Three Acadians on the Ice

The beauty of winter in the Maritimes can be a terrible beauty. Its force is an objective force, especially for those working on the sea or living along its coasts. A humbling story of three seal hunters, retold in the oral tradition by ROSIE AUCOIN GRACE from Cheticamp, on the western coast of Cape Breton Island, vividly evokes the heroic struggle of man, against all odds, to survive the forces of nature.

Shunpiking Magazine / December-January, 2002, No. 40


ON JANUARY 27TH, 1874, myself and Placide Boudreau left around six o'clock in the morning. We were going seal hunting on the ice off the western point of Cheticamp Island. Along the way, we met up with Hypolite LeFort who was also going hunting on the ice. He was very pleased to join up with us. We got on the ice around seven o'clock in the morning. In those days, we did as our ancestors, we only carried a wooden stick and a rope for protection.

We started to walk. The weather was good, the ice was solid, we walked without apprehension. We walked without stopping for about six miles towards the open sea. We took a breath and had a bite to eat. The weather was holding up and we anticipated returning the same day to firm ground. Up until then, we'd had no success in spotting any seals. As we didn't have the habit of wearing any watches in our pockets, we guessed that it was about one o'clock in the afternoon. We decided to backtrack towards home. As we walked, we noticed that the ice was starting to move. As the weather was favourable and the wind was always from the northwest, we were not worried. We walked a faster pace without stopping.

acadians on iceWe were quite surprised when we suddenly arrived at an opening in the ice, a stretch of water. It was a terrible moment as this was unexpected during such a cold season. The mist from the cold made the water look the same colour as that of the ice; therefore it was deceiving from a distance. The opening was so large, we couldn't judge the distance of water we had to face.

We decided to run along the edge of the opening towards the east. We ran as fast as we could for about a mile but we soon got tired and had to stop. We couldn't find any passage in the eastern direction so we decided to return to where we had first found the opening. We figured that if our families began to get worried about us, they could come to our rescue by way of canoe.

It was getting late and we decided to rest for a while, waiting to see if someone would come for us. As usual, we hadn't brought much food along as we had expected to be home with our families by supper time. We had already eaten a meal that day so we had very little food left, the remainder served as the meal that night. It was about eight o'clock in the evening and we figured that we were approximately two miles from solid ground.

As we observed the ice, we noticed that ice near the solid ground was unattached and coming towards us, blocking the opening. This gave us a chance to embark on the ice that was blocking the opening. We continued our walk towards solid ground but when we arrived at the water between the ground and the opening, we judged that we were still approximately three quarters of a mile from solid ground.

Up until now, the weather was favourable so we decided to try screaming for help. We shouted with all our might to see if anyone would come to our rescue. We could hear our voices echo in the mountains but no human response. We waited for about fifteen minutes to see if someone would hear us. After all this work, we began to get hungry and wished we were home with our families for a good supper.

As we couldn't just wait there for someone to rescue us, we had to take matters into our own hands. We started walking in the eastern direction towards blocks of ice that might bring us closer to solid ground. From time to time, whenever we arrived on such ice, we'd shout out in cries for help but with no success. The night was very dark, no moon or stars in sight, the sky was very cloudy. From the western point to the eastern point of Cheticamp Island (La Pointe Enragee where the Cheticamp lighthouse is today), we searched for ways of finding blocks of ice that would stretch out towards solid ground. We hesitated to expose ourselves too much as there was danger of falling into holes and risking our lives.

When we arrived at "La Pointe Enragee," we continued our cries for help in hopes that someone would come to our assistance. We estimated that it was around midnight. As we discussed our situation, the wind picked up from the east followed by a snow storm. We were therefore forced to walk towards open sea to find solid ice. We found a pile of ice that provided some shelter for us until daybreak.

At the crack of dawn, the snow storm started to subside and the temperature was getting milder. We started walking again towards the east without much hope of ever setting foot on solid ground again. We walked for about seven miles east until we arrived near Cap Rouge, a small fishing village inhabited by Acadians like us. We thought since they were fishermen who had canoes, we might be rescued. We were approximately one mile and a half from the coast. To make ourselves more visible so that someone might spot us, we hung our jackets on the end of wooden sticks to use as a signal. Someone did notice us but the wind was strong and they didn't want to risk their lives trying to save us. If they could have read our thoughts, they would have simply sent us a canoe. If they could have reached us by telephone, we could have told them what to do. They could have put oars and bread in a canoe as by then our hunger was tormenting us. We could have simply kept the canoe as our aid for rescue and waited until the wind calmed down, then easily have reached solid ground.

