When I saw the thin ribbon of sand for the first time, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. This far-flung and fabled island, for most, exists entirely in the imagination. It’s a place seen by few, and trod upon by even fewer.
Pulling on my foul-weather gear – I had been warned that winds and weather could shift at a moment’s notice in this corner of the North Atlantic – I wobbled in my gumboots down the ship’s gangway and onto a Zodiac. I was about to become one of a very small, privileged group: a visitor to Canada’s Sable Island.
Misty and mystical, populated by an abundance of wild horses and a very small handful of hardy souls, Sable Island has long loomed large in the imagination of sailors and adventurers. It’s a strange and beautiful island: a thin, 45km-long crooked smile of a sandbar with shifting sands and swirling tides that have confounded many a navigator. It’s also one of the greatest graveyards of the Atlantic, surrounded by the permanent resting place of some 350 shipwrecks.
Set 175km off the coast of Nova Scotia, Sable has no dock – let alone a ragged landing strip. Those who travel there are mostly researchers and federal government employees, sent to mind the island’s remote weather and warden stations. But that’s slowly changing, with Sable named Canada’s newest national park in 2013.
A visit to Sable Island must be scheduled in advance, and most travellers arrive via charter flight or private vessels. I sailed there aboard the MV Akademic Ioffe, a Russian icebreaker and research ship operated by One Ocean Expeditions. At dinner the night before our arrival, I chatted with Jonathan Sheppard, the park’s first manager. As we rocked and rolled through gunmetal-grey North Atlantic waves, Sheppard explained some of the island’s mystique, which, he noted, is rooted in hundreds of years of history. Because the island stretches across the primary shipping lane that was used by explorers sailing to the New World, most ships headed from Europe to North America spotted it along their long journey.
“On old maps, Sable is huge – it’s drawn as if it’s thousands of miles long, stretching down the entire coast of North America,” Sheppard said with a laugh.
And Sable’s preternatural ability to sink ships also became the stuff of legend. Sheppard explained that massive, treacherous sandbars radiate out from the island, while the mixing of cold waters from the Labrador Current and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream – which come together here – means a thick curtain of fog can descend at a moment’s notice. As if that weren’t enough, a long-shore current creates dangerous rotating gyres. “I’ve read old sailor’s chronicles about being sucked into the island,” he said. “That’s really not so far from the truth.”
While the island is home to thousands of grey and harbour seals, an abundance of birdlife and 18 species of shark, Sable’s greatest emblem is the wild horse. The 560 resident feral horses greatly outnumber humans – only four or five people live on Sable at any given time, arriving mostly in a tiny plane that bumps down on the beach with big, thick tundra tyres. Historians have traced the lineage of these horses back to those abandoned by Acadians in the middle of the 19th Century, fleeing south from the present-day provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to New England and Louisiana during the Great Expulsion. An enterprising merchant helped himself to the ownerless horses and shipped them, along with other livestock, to the island, where he planned on periodically selling them for profit. While the other animals faltered, the horses lived on.
As I stepped into the Zodiac with my shipmates, bumping over the waves toward the shore, all the buzz was about spotting these equine wonders that had long fended for themselves in one of the world’s most inhospitable places.
Making landfall, I splashed off the side of the Zodiac and ambled up the beach, shedding my gumboots and pulling on my running shoes. The clouds had rolled in, the wind was up and a light drizzle pelted us. I made my way across the island, which is only 1.5km at its widest point. “It’s like being in the Sahara, in the middle of the Atlantic,” I overhead someone say as I put my head down and began climbing up one of the island’s tallest eminences, the 30m Bald Dune. Walking up beside me, Sheppard remarked that Sable is always a work in progress: in 40 years, winds have moved this dune clear across the island, and Sable itself – with no bedrock at all – is actually 7km shorter than it was last year.
The views from the top of Bald were both stark and beautiful: a 360-degree panorama of rolling dunes, scrubby grass and whorls of threatening clouds as far as the eye could see. But still, no horses. Descending, we made our way toward another of the island’s quirky features, a series of freshwater ponds fed by rainwater alone.
As we walked, Sheppard shared with me a few of the ghost stories he’s heard since taking over as park manager – rumours of supernatural activity are perhaps not surprising given the huge number of shipwrecks that surround the island. But the most famous tale concerns Sable’s short-lived stint as a French penal colony at the end of the 16th Century. Dropped here to fend for themselves, King Henri IV failed to resupply the prisoners with food and basic necessities for an entire year. Sable became an apocalypse, with murder, mutiny and starvation carrying the day. Those men that managed to ride out the bloodshed dug dens in the sand and wore sealskins to survive. Out of the 70-strong colony, only 11 men still breathed when their French overseers returned 12 months later, and legend has it that the colony’s priest, who had seen so much suffering, refused to leave the island. Sheppard said the soul of this holy man still lives on Sable, and people have seen him walking the dunes at night.
Then, as we approached the pond, we saw them. Wild, yes, but also strangely majestic. First, just one, standing there and eating grass. Then more, a cluster of four, walking slowly up a slope nearer the pond. The horses moved with languid confidence, long kings and queens of the island, their almost-too-perfect manes blowing in the wind. My shipmates would later joke that they looked straight from the stables, despite the fact that they had certainly never been groomed.
Snapping a few photos, I headed back toward our landing beach, considering this remarkable place. Earlier, Sheppard had shared how close the government had come to removing the feral horses in the 1960s. When news of the plan leaked, a nationwide movement began, with schoolchildren across Canada writing letters of protest to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He responded by protecting the animals under a federal shipping act, a measure that remained in place until the island’s recent designation as a national park.
The horses have made Sable their home for more than 250 years, and I hoped they would be there for centuries more. I hoped that Sable would always be there, just as I had seen it, and that no matter how much a phantasm, it would live beyond the imagination, welcoming visitors to this new national park for generations to come.