Surviving Brunette Island

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Dec 16, 2016 2:42 PM
Courtesy Bruce Rose

On October 12, 2016, survivalist Harold "Mack" McGowan from Tyler, Texas was dropped off on Brunette Island to spend the next 30 days alone on the 20 square-kilometre island in Fortune Bay, Newfoundland. His only contact with the outside world was his cellphone, which he used to live stream his stay via Facebook under the title “Castaway Live.”  

Mack had grown up with a fascination for adventure, watching movies like Jeremiah Johnson and reading books like The Last of the Mohicans. In a recent interview for this story, Mack says “the raw, untamed wildness depicted in those tales awoke a longing in me to explore places untouched by man.” Brunette Island, he explains, was the closest he’s been to a truly untouched place.

“Sure, there are remnants of the old fishing settlement, but the abundance of game, the lack of intrusion by others and the physical barrier of the ocean created in me, a true sense of insignificance in the face of such wild country,” says Mack. 

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Survivalist Harold "Mack" McGowan (Courtesy Castaway Live)

The most difficult part of surviving on Brunette was his attitude, Mack admits, as he has “a bit of a melancholy streak, as well as a tendency to catastrophize; maintaining a positive mental attitude was crucial.”

Despite the difficulty of survival on an untamed island in the Atlantic, Mack said that what stood out most about his adventure was the people of Newfoundland. “I still don’t know how to adequately describe what it was like to be taken in by the locals,” he says. “I am truly humbled by the outpouring of hospitality and love that the people of Newfoundland, and in particular Grand Bank and Fortune, showed me. I will never forget their kindness.”  

History of Brunette Island
Similar in size to Bell Island, Brunette’s outline slightly resembles a chicken leg. During the 1800s and early 1900s, the island supported the small fishing community of Mercer’s Cove, on the southeastern side, until residents were resettled in the late 1950s. 

The largest island in Fortune Bay, Brunette has a rolling topography and a number of unique habitat types, including open grassland and peat-dominated land with ponds dotting the landscape. The water is bog-stained brown and is assumed to be acidic and nutrient poor, similar to adjacent Newfoundland. All of these conditions combined made it the perfect petrie dish for wildlife technicians looking to carry out various research and observation projects. So in 1964, the Provincial Wildlife Division designated Brunette as a wildlife reserve, and it became the site of experimental colonies of moose, caribou, Arctic hare, ptarmigan and bison. To protect these experimental colonies, hunting and fishing are prohibited on the island.  

Saltwater Buffalo 
On June 11, 1964, the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Division attempted to introduce bison (Bison bison) to the province. Because bison are famous carriers of parasites that could affect native species, biologists decided to use Brunette as an isolated test site, where they would pose absolutely no threat to endemic species. Once confident the animals were healthy and could survive, they would be relocated to the Burin Peninsula to roam free on the barren grounds.  

Two dozen animals were originally brought from Alberta by train; six didn’t survive the six-day trip. The herd of now 18 included two adult bulls, the largest of which was four years old, and most of the others were yearling females. By the following summer, the herd had only 13 individuals. One of the survivors was a bull, so technicians maintained hope that breeding efforts would prove successful. However, high mortality and low fertility plagued the experiment. The total herd contained around 10 animals for the next decade. The bison then just seemed to disappear. Residents of nearby communities believed the bison were poached to local extinction, but officials believed the decline was due to environmental factors. The animals were venturing out to the cliff edges to eat the lush vegetation (well fertilized by seabird droppings) and lick salt spray from the rocks - and accidentally falling to their deaths.  

The last time a bison was recorded on the island was in 1993. This bull was a Newfoundlander born and raised on Brunette. He was gone by the winter of 1996.  

The bison may have very well made it on the barren grounds of the Burin Peninsula, with many feeling that the introduction should have been followed through. However, now we will never know. 

Woodland Caribou
Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) were introduced to Brunette as part of a bigger project that saw caribou introduced to 15 islands. The desired outcome was to see their population spread across the island to help reduce hunting pressure and protect small herds from parasites. It was hoped that once these isolated herds were in sustainable shape, they could provide rural residents with an additional meat source.  

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Courtesy Castaway Live

The Brunette Island population has remained relatively small and is afforded protection on the wildlife reserve. During his time on the island, Mack states that he had “never experienced game animals that weren’t constantly wary and flighty,” but that these caribou “didn’t see man as a threat.”

Arctic Hare 
Brunette Island is home to the most southerly population of Arcitc hare (Lepus arcticus), the largest hare species. In the 1970s, six hares were introduced from the west coast. The hares thrived on Brunette; a population explosion occurred and, as of the last estimate, the number of individuals had grown to over 1,000. In the 1980s, a program of capture and release into their former range on the province’s Avalon Peninsula was undertaken, but none of the releases led to a successful breeding population. 

Moose (Alces alces) were also experimentally introduced to Brunette. However, after Arctic hare populations exploded, the moose died off. This was possibly due to competition for limited resources by the two browse feeders. There are also theories that, like the bison, moose were eliminated by poachers.

Other Wildlife
The waters around the island also teem with life, including humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus), common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), hooded seals (Cystophora cristata), Canada geese (Branta canadensis), common eider (Somateria mollissima), long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), herring gulls (Larus argentatus), black-backed gulls (Larus marinus), black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), common murre (Uria aalge), thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia), gannets (Morus bassanus), puffin (Fratercula arctica) and a vast array of other ducks and seabirds. The shoreline is inhabited by lobsters (Homarus americanus), various species of crab, starfish, urchins, and a wide variety of marine fish. Mack was surprised, he says, by the lack of rodents and birds of prey on the island. - By Todd Hollett

Did You Know?
Brunette Island once had about 300 residents.
In 1865, the island had a wooden lighthouse with a seal oil lantern in a 30-foot-high tower.
The wooden lighthouse was replaced by a circular iron tower in 1931.  
15 children were raised by the lighthouse keeper and his wife on the island; the first was born September 9, 1895.