The first time I set eyes on mysterious Isle Haute was in 1996 from the cockpit of a T33 fighter plane. I was doing an aviation medicine article out of Greenwood, Nova Scotia and we were cruising low over the tide-gouged Bay of Fundy when a fog-shrouded uninhabited island loomed on the horizon. A tingle went up my spine and I knew immediately that I had to visit this place. But my opportunity did not materialize until 18 years later when Explorers Club Director Dale Dunlop put together a crew of intrepid explorers for a two day excursion to the isle.
The 0.5 mile by 1.5 mile island surrounded by sheer 300 foot cliffs is quite visible to locals from nearby coastal communities. There are many folk tales extant of ghosts, pirate treasure…and murder. The elders of nearby Spencer’s Island, birth place of the ghost ship Mary Celeste, tell tales of a bottomless pond on the eastern end of the island in whose depths one can see the eerie silhouette of the Celeste under full sail when the light is just right. Many locals swear the island sometimes floats up off the water and moves.
It’s a fact that pirate Ned Low sailed these waters in the 1700’s and the cruel brigand would murder or shanghai into his crew any unfortunate fishermen who fell into his grasp. Stories are told of those who refused being butchered, their hearts ripped out and roasted for a late night snack by Ned and his crew. Low was rumored to have buried his treasure on Isle Haute and beheaded an insubordinate crew member whose ghost was then bound to guard the treasure. Legend says that the flaming headless ghost arises from the treasure pit every 7 years at which time the island changes location!
In 1952 writer Edward Snow appeared on Isle Haute with a map he claimed was penned by Low showing where the treasure was stashed. It’s a fact that the author left the island with a handful of 18th Century gold coins, briefly seized by Canadian officials, though there is some controversy as to whether he found the currency on the island or brought them with him.
In any event, an article appeared by Snow in the July 21, 1952 issue of Life Magazine with a reproduction of the treasure map including a spot labelled “The Place” designated at the eastern end of the salt pond near where we set up camp.
We arrived to Isle Haute via an Advocate Boat Tours Zodiac. Our initial impressions were colored by the shifting veils of mist that moved in and out, back-lit by sunshine. The Bay of Fundy is known for its fog.
Else Marie, the capable owner of the company walked us through a wet landing on the island. We camped at the inner portion of the salt pond indicated on Ned Low’s map and noticed that the ground was pock-marked with treasure pits with one even mined into a hillock of cobblestone beach rocks. Three-hundred-foot basalt cliffs loomed over us and a steep bank provided the only access to the flat upper island where a 19th century light house once stood. Now only an automated light steers mariners away from the island which has witnessed dozens of ship wrecks.
Our group numbered nine, including the Explorers Club’s Dale Dunlop and Ryan Barry, CEO of Great Earth Expeditions. Great Earth specializes in treating visitors to high adventure in Maritime Canada. Ryan was filming a documentary of the trip, the first of its kind since 1997. Two physicians provided medical back up with an amply stocked medical kit.
Once we’d set up camp we explored the treasure pits with a copy of Ned Low’s map in hand. I had brought a portable Electro-Magnetic Field detector which I’d previously used to scan the burial site of Vlad the Impaler in Transylvania.
Unfortunately it malfunctioned. Bits of scrap metal spotted the site but not a single jewel or piece of eight turned up…nor did we see any flaming ghosts.
Later that day our party mounted the sheer hillside to the top of the island. We started on the trail, which commences near a small spring and followed a mucky and steep path to the top to find ourselves in dense brush. The island is lush with plants found almost nowhere else in Nova Scotia. Deer mice, which grow to huge size on Isle Haute, are supposed to be the largest land mammal on the island though gray seals dot the islands coast and often pop their heads up to greet visitors. Interestingly we saw now grassy areas that appear to have been flattened by deer. A deer corpse on the beach seen earlier reminded us that they sometimes make there way here and its possible a population is now extant though we saw none.
We finally attained the site of the old lighthouse which had burned in 1956. After a rest on the wooden helicopter pad in one of the few open fields on the island, Dale and I went in search of a pond mentioned in the notes of the 1997 expedition. It had dried up and we saw no amphibians, though sometimes frogs and toads can survive a dry summer and re-emerge the following year. The automated lighthouse was a metal tower surmounted by a solar-powered lamp. I climbed to its top, hoping for a view but incoming fog blocked my vision.
On the way back we discovered that we had actually climbed to the top of the island in a dried creek bed and the trail back was much wider and less steep, though blocked at times by deadfall from past hurricanes and storms.
I took some time to have a look at the southeast section of the island and marveled at the 300 foot cliffs pocked with caves and clefts. Rock-climbing a 100 foot sea stack I had a closer look at the volcanic basalt which comprises the island. Visitors must be extremely careful exploring these areas as the Bay of Fundy tides reach 50 feet and many an unwary beach comber has been drowned, trapped against an unclimbable cliff face. The northeast part of the island sports step-like basalt columns which look almost man-made.
By now we were all bushed…and famished. Ryan put his culinary skills to work and soon had a huge pot of pasta with fresh vegetables simmering over the fire. That evening we sat round the campfire and traded stories of the day, but we all turned in early preparing for an AM departure by Zodiac back to the mainland.
Written by George Burden and Carla DiGiorgio
If you go:
Advocate Boat Tours
Contact Else Marie & Werner Ostermann
Great Earth Expeditions
Contact Ryan Barry
Engraving of The Mary Celeste – Wikimedia Public Domain
All photos by George Burden – All Rights Reserved