He walked alongside the shore at a steady pace, well accustomed to the thick depth of sand that covered the island. Sable Island was famous for its sand dunes, which gave the island its original French name, Île de Sable, or Island of Sand. These dunes could reach a height of 26 metres, a hindrance to anyone who wanted to move at a rapid pace. But he was in no hurry, steadily following the curved path the crescent-shaped island provided. A small smile of amusement played across his lips as he thought of Sable’s significance.
Sable was an island of mystery to him, supplemented with some of the most unnerving riddles. It was a moon that never set, and rather than orbit, had the appearance of moving eastward. The winds that blew often came from the west, pushing sand particle by particle to the east, creating the illusion of movement. Every time he walked the island, he was never certain about what he would see; objects daily appeared and disappeared without a trace, exposed or hidden by the singing, shifting sands.
But, oh, Sable Island was just as cunning and notorious as she was mysterious. She was a graveyard, harbouring no tombs though many slept in her wake. Over 350 shipwrecks and at least 3 plane crashes earned her the reputation of being the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. To be fair, however, the deaths were not entirely her fault. The weather that surrounded the island was a main contributor to the thefts. Thick fog and cloudy weather, along with the treacherous currents from the Gulf Stream, Labrador Current, and Belle Isle Current lured many to their demise.
Shaking the dark thoughts from his head, he stepped aside to allow a band of horses to gallop past. They were beautiful, and some were still shedding the last bits of their thick, heavy winter coats. A moment later, an older, male horse trotted past him, following the same path the band had taken. The horse was a tag, one who followed the family band, but always kept his distance from them. Once the horse had disappeared from sight, he continued to meander, being careful not to step on nests that lay among the sand. Although numbering over 550, horses weren’t the only living creatures on the island; birds such as the petrel, tern, and gull used the island during nesting season. For the Ipswich sparrow, the island provided the only ecosystem where it could nest.
A sharp, barking noise brought his attention to the water. A grey seal lay floundering in the shallow water covering the east sandbar, not an uncommon sight, as the island held the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals. At first, he thought the seal was suffering injuries from a shark attack, but a closer examination showed that other seals, both grey and harbour, were joining it in the water. They would not do so if one of the 18 species of sharks that inhabited the waters around Sable were attacking the seal, so he walked over to get a better view. A plastic ring commonly found around packages of bottles was wrapped tightly around the seal’s snout, and it was struggling to pull free. He felt sympathy for the animal but could do nothing; the island was protected by the Canadian Government’s protection law, which prevented human interference in life on the island. Soon the tide would come in, burying the sandbars, and if the seal hadn’t died from suffocation by then, it would from drowning. The garbage disgusted him; shipwrecks were no longer a problem for the island, their role replaced by marine trash. Trash included plastic containers, balloons, rope, and packaging material, and to make matters worse, some may have been purposely dumped overboard because of past due dates or imperfections. He turned and walked away, his step perhaps more somber.
The island puzzled him; it both gave life and took it away. Take for example the low-bush cranberries and blueberries, which provided food for birds such as the gulls. The marram grass which grew in abundance made up the main diet of the horses, although it was not one of their favorites. But for those foreign to the island, it was cruel and unkind. Survival was harsh, and the one tree on the island illustrated this point. Many years ago, trees were planted on the island in hopes of providing some kind of forestation. The only survivor was a Scots pine, but it stood at a considerably short height, less than a metre tall.
Sable Island had also hosted some of the most notable characters, and some of the most disgraceful. Pirates, prisoners, cannibals, and captains had all found themselves stranded and at the mercy of the island. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and ironic events for him was the episode starring the cannibals. King Henri IV, with the help of the viceroy of New France, Marquis de La Roche-Helogomarche, attempted to create a French colony on Sable. As no one was willing to participate, he forced prisoners, vagabonds, and beggars to go, giving them an option over death. However, the plan failed, and the king failed to resupply them with the necessities. With no other option, many turned to cannibalism to survive and wore the hides of animals they hunted. Only 11 endured the horrific ordeal, and when presented to the king, their appearances moved him so much he gave amnesty for their wrongdoings and rewarded them handsomely.
It was nearing dusk when he reached his last stop; the island was small, measuring a mere 34 km2, with a length of about 49 km and 1.3 km at the widest width. Even so, it was a noteworthy feat, as no one had ever accomplished to walk even half of the entire length of the island in a day in his lifetime. He faced the ruins, knowing them all too well. They were the remains of the Humane Establishment’s main station, smothered in the same sand that buried the casualties of those the establishment could not save.
