The ability to survive is dependent on both a strong physical constitution and an unshakeable determination. While both of these ingredients are necessary, experience has shown that the will to live easily surpasses physical robustness in relative importance. He whose actions are in accordance with his nature, truly lives. Sir Thomas Browne was entirely correct when he said in his essay Religio Medici:
We tearme sleepe a death, and yet it is waking that kills us, and destroyes those spirits that are the house of Life. ‘Tis indeed a part of life that best expresseth death, for every man truly lives so long as hee acts his nature, or someway makes good the faculties of himselfe.
The following tale was described by nautical author Edward Rowe Snow as “the most fantastic true story I have ever heard.” It appeared in his 1950 volume Secrets of the North Atlantic Islands; it is also attested to in a Canadian magazine published in 1908. But since these publications are both obscure and long out of print, we will retell the tale here for a modern audience. It begins in the year 1872 at Grindstone Island, a small island located about fifty-six miles north of the eastern edge of Prince Edward’s Island in Canada. It is one of the Magdalen Islands in Quebec; its French name is Île du Cap-aux-Meules. It derives its name from the fact that it is shaped like a millstone; its giant red cliffs are one of its characteristic features.
On Sunday, December 15, 1872, the region was hit by a ferocious blizzard. Snowfall was so significant that residents were confined to their homes for a number of days. Once the snowfall began to subside, three local boys decided to explore the beaches and see how things looked at the shoreline. They were surprised to find pieces of a shipwreck there, and set about trying to find anything to salvage. As they collected their materials and began to walk home at dusk, the boys were astonished to see a huge moving form emerge from behind a snowdrift. The white, icy shape appeared to be a creature of some kind, and was about eight feet tall and several feet wide; it advanced on the boys, making gestures and emitting strange sounds. The terrified boys dropped their plunder and ran home.
No one believed the story the boys told. Other islanders came to the shore to see what the could salvage from the wreck; they learned that the ship was named the Calcutta, and carried a cargo of wheat. (Another source, however, the Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art & Literature, Vol XXXI from 1908, p. 510, gives the ship’s name as the Wasp, and dates the incident to November 1871). As the scavengers made their way home, they too encountered the eight-foot-tall mumbling white monster emerging from behind a barn. They reacted in the same way that the boys had on the previous day. Most people believed that the animal was a polar bear that had made its way to the island on an errant ice floe. One man, however, was unconvinced, and resolved to investigate further. His name was Father Charles Boudreault, a Catholic priest. He asked the men to take him to the place where they had seen the monster.
The next day an armed party of a dozen men set out with Father Boudreault. They saw nothing that day, but late in the afternoon one of the party located a strange set of immense footprints. They were about two feet in length and one foot in width. The animal, whatever it was, walked on two legs. After scouring the area for a few hours, they located a large form near the waterline. It seemed to have an approximate human shape, but it was immense. It seemed to be about eight feet in length and nine feet in girth. When Boudreault touched it, he could feel that it was thickly-caked snow and ice; its “head” was about four feet wide and three feet in length.
As the men examined the immense head carefully, they could make out eyes buried deep within its recesses. The monster then began to emit a long moaning sound; it seemed to be aware of the men gathered around it. Soon Boudreault and his companions realized what they were looking at: a man entirely encased in three feet of snow and ice, begging for help. With great difficulty, and using planks salvaged from the shipwreck, the men were able to carry the frozen form back to the village. But eventually the task was done. Yet how could the unfortunate man be thawed out? Natives of these frigid climes knew that to attempt thawing too quickly might expose the man’s flesh to rupturing. Gradually they hit upon an alternating method of chopping away the snow and ice with an axe, then thawing it gradually with wet towels.
After some time a human form took shape: he was six feet, eight inches in height, with a weight of about three hundred pounds. Even without the accumulated snow, he was a giant of a man; his robust constitution had clearly been an advantage. It is also likely that the accumulated snow and ice actually protected him during his days of exposure to the elements. Snow can be a remarkably effective insulator. Yet he clearly had been possessed by an ardent will to survive. Despite his miraculous survival, he suffered greatly as circulation was restored to his frozen flesh.
When the unconscious victim finally regained his senses, Boudreault spoke to him. His name was Augustine Le Bourdais; he was the first mate and sole survivor of the Calcutta (Wasp?) He remembered his ship breaking up within sight of land, and was able to swim to shore with the help of bits of wreckage. Apparently he had wandered about along the shoreline during the blizzard, disoriented and confused from the effects of hypothermia. For days he had eaten nothing but snow and small pieces of ice. At some point he lost consciousness, or drifted in and out of consciousness. Wet snow coated him, which then froze; this layering process was repeated many times over a number of days, creating the snow-bound monster the villagers had found. Le Bourdais’s legs, however, were frostbitten beyond saving, and had to be amputated.
Le Bourdais was unable to leave Grindstone Island until May 1873. In Quebec, where better-equipped facilities were available, he was put through another operation to allow him to be fitted for prosthetics. We are told that he made the Magdalen Islands his permanent home, and would eventually establish the first government telegraph office there. The poet Clarence Edmund Stedman mentioned Grindstone Island in his The Lord’s Day Gale:
Woe, woe to those whom the islands pen!
In vain they shun the double capes:
Cruel are the reefs of Magdalen;
The Wolf’s white fang what prey escapes?
The Grin’stone grinds the bones of some,
And Coffin Isle is craped with foam;—
On Deadman’s shore are fearful shapes!
Read more tales of survival and endurance in Thirty Seven: