Showing posts from 2013

Lighthouse Keeping (Part 1 -- Physical Rigors)

When I say, I am a lighthouse keeper, most people are surprised. Unknowingly they smile. Do they still exist? How did you even think of doing that? Is there training? How did you get the job? I understand this fascination; asked many of the same questions myself, when my friend became a keeper a few years ago. Romantic. Captivating. The Lighthouse. That fiery beacon by the misty sea is ingrained in our ancestral memory. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a tower, stirring up a cauldron of chowder, or sipping tea as you scan the horizon for floundering ships, you know what I mean. But be forewarned. As merry as it seems, lighthouse life is not a dream.
In my late fifties, I wanted a new career, something different from my stressful, chaotic, sedentary high school teaching job, something that would allow me to think and write and create.

When the online job posting appeared at last, I applied and waited, interviewed and waited; and finally, was informed that if I passed the medical, I wou…


The most critical duty of a lighthouse keeper is to observe and report a marine weather forecast* every three hours. It is human eyes and ears, that experience standing beside this Pacific sea, and record it for the benefit of all who use this “whaleroad”. Some keepers also observe the skies and provide aviation reports much needed by pilots. Etched up and down the west coast of Canada from Victoria to Alaska, we are a scattered chain of observers, linked by Coast Guard radio.

As I listen to the other keepers report, I am always curious. No two of us ever give the same report; in fact, the weather is often vastly different. The nearest station to us may report visibility of 15 miles, while we are obscured by fog, or it may be raining there, while I am basking in starlight. This is why human observation at lightstations is critical.

The first report comes early: 3:30am. Awakened by my alarm--best to set two I’ve discovered--I slip into clothes, boots, toque, glove, jacket and don a miner…

Oh the Wind and Rain

When I came out of the office this morning after reporting the 6:40am weather, I had to hold on ... to my hood ... to the wall. With southeast winds gusting 28 knots (that is 52 km/hr ... think of driving through town) that corner of the station was getting walloped. The wind, of course, churns up the sea, so we had some roaring waves breaking off the rocks.

This is the kind of thing that makes Tofino a surfers' and stormwatchers' paradise -- although this is technically not a storm. This is just a little wind and rain ... light rain, to be exact; what the Beaufort Scale calls a "strong breeze" ... close to a "near gale".

Below is a map of Tofino. You can see where we are, just to the west of Chesterman Beach (which is touted to be one of the best surfing spots in North America. Surfing Tofino

And, here's another of the breakers just west of the station. No storm yet, but hey, I'm here for another week. If we really do get one of those storms, we'l…

Alive Alive O!

"When the tide is out, the table is set."

I heard a Musqueam elder say this a few years ago at a Vancouver gathering, but its echoes are much older. Any of the First Peoples who've been living along this western coast since time immemorial know it, and know it well. This is the first day I've lived it.

We've been talking about gathering mussels all week, but the time just wasn't right. For one thing, you need a low tide, and this time of year when daylight is limited, low tides are scarce. In fact, they become increasingly later in the day over the next week, and by December 15, as we move closer to Winter Solstice, low tide occurs in the dark.

Today, I took advantage of a low tide at 9:45am. Perfect. Right after my last weather. I wanted to check out the tide pools and see what I could photograph. Unfortunately, there wasn't too much around.
But the next item on the agenda was collecting mussels. (Any of you who know me will understand that mixing Irish …

A Quick Trip to Tofino

Yesterday we managed a supply trip to Tofino when a decent weather window arose. I picked up a cold virus just before coming out to the light station, and have been feeling "under the weather" for the last couple of days. With no rain, fog, or high winds in the forecast, and most importantly, a rippled sea, we decided to boat into town to pick up some meds from the pharmacy along with a few other supplies. Now, out here you can't just walk across the street, or slide in the car and drive to the drug store.

T's zodiac resides on a trailer atop a steep rocky ... dare I say cliff? In order to launch it, we had to  drag the trailer into position, gather our equipment and prep the boat, and then attach the boat to a winch by means of a giant iron hook. My job was to hold the bow line and keep the teetering boat vertical, while T ran the winch that lowered it down the high line and into the channel. Here it is in the water.

We also had to carry the skiff down the cement st…

On First Coming to Lennard Island

My two days of travel to Lennard Island involved several events: an hour drive to Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, an hour and an half ferry sail, another drive to downtown Victoria where I met a friend/colleague for catchup and tea at the Solstice Cafe on Fisgard Street, and then a short drive to uptown Victoria where I stayed overnight with a lovely couple (thanks again Iona and Alaistair).
The following morning, I met the helicopter at 8am. Lift off is extraordinary ... exhilarating. The first place I recognized from the air was Hatley Castle--Royal Roads University. Passing overland provides a different perspective. We are but a tiny insect. So many trees. Unfortunately, most, perhaps all, are second and third growth, and clear cut swaths appear like scars on the earth. We pass the San Juan River Valley and stop briefly in Tofino, before arriving at last on Lennard Island around 9:45. My gear is moved out of the boot and replaced with that belonging to the keepers I am replacing. All i…

Lennard Island

Starting to organize for my upcoming trip to Lennard Island. I haven't been on station for awhile and have missed working as a relief light keeper, so naturally I'm excited. We visited Tofino a few years ago--Tara, Quinley, and me--and walked around Long Beach. Quinley was visiting from Ontario, and sadly, passed on not long after returning home. We still miss him.
 Apart from that I've never stayed on the legendary storm coast.
Lighthouse Friends has great info about the station. Be sure to watch the NFB film, "Beautiful Lennard Island" — the young narrator is adorable. 
Here are a couple of fantastic aerial shots. Many thanks to the photographers. More to come.