In 1801, rumors about the mysterious Sable Island started to spread as ships were drawn to and sunk near the island. The reports indicated that ships were lured to the sands and the passengers murdered by wreckers stranded on Sable. The public were outraged, and they sprang into action to change this. The same year, Lieutenant-Governor John Wentworth created the Humane Establishment. The Humane Establishment built a main station, and as they saw a need for a quicker way to reach different parts of the expansive island, built four additional rescue stations. Two lighthouses, the East and West lights, and houses of refuge were other works of the establishment. The lighthouses were built to warn ships of the dangerous waters surrounding the island and to prevent ships from falling into the clutches of the wreckers.
In truth, there were no wreckers on the island and the ships were often caught in the vortex created by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream and the cold currents of the Labrador Current. Although the rumors of wreckers were disproven, lighthouse keepers still saw that shipwrecks continued to occur, so they built shelters for survivors to recuperate in. Anyone who had been shipwrecked near or on the island was welcome to stay until help arrived. It was not uncommon for the rescuers to go out into the waters to try to save lives and give a hand in salvaging. With the birth of modern technology, such as sonar and radar, the station saw less use as shipwrecks became increasingly less frequent. In 1958, the station was closed.
“I have come back” he said, his voice alien to the noises on the island. Memories started flooding in, those of long ago, but as fresh as yesterday to him.
The wind was roaring, rain was thundering from the skies, and the giant, greedy waves of the ocean had claimed yet another prize. The September weather was foul, but these were minor concerns compared to those whose lives were in danger. He and the other eleven men in the lifeboat strained their muscles as they bent back over the oars, pulling the flimsy boat against the monstrously large currents. They were soaked to the bone, and all knew the danger of falling overboard as the waves rocked the boat and occasionally bore down over them.
Upon reaching the ship, he could hear the peoples’ distressed cries. He stood up and threw a rope for the captain to catch, but it fell short. He threw it again, and then a giant wave rocked the boat. Caught off guard, he lost his balance and fell into the water. His fellow oarsmen yelled his name, and then there was blinding pain as an oar struck him in the face. He managed to grab hold of the wood and was dragged back into the boat. Not wasting any time, the crew pushed off towards the island with a boatful of passengers.
By the next morning infection had set into the wound. The others said his time was up, but he was adamant they were wrong. In reality, he knew the truth, and it was time to accept the end. “Don’t you worry” he swore, as his friends surrounded him. “I will come back, and always sail with you during your rescues”. He had upheld his word.
The faint sound of an engine broke him from his thoughts and caused him to look up. It was easy to make out a buggy moving along at a moderate pace, just near the weather station. In contrast to its busy past, Sable Island was nearly devoid of human life. At most, there were 6-25 people on the island, comprised of researchers, journalists, professional photographers, and annual crew from the Meteorological Service of Canada stationed on a rotated schedule. However, the island made itself known through several appearances in media, such as films, documentaries, photography, and music.
The buggy’s roar neared and then stopped as it parked. A woman stepped out of the vehicle, the only permanent resident on the island. “Mr. Murray” she greeted him with a nod, “I see that the thirteenth oarsman has come back to visit the station again”. “I thought we had an agreement, ma’am, that it’s Howard” he sternly corrected her, and then gave a smile. “How’s your work coming along?” he asked the woman. “It’s going good” she replied, and then added, “Actually, I was wondering if you might have some information about how the island was formed and how the horses arrived. Did you gain some insight from speaking with all of your friends here?”
He thought for a moment and then said slowly, “Well, there’s no real answer as to how Sable Island came to be, but most people accept the theory that the island was formed during the Ice Age. Glaciers that spread from the Hudson Bay area, covering most of Canada, later melted, leaving behind this pile of debris, or island. As for the horses, there are many reasonable explanations. They could be shipwreck survivors, or they could have been purposely placed here”.
The woman groaned and said, “That’s what people believe, but what actually happened?” Howard bit back a grin and said “I don’t know. Some things are just bound to remain a mystery”.
by Fumairia © 2020
Grade 11, Home School, Cumberland County
Winning entry submitted to the Sable In Words writing contest for youth ages 15-17 years
Sable Island Institute