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Exploring The Gaspe Peninsula,
Summer 1923

 

The Gaspe Peninsula is a peninsula located in southeastern Quebec, Canada. It is north of New Brunswick and Chaleur Bay and south of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. It covers approximately 11,390 square miles and is thickly forested with many lakes and rivers. The Mi'kmaq, who occupied this area when the first Europeans arrived called it 'Gespeg' meaning 'the place where the land ends.'

In 1534 French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed into the Baie de Gaspe where it is said he was greeted by Mi'kmaq waving beaver furs and speaking in pidgin Basque. The harsh winters and shallow soils of the area deterred early settlers. The first European settlers in the region were fishermen who stayed and married local women. Much early information on this area is found in the book Relation de la Gaspesie published in Paris in 1691.

In the 1840s Sir William Logan (1798-1875), founder and first director of the Geological Survey of Canada, accompanied by his young assistant Alexander Murray, explored the Gaspe region. In 1843 he began working between Pictou, Nova Scotia and the Gaspé. In 1844 Logan, Murray and a larger party mapped the north shore of the Gaspe Peninsula and then explored inland. Their travels brought them to the mountains along the Cap Chat River, the highest of which was named in Logan's honour by his assistants.

Whether it was the harsh weather or rugged mountains or a combination of both, after Logan's exploration no definative attempt was made to explore and describe the region for quite a few years. In the 1880s two botanists, John A. Allen and John Macoun, headed into the area. They botanized and found some unusual plants but, these discoveries went largely unrecognized in the botanical community at large.

Map of the Mt. Logan area drawn by Collins

Two New England botanists James Franklin Collins, Head of the Botany Department at Brown University, and Merritt Lyndon Fernald, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, made frequent short summer trips to the Gaspe area beginning in 1904, often collecting in the Perce area. These trips yielded much new and interesting plant material to the consternation of the Canadian botanists. Fernald relates "One Canadian botanist, prominent on account of his official position but given to "plain thinking and high drinking,' repeatedly wondered about our finding so much about Perce. He went their every summer and 'never could find anything of interest.' One doesn't if he sits about the front porch or in the bar." (Rhodora 44, 1951).

It seemed that others were not as interested in this region's flora as these New England botanists. After one collecting trip in the early 1900s Collins and Fernald tried to sell uniform sets of the Gaspé material to help recoup some of the trip expenses. They did not have much luck and even received this reply from a Russian herbarium. "A letter from St Petersburg stated that their herbarium was already rich in Alaskan plants and that they needed no more! Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec meant nothing to their geographic sense." (Rhodora 44, 1951)

In 1922 Merritt Lyndon Fernald and Professor Arthur Stanley Pease of the University of Illinois found themselves in the area with a few days to explore. They attempted to reach Mt. Logan but were not able to get there, being driven back by violent storms. They saw enough however for them to decide to return the next summer with a much expanded party.


Pass at the west end of Matawees, from 1 mile above Locked Camp

During the summer of 1923 seven botanists and three guides spent July and August exploring and botanizing the Gaspe Peninsula, mostly in the area of the Shickshock Mountains. They crossed the Cap Chat River on July 6th, 1923 and headed to their home base. A cabin they referred to as the Locked Camp. This camp consisted of a cabin where they stored their extra supplies and food while they were out collecting in the field. Every few days their guides would treck back to Locked Camp to restock. The botanists also traveled back there a couple of times during their trip to drop off mounted specimens. The members of the party were:


Sitting at the Fernald Pass camp

Merritt Lyndon Fernald - Fisher Proffessor of Natural History, Harvard University
James Franklin Collins - Forest Pathologist, USDA, Brown University
Arthur Stanley Pease - Botanist, University of Illinois
Carroll William Dodge - Instructor, Farlow Herbarium, Harvard University
Ludlow Griscom - Assistant Curator of Birds, The American Museum of Natural History
Kenneth K. Mackenzie - Corporate lawyer and amateur botanist
Lyman B. Smith - student, Harvard University
Joseph Fortin, Israel Thibeault, and Leon Douglas - guides

This party was the first ever to engage in scientific work on Mt. Logan since its discovery in 1844, nearly 80 years earlier. As stated by C.W. Dodge in a report he made shortly after their trip "As the country on the line we proposed to follow had never been represented on geographic maps nor even examined at all, and as at the same time exact geographic details were indespensible to arrive at correct geographical conclusions, and to present them in an intellegent manner, it became necessary that our trip serve as a topographic as well as stratigraphic exploration".

The party discovered many new species of plants during this trip, quite a few which were unheard of in the east and have their nearest relatives found in the Rocky Mountains. Each member of the party was assigned tasks dependant on their specialties. Collins was responsible for photographing their journey and creating maps, Dodge for geographical measurements, Griscom recorded the birds that they observed, and of course each botanist collected in his field of expertise.

