Like many other locations on this journey, I came to Sagona Island quite by a series of accidents, coincidences and circumstances. I had originally planned to visit Brunette Island, a larger, much-storied place, so I headed to Harbour Breton, which is the nearest significant community. On the way I was slowed by weather - I delayed leaving Shoal Harbour for a day due to a non-stop heavy rain. When I finally got on the road it took three full days to get there - an epic 140km eight hour bike ride down the Burin Peninsula, two ferries and an overnight stay in the isolated community of Rencontre East, and then a 60km ride over the hilliest highway I have ever seen.
The next day I spent negotiating departure times and prices with Randall, a fisherman who agreed to take me out the bay, and the weather was still very unsettled so I lost a day there. At this point my other life came into play as well - I had booked a plane ticket from Deer Lake to Regina, where I am starting a new job. By the time everything came together I really only had a few more days of adventure left available to me. Randall told me about Sagona and it seemed like a much more fitting option than going to Brunette. Brunette is big - big enough to support caribou, moose, and an introduced herd of buffalo, and I simply felt like I could not do justice to the place by being there for only one or two days. (This account by Martin Connelly of the buffalo experiment is a must read). On the away out I decided to leave it for a future visit.
Sagona, on the other hand, is small - so small that it's difficult to imagine it at its apex with dozens of families living there. There is a large, sheltered harbour, but the island itself is little more than a narrow outline of rock wrapped around that harbour. The land is steep with rocky peaks surrounding the gut like gnarly teeth in a mouth trying to glug down a swallow of water. The psychological impression of the place is like an optical illusion, an inversion of positive and negative where the importance of the sea overwhelms the insignificance of the land.
It is perhaps this physical reality that makes Sagona an archetype for the settlement-resettlement story. More than any other place I have visited during this project, Sagona feels like a microcosmic experiment, a temporary stony fishing vessel to be inhabited only when the economic and ecological conditions are just so. And the actual story of Sagona's resettlement is more excruciating than any other I have heard - the town was depressed by the early-century decline of the inshore fishery, bereft of other natural resources (not even a tree left for a stick of firewood), and, as an interpretive panel in Harbour Breton states, a storm that was "the final straw."
"Sagona was home, but Simeon Snook's death during the storm on August 15, 1968 made up most people's minds to finally go. Poor Simeon - going between two boats when he was struck by lightning. He left 16 children. We had a school but no doctor. Everyone was holed up in their homes until the storm passed. It was the worst people had seen in a generation. That was it. Twenty families left for Harbour Breton and other places."
I met several of Simeon Snook's descendants during my few days in the area. The night before I went to Sagona there was a terrifying electrical storm over my campsite. The community is gone, but something ineffable remains.
Sagona is riddled with artifacts of ancient human inhabitation. The beaches are littered with shards, there are dozens of homes collapsed into piles of grey planks, and uniquely among the places I have visited, the entire harbour is ringed with hand-laid sandstone piers.
There is also a lighthouse, and though it is newer than the other buildings in the community it has also fallen into complete disrepair.
Despite all the wonderful distractions, I did make some sculptures. Here is something I made with bricks from the beach. The morning I left the island it was too foggy to see across the harbour, so the last I saw it was still standing as the water was rising around it.
I also paved this rock with shards. The tides came and went over night, but the harbour is very sheltered and it was a calm night so there was barely a discernible change.
This is a line of shards perpendicular to the shore - the idea was that as the tide came in they would scatter from the bottom up to the top in a sort of orderly fashion. But it soon became apparent that that just wasn't going to happen - the harbour was way too calm. Instead, I took advantage of being able to see the line as it was refracted by the amazingly clear water. Shots where the tide is lowest were refracted the least, and shots where the tide is higher are much more exaggerated.
This has turned into a couple of interesting visuals. First, I made this animation in which the you can see the line appear to move underwater as the water rises and the angle of refraction changes:
And I made this image of all those frames stacked on top of each other. I love how the line just becomes more and more diffuse in the deeper water.
I left the line just like that overnight, and when I woke up the next morning I had visitors. Some fishermen had come to beach their boat so they could clean the seaweed and mussels from the bottom. While the tide hadn't disturbed my arrangement of shards, I was happy to see that these guys had walked over them and kicked them around a little.
I went about my business for the rest of the day, but had supper with the fishermen and slept on their boat that night. The next morning they gave me a lift back to Harbour Breton.