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.
A Peek at Yuquot
I sit by the beach and try to imagine what this landscape looked like hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. Surely, rocks are the pillars of the earth, and ocean tides ebb and flow forever. This space cannot have changed much over time. The sea tumbles rocks into pebbles, old trees fall, young trees grow, and totems decay while others appear.
Courtesy of CTC Bewley Sailing
Carved by Sandford Williams
Yuquot means “where the winds blow from many directions.” Indeed, in the few days I’ve been here tuning into the weather, the winds have shifted often. This is the ancestral home of the Mowachaht First Nation, and the centre of Nuu-chah-nulth Territory. To learn more about the culture, visit Nuuchahnulth Cultureand hear it from the people.
The land juts out into Nootka Sound. I imagine the village houses, framed from solid cedar posts and banked with cedar planks, stretching along the shore of Friendly Cove. It’s said, twenty longhouses once stood here. This sandy sheltered beach fronts them. Behind them, a long pebbled beach stretches from Yuquot Point, northward up the coast. When the waves rock the shore it sounds like cascading marbles.
This was once the summer meeting places of many villages who paddled on the “winds from many directions.” In the fall, the house planks were taken down and loaded into canoes along with provisions, and families paddled northward up Tahsis Inlet to their winter village. If I sail east across the sound, through Zuchiarte Channel and Muchalat Inlet, I will come to Gold River. This is where most of the people relocated. Only the Williams family remains, living in a weathered house on the beach at Friendly Cove.
I just finished reading White Slaves of Maquinna (an ebook published by Heritage House). Essentially, it is a journal written by John R. Jewitt during his two year stay with the people of Yuquot. Young Jewitt was working as a blacksmith aboard the Boston, when Maquinna’s people attacked on March 22, 1803. Twenty-five crew members were killed in retaliation for injuries Maquinna’s people had suffered at the hands of European sailors during the quest for land and furs. Because of his unique skill, that of turning metal into tools and weapons, Jewitt’s life was spared. When John Thompson, the sailmaker, was discovered, Jewitt saved him by by claiming that the man was his father. Even then, Maquinna wanted Jewitt to be happy.
Although the journal is entitled White Slaves, Jewitt was adopted in Maquinna’s family, offered his choice of a wife, and grew close with both the chief and his sons. The only drudgery he really complains about is having to chop and carry wood. In time, Jewitt is given slaves of his own to fish for him. The armourer becomes a valued member of the village; indeed, he creates stunning daggers, harpoons, and other items for Maquinna.
Naturally, Jewitt brings his own ethnocentric bias to the narrative, especially when he describes his bride. As he did not “fancy any of the Nootka woman” Maquinna purchased her from a nearby village. She was the daughter of the chief. Not exactly the treatment of a slave.
Biased yes, but Jewitt does provide a detailed two year peek into Mowachacht life in the early Nineteenth Century. The Adventures of John Jewitt, edited by Robert Brown, 1896 (with illustrations)You can read it here at Gutenberg
The Williams family still engage in seasonal activities as did their ancestors. Out in his boat every day, Ray searches for signs of herring, as he eagerly awaits spawning time. Pine branches are cut and laid out on the dock, ready to be sunk in the water. After the herring spawn on the branches, they are raised and cleaned. Herring spawn is a traditional delicacy here at Friendly Cove.
I also await the herring. When they arrive, it’s said, the cove comes alive with whales, seals, eagles, and other creatures eager to fill their bellies with spring protein. Last spring, the herring spawned on March 28. This year, they are late. Come on herring!
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…