Of boats, bears and a Bernier

Family is never quite where you expect to find it. When dealing with generations of individuals, it seems that we find ourselves face to face with someone or an event that we had never imagined or possibly had overwrought in our imaginations.

Even though I don’t share the last name, while growing up I was surrounded with these fantastic family mythologies: A grandfather who’s friends insisted on calling him Bon Homme(though it always sounded like “buh’num”), French for ‘Good Man’, for reasons I never quite understood. A strong family tradition of boats, from row boats to poorly maintained sail boats sitting listlessly in Puget Sound. The cabin is L’Islet, Quebec that was the destination of numerous summer fishing trips, not to mention the familial obsession with fishing. Then the eventual trip to the Bernier Maritime Museum, the source of an enormous amount of family pride.

Arial view of Musee Maritime du Quebec

The Musee Maritime du Quebec is dedicated to the history of the St. Lawrence River and Arctic exploration. The Bernier Maritime Museum was eventually rolled into the MMQ, but was originally dedicated to Joseph-Elzear Bernier, who between 1904 and 1911 explored the Canadian arctic and claimed the islands for Canada. It turns out Joseph Bernier is a distant relative of mine, a great-great-great uncle.

CGS Arctic, circa 1905

A captain of his own ship by the age of 17, Joseph-Elzear Bernier was the youngest fully licensed ship in the world in 1869.

The majority of his work between 1869 and 1904 was shipping across the Atlantic, and eventually he retired to take up work in Quebec City. This retirement eventually gave way to boredom and his desire to mount a polar expedition. His first expedition began in 1904 at the age of 52.

Perry Island, 1908. Joseph Bernier and his ships Crew standing in front of the metal plaque claiming the island for Canada.

These expeditions occurred numerous times over the next 7 years, and again he “retired” in 1911. As with all individuals with an adventurous spirit, this was not to last. When WWI began in 1917, he took to the seas again, and operated cargo ships delivering supplies to England and other parts of Europe to help the war effort. Even after the war, he couldn’t give up sailing, he continued on exploring the arctic until his “real” retirement in 1925.

For years there was always the story told to the family of “Jack the Bear” Bernier, an ship captain so tough that he didn’t bother to wear gloves on the deck of his ship while sailing in the arctic. Though the name and the anecdote are likely pure fabrications, truth is yet again much better than fiction.

Captain Joseph Bernier, age 73.

1 thought on “Of boats, bears and a Bernier

  1. What an awesome history! I love how you connect this profession years back in your family to hobbies and interests that your family has now. That’s one of the things that I love most about family tree research – it sort of lets you put all of you relatives, and yourself, into historical context. I bet the trip to the museum was fantastic – what a great story, thanks for sharing!

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