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Sable Island's wild horses enjoy an afternoon siesta.

wendy kitts The Globe and Mail

Picture this: You are up before the rest of the house stirs. You pull on some clothes, grab your journal and noiselessly slip outside. This is what the fresh air that your mother always wanted you to get feels like. Except for the pink-hued sand that squeaks in anticipation as you make your way to North Beach, all is quiet. In 10 minutes, you're settled in your usual "thinking spot," sneakers off, sand between your toes. You sense you are not alone. You nod your head in acknowledgment toward a handful of Harbour seals about five metres away. Seemingly indifferent, like you, they are soaking up the morning sun. You laugh at a particularly ingenious seal, his usually lumbering body nestled crossways in a sandy groove, the sand displaced by the wide tires of the off-road vehicle the day before, his head resting against the furrow's slope as if it's a pillow.

You notice the azure sky. Was that tone of blue hiding behind the pea-soup fog of yesterday as you explored South Beach? You smile as you remember the band of wild horses that bore down upon you, full-gallop, chased by a stallion from another band as you searched for a spot from which you could both watch safely, and unobtrusively. You held your breath as they suddenly came to a stop, convinced you were the cause when unbeknownst to you a second stallion high atop the dune behind you, was challenging them. Breaking from the pack, the band's stallion and a chestnut male, with a splash of white on his otherwise ginger-coloured face, came so close that you felt the chestnut's hot breath on your cheek. While lost in his gentle brown eyes, the rest of the band quietly skulked by, heads down, as if trying to make themselves as invisible as you, and you remembered a line from the Sable Island Visitor's Guide: "Wildlife has the right-of-way."

But today under a clear sky, you do a salute to the sun. Your daybreak comrades rouse somewhat inquisitively, responding with their own favourite yoga poses - cobra…boat - keeping time with the rhythmic soundtrack of the ever-pounding surf. You write in your journal that you will never forget your time on Sable Island; that moments like these will become touchstones of tranquillity when life on the mainland becomes too overwhelming. But for now, like your blithe companions, there is nowhere you have to be, and you let that realization, deliciously and leisurely, wash over you.

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No Day at the Beach

Seeing Sable Island - which the federal government announced this week will become a national park - is no easy feat. Less than 100 people each year are granted permission to visit this fragile, protected ecosystem, 300 kilometres east-southeast of Halifax. Travelling to this breathtaking isle of sand is not recommended to anyone on a tight schedule - or any schedule at all: Set in the wild North Atlantic, travel delays due to weather are the norm. (Sable Island is the foggiest place in the Maritimes, receiving up to 127 days of fog annually.) And because you can only get there by chartering a plane, helicopter or boat, delays can be costly.

In the past 30 years, 10 of the 14 cruise ships that have attempted to visit Sable Island were turned away because of the weather. Air travel is always a risk, as much for the fog, as having a suitable place to land. The 1 ½-by-42 kilometre island lies directly in the pathway of most of the storms that track up the Atlantic coast, and with three opposing currents constantly hammering its shores, Sable's "runway" - basically a firm spot on the beach - can easily wash out.

Sable Island is not for the faint-hearted - figuratively and literally. Walking in the deep sand can be strenuous and there is no medical help. So if an emergency arises, you have to be air-lifted off the island at your own cost. A waiver warning of tsunamis, quicksand, attacking wildlife and sharks (18 species including the Great White) must be signed. Even the sun can pose a problem as there is no shade on the island. Only the hardiest of vegetation can withstand the constant wind and sandy conditions and Sable is devoid of trees except for one stunted pine - the lone survivor, despite 80,000 tree plantings over the past 100 years.

But all risks are forgotten once you step foot on this magical island. Sable's unspoiled and untamed beauty outweighs any travelling issues. With its singing sand and wandering dunes (dunes lacking vegetation to anchor them in place), Sable Island is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wildlife is king on Sable. A migratory bird sanctuary, the island has one of the largest tern populations in Canada. The tiny Ipswich sparrow nests only here. Sable is home to the world's largest grey seal colony with about 50,000 pups born on its beaches every year. And Sable's most famous inhabitants? The Sable Island horses.

