From a rubber zodiac motorboat bumping through the waves, Sable Island is a fog-shrouded mystery – a thin slice of sand surrounded by grey seals that bob in the surf, blinking inscrutably. On a drizzly morning, I squint through the spray, desperate to make out the dark splotches on the horizon. “Are those the horses?” I ask no one in particular, my words swallowed by the roar of the motor. I fumble with my binoculars, but by then the figures have disappeared – fleeting stallions, or maybe just a trick of the light.
Sable Island is the first stop on a 10-day trip aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian polar research vessel that has been repurposed for passenger voyages, in our case bringing 70-odd souls to some of the far-flung corners of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, led by the Canadian outfitter One Ocean Expeditions. It’s a cruise for people who hate cruising. Over a week and a half, we visit those difficult-to-reach locales that have long held an outsize position in the Canadian imagination – from the cliffs and headlands of Cape Breton to the holiday-town cafés and beaches of the Magdalen Islands to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, the last bastion of France in North America, where locals drive Peugeots and use euros to buy freshly baked baguettes.
The Gulf has a rough beauty, sublime and foreboding, with sheer cliffs carved by time and brightly coloured fishing villages standing up bravely against the maritime gales, a testament to a certain human pluck. None of these places is more remote or mysterious than Sable Island – a sandbar, 42 kilometres long and just 1.5 kilometres wide, that’s known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic after the more than 350 ships that have wrecked on its shores. We land on the beach and immediately find ourselves in a surreal environment of sand dunes that look like a chunk of the Sahara has been plopped down in the misty Atlantic. The researchers and park managers, a mere handful who live here, are overshadowed by Sable’s most famous inhabitants: the 500 wild horses, ancestors of animals that were left ashore after being taken from the Acadians during the expulsion of the 18th century. I huff up a sandbank until I reach the ridge, and all at once the entire island stretches out before me, arid sand giving way to a miraculously green runway of hardy juniper, cranberry and marram grass.
Following a horse path, we reach one of the island’s freshwater ponds, where we have our first close encounter: a chestnut mare grazing quietly among the purple irises, her overgrown mane streaked with highlights from the sun. I hold my breath. A horse is hardly an exotic creature, but in this context there’s something awe inspiring about the sight – a domestic animal that, over the generations, has returned to a state of wildness. Visitors to Sable are rare enough that a few dozen humans huddled in red windbreakers is cause for curiosity. I hear the sound of whinnying in the distance and turn to see a stallion trotting down the dune opposite us, leading a family band of nine.
Onboard, I quickly fall into an easy rhythm: rolling out of my cozy berth and into the shower, breakfast in the dining room – eggs and sausages, heaps of granola and fresh fruit – and then a trip ashore via Zodiac. The ship is crewed by a team of Russians, slightly bashful young men in knitted sweaters who hustle up and down gangways while Captain Andrey Zybin makes the occasional appearance on the bridge, striding past the nautical instruments with an aristocratic air. The One Ocean staff, meanwhile, is international, and made up of naturalists, kayakers, geologists and experienced polar travellers, some of whom helped discover the Franklin shipwreck, HMS Erebus, in the summer of 2014. Now they are taking that same spirit of discovery to finding the best cup of coffee on the Magdalen Islands or visiting a Cape Breton puffin colony. One morning at breakfast, as we motor toward Percé, Quebec, an excited Jacques Sirois stands up to talk about the day’s activity. The ebullient British Columbian is the ship’s resident naturalist, a man with a passion for seabirds that’s so irrepressible, it often feels like it will erupt through the top of his knitted cap. “Today will surely be the highlight of the entire voyage,” he says confidently. “We will see the largest colony of northern gannets in North America!” That morning, he leads us through Île Bonaventure, a clump of rock carpeted with dazzling white birds with icy blue eyes, jostling for precious real estate and tending to thousands of squawking, downy chicks.
After exploring Cape Breton Island and maritime Quebec, we head toward Newfoundland and make our first stop at Woody Point, a tiny town in the heart of Gros Morne National Park. I spend the morning hiking alongside Jim Payne, the ship’s musician. Payne is a proud Newfoundlander and an adventurer who boarded his grandfather’s schooner at the age of eight, helping out in the galley, and has more or less been on the water ever since. We climb through spruce woods, flushing out a ptarmigan that comes whizzing out of the greenery and nearly hits Payne in the head, before coming into a clearing where a moose gazes at us placidly from the bush. From the lookout point at the summit, the sun on my neck, I can see the Tablelands beneath us, a striking collection of red boulders and crumbling mountains that is unlike anywhere else on the planet. Gros Morne is one of the few places where the Earth’s mantle is visible, an accident of plate tectonics that has created an eerie jumble of nickel-, cobalt- and iron-rich rock that repels nearly all plant life. It’s a geology that has made the park both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the place NASA researchers come when they want to learn about the possibility of life on Mars.
On the ship that evening, I climb into the hot tub on the upper deck, soaking my aching muscles while the Newfoundland coast streams past. Later I wander to the bar for a glass of wine. Payne, who has traversed the island countless times collecting folk songs, is there with his squeezebox and guitar. The bar is full of passengers recounting their adventures of the day, clinking glasses of whisky or beer, but we all grow silent when Payne starts up, playing those unabashedly sentimental maritime tunes about sailing away from loved ones left ashore – songs I find myself humming weeks later, back home in Toronto.
Over 10 days on the water, I spot minke whales off the ship’s bow and watch puffins skip across the waves. On a rainy morning, I put on my wet-weather gear, climb into the Zodiac and spy a pair of bald eagles as they hunt the cliffs of Anticosti Island. For all the wildlife and open vistas, though, the most moving landscapes are those places where humans have left their mark on the land. Farther along, as our ship churns across the southern coast of Newfoundland, I stand on the bridge with Jacques Sirois and Jim Payne and watch dolphins arc through the water. “You know what would make those Newfoundland tourism commercials better?” Sirois asks Payne as we lazily observe the pink granite coast drift past. “More gannets.” At the entrance to a fjord, where a young humpback whale is playing, we turn a corner and the tiny outport of François suddenly comes into view. Despite the four-hour ferry ride to the nearest road, the brutal winters and the collapse of the cod fisheries, this 107-person town clings stubbornly to the rock.
On the docks, a fisherman named Austin Fudge shyly welcomes us to François, which the locals pronounce “Fran-sway.” I walk the length of the town before clambering upward, alongside the waterfall that cascades down the rocky hillside. Each footfall kicks up the scent of wild herbs and grasses. “We are on the edge of paradise,” murmurs Sirois as we stop to splash our faces in a freshwater stream. “And the gates of paradise are surrounded by dwarf Labrador tea.”
That evening, the town throws a kitchen party at the community centre. One-man band Darren Durnford sings a song his aunt wrote about the charms of François – a tune about climbing the hills and cooking mussels on an open fire – and we throw back cheap beers. When Durnford starts playing country music hits, everyone crowds onto the floor, the locals dancing with their arms tight to their sides, legs stepping high, while we tourists flail and twist.
When it’s all over and we’ve drunk and danced and thanked our hosts, we head back out into the moonless Newfoundland night. We jump into the Zodiacs and chug along the fjord, out toward the open water where the captain has anchored the ship. “Let’s turn off the engine for a minute,” our driver says. We sit there bobbing on the ocean, listening to the lapping of the water and looking at the explosion of stars overhead. The Milky Way cuts a swath of light through the night. We pause, take it all in, then follow the glittering path back to the ship.