It is 4:30am on the third day of this, my second expedition to Sable Island. Even though I lay in bed in the relative comfort of my second story room at the coast guard station, I have taken to wearing long johns under my pyjamas with a down sweater on top. A powerful “nor’easter” blew in last night and the moderately well- built sleeping quarters are no match for it. The doors rattle and no matter how high I push the thermostat, the north side of the house is cold. I can hear a thumping noise downstairs, and yesterday’s talk of the ghosts of thousands of shipwrecked sailors comes to mind, but I dismiss it. The banging persists, so I unzip my sleeping bag and go downstairs where I find the back door wide open and swinging wildly. It takes both hands for me to close it. As I look outside the first crack of light can be seen in the east, but mainly the sky is covered in heavy dark clouds that are moving fast across it.
The last two days on the island have been extraordinary. I have been out hiking the dunes from dawn until dusk and the weather has been mildly co-operative.
The horses still have their long winter coats and I am fascinated by the different textures. Some of them have long silky hair that, when parted by the wind, appears to be a different colour underneath. Others have a dense curly coat that reminds me of the Bashkir horses and I wonder about their genetics. The colour of the landscape is so beautiful that the only comparison I can make is the fall tundra in the Yukon. The ground cover that supports this array of colour is mostly dried maram grass, heather, juniper and cranberry in hues of tan, rust and burgundy. The pallet is completed by the chestnut, bay and dark brown horses grazing on it. Tiny shoots of the beach pea are beginning to show through the sand and the horses anxiously seek them out – a reprieve from winter foraging.
As expected winter has taken its toll. I have seen two carcasses so far, one young foal that died near the station has been tagged for research, the other lays at the bottom of a sandy depression and has not been disturbed. Most of the horses I have seen are thin but not weak and even though their ribs are visible beneath their heavy coats they appear healthy and full of vigor. Foals are being born, next years foals are being made. There has been mating behaviour all around me and the stallions are actively defending their ranges and covering mares.
Yesterday was spent indoors with little complaint. The 70km wind, rain and sleet continued all day and through the night. As morning arrived the winds subsided and I decided to venture out to the north beach. As I headed towards the trail I was shocked at the change in landscape. Throughout the storm massive amounts of sand were shifted by the wind and the landscape on the north side was completely remodeled The waves had come to within inches of breaching the dune barrier that protects the center of the island and the coast guard complex. The typical beach litter of bottles, plastic, seaweed and more had washed up to the base of the dunes. Things were there that were not, and items there before were now gone.
By early afternoon conditions were excellent and I decided to try riding a bike on the tideline to see if it was faster than hiking. This proved to be moderately successful if I carried no weight (camera gear), so off I went with only one camera and my 18-70mm lens. After what seemed like peddling forever I stopped and hiked up to a high dune to get my bearings. To my dismay I was not very far at all from the station. As I rested, a small family group appeared over the next dune and looked like they might head for the beach. I slowly backed out of the way and allowed them to pass, then closed in behind them to follow. Two thoughts occurred, one: HORSES on the BEACH!!! and two: keep away from my bicycle! Horses have an intense curiosity about anything new an I had visions of a horse with its foot through my spokes. Luckily there interest lay more on the new items that appeared on the tideline. As I started taking images a bad scraping sound came from my lens. The dreaded sand! My 18-70mm now appeared to be a 50-70mm and I would have to make do. The mare, stallion and foal were sniffing amongst the detritus on the beach and between all the junk and several seal skeletons they found a patch of seaweed.
This proved to be a delicacy full of protein but not so easy to eat. They toyed with the long ropes of kelp, sometimes two pulling at opposite ends. It was another amazing display of how these animals adapt to their environment. When it was time to head back I took the bike and carted it over the sand dunes to the south side of the island, with hopes of returning home via the shore of Lake Wallace. As I reached the southern most dune I looked out to where the lake should be and saw nothing but puddles! Where yesterday a the flood plain was covered it was now almost dry! A small family group, walking in single file like a caravan passed by me as I looked down from a high dune. I tried riding along the lake bottom and soon realized it was impossible. So, carting the bike back to north shore I headed back to home base, exhausted.
Today was another rainy day of flat light and extreme winds. Content to stay in for a while and sort out images, I worked at the kitchen table, checking out the window constantly for a break in the weather. My legs were like rubber from yesterday’s unaccustomed pedaling and while I felt somewhat guilty for staying inside, I had to recharge physically to be effective in the field. My friend, Ali, took off to brave the elements. It was not until mid-afternoon Ali arrived back to report that ‘there were just no horses out there”. But the sky was beginning to change so I decided to go for a short walk up the north ridge, travelling light and trying out my new waist waders and overboots which had been recently purchased for my summer Alaska trip. I took only my newly converted colour infrared camera, knowing that the lighting conditions were not likely to produce stellar images. As I crested the north dunes, my usual first vantage point, I discovered Beachcomber and part of his band tucked between dunes, not 10 minutes from the station. He was resting with a bay mare and a pair of two year olds that clearly bore the genetic stamp of his chestnut colour and white blaze. The horses that live near the station are very accustomed to people so they took little notice of me as I clambered around them, mostly on my knees trying for different angles to make a creative shot. The sun poked out for a few minutes and I did my best to make the most of it. Convinced that I had covered every angle, I started to walk away. As soon as I was out of the ‘zone’ Beachcomber squealed, reared and leaped on top of the bay mare’s back. It was not a mating attempt but a clear display of ownership. Shocked by the sudden flurry of activity I jumped clear of the action and then spun around to get the shot. After congratulating myself at my composure, the thought occurred to me that I had been too complacent and had crossed the line of safety. I had mistaken the stallion’s disinterest in me as trust, when in fact he had barely tolerated my presence. I pride myself in being an astute judge of horse body language and this was a prime example that wild horses react differently than domestic ones. Lesson learned.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
My departure was scheduled for 2pm and as the skies cleared to a bright blue it was obvious the flight would arrive without delay. I took the video camera and went west to spend the last morning with two family groups near the west ponds. It is always the same when you come to Sable… the best weather is the day you arrive and the day you leave.
As I loaded my gear on the truck destined for the runway, Zoe Lucas appeared carrying a cardboard box. She opened the lid and showed me my parting gift. Two horse skulls to show at my next exhibit! Surprised and elated, it made the goodbyes just a little easier. As we lifted off from the south beach I marvelled at the site below me. The slightest hint of green was beginning to appear on the dune tops, seals played in the crystal blue water and the white breakers glinted in the sun. I scanned the extreme tips of the island as we flew by and made mental notes of where I would go for expedition number three.
– Photo Credit: Ali Darvish –
During this expedition Debra captured over 10,000 images on Sable Island. She has selected the top 25 images which will be revealed for the first time at the Okotoks Art Gallery. You are invited to the opening reception Wednesday June 30 7-9pm, 2010. The exhibit will continue until September 6, 2010.