A sleek-coated stallion gallops along fine white sand, its lush mane flowing in the wind as tufts of hardy marram grass bend in its wake. The deserts of Nevada? A Caribbean outpost? A Hollywood film set? Try Nova Scotia.
Some 160 kilometres off the coast of the Maritime province lies Sable Island, a magical and little-explored sandbar that is home to a small rotating settlement of civil servants and about 500 wild horses.
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And to think they almost became Rover’s lunch. The ponies, that is. Not the bureaucrats.
A feature of Sable life since the late 18th century, the horses were seen as a threat to the sensitive ecology of the island by the 1950s and Ottawa mooted shipping them to work in mainland mines or to be slaughtered for their meat and hides.
It sparked an uproar, with one newspaper ominously declaring: “Ponies of Sable Island destined for dog food.”
John Diefenbaker, the prime minister at the time, was besieged by angry letters from Canadian schoolchildren pleading for the horses to be saved. Stung into action, he amended legislation to provide federal protection for the horses that continues today. They were further safeguarded in 2011 with the creation of the Sable Island National Park Reserve, which also restricts energy development.
Legend says the horses, which fluctuate in number from 175 to around 500, were brought to the island by shipwreck survivors. But most researchers have discounted that theory, arguing they likely descended from ill-fated attempts by a Boston merchant to create a farming settlement.
By the early 1800s, they were no longer domesticated and the ones that were not captured or sold were left to roam wild, occasionally being dragooned as hauliers in shipwreck rescue operations. The Friends of Sable Island, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving Nova Scotia’s most secluded outpost, considers it “somewhat miraculous” that so many have survived Sable’s harsh conditions, “a living reminder” of its long and fascinating history.
Tourism is strictly controlled — only about 200 make the journey each year — and the horses, which live in family bands of up to 12, consisting of one dominant stallion, one or more mares and their offspring, can only be enjoyed from a distance. Even veterinarians must keep away.
Other wild horses exist in North America, notably off the Virginian and Carolinian coasts, but the Sable Island ponies are considered uniquely significant.
At just 35 km long and 1.6 km at its widest point, the island with its rolling dunes and shrinking Wallace Lake is also home to large breeding colonies of grey seals, and year-round harbour seals, as well as the Ipswich sparrow, a bird species unique to the island. Swimming is verboten because of the 18 varieties of shark found skulking off shore, seal carcasses on the beach often bearing unmistakable signs of their predatory ways.
With Halifax almost 300 km to the northwest and limited agricultural potential, the crescent-shaped island has never been permanently settled — though it has seen a ragged assortment of pirates, wreckers, marooned sailors and jailbirds temporarily set up shop. In 1598, a French nobleman landed 40 convicts on the island but only 11 survived. They were rescued in 1603.
Sitting near the edge of the Continental Shelf, at the junction of three major ocean currents and at the mercy of fierce winds and fogs, Sable has long been known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” with an estimated 350 shipwrecks tallied since one of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s vessels foundered in 1583. Since 1947, only one has been recorded — the small yacht Merrimac, which sank in 1999. Its remains are still visible on South Beach.
Parks Canada says visitors occasionally unearth artifacts from shipwrecks and old settlements, which should be photographed and reported rather than illegally removed. More information about the island and its shipwrecks is available at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.
Public concern about shipping tragedies and rumours of vessels being deliberately lured onto Sable’s beaches, their passengers and crews murdered and cargo looted, led to the creation in 1801 of the first permanent life-saving station. By 1895 there were five stations under what became known as the “Humane Establishment,” which lasted until 1958. Rudimentary shelters and a “sailor’s home” where wreck survivors awaited steamers from Halifax were also built.
Automated lighthouses eventually made the system redundant, and all that remains today are ruins incorporated into the Main Station, where about two dozen weather observers and other researchers live. This is also the point of arrival for visitors, whether landing by sea or air, and provides a chance to interact with staff and learn more about the island from the people who know it best. Parks Canada advises guests to prepare for a “backcountry-like wilderness experience.”
With no permanent runway, pilots must work with station staff to locate a suitable landing strip on the beach, and weather and wind conditions are closely monitored before permission is granted to take off from Halifax for the roughly 70-minute journey. Those travelling by sea, about 16 hours from the capital, will similarly have to contend with makeshift arrangements. Because there are no wharf facilities, vessels anchor offshore and passengers are taken by Zodiac to the nearest beach.
All of which makes Sable not only one of Canada’s furthest-flung islands, but one of its most evocative adventures.
The Friends of Sable put it best: “The island captures your imagination with its impossible stories of survival, and your heart with its wildness. It’s an international treasure that few people have the chance to visit because of its geographic location and the transportation challenges.
“Those who have set foot on the fine white sand find themselves subtly changed forever.”
— Andre Ramshaw
IF YOU GO:
- The Friends of Sable Island (sableislandfriends.ca) is an excellent resource and lists “four ways to visit” for 2020.
- Day visits (no overnight camping) are arranged from June-November.
- Tourists must register in advance with Parks Canada (email@example.com)