Life on Kent Island: Ernest Joy’s Letters, 1938-1949

This morning was foggy and wet, so I perused the small library in the dorm and came across a binder of handwritten letters. They turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for: a record of daily life in every season on Kent Island. They were written by Ernest Joy, the fisherman who discovered the Albatross in the Bay of Fundy and who later became the first warden of Kent Island for Bowdoin. The letters span the ten-year period that he lived on the Island with his partner Carrie, and are all addressed to his friend Robert Cunningham, a meteorologist who observed storms and fog on Kent Island. Ernest continued Bob’s work by maintaining his equipment and checking and recording the weather (rainfall, visibility, pressure, wind speed, temperature), a twice-daily chore that we still complete in the weather station. Ernest faithfully kept the records through the extreme weather of spring squalls, winter blizzards, and 48 mph winds. While the letters recount the often repetitive events of his daily life, his charismatic prose and his creative spelling animate his stories.

Alone on Kent Island most of the year except for his sheep and Carrie, and hours away from a hospital, Ernest had to be hardy and self-sufficient to survive. In a letter from April 30th, 1944, Ernest writes, “on april 3 I was going to my Rat traps it had just done snowing and I slipped on the ice I went up in the air about 4 feet and come down on a rock and stove my side in.” With broken ribs and in the winter snow, he continued fixing buildings, taking weather readings, and trapping muskrats, which he sold to supplement his $300 income from Bowdoin.

Ernest Joy feeding his sheep. The current dormitory on Kent Island was once the sheep barn. (image from the Kent Island library)

Ernest Joy feeding his sheep. The current dormitory on Kent Island was once the sheep barn.
(image from the Kent Island library)

In another misadventure, Ernest nearly set the entire Island ablaze when a stray leaf caught fire while he was burning trash. He told Bob, “The fier went almost to the north end…it is a hell of a looking plase up there no every tree is gon.” To this day, the North end of the Island is almost entirely fields, with new growth spruce trees only just beginning to emerge. Like Ernest, we burn our trash at the Bowdoin Scientific Station, but are very careful to only do so on the beach.

Despite his near-destruction of the Island’s forests, Ernest was instrumental in the resurgence of its bird populations, especially eiders. The Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act, ratified in 1916, put limits on the game bird season and prohibited the hunting of many bird species. The Act was difficult to enforce in regions such as Grand Manan that had a tradition of picking eider and gull eggs from the Three Islands in the spring and hunting eiders in the fall. On May 12, 1944, Ernest writes, “I am looking for Robie w. Tufts this Monday he is comming to stop the egging on the south end.” Tufts was the Chief Migratory Birds Officer and an early supporter of the Kent Island bird sanctuary. He established respect for the bird laws in coastal regions, and apparently helped Ernest to prevent people from taking eider eggs from their nests on the South side of Kent Island. Ernest was well known for his extensive knowledge of the birds, and helped the Bowdoin boys who camped on the Island in the summer to tag birds for study.

Despite his many contributions to the scientific station, Ernest left Kent Island exhausted and heartbroken, and died two years after his departure to Grand Manan. Carrie, his steadfast companion, passed away in 1949, and after her death he didn’t have the heart to stay on the Island alone for another brutal winter. In his parting letter to Bob Cunningham, Ernest writes, “I have lived a long but not a very useful life, it cant be helped now.” Though Ernest had a deep knowledge of nature on the Island, it ultimately waged a fatal war of attrition against his spirits. Through fire and ice, Ernest Joy’s effective upkeep of the Kent Island bird sanctuary and research station, which to this day make valuable contributions to science, contradict his declaration of uselessness.

Letter from Ernest Joy to Bob Cunningham, informing him that Carrie had died

Letter from Ernest Joy to Bob Cunningham, informing him that Carrie had died

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