It was a rather strange place to find horses.
Traversing to the top of Bald Dune – huffing and puffing in my warm, bright-red survival suit, my gum boots sinking into the sand, a climb that felt like three heavy steps for every single stride – I took in the view from the top of the 30-metre eminence. On one side: the sea, which reflected back the foreboding clouds above. On the other: more dunes, mounds that move whole metres every year, laced in some places with scrubby grass. And then – as I descended – a horse, followed by more. Horses drinking water. Horses eating grass, the rising winds, whipping in off the sea, curling through their seemingly salon-perfect manes.
These animals have become something of a legend. Their equine ancestors having been dumped here in a hurry some 250 years ago by Acadians fleeing south during the Great Expulsion, these horses were wild wonders, more than 500 strong, making their home in this savage part of the world, living on spindly grass and the fresh water that falls from the sky and gathers into small ponds. It seemed unlikely – and endlessly exotic.
But this was a rarely seen corner of Canada. I was on far-flung Sable Island, a 40-kilometre-long, crooked smile of a sand dune that, for most Canadians, exists only in the imagination. Set 175 kilometres to the southeast of Cape Breton, Sable has no bedrock and varies in size by a few kilometres each year. The crescent-shaped island – just 1.5 kilometres at its widest point – has long spurred the imaginations of explorers and foiled sailors.
Located on a primary shipping lane, it's been called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, in part because of its extremely unpredictable weather – curtains of sudden fog created by a mixing of the (cold) Labrador Current and the (warm) Gulfstream, gyres spun out by a churning long-shore current, and winds that can blow more than 100 kilometres an hour. Not surprisingly, it's ringed by some 350 shipwrecks.
Now a national park reserve, back in the age of discovery, those steaming across the Atlantic in search of the new world charted Sable as if it were larger than life. "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," said Jonathan Sheppard, who accompanied us on the voyage out to Sable and has managed the park reserve since it was created in 2013.
The horses were just one of the natural wonders I would encounter while cruising Canada's East Coast on the MV Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research ship operated by Vancouver-based One Ocean Expeditions, as part of its 10-day Fins and Fiddles tour of the Maritimes. Sable alone is home to some 50,000 harbour and grey seals, an array of birds and 18 species of shark, just offshore (we saw the seals and the birds, but not the sharks). For Fins and Fiddles, the Ioffe charts a broad loop, sailing first to Sable, then completing a clockwise circle around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, visiting islands and peninsulas along the way, departing from, and arriving back at, Louisburg National Park on Cape Breton Island.
Each day on the voyage brought a new destination, and we never tarried, spending just a single day in most destinations before steaming to a new port-of-call or wilderness. At the Bird Islands – a pair of rocks just off the Cape Breton coast – we cruised around in zodiacs and took in the sight of great cormorants and Atlantic razorbill, while puffins, just a black blur nearby above, shot by us in the air.
Farther north, the weather turned foul as we arrived at Anticosti Island, a remote, sparsely populated, heavily forested land mass in the middle of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Launching zodiacs into the grey waves, we huddled as we skirted along under an unbroken line of intimidating cliffs in a seemingly alien and uninhabitable landscape, seals spy-hopping all around. "They only ever encounter lobster fishermen," explained our guide Jacques Sirois, shouting over the wind and the waves. "They're very curious to see us."
And just off the Gaspé Peninsula, at Île Bonaventure on a much nicer day, we encountered one of the largest colonies of gannets in the world – some 50,000 breeding pairs (or almost 100,000 birds, in all). Our zodiac crept around the cliffs, revealing first the outskirts – single lines of white in the seams of the rock. But soon, we were in the heart of the colony, marvelling at the sight of row upon row of birds, their winged compatriots soaring high, a shifting, plunging, coasting white cloud in the sky above.
But this voyage wasn't just about wings, or fins – we found plenty of food and fiddles, too. On the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, a handful of interconnected islands in the middle of the Gulf, I walked among the cows and sampled the delicious cheeses produced from their milk at Pied-de-Vent, a fromagerie that sells fresh, unpasteurized fromage. And then, after spending a bit of time at the local smokehouse, I ended up in La Grave, the oldest village on the island, really just a series of happily painted galleries, restaurants and museums lining the shore.
Enjoying a frosty pint of local Quebecois beer, François Guay – owner of the resto-bar Vent du Large – explained how music flows in the bloodstream of those living on these islands, and the rest of the East Coast. A Montrealer by birth, Guay washed up here after touring extensively with Cirque du Soleil as a fiddler. "This place is a social microclimate," he explained.
"Acadians arrived here after being deported, then were left here on their own, on these remote islands. Here, you'll find a strong identity, and it very much involves music and the arts. I wanted to come and be a part of that."
He added that his bar and restaurant, which is perched on a particularly scenic oceanfront incline, plays host to musicians every evening in the summer; then he picked up his fiddle and played us a few traditional French-Canadian ditties.
That spirit of music and community certainly inhabit the village of Francois, too. A tiny, traditional Newfoundland outport, Francois (pronounced France-way) is unconnected by road to the outside world and home to just 80 souls. Greeting us with a firm handshake, lifetime resident Austin Fudge met me on the village's jetty. Dividing our ship's passengers into smaller groups, he led us around town, which was free of cars and connected by wooden boardwalks that, like Francois itself, climbed the inside crook of a long, narrow, stunning inlet. Without a ship (or a helicopter), it would be completely impossible to reach this place, and Fudge explained that even search and rescue officials depend on their little auxiliary force to help out. "It could be hours if they're coming from Halifax," he noted of the closest major naval centre, even though it's in another province and really far away.
Fudge led us up to a headland overlooking the picturesque little community, an excursion that he had described as a beginner's hike – "You can do it, if you can walk at all," he said – but which seemed rather challenging, to me. As we made our way up an increasingly vertical boardwalk, eventually arriving at a staircase that appeared to stretch into the sky, I huffed and puffed and listened as Fudge described life in this remote corner of Canada.
"You knows everybody, almost too well," he said with a heavy Newfoundland accent, noting that while a few fishermen still ply these waters, most are employed in the work of keeping the place running – staffing the post office, school, diesel plant and the ferry to Burgeo, Nfld., five hours away, the closest place with a road.
As we reached the top, most of my shipmates took a quick look around and then headed back down. After all, a kitchen party – complete with local music and plenty of beer – awaited. But I was content to stay a while, sitting on a little bench, slowly savouring the 360 degrees of grandeur. At my feet sat the village, saltbox houses in red and purple and blue, all in miniature, dwarfed by the craggy cliffs and mountains that surround it, the Ioffe in the middle of the inlet, outsized in the relatively small passage and awaiting our return. But she would have to wait a bit longer. A night of small-town revelry, music and dancing – passengers and locals together – lay ahead.
The writer was a guest of One Oceans Expeditions. It did not review or approve the article.