Sable Island trips highlight strong relationship between RCN, Parks Canada

Guests of HMCS Ville de Quebec get ready for a RHIB ride around Sable Island on April 25, with Parks Canada’s Jason Surette, Sable Island’s Operations Manager, acting as tour guide. RYAN MELANSON, TRIDENT STAFF ***Le 25 avril, des invités à bord du NCSM Ville de Québec se préparent en vue d’une excursion à bord d’une embarcation pneumatique à coque rigide autour de l’île de Sable. Jason Surette, coordonnateur des opérations de la réserve de parc national de l’Île de Sable de Parcs Canada, a agi comme guide touristique. PHOTO : RYAN MELANSON, TRIDENT

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By Ryan Melanson, Trident Staff

Sable Island National Park Reserve (NPR) is a unique location that few Canadians get the opportunity to visit. The 45-kilometre long sliver of sand dune sits about 160km off of Nova Scotia – it’s dangerous to sail to, aircraft can only land directly on the sand, and private tours can be difficult and costly to arrange.

Yet thanks to a partnership between the Royal Canadian Navy and Parks Canada, a number of sailors and special RCN guests have had the chance to experience the island up close in recent years. The most recent of these trips, the third since 2017, took place from April 24-26, when Parks Canada staff joined Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) guests on board HMCS Ville de Quebec for a two-night sail to Sable Island.

Parks Canada has controlled access to the island since it’s designation as a national Park Reserve in 2013, and has so far limited tourists to about 500 a year, with a requirement that they be accompanied by staff. Plans and consultations have been taking place around ideas like self-guided tours, more infrastructure, and even camping on the island, but visits remain limited for the time being.

Studies are taking place to ensure increased activity on the island doesn’t negatively impact the populations of wild horses and grey seals that call it home, or the integrity of the constantly-shifting sandbard itself. Currently, all visitors receive a brief outlining rules and important things to consider when setting foot on the island.

“For example, we try not to walk on dunes or sparsely vegetated areas. It’s very important to leave as little impact as possible,” said Sable Island Park Manager Alannah Phillips, who added that approaching wild animals, or picking up objects found on the sand, must also be avoided.

“We tell guest to take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

Unfortunately, this year’s RCN trip to the island was the first in which foggy weather and rough waves prevented most guests from landing at the beach via zodiac. RHIB tours near the shore were still available for all who wanted to get a close-up view, however.

Despite those difficulties, staff said they’re always excited to introduce Canadians to the island for the first time, which is part the Parks Canada mandate, along with protecting it.

“These trips are one of the highlights of our year. We’re all excited to be here,” Phillips said.

“Everybody owns a piece of Sable Island. We’re all taxpayers. It needs to be done carefully, but we do want Canadians to experience the Island,” added Parks Canada’s Ray Coutu.

The Sable Island trips are far from the only example of successful collaboration between the RCN, the CAF, and Parks Canada. Coutu, who is Parks Canada’s National Manager of Celebrations and Commemorations, was recently presented the Commander RCN Commendation for his work putting naval history and the story of naval heroes in the public spotlight. This includes Hometown Heroes events, like the Navy-focused celebration held recently at Admiralty House in Halifax, as well the Home Port Heroes series, which focuses on those who served in Merchant Navy ships and escort groups. The latter series kicked off with the designation of HMCS Haida as the RCN flagship in spring 2018, and Coutu played a large role in making that event a reality.

There’s also been opportunity for the CAF to support Parks Canada through exercises and operations, search and rescue training and emergency evacuations at Sable Island NPR, and lending military expertise for special projects at Parks Canada locations.

CFB Halifax Base Commander Capt(N) David Mazur, who was aboard Ville de Quebec for the latest Sable Island trip, suggested more partnership opportunities could arise as the RCN gains new capabilities and a stronger presence in the Arctic.

“It’s been fantastic to have them helping us out with Canadian Leaders at Sea, and hopefully we can find even more ways to support Parks Canada. It’s the type of thing we should be doing as a nation,” he said.

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