When I was 11 I read Thomas Raddall’s The Nymph And The Lamp and fell in love with Sable Island. Sable didn’t fade with my other prepubescent crushes, it settled into my spirit so forcefully that two summers ago — 17 years later — I was almost afraid to visit the island. Given the chance to realize an old, compelling fantasy, one hesitates. Perhaps the image carries more weight than its reality can bear.
Canadians respond to the imagery of islands, for islands are part of our expe-
rience. The country was littered with them by carelessly retreating glaciers. I have lived on two islands; a friend of mine owns one in the cottage-country belt about 120 miles north of Toronto. It’s not that unusual.
But there’s another aspect to the appeal. We Canadians live in a sort of Diaspora within our own country, so diffused we cannot enjoy our spaces with any certainty, for we cannot quite draw the lines. An island has its lines. An island is tangible. There is the water,
here is the land, this is the encircling line, here is my space. We feel dangerously exposed on all sides, menaced by the capillary action of geography. Islands have what we seek: definition.
Sable Island rides our minds because we have a focused image of what it is. In June 1971 Mobil Oil announced a strike on the island and most of us were disturbed. The image we had of Sable was somehow shattered. Centuries of Canadians have known it as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a
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Mixing oil and history in the Graveyard of the Atlantic
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fog-shrouded, wind-torn bar of sand off the Nova Scotia coast, home of wild horses and wilder scenes of shipwreck and loss. Desolate, perhaps, but somehow romantic in its isolation, in its defiance of the 20th century, and in its refusal to be brought to heel. Now oil, and Sable Island has been caught by the 20th century after all.
It’s not a big project, compared with the proposed trans-Alaska or Mackenzie River Valley pipelines. It’s not even that big in terms of potential flow — several million cubic feet a day. Some Western Canada wells are capable of producing two billion cubic feet a day.
However, Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation (the money behind Mobil Canada) thought it worth the investment. Sable is the first major oil strike on Canada’s east coast. If things work out, this means local gas and oil for the hungry, industrial northeast triangle that presently must import it. Oil would also mean new jobs for Maritimers and, Premier Gerry Regan of Nova Scotia believes, the end of have-not status.
Mobil’s not the only one interested. It holds offshore rights to one million acres immediately around Sable, but the rival Ecco consortium (including Shell) has rights to an even larger tract around Mobil. While Mobil did seismic work on land, a ship patiently crisscrossed the
ocean for Ecco. (Both Mobil and Ecco hired the same American company, Geophysical Services International, to do the job.)
Meanwhile, the federal and Nova Scotia governments are jockeying for position just as fiercely as the oil companies. The provincial Deputy Minister of Mines, J. P. Nowlan, presented the Mobil camp with a Nova Scotia flag larger than the Canadian flag already on the rig. The federal government spurned theatrics, but the Mobil camp posted a copy of page 499 of the Canada Gazette of November 22, 1961: “Regulations Respecting the Government of Sable Island.” It begins, “The Island is under the control, management and administration of the [District Marine] Agent [of the Department of Transport] . . .”
And faintly, the muted voices of conservationists, wondering what oil will mean for the birds, seals, horses and the very island itself.
Poor Sable, can it too be just another tame bit of real estate, programmed to fulfill its economic function as parking lot, subdivision, oil field? It doesn’t look very tame, flying in. We’d been psychologically conditioned by a two-day wait for an Aztec-sized hole in the fog. (“That’s nothing,” says the pilot cheerfully. “Once waited seven weeks last year.”) The island curves west to east, a 20-mile crescent of dune and beach,
grass and sand, at the heart of a system of fog-producing currents and rippling sandbars which have pulled apart more than 200 ships in the past 170 years. We see horses, seals, birds, waving grass, a few roads (sand strips through the grass) and a modest but surprisingly varied number of buildings: weather-beaten ruins, prim white trailers, tents, Quonset huts, sturdy white-painted houses, two cabins and one A-frame.
Man leaves his spoor on Sable in the form of buildings. The wind-bleached ruins are the remains of five lifesaving stations, grimly necessary when ships depended on favorable winds and keen vision to avoid foundering. Though the last one was not abandoned until 1948, w-indblown sand has done to them what seaborne sand had previously done to so many ships. Only one, known as East Light because it is next to the eastern lighthouse, is still habitable and occasionally used.
