Sable Island Restores Visitors’ Sense of Wonder

by Alison DeLory, Director of Marketing and Communications

In Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi (2001), the main character, Pi, is lost at sea. He drifts along in an inhospitable raft, battling exposure, dehydration, starvation, and death at the hands of the zoo animals he’s with. More dangerous still, Pi is losing hope. Then an island appears. Miraculously, it contains sources of fresh water. There are edible plants and fruits, and soft furry animals (meerkats) to befriend. The island fortifies Pi. He rebuilds his strength and regains health, but more importantly, he rediscovers faith in himself and his planet.

Substitute meerkats for horses and it’s possible Martel was describing Sable Island and the effect it has on those who visit it.

I had the rare privilege of traveling with an Adventure Canada expedition to Sable Island aboard the Ocean Endeavour this month (July 2017). I traveled with almost 200 other passengers and expedition team members, plus close to 100 crew members from 17 countries. Our guides were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, among them many ‘ists’: ecologists, archaeologists, biologists, botanists and hardcore horse enthusiasts. There were also oceanographers, engineers, historians, students, musicians and visual artists. All of them shared their talents and tales at scheduled talks and more casually over meals. We were an eclectic group with one thing in common: a shared passion for preserving and protecting Sable Island, and an innate and insatiable curiosity about this crooked smile-shaped sandbar in the North Atlantic. We care deeply about its historical, environmental and scientific significance and for many people, coming here has been a lifelong dream they’re now able to realize since Sable Island became a National Park Preserve in 2014 and limited Marine-based tourism is being offered.

There aren’t roads or sidewalks on Sable Island, only narrow footpaths through the ground cover that the horses have trodden on their regular journeys to drink from the island’s freshwater ponds. Though small communities of walrus hunters, lighthouse keepers, and search-and-rescue teams lived here in the past, today there aren’t remaining buildings save for the main station. It’s now a research and weather station with lodgings for the handful of Parks Canada employees and researchers who stay here temporarily. Nor are there forests — there is but one stubby pine tree that managed to root in Sable’s sand. The effect is sweeping vistas of meadows, dunes, and beaches as far as the eye can see, always dotted by the 400 or so horses that roam freely on this narrow, approximately 40-km long stretch of sand.

Our first day ashore was clear, bright and warm, a day so idyllic it was hard to believe it wasn’t a dream. My group hiked up Bald Dune, which offers the island’s highest perch and some of its best views. The climb is short but challenging due to the shifting sand and a hush fell upon our group as we ascended. The Ipswich Sparrows, which nest only on Sable Island, flitted and chirped around us.

After pausing to drink it all in, we then headed back through Marram grass, past clusters of two or three horses, towards a pond crowded with irises and yellow water lilies. From there we meandered over to South Beach, trailed by a curious stallion that ditched us for a group of grey seals lolling near the water. He dropped onto his back and kicked his legs into the air as he rolled about in the damp sand, scratching his back, putting on a show for us. The seals slid into the water on their fat bellies, then watched the horse as waves crashed over their bobbing heads.

Days two and three were foggy and intermittently rainy, a challenging day for photographers but not unexpected weather for Sable Island in July. The mist held its own mystique and I had the honour of walking with Dennis Minty, an esteemed biologist and nature photographer. He taught us about finding beauty and contrast in muted skies, and to remember that every good photo needs a beginning, middle, and end. He also reminded us that talent is over-rated while practice is under-rated. The writer in me could relate.

Day four was again clear and warm and on our final visit, we walked along the western tip on our own, promising to stick to the beach and not crest the dunes where the horses roamed and the terms nested. We were treated to excellent weather and many seal and horse sightings, including my personal trip highlight — watching a group of horses run wild and free through the grass.

At the end of each day we gathered for the day’s debriefing and the mood amongst our group seemed electrically charged. We bonded with the joy and excitement of sharing our experience, forming new friendships with one another, and being friends of Sable Island. Renewed like Pi, ready to go forth with hopefulness and commitment. That’s the power of Sable Island.