Legend has it the deserted island of Quirpon off the extreme tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula in the icy strait that separates it from Labrador is “peopled by so many devils that French sailors would not go ashore unless they had crucifixes in their hands.” They called it “The Isle of Demons.”
Solitas Sed Unites (“Aloneness but Unity”) was the motto of the small RCAF radar detachment stationed here during WWII.
London’s Sunday Times describes Quripon as “one of the five most secluded destinations in the world.”
From the moment Ed English, owner and operator of Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, lulled the zodiac to let us off at Grandmother’s Cove to hike to the inn with directions to, “Turn left to the ocean at kilometre three by the caribou skulls,” until forty-eight hours later when he picked us up at the same “dock,” our experience verified the descriptions above: secluded, alone/united and devilish. To them we’d add our own trio: exhilarating, homey and autonomous.
Fishers, sealers and whalers have been coming to Quirpon (pronounced kar-poon, rhyming with harpoon) since the sixteenth century.
To help them navigate these trecherous waters, a wooden lighthouse was built in 1884 on the island’s highest northerly point at Cape Bauld. In less than twenty-five years a stronger one encased in cement and encircled with eight buttresses replaced it, lasting sixty years on this wind-blown crag before being surmounted by the current structure.
A home was built for the lightkeepers, a duplex was built, each side with a kitchen, living room and four bedrooms, plus a separate guest house. These two buildings now make up the inn.
Comfy and cozy but we had other ideas that sleeping in the inn on its hundredth anniversary.
Having read that Ed was building an all-glass pod on the ocean with transparent walls, ceilings and floors, I emailed him to reserve the “nest.”
On the flame-red zodiac, Ed elaborated. “It was supposed to be finished three years ago. But the guy doin’ it for me had a bad winter. His wife was out cross-country skiing, finished the trail, took off her skis and fell and broke her leg. There went six months. Then he broke his ankle…”
As with so many lighthouses, the signal at Quirpon was automated in the 70s, eliminating the need for lightkeepers. When the government put the boarded-up dwellings on the market, Ed, a former employee of the province’s tourism department, leaped in and bought them, sight unseen. Within a year he’d restored the property, opening the inn (now a Recognized Federal Heritage Building) in July 1999.
“It’s my favourite walk on the island,” Ed told us when we set off for the 5.5 km walk from Grandmother’s Cove.
We should have prewarned them: photography doubles our hiking time. Especially since the ocean floor slopes steeply away from the island, making these deep waters a grand feeding bank for twenty species of whales, though all we saw was the tip of a humpback’s fin.
“The Sully’s are here,” said Patsy, one of the three women who work there, relief in her voice when we opened the door to the inn. “Jiggs’ Dinner in ten minutes. You’re in the first sitting,” directed Danielle, the cook.
Overnight, a crescendo of howling wind and slashing rain stormed in from Labrador.
Ed radioed in to move up the 10 am departure, advising that guests leery of rough seas should hike to Grandmother’s Cove. But none had brought adequate hiking gear, though one couple chose to brave the screecher on land rather than suffer seasickness.
Given the forecast for worsening conditions, Ed ordered the inn closed for three days. And he’s no softy having a grandfather who ran ashore near the island during a hurricane in 1919 and saved all 92 aboard. We had a choice: hike out, or stay another night as planned and be the only guests at the inn.
We stayed: Solitas Sed Unites!
But what demons possessed us to set off on a hike that morning as the zodiac pitched away in the waves? On opening week for the inn. With only a cell-phone photo of the inn’s single trail map. When a ghostly fog obscured the mountain.
In parity, we set out to go only as far as Pigeon Cove. But the siren wail of the wind had quieted so we continued on toward Sheep Channel.
The promised trail signs were few, perhaps obliterated by the cruel winter, the few we saw in the peaty hummocks spiriting us onward. But the mountain was still mauzy (damp and foggy), so aided by a Gaia map on Magellan’s cellphone we decided to return to the inn. Via a different route.
