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Shore excursions

Excitement was palpable as our ship anchored next to Sable

Island. But, before we could board Zodiacs to go ashore, our

expedition leader gave us strict instructions. “Empty any plant

material from your pockets and cuffs. Wash your footwear

with brushes in the water troughs at the back of the ship so

that you don’t transport seeds and organisms to the island.”

Everyone obeyed.

Walking on Sable Island is very different from hiking in

popular national parks. There are no marked paths. No trail

signs. No wooden steps or railings. Tominimize impact on the

fragile environment, our group of just over 100 was divided

into smaller groups, based on interests and physical abilities.

We could choose from short, medium or long tours. All were

interesting because the guides discussed Sable Island’s geology,

flora, fauna and history as we walked.

We selected the two-hour loop hike up to Bald Dune and

back. Located in the middle of Sable Island at a height of 28

metres, it’s the highest point. Our feet sunk into the soft sand

as we climbed the tawny sand dune. The hike wasn’t difficult,

though, because we stopped frequently to observe birds and

horses – including a frolicking foal running circles around

its grazing mother.

The panorama from the top of Bald Dune encompassed North

Beach, where we had landed, as well as South Beach, the ridge

of rolling, vegetated sand dunes along the length of the island

and bands of wild horses grazing on the heath. Although it was

very windy, the air was so clean that we savoured each breath.

Why is there so much sand on Sable Island? (Even its name,


, means sand in French.) Our guide explained that

the sand was originally deposited by rivers from retreating

glaciers. The 42-kilometre island refuses to stay in one place.

Currents, waves and wind constantly shift the sand.

When we descended to the interior vegetated area, Parks

Canada manager Jonathan Sheppard instructed us to stay

together. “Walk in a single file on horse paths to minimize

your footprints.” He reminded us of the park’s policy of no

interference with the horses that were grazing around us.

Canada’s Jane Goodall

Zoe Lucas, who lives on the island for several months annually,

accompanied us and answered our questions about the horses.

What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, Zoe Lucas is to Sable

Island horses. Both have devoted their adult lives to research

and both are ardent advocates for the species which they’ve


According to Zoe, the population of free-ranging horses is

approximately 500, but she has seen numbers fall to as low as

150 after a severe winter. “It’s a struggle for them to survive

in winter because the vegetation dies back and it’s of a poorer

quality,” she said.

Zoe explained that the story about Sable Island horses being

shipwreck survivors is a myth. A Bostonminister introduced

them to the island in 1737 and 1738. Thomas Hancock (who

transported expelled Nova Scotia Acadians to New England

colonies) shipped five dozen of their horses to Sable Island in

1760. Between 1801 and the late 1940s, several horses were

rounded up for sale in Halifax.

In 1960, people who believed that the horses were causing

ecological damage to Sable Island created a proposal to harvest

the animals for pet food. In response, thousands of children

wrote letters to PrimeMinister John Diefenbaker, asking him

to save the horses. One letter-writer said: “Instead of sending

them to the glue factory, they should be as free as the wind.”

In 1961, the Diefenbaker government legally protected Sable

Island’s horses under the Canada Shipping Act. Since then, the

population has been genetically isolated. When Sable Island

National Park Reserve was established, Parks Canada began

managing the feral population of horses as a wild species.

Because the horses are protected, you can’t touch them,

harass them or even provide veterinary care if they are sick.

To prevent them from becoming habituated or expecting

treats from people, Parks Canada requires visitors to stay at

least 20 metres from them. During our visit, the horses were

nonchalant, grazing and living their lives as if we were not

even there. We occasionally heard them vocalize – mares

nickering to their offspring, a solo horse neighing and two

males challenging each other with aggressive screams.

Zoe Lucas, researcher

and resident

Walking across the beach runway

A family band of wild horses

Climbing up Bald Dune