A journey to Sable Island

As I stare at this screen in front of me, I struggle to find the right words to express the story that I never thought I would be able to tell. Letters and fragments of sentences fill my head with pieces of an entity that is difficult to grasp, and I’m nervous that they won’t do justice to the virtually untouched splendor that is Sable Island.

With that being said, I can’t even attempt to make this a short post – so get comfortable. I've added plenty of photos to hold your attention This story begins a few short years ago in a photography class that I was taking at the time... 

Our professor stated that today was to be a special day – we’d be watching a documentary on the wild Sable Island horses. Now up to that point I’d only ever heard of the island in passing conversation. All I knew was that it was a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia that was home to hundreds of wild horses. Which is certainly not false. However, it’s also not entirely true… there’s so much more to it than that. 

As I sat there watching the documentary, I found my eyes welling with tears; not only during the last scenes that are intended to leave their mark, but throughout the entire film. I was in complete and utter awe.  As the film ended and the professor turned the lights back on, I remained in a stunned stupor, completely mesmerized by what I’d just seen. So much history, so much magic and so much beauty in one place. It was hard to imagine. How could I get there? I had to get there.

Oh. It’s how much money? And that much trouble and effort? Suddenly this beautiful place seemed MUCH farther away.

It was impossible.

I forced Sable, its horses and timeless appeal to the back of my mind… but I’m only human. 

On occasion it would creep back in, forcing that old slew of emotions back to the surface. I’d remember how the horses looked as they ran through the dunes, their dread-locked manes blowing erratically in the wind. The image of miles of windswept beaches scattered with seals, some drift wood and debris and not much else. I could imagine nothing separating me from the horses but my insignificant little camera. My heart would flutter at the thought but immediately calm at the realization that I was dreaming of something unattainable; the ultimate tease. 

A few months ago I was chatting with my boyfriend’s family. In passing, they briefly mentioned that Mike’s uncle was leaving for Sable Island that weekend to bring over more supplies to the people who live and work there. My head jerked to attention so fast that I thought I’d given myself whiplash. They were caught off guard and laughed at me but I didn’t care. Did they really just say that?  Was there a chance that this could be my connection…and should I even ask? I stewed on that for no longer than a minute before blurting out something to the effect of, “#@*! The horses… I’ve been…  %$#@*… how do I get on that boat! How does it work? Does he ever bring anyone with him? If not, can I just go as a stowaway?”

After some lighthearted laughter and jokes, they filled me in on his job and what it is that he and his crew do for the Island. Mike’s dad would speak to his uncle the next chance he had to run the idea by him. I left that day with a glimmer of hope that I’d be able to visit the place I’ve visited so many times before in my dreams. It was a great feeling. 

As the weeks passed, I waited patiently for some news. Eventually I learned that – in fact – I’d be able to travel with them to Sable Island.

I hardly heard them mention the numerous hardships that I would face over the thrilled squeal that escaped through my lips. It was real! I could do this; I’d do whatever it takes!

“They don’t get much notice as to when they’ll be leaving again.”

“It’s 24 hours by boat, each way.”

“Even if you can make your schedules line up, the weather may stop you from actually getting onto the island.”

 “Lots of times they’ve gone and not seen any horses.”

“It’s raining and foggy the majority of time there: your pictures may not turn out.”

All of these things were real possibilities, but I really didn’t care. It’s a chance I couldn’t imagine passing up, even with everything working against me. So we waited. And waited. As my wedding season crept closer, I began losing hope (again) that I’d be able to make it work. What with my full-time job at Atlantic Photo Supply and my part-time work as a Wedding and Portrait Photographer, my free days were next to none and decreasing with each day that passed.

We got the call on a Wednesday afternoon – two days before the ship was to leave the harbor. For Mike, getting time off wasn’t an issue.  I – on the other hand – would never be able to take time off work with such short notice.

And just like that, my hopes were dashed as soon as they’d formed.

With a heavy heart, I went into my bosses office the next day and shut the door behind me. When the chance first arose months back, I had mentioned the slim possibility… just in case this moment was to arise. After taking a deep breath, I explained my situation as calmly as I possibly could but I’m sure my voice was shaking. The approximately five seconds of dead air between the time I’d finishing asking to the time I heard him say “yes” seemed like an eternity. I thanked him a million times, stopping short of leaping into his arms for a bear hug, and I think I floated down the stairs to the lab afterwards. In fact I’m sure I did. Those 24 hours to follow were a blur of working, packing, planning, and brainstorming.

