Sable Island Expedition – April 19, 2010

The extreme weather of the last two days had trashed the runway sites on the south beach. First the flooding then the drifting sand had left supervisor Gerry with a mountain of work to repair. I caught an early morning ride with him while he examined the damage and he explained that sometimes the runways last for a month or more, sometimes barely a day. The work he had done yesterday was already destroyed. Secretly I hoped that no runway could be recovered for some time, but that was wishful thinking.

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Gerry dropped me off seven miles out from home base promising to be back in the area by early afternoon. I left him one of my two way radios and turned for Bald Dune. It was raining lightly as I watched him drive away. I pondered about how lucky I had been in the past with the great weather I had enjoyed on all of my wilderness shoots. It was about time that I learned how to cope with some miserable conditions. I was wearing my waders and had placed a rain cover over my backpack and camera gear. My 18-70mm lens had recovered for the time being but I was determined not to damage any more equipment. One of the resident technicians, whose hobby is photography, told me that he had wrecked $4000 in camera gear this winter due to blowing sand and ‘precipitation that arrives horizontally’. I adjusted my tripod and zoom lens over my shoulder and started the trek up towards the highest dune.

It felt ‘right’ to have to experience adverse conditions on Sable. I imagined what it was like for the horses who survived through hardships much more severe than anything I would volunteer to be exposed to. As I made my way up to the high dune the winds became stronger, buffeting me about like a drunken sailor. Along with the wind came vast amounts of sand, abrading everything in its path. Spa day on Sable – derm abrasion no charge.

Photo Credit: Ali Darvish

Photo Credit: Ali Darvish

Gerry told me that in the past when families were allowed to live at the station, they would collect glass floats and bottles from the beach. Then, taking masking tape, they would cover parts of the glass, leave some exposed and then place the objects out on the north beach for sandblasting. It became quite an art form. It occurred to me that the old time settlers of Sable Island must have been an amazing brand of adventurer.

After staggering to the top of the dune, I placed my tripod and camera on the peak to set up for a 360 degree panorama shot. I struggled with my gloves and the plastic rain cover and instantly, as if taken by a giant vacuum, my rain protector flew through the air and off to the valley below. I did not for an instant think about recovering it but rather pondered who might find it one day… and then took my shots.

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I spent the next few hours heading west via horse trails through a variety of dune-scapes, some reminiscent of the moon. When it was really windy, I would walk the heathlands – low lying boggy areas dotted with small ponds. Occasionally I would come across small family groups ranging in number from 3 to 12. Some of the horses I recognized from last summer and others were new acquaintances. As I trekked from valley to valley I also came across the remains of several horses and through the wandering my appreciation and respect for the landscape and its animals continued to grow.

The rain had stopped but the relentless buffeting and light rain continued. The crashing of the surf and the calls of the seabirds circling overhead were all but drowned out by the howling wind. Sometimes I thought I could hear a voice calling to me. I would check my two-way radio and no one would be there. It must be the gulls whose voices were distorted by the wind.

I came across a complete horse skeleton and was able to examine the skull in some detail. I was particularly interested in the wearing effects of sand on the molars and could see from this sample that the three back molars were particularly damaged. It seemed likely that this was a typical case.

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Walking on the lee of the south dunes I heard the familiar squeal of horses interacting. I hurried over the dunes towards the sound and discovered two horses. A young stallion, fat and in his prime stood in the middle of the dry maram grass. Behind him on the beach stood another stallion and I went to him. It is difficult to describe what I saw. This horse at one time must have been magnificent. He was tall and dark brown with a beautiful eye. But he was the thinnest horse I had ever seen standing. He had lost all his muscle mass and his hips and ribs could not be disguised by his long winter coat and flowing mane. His walk was weak and he measured his steps, nibbling at little bits of grass through the sand. I wondered about his relationship to the other stallion. Bachelors, father and son, a guardian? At first I thought it was too sad to photograph. Then I considered that someone should remember this horse, and that if I took his picture, he would somehow live on. His eye and his expression were still full of life, but his body was slowing disintegrating. I could not tell if he would live much longer but he had made it through a brutal winter and I hoped that the spring and summer would be kind to him. We talked for a while, I wished him well and continued on.

April19e By mid afternoon the light had not improved, so I radioed Gerry and he made a detour from runway duty to transport me home. We drove back along the southern shore, huge waves crashing against the steep beach, hundreds of grey seals dashing into the water at the sound of the vehicle. We paused and he allowed me to photograph an old wooden mast with metal fittings, the remains of a long ago shipwreck, laying stubbornly in the way of the blowing sand. Since the advent of modern navigation there had only been a handful of ships lost to the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’. There had not been a wreck of any significance in nearly 70 years. Before that upwards of 300. While most of the metal ships that wrecked near Sable were towed back to Halifax and salvaged, the old wooden vessels broke up and were lost. Occasionally the sea would toss forth a remnant of those days and leave it on the beach as if to remind us of other times and the lives lost.

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