and one of the victims of a short-lived French penal colony established on the island in 1598. The latter was established by a Breton nobleman named Troilus de Mesqouez, Marquis de la Roche-Helgomarche, the second Viceroy of New France (after Jean-Francois Roberval), who peopled his little island colony with hardened criminals and sturdy vagabonds swept from the prisons and gutters of Rouen.
In 1602, after La Roche failed to deliver an annual shipment of wine and clothing to his men on Sable Island, the little colony descended into anarchy. When the viceroy finally sailed to that lonely windswept isle in 1603, he learned that a handful of malcontents had instigated a mutiny which resulted in the murder of the colony’s two leaders and several of their supporters. Having broken the thin seal of restraint that kept their criminal inclinations in check, the colonists gave vent to the interpersonal grudges which had festered throughout their six-year incarceration, stealing and murdering their fellow islanders without reserve. According to a popular rendition of this historic event, which this author has been unable to verify, only eleven colonists remained alive at the time of La Roche’s disembarkation, the remainder having either succumbed to starvation or been murdered and possibly cannibalized. According to legend, La Roche took aboard every colonist but a pious Franciscan friar, who elected to remain behind on account of failing health. To this very day, the shade of this cowled, brown-robed priest is said to walk the dunes of Sable Island, scanning the waves for shipwreck survivors in need of assistance.
#3: Southampton Island
At the northern end of Hudson Bay, in what is now the territory of Nunavut, lies a large triangular piece of land called Southampton Island. This barren arctic isle was the site of a strange adventure set down in the journal of Captain Luke Foxe, a 17th Century English adventurer who sailed the frigid waters of Northern Canada in search of the Northwest Passage.
Foxe set out on his first and only Arctic expedition in the spring of 1631. Sailing from Kirkwall, Orkney, he and his crew headed west across the Atlantic to Frobisher Bay, near the northern lip of Hudson Bay. The Englishmen sailed through the Hudson Strait and, after visiting the crew of Welsh Captain Thomas James, who was similarly searching for the fabled water route to the Orient, headed west.
On July 27th, 1631, Captain Foxe and his crew disembarked at Southampton Island, where they stumbled upon a peculiar above-ground cemetery consisting of a number of tiny coffins made from wood and stone, which contained equally tiny corpses. Foxe described this startling discovery in his journal writing:
“The newes from land was that this Island was a Sepulchre, for the Savages had laid their dead (I cannot say interred), for it is all stone, as they cannot dig therein, but lay the Corpses on the stones, and wall them about with the same, coffining them also by laying the sides of old sleddes about, which have been artificially made. The boards are some 9 or 10 foot long, 4 inches thicke. In what manner the tree they have bin made out of was cloven or sawen, it was so smooth that we could not discerne, the burials had been so old…
“The longest Corpses was not above 4 foot long, 2 with the heads laid to the West. It may be that they travel, as the Tartars and the Samoides; for, if they had remained here, there would have been some newer burials. There was one place walled 4 square, and seated within the earth; each side was 4 or 5 yards in length; in the middle was 3 stones, laid one above another, man’s height. We tooke this to be some place of Ceremony at the burial of the dead.”
In a footnote, Foxe added, “They seem to be people of small stature. God send me better for my adventures than these.”
Eerily, the tiny corpses discovered by Foxe and his crew accord perfectly with an old Inuit tradition which holds that islands of the Arctic Archipelago are the domain of little elf-like men with preternatural abilities, specimens of which have been reported throughout the years by trappers, prospectors, outdoor adventurers, and northern natives.
#2: Bird Rock
Every day, freighters passing through the Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island float by a bleak, windswept isle known as Rocher aux Oiseaux, or Bird Rock. This five-acre islet is an outlying member of the Magdalen Islands, a hook-shaped archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence which, despite being closer to Canada’s Maritime Provinces, actually belongs to the province of Quebec.
In the summer, Bird Rock is a birdwatcher’s paradise, nearly every nook and cranny of its red sandstone cliffs being occupied by some variety of migratory seabird, from petrels to gulls to razor-billed auks. Every autumn, Bird Rock’s eponymous denizens migrate south to warmer climes, leaving Rocher aux Oiseaux silent and desolate. In this gloomier state, Bird Rock seems more accordant with its morbid history and the shroud of superstition that surrounds it, for atop the grassy plateau of Rocher aux Oiseaux, so say the folk of the Magdalen Islands, dwells a terrible curse.
Since the earliest years of New France, Bird Rock and the rest of the Magdalens posed a deadly hazard to the crews of European sailing ships entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean. Vessels sailing through the Strait of Cabot at night, or in heavy fog, ran the risk of smashing to matchwood against their cliffs, and throughout the centuries, hundreds of ships met their ends in this manner. In order to prevent disasters such as these, Canada’s Department of Public Works built a lighthouse on Bird Rock and hired a Frenchman named Jacques Guiette as its first keeper.
According to legend, Guiette went mad after two years of solitude on Bird Rock, and had to be removed from the island in a straightjacket. Before being hauled away to an asylum, Guiette is said to have uttered the following prophecy: “No man will keep this lighthouse for more than ten years without meeting misfortune.”
