In 2013-2014, I worked as a relief lighthouse keeper for a year on the coast of British Columbia. I traveled by boat and helicopter into these stations and stayed for a length of time. Each station is different. There was always one principal keeper and I would be there to do the duties of the assistant keeper. We each had our own house. As romantic as it sounds, we did not live in the light;) This blog chronicles some of my adventures and the history of these remote locations.
Rumrunners & Pirates Ahoy
Ten years ago, I spent one summer travelling to Sooke, a pretty place in the southeast corner of Vancouver Island. I had decided to use it as a setting for a historical novel from the 1920’s. I’d read an old article in Raincoast Chronicles (Harbour Publishing, 1976) about a Canadian man named Bill Gillis who’d disappeared--likely been murdered--with his seventeen year old son, on their fishing boat, the Beryl G, and I was hooked (pun intended). It was one of those moments writers dream of ... intrigued by a flash that keeps on burnin'.
The Beryl G, empty and blood-splattered, was spotted by Chris Waters, the lighthouse keeper--of course there has to be a lighthouse keeper--of Stuart Island in the San Juans (American side). But the mens' bodies were never recovered.
I decided to weave these two tragic characters into my plot, along with some of the hows and whys of the time. I wrote the novel quite quickly and remember laughing hysterically through some of the scenes, as I read them back to a friend on the phone. Writer's euphoria, no doubt. And I remember receiving some favourable comments from a Vancouver publisher, but then, the manuscript got buried in a manilla envelope in my file drawer, and there it has remained. Until now. Perhaps, it’s being by the sea that’s awakened my curiosity, perhaps it’s working for the Coast Guard; perhaps it's just having the time to think. Whatever the reason, I’ve pulled out Rampage (working title) and am giving it another look.
The Beryl G in Victoria Harbour 1924 (courtesy of KNOW BC)
The Coast Guard was busy in those days with rum-runners and pirates. On January 16th, 1920, the US Congress had passed the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale of liquor across the United States. Fortunately for American drinkers, the very next year, the Canadian province of British Columbia revoked their prohibition laws. This made it legal to brew, buy, and sell liquor in BC. The liquor was run south by a swift fleet of Canadian yachts, schooners, and steamers, whose captains made fistfuls of cash. It was even legal for these Canadians to carry liquor across the border by boat, as long as they paid the $20/case export duty when they cleared customs, and as long as they weren’t hauling moonshine. Both Vancouver and Victoria had “rum rows” where these rumrunning ships were berthed in between runs.
With all that liquor running down the West Coast, pirates soon got into the act. They'd target and overtake a vessel, deal with her crew, and steal her load. And this, unfortunately, is what happened to poor Captain Gillis and his son, Bill.
Is there a novel in there? You bet. --convalescing near Comox, BC
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 steep cracked cement steps are caked with moss. A mottled brass plaque inside the wooden doors reads: This church, dedicated to Pope St Pius X, erected 1956 to the Glory of God and in memory of Padre Magin Catala, OFM, first missionary to Friendly Cove, 1793 and in memory of the historic meeting of Capt. George Vancouver, RN and Commander Bodega Y Quadra of the Spanish Navy in Friendly Cove, 1792, and the Nootka Convention Treaty, was sponsored by His Excellency, Bishop James M. Hill of Victoria, directed by the Rev. F. Miller OMI Parish Priest, assisted by Rev. T. Lobsinger OMI with the approval and assistance of Chief Ambrose Maquinna and his band at Friendly Cove. So many to acknowledge, and yet the actual people, who have lived here since time immemorial, and on whose territory the church stands, barely make it to the last line. In the vestibule are stained glass windows sent by Spain, framed yellowing photographs, and a model of a longhouse. The hall itself, I am pleased to say…
Four years ago at this time, I was working as a relief lighthouse keeper for the Canadian Coast Guard. I'd taken a year off teaching to explore and destress and try something new. Between March 27 and May 23, I stayed at Nootka and recorded my adventures, and misadventures, in a journal and a blog. This was my house for eight weeks.
I've been thinking about that time a lot lately. This summer, I am planning to take the Uchuck III day cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove, so I can walk those beaches and trails once again. This is a photo of the Uchuck III docked at Friendly Cove. This will be a brillliant way to experience the sound and the cove where so many historic events occurred. Plus, you get three hours to hike and explore the beaches, trails, graveyards, lake, and the lighthouse.
I had hoped to visit with Mark, the lighthouse keeper I worked with at that time, but apparently Mark and Joanne retired last September. So, all I can say is "Congratulations!" fr…