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Our Zodiac speeds toward the horizon-spanning strip of Sable Island, 160 kilometres off the Nova Scotia coast. We’re approaching the fabled island from its protected side, away from the most turbulent wind and waves. Spray dashes our faces yet it’s so idyllically sunny and calm that it’s hard to believe we’re on the ferocious North Atlantic. We peer ahead, eager to catch our first glimpse of one of the island’s wild horses, thrilled to be part of the first tour group to come ashore since the island became a national park reserve in 2013. Someone shouts and points. High on a dune, a lone creature appears in silhouette.
Once our boat, one of a dozen or so, reaches land, we leap onto the beach and strip off our wet gear. Out on the water, Adventure Canada’s clipper ship, the Sea Adventurer, our home for this expedition, rides at anchor. On shore, our Parks Canada guides give us our instructions. We are not to eat anything, leave anything behind or remove anything, including any beach debris, which must remain in situ because it’s being studied. And we are not to go within 20 metres of the 500 horses who call the island home.
We set off single file into the dunes and, just over a low sandy ridge, spy a family of horses grazing on a small plain of marram grass. Four mares, still shedding shaggy winter coats, munch with their foals, watched by a stallion with sweeping mane and tail like something out of a teenaged girl’s horse fantasy. A dead horse lies nearby, testament to the island’s harsh conditions. Ingesting tough beach grass and sand wears down the horses’ teeth; they have a lifespan of just four to five years.
A second stallion approaches and breaks into a trot, mane rippling across his side. Seconds later, the two stallions rear up in a brief clash before the approaching male backs away.
The horses have never seen a group of 100 humans trekking through the dunes. Last year saw only 13 visitors before our June arrival. When the federal government began the process of making Sable Island a park in 2010, Adventure Canada, known for leading expeditions to the Arctic, approached Parks Canada about starting tours to the island. Our visit is a pilot project that will help determine how to manage visitors and keep our presence low-impact.
We climb the 28-metre rise Bald Dune, the windy, highest point on the island. From the top, we take in both sides of Sable Island’s 1.5-kilometre span and much of its ribbon-like 40-kilometre length. A single horse follows a man with a camera across an adjacent ridge. I cannot help wondering what these animals think of us.
For years, the horses have lived virtually on their own in family bands, along with the world’s largest breeding colony of 50,000 grey seals. A few academic researchers come and go, sometimes staying for a month or so at a time. Environment Canada has a small manned weather station and now four Parks Canada employees live in a cluster of wooden houses in the middle of the island. Supplies arrive by boat and plane. An old Department of Fisheries research station at the east end has already been taken over by shifting sands.
Technically, the horses are not wild, but feral: The original population came from Acadia, brought to the island as a commercial venture in the 18th century. In 1959, after a particularly harsh winter, the Canadian government decided to remove the horses and turn most into pet food. Children from across the country – and around the world – wrote letters to then-prime minister John Diefenbaker, begging him to leave the horses on the island. He did, and wrote their protection into law.
One of those letter writers is on this Adventure Canada expedition, eager to see the animals she helped save, as is a woman who has made it a goal to travel to islands that harbour wild horses. (She’s already been to Virginia’s Chincoteague, where the famous children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague is set.) Others have been tugged by different versions of the Sable Island mystique. A cartographer for the Nova Scotia government hopes to draw on historic lore and create more place names than the seven that exist for a landscape where the sandy topography changes constantly.
Some say that tourists should not be here at all. Anyone who visits must register with Parks Canada, receive approval and go through mandatory on-shore orientation. Camping is not permitted. On this trip, we come ashore for a few hours at a time and spend our nights moored offshore on the 118-passenger Sea Adventurer. The remoteness and difficult weather do their part to keep visits to a minimum.
Our second day dawns fog-shrouded and it looks as if we won’t leave the ship at all. Late afternoon, the clouds part just enough for our Zodiac drivers to steer us ashore by GPS. Someone remarks how Sable Island is celebrated on placemats and posters across the Maritimes as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.” Three hundred and fifty ships have wrecked on the shoals on the island’s ocean side, an estimated 10,000 deaths, and as we vanish into fog en route to an invisible island, I understand how easy it is to lose all sense of direction.
Once ashore, we hike through misty hummocks and dips where horses graze. Science writer Jay Ingram, one of the expedition’s resource staff, remarks that it feels as if we have been dropped into a geological era before the advent of humans. Tiny wild strawberries grow here, along with blueberries, cranberries and bayberries. Ipswich sparrows dart among the shrubs. We pass a murky pond, its surface decked with water lilies, the surrounding dirt a sea of hoof prints. The horses dig down through the sand to find fresh water, which floats underground above the deeper saltwater. On the far side of the island sits a great sand plateau – once a freshwater lake that has dried up as sand encroached. Where the sand meets bracing breakers, lolling grey seals raise their heads like periscopes to watch us curiously.
Parks Canada manager Jonathan Sheppard considers the island a testament not to fragility but tenacity. Visitor management takes place against a backdrop of other issues: the loss of fresh water, long-term sea-level rise due to climate change, the carrying capacity of the island for the growing horse population. Oil and gas exploration takes place outside a 1.6-kilometre exclusion zone; a platform hovers on the horizon. Another reminder of human encroachment is the detritus that washes ashore after its own form of global travel: coconuts, dry-cleaning plastic, a crate of Gucci perfume.
On our final shore trip the next day, we meet the remarkable Zoe Lucas, who probably knows more about the island than anyone and is the closest thing to a full-time resident, and wise elder, that Sable Island has. No one can live in a national park reserve but Lucas, who has a researcher’s permit, has been grandfathered in and given permission to stay for months at a stretch. She has done so since she first came to Sable Island as a young woman in the early 1970s to cook for a research team.
Lucas, a volunteer research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, studies the horses and the island’s habitat, often for researchers who can’t make it to the island, and now for Parks Canada. In the years before digital photography made access to photos easy, she learned to identify individual horses by the underside of their hooves. Apple-cheeked, a paisley scarf around her neck, she tells us the two stallions that we saw joust were once companions until one bested an older stallion for the mares. She kneels to sketch a horse in the sand.
The next morning, the sun shines again but the wind has risen. It is too dangerous to attempt a landing. With three visits over three days, we have been far luckier than many researchers, who wait days in vain for fog to clear. As the Sea Adventurer pulls away and the island recedes, the fact that we set foot on it at all feels all the more astonishing.
IF YOU GO
Adventure Canada’s Sable Island expedition departs from St. John’s. The nine-day itinerary includes three days in the vicinity of Sable Island, travel through the marine-protected region known as the Gully, which is rich with aquatic and bird life, and various whale species, plus a stop-off on St. Pierre, the tiny French colony off the Newfoundland coast. Fine weather also afforded us a half-day in Francois (pronounced Fransway), a cliffside Newfoundland village only reachable by boat. Hiking on Sable Island isn’t rigorous, but you need to be in good shape. Tour prices start at $2,395 (U.S.). The next Sable Island cruise will run June 11 to 19, 2016. Flights to St. John’s are not included. adventurecanada.com
You will likely want to overnight in St. John’s before boarding the expedition vessel. Adventure Canada offers a reduced rate for trip members at the Delta, but you might also try the delightful B&B, the Chef’s Inn on Gower Street. thechefsinn.ca
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number of shipwrecks at Sable Island.]
Catherine Bush’s most recent novel, Accusation, is now out in paperback. She travelled as a guest of Adventure Canada; it did not review or approve this article.