The Sights & Sounds of Pender Harbour

I am not currently at a lighthouse but a place just as beautiful. Pender Harbour is a region midway up the Sunshine Coast. You arrive here by taking a 40 minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver. After passing through Gibsons (famed home of The Beachcombers), Roberts Creek, Sechelt, and Half Moon Bay, you finally reach Pender Harbour--it takes about an hour by car. If you continue on up the coast from here, you will come to Egmont and another ferry will take you to Powell River and finally Lund.

It is a rugged craggy beautiful place defined by ocean, freshwater lakes, wildlife, mountains, and mists. Oh, and yes, people. Wonderfully eccentric creative people (at least the ones I’ve met so far). 
The last week was perfect: days and days of warm sunshine, spawning salmon (we think these are chum), mushroom foraging, quiet writing, yoga moments, and rehashing stories with my olde friend. Life does not get better than this. The following short film captures some of the images I enco…

Almost a Lighthouse

Almost got off on a lighthouse adventure yesterday ... almost. I was this close. Unfortunately, plans changed at the last minute, and I ended up taking the ferry back home again. Very disappointing. It was my first offer since being cleared for work after my back injury, and I was SO excited to be going back to the lights.

Life is ever changeable and out of our control.

While in Victoria, I took a stroll around Fisherman's Wharf. This is a unique waterfront neighbourhood close to downtown on Dallas Road. They even have a Facebook page.

There is an active working marina where you can buy fresh catch:

And, several boardwalks lead to floathomes and liveaboard boats--moorage costs around $735 plus $125 for the licence fee per month. I've fantasized about buying there myself from time to time, so decided absorb some atmosphere.

It was still morning--I'd left home at 5am to catch the first ferry out from Tsawwassen--so the shops and restaurants weren't open yet. Fortunately,…

The Little Birds

Most of us are impressed by the sight of a bald eagle in flight or a great blue heron keenly focussed on his prey, but the little birds we oft times ignore. Some are drab, all are small, and most seem hard to identify. But around the BC coast, the little birds assure us that the ecosystem is working. Food is eaten, mating accomplished, and eggs laid. Always a lover of finches and chickadees, I was able to widen my small bird repertoire this summer by learning about a few new (to me) species.

I photographed this charmer after a rain shower about 60 miles north of Vancouver Island. These bold mimics of the evergreen forest can imitate several other species; as well as, mechanical objects, and are known for stealing eggs from other birds' nests. They were named after Georg Steller, a naturalist on a Russian explorer's ship who "discovered" them on an Alaskan island in 1741. This crazy-crested predator was likely hunting peanuts.

The Black Oystercatcher was an entirely new…

Sky Gazer and Cloud Gatherer

Clouds have always fascinated me. I can remember learning their names--Cirrus, Cumulous, Stratus, Nimbo-Stratus--in elementary school, and later lying on my back in our orchard watching Joni Mitchell's “folds and folds of angelhair” drift by.  Standing on a rock in the ocean, the celestial dome spreads in all directions; each one often revealing very different types of clouds.

Last Thursday, when a thunderstorm rampaged through the Lower Mainland, I watched the backside, where the sky to the northeast bubbled with Mammatus.

Derived from the Latin mammalis meaning “having breasts” -- Mammatus are pouches of heavily saturated air that often hang from the underside of a storm’s anvil cloud. Staring at this cloud mass, I became mesmerized by what I discerned as the face of a god.

If you look carefully just above and to the left of the light, you can see a visage that looks very much like Zeus. Replete with  wild hair and beard, he seems to have descended in a rush of wind from the heaven…

A Few Words on Seals and Sealing

My grandmother owned a full length shiny black sealskin coat. I know this because it was passed down to me in the 70’s. Luxuriously soft and silky, I wore it for awhile during my hippie days, and don’t remember now, how I felt then, about the fact that the pelts were stripped from the body of some beautiful marine mammals, perhaps while they were still alive. I was a most unenlightened hippie. 

I didn't know, for example, that most of the world’s seal hunting occurs here in Canada (northwest Atlantic region) and involves the Harp Seal

Note: this is an intensively complex controversial subject that involves many players.

Hunting is regulated by DFO, The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans,who set quotas based on their studies of the seal population, and enforce “Seal Protection Regulations” to ensure humane killing and reduce competitive slaughter. DFO conducts studies and works hard to protect the species. They post a Q&A page here.

Harp seals can be commercially hunted …

My Shipping News

Vessels abound this Labour Day Weekend in the blue waters between Gabriola Island and the Sunshine Coast. It is bare foot tank top hot, the air calm, the sea rippled, the hazy sky sprayed in low white clouds. Definitely gorgeous. But also definitely dangerous. The combination of motion, sunlight, wind, waves and sound on water can impair a boater’s judgement. 

I’m creating my own little "Shipping News", watching the sailboats drift by soundlessly, the fisher folk relax into their lines, kayakers slip amongst the seals, while the ferries cruise businesslike up Fairway Channel towards Nanaimo. No PWCs here, no water-skiiers flanking souped-up power boats. This is a sensible stretch of water. Of course, I don’t have the inside story--I’m only a casual observer. I'm no Quoyle gathering stories for the Gammybird.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is high on my list of all-time favourite books. Not sure if it’s the locale, the coastal village of Killick-Claw in Newfoundland, or Q…