The trailers, cabins and the tents — with their sophisticated antennae — are all part of the intense oil speculation that has surrounded the island for the past few years. The white houses and the Quonset huts serve the island’s only year-round residents: federal government meteorologists and their dependents. One of the huts, however, known as the Barracks, is used as summer headquarters by some Dalhousie University students researching PhD theses on the island horses, gulls and Ipswich sparrow. The A-frame belongs to another Dalhousie group, studying the seal population.
For Sable, despite low-flying appearances, is not of a piece after all. It is at least three worlds — Atmospheric Environment Service of the federal government; Dalhousie University ecology research; and Mobil Oil. They all pivot on the axis of 43° 56' N and 60° 02' W, but spin out to different purposes, different terminology, even different time zones. And a different current of time beyond the clock. The government is the pastpresent of Sable, Dalhousie a concerned part of the present, and Mobil the almost certain future.
You get along together on islands because you have to, so the three worlds coexisted through the summer of 1971, always cooperative and always suspicious. But it was not a three-point standoff, for the triangle, while a stable form in geometry, is not so in human relationships. By July the two-and-one polarization had occurred: each analyzed the others’ investment in the island and lined up, AES plus Dal versus the interlopers, Mobil. AES had the investment of time, 170 years continuous government responsibility for the island. Dal had only three years but the added authority of hard-won knowledge about Sable — not the weather above, not the
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oil below, but the horses and seals and birds and grass cover and the delicate interaction between them. Mobil had more weight than anyone else: American money, Canadian blessings, the whole juggernaut of technology out to turn gas and oil bubbles into money and jobs.
If Mobil is the island’s future, it’s ironic — or perhaps typical of our System — that the roughnecks there have almost no sense of the island. Sable or the Arctic, a few details of climate, that’s all. These men carry their environment with them. Same purpose, same work, same trailers, food, recreational facilities, many of the same guys from last time, or the time before. They’re young, well-behaved Albertans down east for the first time. The sand rasps the surface from their cowboy boots, and when they’re due time off the island, despite freedom to spend the value of their return air fare to Edmonton on a trip to anywhere, almost everyone heads right back home.
Hair is short. A photographer sent up from Houston by Texas Eastern Transmission to get pictures of their investment shrugs philosophically at the muttered remarks about his beard. “Every camp’s the same,” he says. Lloyd Leismeister, supervisor on site, curls his lip and calls the Dalhousie fellows “those hippies.” There is not a shred of affection in his voice. Dave Morrow, a Mobil geologist and a transplanted American, sighs tolerantly about “ecology freaks” and expresses the hope he “can shoot myself a polar bear up North before they’re all gone.”
“Going up there is like dropping off the edge of the world,” says Deane Renouf, member of the threesome studying seals. “I call it Sable Island Suburbia.”
The Mobil camp exists in geographical as well as emotional isolation, for it’s at the extreme western tip of the island. The Puritan Ethic prevails — the men work hard, take greater safety precautions than the law requires, keep their site scrupulously clean and pursue a Good Neighbor policy composed of equal parts cooperation and invisibility. They pass on their movies, sell fuel to all comers when the government supply ship is late, say nothing about the AES and only disparage the Dalhousie people in private. Mobil walks very softly indeed. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum comes to mind.
They’re missing something, those suburbanites, for Sable is what few of us mainlanders ever imagined — beautiful. Bleak in winter, the island displays worlds of her own in summer. The western end is largely unconsolidated, the blowouts extensive craters, the beach grass and beach pea tenuously controlling the soft sand. Man has mostly settled near this end of the island since
the first agent was dispatched in 1801 by the government of the colony of Nova Scotia. “It has been reported to me that a Man and a Woman of Wicked character have been landed on the Island for the infamous, inhuman purpose of plundering, robbing and causing shipwrecks: this Man and his Wife you are to remove from the island at all events . ..”
The farther east you go, the less human interference. The land is firmer underfoot, the grass cover healthier and more varied — crowberry, myrtle, juniper, heather, wild roses, wild strawberries and, around the ponds, sedges, cranberries, wild orchids, Blue Flag (wild iris) and tiny Star Flowers. It’s possible to look around at horses cropping on rolling fields and think yourself in farm country. Except for the driftwood.
