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The Wild Horses of Sable Island

‘It is far better to experience a place just once than to hear about it a thousand times’ ~ Mongolian saying.

Sable Island.  ‘The graveyard of the sea’.  So steeped in Canadian lore that when I was a kid, I didn’t think Sable Island actually existed.

On my eighth birthday, I unwrapped a book about Sable Island.  Page after page offered grainy black and white photos of shipwrecks, sky high sand dunes and fierce ocean swells bundled with tales of human struggle.  But, it was the Sable Island horses that really caught my attention.  Manes flowing in the wind, stallions clashing with each other atop seaside cliffs, herds thundering through the surf.  This was the stuff of fiction.

But of course, Sable Island exists.  The stories of the shipwrecks, the sand dunes, the horses.  All true.

Like so many Canadians, it became my lifelong dream to visit this magical and mystical slice of geography.

Three hundred kilometres east of Halifax in the Atlantic Ocean, Sable Island sits in the path of some of the most treacherous currents in the world.  The island’s ‘smile’ shape belies its historical moniker, ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’, with over three hundred and fifty ships known to have perished off Sable’s sandy shores.

Home to just a handful of meteorologists, scientific researchers, and Parks Canada staff, Sable Island is an irresistible dream for a nature lover.  Sand dunes shelter the island’s interior where grassy fields and freshwater ponds teem with life.  Over three hundred and fifty species of birds have been recorded on the island.  It also supports the world’s largest breeding colony of fifty thousand grey seals.  But, if there was a Sable Island wildlife popularity contest, the iconicwild horses would win hands down.  

The ever-shifting sands, fog, and unpredictable ocean swells have always made getting to Sable Island difficult, but that would change.

In December 2013, the Canadian government officially declared Sable Island as Canada’s forty-third National Park Reserve.  Known for leading expeditions to the arctic, Canadian company ‘Adventure Canada’ was chosen to bring travellersto the land of horses and seals.  This past June, my husband Rob and I joined enthusiastic adventurersand nature lovers aboard the ship Ocean Endeavour, and under sunny skies we sailed out of St John’s harbour, past a postcard iceberg, and out to sea for our final destination.   As we sailed the Atlantic Ocean over the next thirty-six hours we were treated to enlightening presentations by scientists, writers, and photographers.  Topics included climate, wildlife and survival on the island.

How did the horses get there?  The romantic notion is that the horses swam to the island from ships wrecked on sandbars, but today’s Sable Island horses are most likely the descendants of horses that were seized during the Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia in the 1700’s.  Acadian horses were brought to the island to help build a lifesaving station and eventually they returned to a wild state.

When the government gave Sable Island the status of ‘National Park Reserve’, many Canadians worried that the island would be overrun with tourists. I too had visions of newly built accommodations, perhaps a restaurant or two, and crowds trying to get selfies with the wild horses.  

Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth.

Parks Canada’s new mandate to welcome visitors to the island while at the same time protecting the delicate environment led to an effective symbiotic relationship with Adventure Canada.

With camera gear, bottled water and hiking boots packed, it was time to set foot on Canada’s iconic Sable Island.

From the Ocean Endeavour’s anchorage one mile from shore, we climbed into Zodiac boats and landed on the southern beach.   Nearby, a large grey seal lay on its side and slowly waved a flipper at us, and we couldn’t help but smile at this lazy welcoming committee.  My husband Rob and I joined a small hiking group lead by a Parks Canada guide with Adventure Canada resource photographer Mike Beedell in tow.   We knew the rules:  there would be limited time on the island, and we were to hike only on sand or established horse trails so as not to disturb the delicate foliage which also provided shelter for breeding birds.  And, if we encountered wild horses, we needed to respect the minimum distance of sixty metres.  

The wild horses appeared almost immediately.  Two bachelor stallions descended from a grassy ridge to cross the beach and walk along the surf, paying us no attention whatsoever.  It was a fleeting moment, the stallions turning back to the ridge, giving chase and disappearing over the hill.  Freedom.  Wild.  Raw.  Nature.

We hiked through a meadow of marram grass, a thick stemmed grass that is the primary source of food for wild horses.  Ascending Bald Dune, at twenty-eight metres the highest point on the island, the view is breathtaking: a freshwater pond dotted with water lilies, a mix of bayberries and blueberries skirting horse trails, grassy ridges, a glimpse of the northern beach with hundreds of grey seals, and a family band of wild horses.  Arctic terns and herring gulls flew overhead and the occasional sighting of the Ipswich sparrow was especially rewarding, as this diminutive breed of sparrow is known to breed only on Sable Island.  

We kept our distance as we approached the wild horse family band.  Grazing quietly were two mares, still shedding winter coats, a yearling colt and a tiny foal who entertained us with his game of ‘peekabo’ behind his mother’s nuzzle.  A magnificent stallion with a long tangled mane kept a watchful eye over his family.  

We photographed the horses, the tiny flowers, the birds, the seals, the sand dunes.  We stood still.  We took it all in, joyous, exhilarated, alive.  

We were experiencing one of the most beautiful places in the world.  

As we hiked back to the south beach and climbed into the waiting Zodiac, I couldn’t help but notice my footprints in the sand.  And with one gust of wind, they disappeared.  

Zero impact by mankind.  Like we were never there.

Exactly as it should be.

In Canada, we host a model for nature to be envied around the world.   Wild, natural.  Sable Island.  

It is truly fitting that the island is shaped like a ‘smile’.

Sable Island.  It exists.  Follow your dreams and visit.  

To find out more about how you can get to Sable Island, email sandysharkey@rocketmail.com

 

Sandy Sharkey 

Accredited Equine Photographer