There's only one tree on Sable Island. Now, it's a Christmas tree

The scruffy, gnarled tree poking out of the dunes on Sable Island is a testament to tenacity.

Its pine needles are a rare pop of colour on this remote island that's otherwise awash in the hues of dying foliage and snow this time of year.

Now, the green boughs of Sable Island's only tree have an added dash of colour and festive charm.

Days before Christmas, 300 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia, the island's skeleton-crew staff braved the elements to decorate the lonesome pine for the holidays.

"Out here, it being in a remote location, it's certainly a good feeling to know that there's a lot of spirit, especially during the holiday season," says Gregory Stroud, operations co-ordinator for the Sable Island National Park Reserve.

Stroud and two colleagues spending Christmas on the island are carrying on a relatively new tradition that started in 2014 when a maintenance worker decorated the tree to send pictures to his granddaughter.

But celebrating Christmas here isn't new at all.

Stroud says people have been living on the island continuously since at least 1801, when the first life-saving station opened. And Christmas doesn't just skip over this skinny sandbar in the North Atlantic. 

Sole survivor of tree-planting efforts

The island's famous horses don't seem to show much interest in the tree or its baubles. The pine is not a food source, so they mostly leave it alone — which is probably part of the reason it's survived as long as it has.

Stroud says the tree was planted in the 1950s as part of an effort to create a forest on the island.

Over the years, tens of thousands of trees have been planted, including an ambitious effort in 1901 to establish 69,000 evergreens, 600 fruit trees, and about 25 kilograms of pine seed, among other plants.

But, thanks to the extreme weather and poor soil conditions, all those efforts have resulted in failure, except for the sole survivor that's now doubling as a Charlie Brown Special.

"The tree is not what you would normally see as a typical Christmas tree," says Stroud. "This tree, even though it survived, has been shaped by the wind.… So it's a very stunted tree. It's only probably five feet high and it's twisted and gnarly as one would expect."

Celebrating Christmas on Sable Island

So how do a handful of people spend Christmas on this isolated crescent of sand in the ocean?

First of all, Stroud says, there's work to be done, as staff must ensure the main station and all its systems are operating properly.

Parks Canada

Other than that, he says, they will participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort to track bird population data.

And for Stroud, a native Newfoundlander, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without one indispensable component.

"I can't have Christmas without my Jiggs dinner, salt beef and my turkey dinner. So I will cook the regular Newfoundland dinner that I always grew up with and we'll share in that around the table and enjoy our Christmas meal, no doubt."

Stroud says he doesn't mind spending Christmas on Sable Island — quite the contrary.

"I can't imagine a better place to be anywhere in the country than being on Sable Island during Christmas. I mean, any time of the year is great to be here. But for the holidays, that's something special.

"Being surrounded by tens of thousands of seals, horses and countless birds, surrounded by the wind and the waves and and just total submersion in the environment, it's going to be an incredible experience."

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