Legend has it they are descendants of horses confiscated from the Acadians during the deportation. Left in the mid-1700s by Boston merchant Thomas Hancock (uncle to John), these once-domesticated horses quickly reverted to their feral ways.

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Today, about 350 horses roam the windswept dunes of Sable, protected from human interference by law - a law brought into effect after a 1959 media report stated the horses were to be transported to the mainland for their eventual disposal, the implication being they would meet their demise at glue or dog-food factories.

The public was outraged and schoolchildren from coast-to-coast wrote prime minister John Diefenbaker begging him to save the horses. In June, 1960, Diefenbaker - an animal lover and no political fool - passed a law protecting the Sable Island horses for as long as there was a government presence on the island.

That government presence is now stronger than ever before, with Parks Canada's announcement it is conferring national parks status on Sable, and relieving the Canadian Coast Guard of the jurisdiction it maintained (because of frequent shipwrecks) since Confederation.

Parks Canada's foremost priority is preserving the ecological integrity of the island; national park status brings with it Canada's toughest environmental legislation. But if not managed properly, increased traffic and the need for infrastructure to accommodate visitors could affect the island's unique and vulnerable flora and fauna. Parks Canada will soon begin consultations with the public and Sable stakeholders to hammer out a plan that both respects and conserves the fragile ecosystem, while balancing the desire for more formalized tourism to the island. What this means for travellers hungry to experience this rarely touched landscape will be known in about six months.

Perhaps in the end, though, one of the island's biggest barriers may turn out to be its protector: Sable's erratic weather (which enables the island to wreck ships on its hidden sandbars then swallow them whole, or to ground incoming planes by playing hide-and-seek in the fog) may ensure that Sable Island's wildlife will always have the right-of-way.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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THE GRAVEYARD OF THE ATLANTIC

Known for its shipwrecks as much as its wild horses, Sable Island has had more than 350 wrecks since 1583, contributing to the island's grim moniker, "the Graveyard of the Atlantic." Storms, heavy fog and hidden sandbars that extend 27 kilometres beyond the island have sent thousands to their watery graves, their ships swallowed whole by Sable's self-cleaning, shifting sands.

--Sable Island's life-saving station, which was established in 1801, closed in 1958. With the advent of modern navigational tools, the area had been shipwreck-free for 11 years. But the graveyard had not claimed its last victim. The Merrimac, a pleasure yacht that set out from Rhode Island on a transatlantic voyage, wrecked on Sable's coast in 1999 during a storm. Luckily, no one was hurt but the boat was destroyed and buried in the Sable sands. Today, sun-bleached remnants of the Merrimac are still visible on South Beach.

--The crew of the Andrea Gail in 1991, however, was not as fortunate. Featured in the book and the feature film The Perfect Storm, the Massachusetts boat is believed to have wrecked not far from Sable Island. The emergency beacon belonging to the ill-fated fishing boat washed up on Sable's shores within days of the famous Nor'easter, which presumably took all lives onboard.

IF YOU GO

The best time to visit Sable Island is from August to October. Visitors must obtain written approval from the Canadian Coast Guard; daytrips are allowed, but visitors must leave the island by 6 p.m. Camping is forbidden and pets are not allowed. There is no formal tourism, but overnight accommodations at the station house may be available (workers' needs come first) for $150 per night per person. Reservations must be made in advance.

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By air: Maritime Air Charter, outside of Halifax, operates the only plane to Sable Island. The six-seater, twin-engine plane has strict weight limits.

By sea: There is no wharf on Sable Island, so if travelling by sea, a Zodiac inflatable boat is required. There are no vehicles for rent but you may charter a station vehicle and driver, provided one is available. Landing fees apply to all modes of transportation and station business takes precedence.

Expect delays: Visitors must be prepared financially and have sufficient supplies in case weather extends their stay. As the Sable Island Visitor's Guide states: "Persons are expected to demonstrate good humour and maturity" about delays.

For more on Sable Island, go to www.ccg-gcc.gc.ca/e0003805.

For Maritime Air Charters Ltd., go to www.maritimeair.com.

For an island point of view, go to www.greenhorsesociety.com.

W.K.

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