North shore beach is narrow; south shore is broad, and better scavenging ground for floats, bottles, shells, wood, the occasional washed-up swordfish or whale and — for this is not a Harlequin romance — used light bulbs. The island is not romantic at all for its only yearround residents, seven employees of the federal Atmospheric Environment Serv-
“IT’S BEAUTIFUL HERE ... BUT THERE’S NOTHING TO DO”
ice and (though it’s an isolation post) their four dependents. All but one are from the Atlantic region, and they’re young, for they’ve come straight from the AES Upper Air School.
“It’s this or the Arctic,” says Paul Thorne, 22 (now Officer in Charge with two years’ experience on Sable under his belt). “Here at least you have daylight year round •. . . horses . . .You can save money, learn to do things right.” The men live on a shift system which resembles a Snakes-and-Ladders game and seem to have almost nothing to do — except for short, intense bursts of activity. These bursts coincide with the twicedaily release of the upper-air balloon. While they do the regular surface-air work as well, it’s the balloon that makes Sable important. It has the only radiosonde station in the area.
Off work, the men are frankly bored. They spend patient hours developing film, fixing motorcycles and talking about the hockey they did/will play back on the mainland. Everyone knows how many days he has left. The young wives fill their time with female equivalents — they visit each other for coffee, knit and shop by mail. They’re remarkably sweet tempered about it, considering that for them Sable is life in a vacuum, but you feel among them a certain wistful sense that Sable has something to offer they’re not quite catching.
“I think it’d be interesting to learn something about the birds,” says 19year-old Estelle Thorne, honeymooning on the island with her husband, Paul. She’s sincere, but she’s just as sincere and much more vehement when she echoes other wives in saying, “It’s beautiful here .. . but there’s nothing to do!”
Even in summer, when Mobil passes on movies and Dal people are there for ballgames, the things they cannot have always lurk. The group is trudging back home one Saturday night from the movie when someone calls out, “Let’s go to the A & W!” Real moans of desire go up. “For a Teenburger!” The supply ship delivers everything from lumber to onions, but not a drive-in restaurant. And the AES issues no manual on how to make the most of two years in isolation. Or how to deal with the delicate environment of Sable Island.
Yet Sable has a way of getting to people, if they’re out there long enough. Ian McLaren, professor of biology at Dalhousie University and catalyst behind the research work being done, remembers that when former OIC Fred Androschuk arrived, “he just cut trails through the grass wherever he wanted them. By the time he left 10 years later, he was closing trails down right and left, and carefully protecting threatened spots with burlap and snow-fencing.”
The presence of Dalhousie researchers, while causing some irritations, has also stimulated the curiosity of the meteorologists about their surroundings. They may mutter about the Dal group’s postgraduate “airs,” and Dal wives may wonder how AES wives can so lack initiative, but the two groups get along pretty well. They share a sense of island.
“There’s a really nice spirit here,” says Carolyn Lock, who helps her husband Tony research the breeding success of gulls. “The Sunday ballgame is a good example. Lord, none of us are very good, especially the girls. You’re teased if you do a dumb thing, but it’s gentle, and if by accident you do something well the praise is fantastic. It’s a small town here — everyone speculates about everyone else, but it’s never malicious.”
The Dalhousie people seem by far the liveliest, probably because they’re on the island for Sable’s own sake, not as a necessary condition for getting at the weather above or the oil below. Unlike the others, who live in the past and future, the Dal community lives intensely in the present. They know their time here is almost over and their enjoyment has an edge to it: what will happen to Sable?
They play bridge, collect berries, tinker with the gasping ’47 Ford tractor, bake their own bread. (“Last summer I taught them all, even the guys,” says Carolyn.) And they work very hard. Tony Lock is finishing a population
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study of the gulls, a rare study because here the birds are in a garbage-free environment. Danny Welsh has another year’s work to do on the famous wild horses. Wayne Stobo is wrapping up his study of the Ipswich sparrow, a bird that breeds nowhere else in the world. Though Carolyn Lock is a social worker, and Andrée Stobo and Jackie Welsh are both high-school teachers, all three women enthusiastically help their husbands as a matter of course.