Because the mountains were largely uninhabited the supplies and equipment they brought in were extensive. Besides the common food staples such as potatoes, eggs, beans, hard bread, maple syrup, pork, condensed milk, etc. They had chocolate, lentils, grapefruit, dried beef, raisins, and other foodstuffs shipped in from Boston about a week before they began and brought up to the Locked Camp. They had four waterproof tents; two cotton and two khaki as well as cheese cloth canopies to sleep in and protect them from insects. One of their tents was used to shelter the plants and collecting equipment, one was used by the guides and the botanists shared the two remaining.

Camp at Fernald Pass

Each man carried a knapsack (weighing between 30 and 80 lbs) containing a camera, vasculum or collecting box, emergency rations, matches, compass, and a whistle. They uses their whistles to communicate and devised a code of whistle signals to help locate each other, communicate danger, and, most importantly, to announce when dinner was ready.

The party faced many hardships including extremely rough weather. Most of the party dressed in waterproof coats or slickers because rain and even hail came down at a moments notice. At night they wore all of the clothes that they had packed but still, it often wasn't enough to keep warm. On at least four nights the temperature fell well below freezing.

Besides the harsh storms and freezing night-time temperatures the botanists had to deal with insect pests. J. Franklin Collins wrote:

"I estimated the number of black flies on the inside of my small tent near the top of Mt. Albert, and found the number to be more than 150,000. I did this estimating inside my cheese-cloth canopy - the flies fortunately being mostly outside the canopy. I will, however, say one complimentary thing for the black fly, the moose fly, and the deer fly. They go to bed at sundown and are pests only in the daytime.
Not so with the midge and mosquito: Oh no: - They seemingly are on duty about 25 hours each day when the weather is warm and not too windy. They observe no union hours and apparently are indifferent as to the refined human etiquette of making social calls."

There was also the worry about larger pests. The party members had been told stories about the "terrible Shickshock Mountains" and about tremendous bears that were "so big they could barely squeeze through the door of [the lumber-camp] camp." They set up bear alarms each night so that if a bear came through the door a tin wash basin would fall and awaken them.

Crossing Cap Chat River

The botanists had to deal with extremely difficult terrain each day. The area on the north shore was especially rugged. It is comprised of river canyons with steep slopes. The sheer cliffs occassionally rise to a height of 1200 feet. Throughout the region are numerous outcropings of granite, serpentine, dolerite, or trap. The south shore had a more gentle slope but both were often wet and slippery travel because of the harsh weather and because of the hundreds of salmon and trout filled rivers and brooks that bisect the area. The party had to cross many of these each day.

Often the cliff faces were covered in dense vegetation which made climbing a time consuming and dangerous task. Collins, in a diary entry dated July 8th states "The climbing before lunch was very difficult, up through dense scrub covered, exceedingly steep, slopes where the rigid branches were interlocked and pointing downwards as if to defend the approach to the pass by closely set array of wooden bayonets. We were all very tired when we reached the little lake in Farnald Pass."

On the Plaque a Malade trail

There was also the danger of landslides because of the shallow soil and excessive rain. In J. Franklin Collins' diary he tells how one of the guides, Thibault, tries to reach the Locked Camp for supplies and finds that the only road leading to it had slid down into the river below.

On July 19th he wrote: "At the Salmon Camp, 5 miles below the Locked Camp, the road for a distance of 50-75 feet had slid into the river, 100-150 feet below. We had to unpack all baggage and portage it across the break. The buckboard was then hauled across the slide with alpine ropes."

This series of photographs shows the party on July 19th as they carry their gear across the washed out road and use a series of ropes to try and pull the buckboard over the landslide to reach the small town at Cap Chat so that they could begin the next leg of their journey at Mt. Albert.

This proceedure took most of the day. The party was ready to go at 6:30am and left Locked Camp at 7:00am. They didn't reach Cap Chat until 3:00pm. A trip that had taken them approximately 4 hours going in took 8 1/2 hours coming out.

Even with all the hardships they faced, they felt that the trip was worth it. In correspondence after their return each botanist writes of their Gaspe adventure and their findings with great fondness. It seems that Canada remembers their trip with fondness as well as the Great Basin was re-named Pease Basin, the names Fernald Basin and Fernald Pass were given to two other areas in Gaspe. Botanist's Dome was the name given to the flat area at the top of Tabletop Mountain, the highest point of land in eastern Quebec and lastly, in April of 1926, the Canadian Geological Survey named the 3,500 foot mountain near Mt Logan, Mt Collins.

 

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