One Fantastic Island

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Sep 02, 2016 9:11 AM
Indian Cove, Great Caribou Island

The ghostly beauty inevitably cast by abandoned and semi-abandoned places viscerally fascinates me. Several years ago I wrote a story in Downhome about getting lost in the dense woods trying to find Indian Burying Place on the Baie Verte Peninsula. Now I have a tale to tell about Labrador. About 17 years ago, I spent several days in Battle Harbour and had gazed across the tickle, declaring one day I’d come back and cross over to hike across Great Caribou Island. This summer I finally did.

On the boat ride from Mary’s Harbour to Battle Harbour I got my first glimpses of the hauntingly beautiful abandoned buildings in Trap Cove and Matthew’s Cove on Great Caribou Island. The next day I was up extra early to get over to that island for a closer look.

After breakfast at the Battle Harbour Inn where I was staying, Peter Bull, Battle Harbour executive director, attached a SPOT GPS tracker to my backpack. I would be the first to test the Inn’s tourist tracking system.

It took only about five minutes to cross over the tickle in a local’s motorboat. I climbed out of the boat, thanked the guy, then hiked up the cliff and walked into the vast, treeless wilderness. I spotted a lone abandoned shed, took a few photos, then continued on. Eventually I arrived at Trap Cove, which appeared to be entirely abandoned. Inside one house was a very old washing machine, perhaps one of the first ever made. Trap Cove is on a high plain of sorts, with a beautiful view. I took plenty of photos before moving on towards Matthew’s Cove.

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Trap Cove, Great Caribou Island

A small graveyard with a handful of fallen down tombstones, mostly erased by time, marked my entrance to Matthew’s Cove. Then I came upon the old schoolhouse, where I’d been told a family of Arctic fox used to live. I hunted around it, but failed to find just one of the creatures. A few of the houses appeared to be cared for, maybe even lived in. Then I noticed I wasn’t alone. I met Aubrey Russell and his grandson, Adam Smith, out enjoying the beautiful, sunny day. Aubrey told me he wasn’t from the Cove, but his wife was and had a house there. He showed me the little pond where Adam liked to play with his toy boats. I walked all over the cove, checking out each house, fish shed and outhouse, taking it all in.  

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Mattie's Cove, Great Caribou Island

A fierce breeze blew at me as I began the long seven-kilometre trek across Great Caribou Island. The vistas of ponds and icebergs, vast valleys and hills were magnificent. Much of the terrain was like a foot-thick sponge of lichen and peat. My feet soon got soaked. On and on I trekked.

Finally, I arrived at the Halfway Rock up on a hill. Peter had told me, “You’ll know you’re there when you see it.” And sure enough, I knew. I continued, periodically passing by two-foot-high stakes indicating I was still on the right path. With the absence of trees, it would be difficult to get completely lost, though Peter had told me that people had gotten lost in the fog here before and had to be rescued. No fog here today.

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The author at "Halfway Rock" on Great Caribou Island

On and on, up and down hills, over little brooks, through low tuckamore clusters and past grey/black lichen-covered boulders I walked. In the far distance I thought I spied houses, but as I got closer I realized they were just big boulders. Squishing over the mushy, boggy wet peat I continued my trek until, finally, at noon I sat on a boulder atop a hill and gazed down at the houses of Indian Cove, most of them wrecked, a few in good shape, not a soul in sight. There I was, the only human in Indian Cove today.

I ate the ham and mayo sandwich prepared for my hike by Jeanette, one of the Battle Harbour cooks. She had also put a banana, an energy bar and a bottle of water in the brown bag. I drank some water and finished off the sandwich, then left my backpack on the rock while I went exploring the cove. I walked about and peered inside broken windows and through open doors. The tickle was narrow here and on the other side was an island with houses also close to the shore.  One house on my side was pretty spiffy, with a flag and sign:  LABRADOR IS MY HOME. Nearby was an ancient washing machine perched on a rock like a piece of modern art.  

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Indian Cove, Great Caribou Island

Just after one o’clock I began my trek back, eating the banana on the way. I made it back to the Halfway Rock in less than an hour. I sat and ate the energy bar and drank more water, just gazing outward.

After the Halfway Rock I somehow completely lost the trail stakes and veered off course into a steep valley. I ventured up a steep cliff in hopes of spotting Battle Harbour from there and getting my bearings. With nothing in sight I went down into a cove where I thought I could see Matthew’s Cove houses. Instead, it was just more boulders. Damn.  Now I didn’t know where the hell I was.

On a high point by the empty cove, I took out the map and compass for the first time, checked north and the direction I should be heading - toward yet another big cliff. But then I spotted a couple of people a distance out from the cove in a boat. I headed down there quickly and hollered “Where’s Battle Harbour?” They yelled back to get closer to the water so they could moor and pick me up. When they got near, I recognized Aubrey and his grandson Adam.

When I got aboard I was introduced to the woman with them, Pauline Russell, whom I took to be Adam’s mother. I thanked them royally for my rescue. 

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Rescuers Adam Smith, Aubrey Russell and Pauline Russell

“You swam back?” asked Peter when I later bumped into him, I guess knowing I didn’t come back with the man who brought me to Great Caribou Island. I laughed and told him my story.

Peter was excited to show me how the SPOT tracker had worked on me that day. He showed me the track on his computer and asked if I’d left my backpack some place by the old school house in Matthew’s Cove. I told him that’s exactly what I’d done. He said he thought maybe I was having a heart attack because the tracker wasn’t moving for so long, so next time he’ll be sure to attach it to the person, not the backpack. 

I walked down to the kitchen for a hot coffee. Jeanette soon arrived with a platter of pea soup, a bun and three little cakes. I loved her pea soup! She was kind enough to write out her recipe for me. It is one of the souvenirs and memories that I’ll always cherish about Battle Harbour and Great Caribou Island. -Submitted by G. Tod Slone, Barnstable, MA