What a mistake. We’d climb a hill only to find ourselves entangled in Tuckamoor Trees on the other side, retrace our steps, sink into a squishy bog, swash through more Tuckamoor and crunch through snow in the bowl of the hill. In Newfoundland slang we were rotted (annoyed), crooked (cranky), shitbaked, (scared)…
From my diary:
It may be the worst track we’ve been on. Nothing compares. Patagonian winds. West Coast Trail wildness. Serón Woods (Patagonia) bogs. All Souls Route (Lake O’Hara) fright. Bushwhacking, bog-breaking, hill-climbing, boardwalk-traipsing. Seven hours out there. 37+ km winds. Only 2 above. 13.8 km walk, 853 m ascent. Magellan’s watch said he needed seventeen hours to recover. Gruelling, nasty, maddening exhilarating. Gaia and Magellan’s calm saved us.
After Danielle’s chicken alfredo and fruit-cocktail cake with ice cream, we spread out on the oversized sofas. That’s when I found laminated pouch containing a fascinating story about the island among the inn’s collection of books and games.
Having “plighted her troth’ to a young cavalier, a French noblewoman named Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval accompanied him on her uncle’s 1542 expedition to the New World. Their lovemaking onboard the ship incensed her uncle, who was interested in marrying her himself. He marooned her ashore with her maidservant, four guns and some ammunition, hoping she’d die and he’d inherit her fortune and pay off his debts.
Marguerite’s lover swam to shore. The three took refuge in makeshift huts and a cave. In due time Marguerite’s baby was born.
In the second winter on this brutal island of rock surrounded by icy-cold salt water, her baby, her lover and her maidservant perished, leaving Marguerite all alone.
Whenever she spotted a sailboat, she would build a smoky fire to attract attention. But the sailors only saw it as proof that demons inhabited the island. She herself believed the place had devils and to scare them off, went about whispering in the night and whistling in the garden.
In the third winter a Basque sailboat appeared and the fishermen landed. They couldn’t imagine that at one time Marguerite had been “an ornament of the gayest society in Europe.” The sailors rescued Marguerite and took her back to France. (By then her harsh old uncle had been appointed the first lieutenant governor of New France and was in charge of delivering five shiploads of convicts to possess and develop the land. Given scant food, little water and regular beatings, the convicts mutinied. It’s said her uncle was struck down at night by “an unknown hand before the Church of the Innocents in Paris.” Haunted by her experience, Marguerite retired to the countryside where she founded a private school for girls.
Can you imagine such extreme hardship and drama?
Our trifling adventure, pale and inconsequential compared to Marguerite’s, still appears out of nowhere, sharp as the island’s bracing wind.
Beckel, Annamarie. Silence of Stone. Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, 2008. A novel about Marguerite’s experience on Quirpon told from the character’s viewpoint as she looks back on the horrific ordeal years after.
Burshtein, Karen. “Waking up with the whales on Quirpon Island, Newfoundland.” Canadian Geographic. March 5, 2019.
Cakebread, Karen. “Journeys: Harboring A Cold-Blooded Killer.” Robb Report.
Linkum Tours. This is the company Ed formed to market the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, which is open, weather permitting, from late May to September. The service is “Best Kind.”
“Live the life of a lighthouse keeper on Quirpon Island.” The Globe and Mail. November 8, 2022
Komatick. RCAF Newspaper. Quirpon: 1943-44.
Martin, George. Marguerite; or The Isle of Demons and Other Poems. Montreal: Dawson Brothers, Publishers, 1887. An epic poem; here are a few lines:
’Twas midmost in the budding May,
Whilst on my couch of cedar boughs,[
Perturbed with nameless fears I lay,
And breathed to Heaven my silent vows,—
A cloud-like cope of purple hue
Descended o’er me, hid me quite,
And seemed a soft wind round it blew,
And from the mystic wind a voice
Spoke low: “Poor child of darkened light!
Pilgrim, Earl B. The Place Called Quripon. St. John’s: DRC Publishing, 2011.
Pilgrim, Earl B. Marguerite of the Isle of Demons. St. John’s: DRC Publishing, 2007. A “straightforward account of Marguerite’s life, describing in great detail the daily routines she undertakes in order to survive. Interjected throughout the story are extra historical facts relating to the era in which she lived and the rugged place where she was abandoned.”
Skinner, Charles M. de Roberval. “Marguerite and the hideous creatures of Quirpon.”