Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sable Island

Seals and Strawberries

The wild, lonely, treeless strand of finely rounded grains of sand known as Sable Island, far off Canada’s east coast on the edge of the continental shelf, is not open to the general public. Permission to land there must be obtained from the Nova Scotia government. But over the centuries there have been many who have had to ignore this stipulation. These are the crews of the hundreds of vessels that have been helplessly swept up on its wide sandy beaches during storms—earning the long narrow island its name as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

In 1966 one group of people who readily obtained landing

permission from the province was a Mobil Oil Canada exploration drilling team. When I heard of this I decided, as the producer of National Film Board newspaper photo stories, to go there myself. The attraction of visiting a lonely 20-mile-long strip of sand out in the Atlantic, more than 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, was very strong.

So I flew to Halifax and arranged, for the next day, to board the Kenting Aviation Services Canso flying boat that had been chartered by the oil company to shuttle several of its personnel back and forth every few days. That afternoon I met the two affable Canso pilots and we spent the evening yarning away together in the Lord Nelson tavern, discussing our separate arctic travels and flying experiences.

The next day after flying due east from Halifax for a couple of hundred miles we saw Sable Island. It showed its twenty-mile-long, slightly crescent-shaped, slither of sand as being less than a mile wide, low-lying and treeless, and with just a suggestion of low, ground-hugging plant life enclosing a series of long, narrow lakes along its central parts.

Though at times the amphibious Canso flying boat could land on one of the long lakes in the middle of the island, we made a more convenient wheels-down landing along the firmest part of the beach. There a dozen boxes of freight were unloaded onto a tracked vehicle, a few passengers disembarked, a few others embarked, and the aircraft was at once off and away again for Halifax.

The oil company people kindly gave me a small room in one of their several ATCO accommodation trailers, showed me where the dining room was, and left me to my own devices. I poked about the oil-rig taking photographs for an hour or two then I walked off looking for some of the fabled wild horses for which Sable is noted. These horses are probably the descendants of a dozen or more reputed to have swum ashore a century before when the ship in which they were being transported was swept up on the treacherous shoreline. A couple of miles away I found a herd feeding amid the sparse tufts of grass that grows on what is the island’s central height of land which is a rather imposing term for the most lofty sand dunes, their tops being but fifteen feet or so above the high water mark.

The horses were wandering in pools of water just a few inches deep. As I slowly approached them they quietly moved away from me so after taking some overall photographs, and wishing for a few close-ups, I at first just quickened my approach and then finally attempted a full run in order to close with them. They easily moved away from me as I sloshed awkwardly through the few inches of surface water. It was then I truly realized that the sand of which the island is composed is of a special type. Instead of being faceted as is most sand, the grains of Sable Island have been smoothly rounded by centuries of being rolled together by the ocean’s wave action. When attempting to run on the dry sand the foot just slips as if traversing a field of minute ball-bearings—a step forward of eighteen inches being invariably followed by one’s foot sliding back twelve. This combined with the interconnecting pools of water soon made me stop trying to move with any speed. I gave up the chase. Instead I became busy gorging upon the amazing bounty of small, intensely flavoured, wild strawberries that grow upon every small rise and dune top.

Despite the abbreviation of my equine photographic opportunity, I was surprised a few years later to see, in the furniture section of Simpson-Sears department store in Ottawa, a three-by-four-foot blow up of one of my horse pictures for sale. The Canadian Government Photo Section of the day, which processed all Film Board film, had pioneered one of the first government cost-recovery schemes. I wonder if anyone ever bought that large print?

The next day I started out early to walk several miles along Sable Island’s western shore. My objective was the island’s northern tip upon which was a lighthouse—the only place of permanent habitation on the island apart from the eight or so personnel at the weather-station situated seven miles away from the drill site.

The day was bright, yet overcast by a fine hazy fog that is frequently caused by the prevailing meteorological conditions peculiar to the region. This is the result of the southward flowing cold Labrador sea-current to the west of the island interfacing with the adjacent warmer northeast-bound Gulf-Stream waters. In fact, the island itself owes its very existence and the constant shifting of its sands to the turmoil created by these massive and eternally contesting ocean-water movements.

The remarkable haze I experienced that day, has played a large part in adding to the number of wrecked vessels on the island even in calm water. And it can play the most devious tricks on the eyes. Standing in the middle of the beach, with the invisible shore far distant on one hand and the inland low grassy dunes, also indiscernible on the other, I found myself quite disorientated and in need of my wartime blind-flying instrument panel. For as I opened my photographic light-meter to get a reading in that strange condition I saw that to whichever point of the compass, as well as from the sand-floor nadir between my feet to the heavenly zenith above my head, the needle moved not one iota. The light level, as well as the colour level, were exactly the same in every direction and dimension. Even my footprints cast so faint and diffused a shadow as to be almost imperceptible. I was in a void of nothingness, almost completely deprived of sensory information to give me direction. As I edged towards the shoreline my eyes did pick up a few objects of darker hue than all around. But upon its first sighting it was impossible to know whether I was approaching an object measuring a couple of inches a few feet distant or an object several feet wide at a longer range. In fact, upon approaching what I first decided was a small round sea shell I was startled when the object suddenly, and even shockingly, loomed up in true massive size to reveal itself as a heavy wooden cable reel of six-feet-diameter, standing upright on the sand to where it had been washed by wind and tide.