“Danny made me an outdoors girl,” says Jackie. “I used to think bird watchers were sort of fruity people traipsing through the woods in leather pants. Now I’m as avid a bird watcher as the next, and I tell my students just to try it if they think it’s so sissy.”
Carolyn Lock takes distinct pride in her ability to catch gull chicks. “Boy can they run! Faster than the tractor! I’d go zonking along the beach after a chick until he was panting and I was panting ... By the end of last summer I was ready for the Olympics.”
Tony and Carolyn set out one 6 a.m. for a two-day gull census around the island. The first day they counted their way eastward along the north shore, Carolyn ticking off black-backs and Tony the herring gulls. As usual, they found bottles with notes inside. The notes were in Russian, the bottles obviously thrown from fishing vessels.
(“Today my daughter was born, Schastmya Serphi.” The other is illegible except for three words: “God forgive us.”)
They spent the night at East Light, 13 miles from the AES station, with Danny and Jackie Welsh. Jackie pumps water, uses an outhouse, has found approximately 1,329 ways to disguise corned beef, and has only one complaint — it’s not isolated enough anymore. “I was stumbling down the path to the outhouse yesterday morning, no pyjama top or anything, and suddenly I hear this noise like a tractor coming. It’s a plane. Boy! are things changing. Now you have to dress to go to the john!”
It’s typical that the table talk moves from corned beef to the future of Sable Island. For Sable is more than a background, it’s a persona in itself. I began to see the bustling Mobil camp as a bizarre incongruity, almost as if I were watching a hockey game being played on silk instead of ice — great game, wrong arena.
This, of course, is exactly the kind of Upper Canadian bleeding-heart emotionalism that convinces Maritime politicians and newspaper editors we want them to be poor and quaint forever. But even in the Mobil camp itself two years ago, scuttlebutt agreed the island was too unstable for onshore activity, and the Nova Scotia Resources Council responded to the news of the June strike by repeating that it wanted to see Sable
Island granted protected status.
The problem is the island has no defined status at all. Even the Canada Gazette doesn’t say the federal government owns it, just that the Department of Transport (now AES) controls, manages and administers it. And ever since lifesaving became unnecessary, that’s meant running a weather station, period. Perhaps the switch from the Department of Transport to the Department of the Environment means some attention will be paid to the land itself as well as the weather above, but nobody has said so. Exploration permits are granted, governments manoeuvre to corner still nonexistent profits, and the decision about onshore activity seems to be left to Mobil. Even offshore drilling poses questions: oil spills, fouled beaches, dead birds and seals.
But the crucial decision to be made is about activity on the island, and it must be made soon if it is to have any meaning at all. Sable has no rock base, it is nothing but a sandbar with vegetation that is adversely affected by the horses, let alone machinery. Last year’s gash is not only visible this year, but larger. The wind gets into a neat little four-footdiameter garbage pit unwisely dug on the crest of a dune, and scours it out to a 20-foot wide, 12-foot deep crater. Add oil exploration, and an island teetering on the brink of too much could quickly be reduced to a flat, sterile sandbar. The Nova Scotia Resources Council goes further: it could disappear.
That is why the council and Professor McLaren and the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada all want the island to be granted protected status, with an island administrator to repair the damage done and prevent further damage. The technology has been developed on Cape Cod, Dalhousie research provides the necessary data, only the policy decision is lacking.
We’ll all lose if Sable reaches that point of “too much.” For Sable still is an example of our century’s rarest quality — it is unique. There is not another place with its history, its currents, its Ipswich sparrow, its horses, its place in our mythology.
Zoe Lucas knows that. She was a student goldsmith at the Nova Scotia College of Art, who in 1971 also realized her long ambition to visit Sable Island. She seemed to melt into the island. I met her one evening, coming out of the fog .on horseback, a blanket pinned around her shoulders against the chill, her blond head slightly inclined to her horse.
Late one afternoon she set off from West Light for a walk. She stumbled back at midnight, exhausted to the point of blankness, but happy. She had just walked to East Light, touched it gently, and walked back.
Thirty miles. ■