We waited for about one half hour to see if someone might think of this form of rescue as we thought it could easily be done. When we realized that we wouldn't be receiving any assistance, we started walking towards the west.

The temperature was milder and the wind was now from the south. The temperature was so mild that at times we walked in water up to our knees. The wind and current carried the ice in such rapidness that in order to stay within Cape St. Lawrence we had to walk fast towards the west, as once past Cape St. Lawrence, there would be no rescue....

Hungry and tired, our strength and courage started to diminish. We continued to walk towards the west. Placide Boudreau who was the youngest of the three, started to get really weak. I said to Hypolite LeFort: "What will happen if our friend loses all his strength?" Hypolite responded with: "Everyone for themselves." It's better to leave him here to rest while we continue to try to gain solid ground."

All this time and still we had nothing to eat, we were getting weaker. We searched for seals or anything else that we could eat but it was useless. We had no other option but to use our knives and carve the bark from our wooden sticks to use as nourishment. The sticks were heavy as it was but we would have wanted them even bigger so more bark would have been available. This was on the second day around noon. We only had ice as nourishment for the rest of the journey. You can see by what we had to eat, it certainly wasn't a feast!

As we mentioned earlier, Placide Boudreau was getting weaker. He followed us until four o'clock in the afternoon when we arrived at an opening facing northwest. We were then obligated to camp for the night. We had stopped walking towards the west and the wind and current was forever pushing the ice towards the east to our disadvantage. I spoke earlier of Cap Rouge. At this hour, four o'clock, we examined the distance that we had gained towards the east although we had walked all day towards the west. We estimated the houses at Cap Rouge were at a distance of about seven or eight miles south.

We then searched for shelter for the night. We looked all around us and finally although it wasn't a feather bed, we did manage to find a bit of shelter. It was the best we could do. Our feather bed for the night was a pile of ice where the bottom was level and somewhat smooth. For cover there was a piece of ice hanging over us about three to four feet square. It was big enough for three people but we decided to sleep two on the ice with one of us on top in order to keep more warm.

As you know, the temperature was milder causing the ice to be wet and humid, taking no time at all to get our clothes soaked. When the humidity got too bad for the person underneath, we'd trade places. We did this until midnight in order to keep warm. As we were wet from our feet to our knees and our shoes were full of holes from all that walking in the water and slush, we were forced to keep active and walk to protect us from the cold. Hypolite and I got up first. It wasn't that we had received a good night's sleep but to the contrary, never slept a wink. Placide Boudreau, so fatigued from the night before, slept as if he were on a sofa.

We started to pace back and forth, myself and Hypolite LeFort. While pacing I said to Hypolite LeFort: "I think I hear the sound of a bell ringing." Hypolite answered that he thought he heard it too. I then said to Hypolite: "As the bell from our church has been blessed for everything, it's possible that it's being rung to give us courage." All this time, Placide Boudreau was sleeping. While pacing, we noticed that the ice was getting firmer. I said to Hypolite: "We have to wake up Placide Boudreau, as the ice is getting colder and he'll freeze against the ice, maybe even die." We therefore woke up Placide. Once he was awake, he felt stronger, better. We resumed our walk on the ice waiting for daybreak.

As a new day began, the wind had shifted from the northwest and it was very cold. We walked towards solid ground. We were going as fast as we could. At times we even ran, always looking out for seals or birds that we could kill to eat as pangs of hunger often took over. Unfortunately we found nothing and had to continue our journey without nourishment. It was a very cold day but not cloudy. The mountains looked so far away that we thought we'd never get to them.

We walked from dawn until eleven thirty in the morning. When we examined the passage to solid ground, we were about fifty fathoms from the coast. We looked towards the east and the west to see if there was a place that we could disembark but it was the same everywhere. After consultation among us I said: " I've been guiding us through all this since we started and I'll have to be the first one to make the passage to solid ground." The distance was but thirty yards and the ice wasn't very solid -- thirty yards of filoes covered with snow that filoated about here and there.