After half-an-hour of this eerie meandering in measureless space with not the slightest variation in brightness to indicate the sun’s position for direction, the haze suddenly blew away in a light breeze and in moments I was beneath a blue sky, on a golden beach and with the murmur of wavelets beckoning me to the water’s edge.

At once I could see large and interesting tracks cutting across the beach from the grassy inshore dunes to the sea. They were obviously the tracks of seals. I had read that the grey seals of Sable Island left the salt water and went inland to the brackish fresh-water lakes to have their pups. These then, were the very recent tracks of some seals returning to the sea. I followed in their wake.

The wide beach was wonderfully smooth and almost level but following along close to the water’s edge there was a slight, uniform and continuous dune about three feet in height. As I approached the dune I could gradually see over its top and saw that the inshore water, just 30 feet away, resembled the beach at Brighton, on England’s south coast, during the August Bank Holiday. This because, in contrast to the deserted beach I had just traversed, the water was alive with the heads of scores of happy swimmers busy in animated socializing and aquatic horseplay. Except that it was not horseplay, it was sealplay.

I halted and stood still, a few yards short of the low shoreline dune, so that only my eyes and topknot would be visible from the water. Unobserved by the carefree bathers, I watched in wonder for some minutes but then, with my National Film Board zeal bubbling up, I carefully advanced to shoulder level with the dune top in order to take a photograph of that happy throng. But immediately, as if as one, the seals splashed in unison as they all dove out of sight below the water’s surface.

I sat down motionless on the dune top. In a few minutes, somewhat farther off, a few heads reappeared and disappeared and then, emboldened by curiosity and my inactivity, several closed in on me. But when I stood up they again took fright and more minutes passed before some again came near.

But in time their curiously won out and soon many were gathered in front of me, less than fifty feet away and with all their heads turned towards me. We regarded each other intently. As they crowded in closer I was increasingly aware of their resemblance to a hotel convention of gynaecologists or accountants, or rather, because of their whiskers, a love-in of hippies assembled before their favourite guitar-twanging guru.

So in the role that had been thrust upon me owing to my elevated position above the crowd, I addressed them. I welcomed them to the meeting and gave them a brief explanation for my presence before them. Also, I told them of my impending visit to the far-off lighthouse. They all seemed very interested in what I had to say but when I asked if anyone had a question they all remained mute except for the odd sneeze or snort. Not a flipper was raised in interrogation. I then told them that I was well familiar with the sight of a crowd of several score bird watchers of ample stature intently staring through binoculars at one solitary little song bird, but that this was the first time I had myself been placed in the songbird’s disconcerting position. I also remarked on the fact that my audience was growing in such numbers that not only was I now literally confronted by a sea of faces in the sea to my front, but latecomers to the meeting were jostling for position to my left and right. Then, having such an obviously expectant and intent audience, I thought the situation called for more serious discussion.

I tried to explain what the advent of the oil company to their lonely habitat might mean and sought to elicit their thoughts on the matter, but to no avail. After further remarks justifying the duties and aims of the National Film Board I lapsed into momentary silence. As my huge audience still remained mostly mute with just their heads raised above the water from about where their bow-ties would have been had this meeting been planned with proper due notice, I thought a little excitement was needed to end my lecture. So I scuffed a small crenelation in the top of the sand dune and slowly stepped backwards. As I stooped down and gradually vanished from their gaze behind the dune top I was pleased to see that they were all now raising themselves several more inches out of the water, exposing their shoulders in an endeavour to keep me in sight. When completely hidden from their view I peered through the tiny valley I had made in the shoreline ridge of sand and saw they were all still energetically trying to rise even higher in the water. Then unthinkingly, I suddenly leapt to my feet with arms outstretched and gave a monstrous shout. The water was turned to foam as they all dived frantically below the water. Shocked by my own boorish action, I stood contrite, hoping none had suffered heart failure, but within minutes they all came back and I apologised at length. Then on a whim I announced that we would now begin the musical part of the presentation. So standing there, with outstretched arms, on an otherwise deserted beach in the sunshine, miles from any other human, I sang song after song to my spellbound audience. Italian operas, ribald war ditties, Persian Gulf bar-room obscenities, the top-ten jukebox hits—all these I rendered loud and long, my voice helped to carry by the gentle zephyr now being urged seaward by the morning heating of the wide stretches of clean sand beach at my back.

Finally exhausted, both in repertoire and voice, I told my throng of listeners that the concert was over, that I must now be off along to the island’s northeastern tip if I was to return to the oil-rig by sundown. So with many a farewell wave and gesture I made off along the outer strand of moist beach with its good footing.