After the whirlwind settled and we finished off our last minute appointments, we packed ourselves and a small army of photo gear into my little car

We were to be at the dock at midnight on Friday.

Upon arrival we were given our bunks, a tour and a safety session which included putting on a survival suit. Apparently you’re supposed to be able to put them on in under a minute, but five minutes of struggle later I finally zipped that zipper to the tippity top and was given the “passing” nod. By the time we pulled away from that dock I was a mix of nerves and excitement, anxiety and hope for what was to come. Or not come. 

The only thing I was sure about was that I was stuck on this ship for the next 24 hours, and it would be about 36 before I would see the Island with my own eyes on Sunday morning.

After hours of sleeping, reading, walking up to the deck, into the wheelhouse, reading some more, sleeping some more, and of course, eating, I went to sleep on Saturday night knowing we were anchored off of Sable’s shore. 

Before bed, I tried and tried to peer through the absolute darkness, but no sign of anything other than the surrounding water was to be found. I don’t know if I even slept at all. Regardless, I was awake and ready for the day at 6AM. Much to my disappointment, the entire crew (including Mike) had already made the five-minutes-by-Zodiac trip to shore. I could see them from the deck, first loading the supplies from the barge onto the other boat, and then unloading the supplies from the boat once they made it ashore.

I was stuck.

I contemplated swimming. More than once.

This wait seemed longer than the entire trip already had!

FINALLY, after about 3 hours of pacing the deck and wheelhouse, the crew came in for a break. I ran up to Mike, who gave me a playful shove and teased that he got to set foot on Sable Island before me. I shoved him back, and he could tell that I was anxious. But he had good news: after lunch I’d be heading to Sable.

When the crew was ready to go back to work, they found me on the deck – life jacket on, bags packed, and I’m sure the biggest smile was on my face.  I hopped in the Zodiac and we headed to the barge… they were working, after all. So I waited, took some pictures, and basically started jittering with excitement as soon as I realized that the boat was loaded with supplies and ready to go.

The sand was pure white from a distance, like the sand you see in advertisements for southern all-inclusive vacations. 

The water, a deep turquoise, followed suit; littered with hundreds of black spots. Those black spots happened to be seals, and if you watched closely (or not so closely) you could see them swimming under and around the boat, curiosity peaking their interest. Every so often their heads would break the surface, their little faces looking inquisitively in our direction.

Our boat grazed the sandy beach of the Island and I leaped from it’s deck to the place I’d only ever set foot in my dreams.  I stood there in awe; it’s the only thing I knew how to do at that moment.

A man from Parks Canada walked over to me to explain the ins and outs of what I was allowed to do while on Sable. Oddly enough I also had a connection to this man, and he was about to find out. We know the same people, and his grandson happens to have been birthed by a friend of mine! After we got that fairly hilarious “the world is so small” conversation out of the way, we parted ways and I was left to my own devices. Mike was not going to join me – he was going to continue working. So here I was, on Sable Island, absolutely alone for the next four hours. 

PERFECT.

So I started to walk.

And walk.

And I’ll have you know: the sand is not easy to walk on, especially carrying a backpack and a large dolphin case full of camera gear. And it was a hot 28 degrees. Needless to say it was slow going. But I didn’t care. My only sadness came from the fact that I’d never physically be able to cover the entire island during my short stay. And of course, the fact that I may not see any of the horses. 

After about an hour, my second fear would become irrelevant – I was about to spot my first horse. 

At one point, I’d chosen to walk towards the centre of the island rather than continue down the shore. I chose two very large dunes to walk in between and explore (and if you’ve ever been to Sable you’re laughing at me right now because the WHOLE ISLAND seems to be one large dune). Regardless, when I peaked over the edge of the hill I was walking up…one lonely horse was standing there, grazing. 

My breath caught in my throat; I remember it distinctly.

All at once I jumped out of my sandals, grabbed the camera at my side and took one massive leap forward – gracefully, of course. The horse didn’t seem to mind. He’d occasionally look up at me, discover how incredibly boring I was and continue grazing along the hill. I, on the other hand, was the complete opposite of bored. My first horse! 

