Rewriting History

It first happened a few years ago and it was kinda cute. I recall thinking, “Wow.” And then the next time it happened, it was “seriously?” And then again. Now it is time to get it straight.

Poison Bay. A small bay, about a kilometre northeast of Hank’s Beach, a bay so small that if not for its name, it would never be recognized. The little bay with the big name! I can remember as a boy the first time I heard my father speak of Poison Bay. It was along the lines of, “really Dad, poison, as in poison, poison?”

And the answer was “yes son, poison!”

As a child our parents teach us the dangers of eating stuff we shouldn’t, “it could be poisonous, don’t eat that, you don’t want to die do you?”  Hell no! We were told poison is bad stuff, whatever it may be. Soap, weed killer, perfume, mushrooms, gasoline. We all knew that some stuff was bad. It was poison! It is no wonder we recoil when we hear the word poison. “Look out!”

My father’s explanation for the name Poison Bay couldn’t come fast enough. My eight-year-old mind raced. Were the trees poisonous, was it the moss on the trees? Maybe the bedrock was poisonous. Was it the air? The water?

The bay was named by my grandfather. Named after the site where he had poisoned a bunch of wolves. No one knows how many wolves died but for nearly eighty years thereafter no one talked of wolves on Cortes. Indeed, the story was that John Manson had poisoned the last of the wolves. It is likely he used strychnine and laced a deer carcass with the deadly poison. It was the 1890s.

My father went on to explain that his father had no choice but to poison the wolves. The wolves were killing their sheep … one of the main sources of the family’s food and income. My grandfather supplied lamb and mutton to the logging camps in the area, rowing from Sunny Brae up and down the coast.

In those early days, the wolves had a fearsome reputation among the pioneers. We have a fascinating letter in our family records. The writer states how awful it must have for my grandmother when John was away on his trips, and how thank goodness John had built a safe-room above the ceiling in their one-room cabin, a place where she could retreat to should the wolves break down the door and try to kill her. The year would be 1895, the year they married, and John Manson brought his Shetland bride, Margaret, back to Cortes.

It is hard to imagine the hardship faced by the pioneers in those first months and years upon arriving on Cortes. I have often wondered what you would bring with you. A gun, a lantern, an axe, a saw, hammer and nails, vegetable seeds, spare clothes, a shovel, a tent, medicine. How much could you carry? There were no roads.

And what do you do first? Where do you settle? Drinking water has to be the foremost priority, and then, proximity to the beach … the only means of travel … by rowboat. Do you build a shelter first or plant a garden? You have to eat. The deer eat the garden. Do you finish your shelter or build your garden fence? Where do you get your lumber? Having immigrated from the Shetland Islands where sheep were a familiar source of sustenance, they were quickly adopted here as a welcome lifeline. With no wolves on the Shetlands, it must have come as a shock to discover wolves here on Cortes and be faced with yet another hurdle to their homestead survival.

At some point a decision was made to homestead on Mitlenatch, a place where sheep could graze free from predators and no fences would be required. A spartan existence for a pioneer family but it shows their will to find a way to make it work with the sheep. Raising a young son, Jack, born in 1896, would have been a tremendous hardship for my grandmother. No other women to talk to, no one to help with how to raise a child in the wilderness, truly at the mercy of God.

It is not clear whether the Poison Bay incident took place before or after the time on Mitlenatch.

To those that call it Poisson Bay, please know it is not Fish Bay. It was a tough era for the pioneer families and the wolf caused significant hardship and fear in those early days. It is part of the island’s heritage, and not to be rewritten by the French “poisson.”  In later years many referred to the bay as Ashford Bay, named by Grandpa Hayes in honour of his wife’s father. It seems even the pioneers didn’t like the sound of Poison Bay!

A simple mistake …

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