At once I was astounded to see that I had struck a chord deeper than I knew and that our goodbyes were to be prolonged. It turned out that we were all going the same way. My audience had themselves all turned to face north and with every head turned to their right they were swimming along to keep pace with me. Those abreast of me had their faces turned at a ninety-degree angle to keep their eyes intently upon me. Those behind had their heads turned at lesser and lesser angles depending on their proximity to me.

But of the utmost wonder was that all the seals in front and ahead of my advancing position, also had me under equally intent observation with steady backward cranings of their necks, with those in the far van risking not only strained neck muscles but also broken bones as they hazarded collision with the dozens of late-coming newcomers our popular convention was now sweeping up in our northerly progress.

So with an armada of several hundred seals keeping me close company, and the cynosure of all those limpid eyes, I made my northing along the golden sands. If I increased my pace so did they. If I stopped to look at something on the beach so did they. Then with a final goodbye aria and a repeated explanation for my departure, I made inland across the low, undulating semi-green hills towards the lighthouse I could now see in the distance. The meeting had been adjourned.

On the way I noted that the little strawberries grew in even greater profusion in this northern part of the narrow island. In fact, they were so many, I could not avoid stepping on them. In addition I saw cranberries, several species of wildflowers and several nesting waterfowl. I also kept a lookout for the famous sub-species of the Savannah Sparrow—known as the Ipswich Sparrow. This is a true North American sparrow which, though found on the mainland, nests and breeds only on Sable Island.

Finally I arrived at the lonely lighthouse, a quite ordinary white-painted woodframe house standing on the sand dunes as if washed there by accident across the intervening 110 miles of ocean from some little Nova Scotian fishing harbour. The warning light and generator was housed in a short tower adjacent to the house. Even though quite unexpected, I had no need to ring the doorbell or knock on the door, as the lighthouse keeper, Norman Bell, an ex-ship’s engineer officer, was standing there to warmly greet me. And beside him was his comfortable, smiling wife, delightfully bearing her given name of Krystel, so that she was a Krystel Bell.

Over and between refreshments consisting of homemade strawberry shortcake, strawberry tart, strawberry compote, strawberry layer cake, strawberry pudding and strawberries and canned cream, all washed down with strawberryade, Mr and Mrs Bell told me stories of their years of lonely living in their small but vital, all-encompassing world, stretching as it did from horizon to horizon to all points of the compass.

I heard tales of winter storms that threatened to wreck their modest abode, of lost nearby ships, hidden by haze and close to disaster and bleating their whistles in fear. The Bells told me of shifting sands blown high against wall and door, of strange and wild sounds heard from without while they lay abed in the dark of night .

They also told me of happy times. Of welcome visits by scientists—entomologists, biologists, the VIPs of the famed National Geographic Magazine—and investigators of all kinds of flora and fauna. And just recently, of strawberry-sundae tea parties held for small groups of visiting engineers from the oil-drilling-rig who brought along with them the required ice-cream and arrived in a strange tracked motor vehicle suited in some fashion to travel over the island’s slippery sands.

Mrs Bell, Krystel, seemed always to begin each story with the statement that at the time of its occurrence, she was up on the hill, gathering strawberries. This I could well believe. For much like the fantasy houses made of marzipan, sugar-cane or chocolate in childrens’ fairy-tales, the Bells’ house was a house of strawberries set amid the golden sugar of Sable’s magical sun-warmed golden sands.

Mr Bell showed me the hobby that helped him pass the long months and years. Attached to the house was a small and bright conservatory fitted with a wealth of shelves upon which, in admirable museum style, the lighthouse keeper displayed his locally-gathered shell collection. Mr Bell had chosen to adopt a pastime ideally suited to his situation and in complete harmony with his workplace surroundings. Mostly small in size his rows of shells were all neatly identified with their common and Latin names and arranged in pleasing order and display. And behind the house he showed me the remains of a decades-old homemade forerunner of the snowmobile—a basic motorized-sleigh sort of contraption that had been made in an attempt to conquer the trying sands by some member of the small settlement of hardy fisherfolk-coastguardsmen who long years ago, before abandoning their mid-island minute settlement, had returned to a mainland setting.

And jolly, nicely-plump, Krystel Bell showed me her abundant cache of bottled strawberries, lined up in serried rows, down in her secret storehouse. More than enough to provide generous rays of concentrated summer sunshine during many dark winter months to come.

Some weeks later the Bells sent me a very nice letter to say how happy they were with my stories and photographs, published in scores of different newspapers and magazines. Many of their friends had sent them a host of clippings. Best of all was a later Christmas card I received. They warmly invited me, if I was ever to return to the island, to stay with them in their uniquely peaceful and solitary home overlooking the wide reaches of the restless Atlantic.

1 comment:

  1. Norman Bell was my uncle and thank you for this. I'm finding out things I never knew.