I walked all around him, seeing what he’d allow me to do. I couldn’t believe it when he spun around twice and dropped to his knees, falling to his side with a loud snort. And then he rocked. Back and forth, side to side, grunting and snorting with happiness.  It was while he was on his back that I noticed his hoof. It was a shiny brown, and shaped like what I can only describe as a spirally half-moon. All I could do was stare. Was he in pain? How did this happen? Why? (I’d ask about it when I’d made it back to the ship later on and learn that he was actually a well-known horse on the island due to his hoof and that no, he wasn’t in any pain.)

That was it. I could leave Sable Island happy at this point.

The weather turned out to be perfect, we had no issues on the trip over and I’d seen a wild Sable Island horse. I spent the rest of my four hours roaming around, dipping into dunes and mostly without any luck.  I was having a blast anyway. At one point I noticed that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I had hundreds of eyes on me! As I’d walk, countless numbers of seals were swimming in the same direction with me, stopping every so often to watch me and then keep swimming to catch up. 

THAT was cool.

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One dune I managed to scale led me to a vast open space with ponds scattered all around.

Now, here is where I wish I had a guide or some knowledge as to where I was located on the island. I knew this place must have a name, and I wanted to talk about it when I went back. There were two horses drinking from one of the ponds, so I headed down to check it out. At this point, I’d scrapped my shoes and opted for bare feet. I didn’t care that the rough sea grass was somewhat irritating to walk on; there were WILD HORSES here for crissake. So I headed in, barefoot, with no gear except one camera and a 24-70 lens. 

How was I to know that I could have used a longer lens, not to mention some shoes, for what was about to happen?

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I made it to the opposite edge of the pond to snap some images of the drinking horses.

A few minutes had already passed when I heard some noise coming from my right hand side. A few other horses came over the top of a small hill and joined the other horses by the water. Okay, this was going great so far! As I looked around I noticed a small group of about 6 to 8 horses in the distance walking this way, which would bring the total to around 15-20 horses in this one spot. I started to get anxious, only because I didn’t know what to expect being surrounded by all of these very beautiful, very wild creatures. I took a deep breath, for the millionth time that day (it was a theme for the trip), and kept shooting.

All of a sudden… I felt a strange feeling overcome the whole area. I wish I was exaggerating for you, but I assure you I am not. There were noises coming from beyond a dune close to my left. The noises continued and grew louder until I realized they were not just any noises, but snorting and neighing. Before I could put together what was happening a very large black stallion broke the edge of the dune and was galloping at full-speed towards the other horses. He slowed down to a trot and got uncomfortably close to where I was standing, pawed the ground a few times and threw his head from side to side, snorting. The other horses stilled and were staring at this very angry looking male as I started to take some steps backwards, slowly, as to not cause any distress. A brown horse began to mimic the stallion, marching with intent towards this big bully.

What unfolded before my eyes was a tangle of hair, sandy dust and fear – my fear, of course. 

The next series of images I am about to show are not what one would call “good pictures”. Most are horribly out of focus and not composed in the slightest – what we’d call “spray and pray” shots. 

Well, I sprayed… and I prayed.

The fight probably lasted two minutes. Okay, maybe three. 

You should have seen me. I was walking backwards, at times leaping back, while these two horses went at it right in front of me. I pressed that shutter button like mad, half looking through the viewfinder and half looking at the horses with my camera pointed in their direction, still pressing. 

See, if I’d had kept my distance with a longer focal length I may have been able to better capture that incredible few moments. Especially when the two jumped onto their hind legs to kick at each other with their front legs. And especially when they turned to buck at each other. Regardless, I can’t change what I did or didn’t do. All I know is that I was in the middle of a horse fight and wanted to be as far away, yet prepared as possible! These fast few minutes are definitely something that stands out for the entire trip when I think back on it now, and I wouldn’t change it.

After that fiasco, I think I called it a day and began the trek back. I was probably two hours down the beach at this point and knew I’d have to turn around now if I was to be back in time. I saw a few more horses, hundreds of seals, and got a really ‘nice’ sable island sunburn.

When I reached the place we’d landed the boat, the crew was there and Mike was taking pictures of a horse down the beach a little farther. I walked past the boat headed in his direction, watching the motionless horse the entire time. When I got there, Mike signaled that he was asleep! Apparently he’d been standing there for over an hour and a half, eyes closed, facing the dunes with his back to the water.

We got some shots in before he woke up and groggily made his way out of sight.

The blog is getting fairly long, and I appreciate those of you who have made it to this point. I’ve got a few more things to say, though, but I’m almost done!

