Sable Island Expedition – August 10, 2009

Foal & Tripod

Foal & Tripod

The forecast had been for it to sock in overnight and rain all day.  Ever hopeful I set my alarm for 4:30am and was pleasantly surprised to see the moon and stars.  After a quick cup of instant decaf I stepped outside and as I closed the yard gate behind me I was overcome by indecision about where to capture the best sunrise.  I really wanted to see horses on the beach again.  I marched through deep sand to the north beach – only seals there.  Tired from two days of sand-hiking (which by the way is 2.5 times more difficult than firm ground), I crossed the island through the heathlands and emerged at Lake Wallace on the south beach and arrived just as the first rays of light broke the horizon.  No horses were in sight.  I wandered the shore of the lake taking sunrise photos and enjoyed the solitude of the moment.

Scary Tripod

Scary Tripod

I could hear the waves breaking on the south shore punctuated by the occasional barking of seals. Intently focused on composing my sunrise shot, I had not noticed the brown stallion and his little group creep up on me from the west.  I had been watching for them to come from the east and I was quite startled when they seemed to appear out of no where.  They had quietly approached, there hoof steps inaudible in the soft sand and by the time I noticed them they were only 20 feet away!

Bren Gun Carrier

Bren Gun Carrier

I knew this was a curious bunch, and recalling my previous day’s experience with horses wanting to check out tripods, I placed my sacrificial Manfrotto out in the water.  Predictably the youngest foal stalked out carefully to see what this new scratchable was about. He sniffed the ballhead and then tried to rub his head on it.  As planned, the tripod toppled over and he spun on his heals and scampered back to the herd. Alas I had my shot and was only slightly concerned about the future value of my wet and sandy equipment. Soon the sky darkened, the colourful light turned into the forecasted grey rainclouds and I headed back to main station for breakfast.
The rest of the morning was spent on a quick walk over to west light.  We found a rusted old Bren gun carrier that had once been used to haul life boats. As we passed the many fresh water ponds in this area we found several horses standing in the water, getting their daily ration of vegetation from the bottom.  One had to exercise caution when walking in some of these areas as we soon discovered several areas of quicksand.

Mare in Water

Mare in Water

Water Baby

Water Baby

Our hopes of seeing more of the island had been curtailed by the rule of ‘no overtime’ for Gerry the station manager.  Initially we had wished to get some transportation via truck or quad to further reaches of the island, but as our arrival had taken place on a weekend this was not possible.  This morning Gerry would be driving out to the landing beach to pick up a geophysics crew and he graciously offered us a ride out as far as Bald Dune 10km away and would pick us back up at 3pm.  Looking forward to a change of scenery Darren and I accepted the ride.

Iris & Dunes

Iris & Dunes

Washed Up

Washed Up

The weather had become quite heavy and overcast and the light  looked light it would be flat all day.  Gerry had been on the island in various capacities for 20 years and he was a fountain of historical information. He spoke to us about the old settlements and of shipwrecks and his frustration with dealing with government officials who were making decisions about the fate of the island and its wildlife without ever having set foot on the island.  Apparently one environmental group had lobbied to remove the wild horses so that more nesting sites would entice larger bird populations.  After being attacked regularly and frequently by the arctic terns nesting around the windmill farm, this sounded less than appealing.  Their premise was that the horses galloped in large groups trampling nests and eggs in their wanton roaming.  It sounded good on paper but these groups had never been to the island to see how sparse the horse population is.  It seems also that the Coast Guard’s role on the island was morphing over the years and there was talk of removing the station and its staff.  The only alternative to protect this amazing site would be for it to become the responsibility of the Canadian Wildlife Service.  Canada Wildlife Service had already declared that if this were to happen they would protect all of the other animals on the island but would not protect the horses, since they were considered ‘feral’ and not ‘wild’.  This would open the door for anyone to take horses from the island for their own use, or even for slaughter.  It was a constant balancing act and Gerry’s passion for the island and all its creatures was obvious.

One Ear

One Ear

Sniffing Heather

Sniffing Heather

Gerry deposited us at the far end of the landing beach and we headed off towards the Bald Dune.  As we walked over the first set of dunes, the former location of Station No. 3 we came upon a vastly different set of vegetation.  Here the heather was in full bloom, casting a purple hue to the landscape. It was more lush here.  We stumbled upon a piece of marble in the sand which turned out to be an old headstone and I shuddered to think of the hardships of living here in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Our first equine encounter was of a bay stallion and his family.  He was a heavier type of horse with his left ear missing, most likely from frost bite.  One of his mares was a bay, and she was regal.  Her coat was shining with dapples and she bore the quality of a show horse.  Her mane was as long as most of the stallions and her spring foal bore equal quality.  These horses, being farther away from the station were not quite as tame, but still showed little fear.  We proceeded on to the Bald Dune.  There are three such dunes on the island and they are characterized by their shifting sands, to volatile to hold vegetation, and their migratory movement.  This particular dune was attached to the north beach some years ago and now it was in the middle of the island.  In time it would reach the south beach and then likely disappear into the sea.  Unfortunately the flat grey light did not give me the best images of this natural beauty. The vast bald dune transformed the area into a desert like setting, such a contrast from the lush fields just a few meters away.  The dune did however serve as a great viewpoint to see both shores and distant views of the East Light.

Meadow Stallion

Meadow Stallion

Storm at Bald Dune

Storm at Bald Dune

On the way back I quizzed Gerry about the variety and quantity of garbage and other artifacts that often appeared on the beach.  Several years ago millions of dollars in cocaine had washed up on shore double wrapped in plastic packages. This caused quite a stir even after the authorities had picked it up, the station was worried that someone would come to retrieve their lost stash.  Zoe Lucas, the main researcher on the island, had done a study revealing that over 8000 pieces of plastic wash up on shore monthly, the result of plastic pollution stemming mainly from uncaring fishermen and other boaters who carelessly toss garbage overboard.  Once a prosthetic leg washed up on shore.  As fate would have it, they knew the owner, a fisherman who had acquired a new leg and thrown the old one overboard.

To top off the day we crept up on the north dunes and photographed grey and harbour seals, a never ending source of entertainment.

Grey Seals

Grey Seals

Shedding Out

Shedding Out

Relics

Relics

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