It was impossible to walk so we had to crawl on our stomachs. I tied our ropes around my mid-section and started to cross with the understanding that if I went underneath the water, they should bring me back up. When I arrived at the end of the ropes, I was but three to four fathoms from the coast. I knew I could make it so I sent the rope back to the others. We fortunately all made it to solid ground in this manner.

Before setting off on foot again, we had to try to recognize where we were. To the west of us was a valley that we thought could be Fishing Cove, a small Scottish village used for fishing. We told ourselves that if we could make it to the village we would be welcome as they knew some people from Cheticamp. Therefore we continued and climbed the huge boulders and once on top we stopped for a few minutes to talk. I said: "While we were on the ice, it seems I never got that weak but now that the worst of the work is over, I feel that my courage and strength is going. Guess we have to keep our courage up and if that's Fishing Cove to the east of us, we don't have far to walk by way of the mountain."

As we were close to the coast, we had to walk through small pine trees and at times even crawl to make our way. Once we arrived at a valley that we thought could be La Fraser (river), we saw no habitation, no people, no houses, nothing at all. I told them not to think that we were lost because we'd often heard our grandparents explain a place similar to this called "La Riviere a Anslem." Therefore we continued in the same western direction, soon to arrive at the Riviere a Anslem as described by our grandparents.

We then walked downhill on the mountain, walking underneath pine trees and after quite some distance arrived at a clearing (or meadow). It was nice walking through the clearing and after a few moments, we noticed a small house before us. This gave us courage and we were happy to see smoke rising from the chimney, indicating that the house was occupied. We arrived at the house, knocked at the door and were warmly greeted.

They were astonished to see us, strangers in their surroundings. The man of the house asked us where we were from. We explained the whole story of being lost on the ice and the misery we went through. I said to Hypolite LeFort: " You have more courage than me. Even if I could speak English like you, I couldn't have answered all the questions he asked."

The master of the house told us we were welcome in his home but unfortunately they were very poor. All they had to eat was herring, potatoes and for beverage, soaked roasted oats.

They cooked us a meal. It had been three times twenty four hours in which all we had to eat was the bark from our wooden sticks and ice. We had imagined at the time that it was food but it was far from it. We sat down at the table for a meal discovering that we had difficulty eating. We found no taste in the food, suffering from sores in our mouths and such a long period of time without food. We didn't eat more than ordinarily as we were scared to get sick from all the fasting we'd had to do.

After the meal, since there was no stove, we went to get some straw in the barn and made a few straw beds by the chimney. At supper time, we were awakened and served the same meal as before. The straw beds were then laid out for the entire family.

The next morning, well rested, we got up around seven o'clock. After breakfast, at eight o'clock, we left the small house, thanking them for their hospitality. We could only thank them as we had no money in our pockets to repay them for what they'd done for us. We told them sincerely that if they should ever be in Cheticamp, that is Eastern Harbour, they should look us up and we'd do our best to show our gratitude.

We had no telephone or telegraph to let our families know that we were safe and they thought we were lost never to return. We had to take the eastern direction, towards Aspy Bay so that we could return to our homes. We walked for about a mile and arrived at Cape St. Lawrence. Once there, we considered what an ordeal we'd been through. It was a close call because if we had passed Cape St. Lawrence, there would have been no hope for rescue as the ice breaks up in pieces and there's no solid ground to stop it.

Supplement by Paul V. Boudreau, brother of Placide Boudreau: When they finally had their feet on solid ground, the first thing they did was take their wooden sticks and throw them out to sea with a promise never to return to the ice. They slept until the next morning and Polite LeFort that had both feet frozen had to be taken by a guide on horse to Cap Rouge. Michael McKinnon came to Petit Etang with the news that they were safe and Eucisse Chiasson came to my father's home,Venant Boudreau, at eleven o'clock at night to inform my parents that they were safe. The whole family got up to pray as my father, Venant Boudreau, was the father of Placide Boudreau, one of the lost men.

Father Giroir, the parish priest, who had always prayed to Saint Joseph during the ordeal, was told of their return and when he received the news, he got up, lifted his arms to the sky while shouting: "Good Saint Joseph, you have listened and answered my prayers!"

From Another Night: Cape Breton Stories True & Short & Tall, Breton Books, which notes: Madame Elizabeth Muise -- Placide Boudreau's niece -- gave us the manuscript for "Three Acadians on the Ice" in French; Ulysses LeLievre first told us about this remarkable tale.


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