We went back to the ship and ate supper and relaxed for a little bit. Around 6 the captain came to find us to let us know they were going to take a little trip in the boat to explore farther up the island. So we made our way again, and this time Mike was going to join me. They dropped us off together and stayed in the boat; it was only Mike and I, alone in this wondrous place. 

When I look back now, this is the night that will never fade from my memory. The rest of this day was priceless, but this evening was magic. Pure and humbling magic.

We were walking towards the center of the island and the sun was getting very low in the sky. A few horses were grazing in the sea grass in the distance so we made our way in their direction. When we cleared the top of the dune my breath was again knocked from my lungs in one instant. 

For the millionth-and-oneth time that day.

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There were horses everywhere.

We counted thirty in our immediate vicinity, and two ponies. We looked at each other and laughed, because the biggest goofiest grins were spread across our faces. We walked down into the horses and began to take pictures. Mike has a GoPro so he was taking videos mostly.

We were experiencing Golden Hour together on Sable Island. 

As a photographer, my insides were twisting and jumping with joy. As an emotional human being, it brought tears to my eyes as I stared at the wild beauty that was literally surrounding me from all sides.

Through the flowing tears, I shakily pressed down on that shutter button.

That was one of the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping most incredibly magical moments I’d had the pleasure of experiencing in my entire life.  And to be able to share it with someone so close to me was insanely special. So many feral horses in one place; the hot late evening summer sun set over the tops of the dunes, pouring it’s warmth over us and the backs of such stunningly beautiful wild animals.

I walked away from that place knowing I’d probably never see it again. And that was - and still is - okay with me. The perfection that had just unfolded before my eyes was enough, and I understood that if I were to have another opportunity to visit this incredibly humbling island that it wouldn’t be like this perfect, once-in-a-lifetime trip we were so blessed to have already had.

And we’d still be coming back the next day. 

The next afternoon after the work was done, our second and final day, we all hopped into the work boat and set course for the island once again. This time, we travelled up the shore, towards a large barren area of beach that was wide open, with no dunes in sight.  We hit the beach and jumped ashore, along with two of the crew: Boots and Donnie. Boots was on a mission to find buoys, and Donnie just wanted to go for a walk.

We went our separate ways and for a few hours we were alone again, left to do whatever it is one does on an island full of nothing but sea grass, seals and wild horses.

We didn’t see any while we were on the island this night, other than the few black beauties we spotted walking the edge of the dunes as we pulled away at the end of our trip. 

What we did see, however, is a sable island onion. That’s right – an onion.

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As well as some old rope, and remnants of trees and driftwood.

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The sand was also littered with hundreds of old bottles and pieces of trash.

Sadly, tons of debris from all around the world ends up on these sacred shores each year, not to mention dead animals. In this case, seals. The reality of being surrounded by so much wildlife is that sometimes you see things like this.

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Moments before, while we were approaching the dead seals, they were surrounded by approximately thirty to fifty other seals and birds. It was quite a sight, and we both agreed that it looked like they were having a funeral.  Completely surrounded, no noise, and they were hesitant to jump back into the water or fly away as we approached – as if they were protecting it from danger.

You can see the visible signs of animals huddled around just seconds before I took these images.

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Regardless, that’s the way life is. It broke my heart, and at the same time I knew that that’s just the way it has to be.

I decided to show these images because it’s real. It’s what I saw, and it’s what happens on this island daily – on any island, for that matter. Sable, regardless of it’s intense pull of beauty, wonder, and magic is also a real place, full of real things like garbage, debris and death. I’m so happy to have been able to experience both sides of that coin.

All of this happened over the span of about ten total hours spent on the island; a mere blink in the story of my life. 

It was all, honestly, a miracle. If you believe in that kind of thing.

I’ll be the first to admit to you that I have a terrible memory, and that I’m scared that some of the things I was able to see and experience here may one day fade from my mind. But I’ll always have the images.

And I’ll try my best to always remember the salt air blowing against my face and the roughness of it’s spray on my bare skin. The grit of the rough white sand stuck in between my toes. The chilling, perfectly clear turquoise water that sprayed me from the shoreline. The way the horses smelled – of sweat, salt and sand – and the way their matted hair twisted and spun on their backs in the wind.

I’ll remember the heat of the late evening sun on my face as the warm tears that fell from my eyes seemed to cool my reddened, flushed cheeks. 

I’ll never, ever, forget this beautiful island.