Incredibly, in the decades following Guiette’s brief tenure, a staggering number of lighthouse keepers met with tragedy and disaster on Bird Rock. In April 1880, keeper Peter Whalen and his son froze to death while hunting seals on sea ice near the island. In the summer of 1881, Whalen’s successor, Charles Chiasson, accidentally ignited a gunpowder barrel while firing the lighthouse’s fog cannon, killing himself and his son. Chiasson’s successor, Telesphore Turbide, blew his hand off while firing the fog cannon in 1891, and had his legs crushed by a crane in 1896 during a routine supply shipment. Telesphore’s cousin, Arsene Turbide, died with his son and assistant keeper while taking a break from his keeper duties to hunt for seals. Keeper Wilfred Bourque died mysteriously while hunting seals near the island. Wilfred’s nephew and successor, Elphege Bourque, brought a cow to the island, which jumped over a cliff into the sea after only six weeks, apparently having been driven mad by the birds. And Elphege’s brother, Albin, while tending the lighthouse in his brother’s stead, died after drinking water that had apparently been contaminated by bird droppings.
After an uneventful fifteen-year tenure by keeper J. Montague Arsenault, Bird Rock never again subjected its residents to another catastrophe. In 1967, the lighthouse was replaced by a new 31-foot hexagonal concrete tower, and in 1988, the tower was automated, leaving Bird Rock for the birds. Today, the lighthouse of Rocher aux Oiseaux operates on its own, as if manned by ghostly keepers. Its eerie desolation serves as a chilling reminder of the deadly curse which haunted its inhabitants for more than half a century.
#1: Shellbird Island
For centuries, the western shores of the island of Newfoundland was a dark, desolate terra incognita devoid of any semblance of permanent settlement – the perfect place for pirates, smugglers, and thieves to hide ill-gotten loot. One of this region’s most famous lost treasure stories is set on a small ait, or river isle, known as Shellbird Island, located on the Humber River not far from its mouth in the Bay of Islands. This isle is overlooked by a 40-foot-tall cliff bearing a snarl of crags resembling the weathered countenance of an old bearded sailor – a natural landmark which locals fondly refer to as the Old Man in the Mountain.
Legend has it that the Old Man in the Mountain is privy to a centuries-old secret, namely the location of a treasure which lies buried on Shellbird Island. There are a number of different stories which purport to explain the origin of this mysterious treasure. One involves a Spanish galleon laden with Peruvian silver and Inca gold which foundered off the coast of Newfoundland during a storm. Another revolves around Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsey- a semi-mythical, 18th Century, Maritime Bonnie and Clyde, who are said to have preyed on French merchant ships. But the most popular tale, first told many years ago by an ancient Nova Scotian sailor to a resident of the Bay of Islands, features a notorious “arch-pirate” of the Atlantic by the name of Peter Easton, who once operated out of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and whom many historians regard as the most materially successful pirate to ever sail the high seas.
According to legend, one variety of seagoing vessels that Peter Easton and his crew preyed upon while headquartered at Harbour Grace were fur-bearing French merchant ships fresh from the ports of Quebec and Montreal. During one such plundering operation, Easton and his men were spotted by a massive French man-of-war.
Painfully cognisant of the superior firepower of the French warship, the pirate and his crew fled north to Newfoundland. In an effort to evade the larger vessel, which dogged their wake, the pirates sailed up Newfoundland’s west coast, into the Bay of Islands, and further up the Humber River.
In the hold of Easton’s ship were three chests filled with gold- the spoils of a previous raid. Loathe to allow the treasure to fall into the hands of the French, Easton ordered his first mate to bury it in a safe location nearby. Accompanied by another pirate, the first mate headed further up the Humber in a smaller rowboat with the three chests and a pair of shovels.
Several miles upriver, the first mate spotted the Old Man in the Mountain- the face of an aged sailor which God had graven into the cliff side. Hoping to use the landmark as a marker, the mate decided to bury the treasure on what is now known as Shellbird Island, the river isle upon which the Old Man gazed. With the help of his companion, he began digging three different pits on the island into which the treasure chests were to be interred.
In those days, the legend says, it was customary for pirates to bury a fresh corpse along with their loot so that the spirit of the dead man might guard the treasure until their return. In accordance with this custom, the first mate waited until all three holes were dug before drawing his flintlock pistol and dispatching his hapless companion. The accomplished, the mate proceeded to bury the three chests, one of them with the dead man, and conceal the locations of the deposits before getting back into his boat and rowing downstream.
As fate would have it, the first mate never made it back to the ship. At a particularly turbulent section of the Humber known as Devil’s Dancing Pool, he capsized his rowboat and drowned, taking the secret of the treasure’s location with him to his watery grave.
Legend has it that Shellbird Island has yielded two of her three treasure chests. One was purportedly discovered by a group of treasure hunters in the late 1800s, her contents shared in secret. Another was supposedly dug up around 1934. As for the third chest, local lore maintains that it still lies somewhere beneath Shellbird Island, promising untold riches to any treasure hunter determined enough to find it and brave enough to defy the ghost of the pirate who guards it.
The Isle of Demons
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Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off Newfoundland, by J.R. Carpenter in a speech at the British Library on August 7, 2015
Devil Island (Lake Winnipeg)
Icelandic-Canadian Oral Narratives (1991), by Magnus Einarsson
Private correspondence between Hammerson Peters and Morior Invictus on April 7th, 2020
Devil’s Island (Lake Winnipegosis)
Private correspondence between Hammerson Peters and Morior Invictus on April 7th, 2020
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Caribou and Michipicoten Islands
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Volume 54 of the Jesuit Relations (1669 – 1671), by Father Pierre Milet
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Bird Rock; by Beverley Owen; in the January 1, 1933 issue of Maclean’s magazine
The Mysterious Magdalens; by Beverley Owen; in the December 1, 1932 issue of Maclean’s magazine
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Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador (2010), by Edward Butts
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