Travel & Culture » Canada

Lighthouse Diaries

Ocean rescues, whale spotting and bocce on the helipad—it’s all just another glorious summer day in the life of this B.C. lighthouse keeper

The normal grey, wet, occasionally snowy sogginess of coastal British Columbia’s winter is but a chilly memory now. Ditto the temperamental—and completely typical—moodiness of spring on the West Coast, for which we all need protective layers of wool, fleece, Gore-Tex and de rigueur gumboots. These perform double duty as coastal winter wardrobe on the islands, or even semi-formal apparel in a pinch, depending on the age of the garments. For spring, add a sturdy pair of shorts, a T-shirt sporting the slogan of one’s choice and, for footwear, sensible water sandals, since spring often means experiencing November, July and March during one weekend.

But summer, oh, glorious summer! Let me sing your praises—or unleash a volley of yodelling—from within the waterlogged throat of this winter-weary lighthouse keeper. By the time spring has finished dithering about what it wants to be, with a final mini-monsoon lashing us in June, I positively crave the warmth of the long-light days of summer. This is when our northern Mediterranean climate allows the fuchsia hedges, honeysuckle vines, lavender shrubs, heritage hollyhocks and our own raised garden beds filled with veggies and berries to relax enough to flourish. Or maybe that’s just us humans.

With its calmer seas, summer is the season for hosting our family and friends, who can finally get out to visit us on Lennard Island. Since we usually average four groups of guests annually, we advise them to pick a date between late May and the end of September.

And if our guests are storm stayed in Tofino while we wait for the seas to subside enough to cross the Templar Channel and pick them up at the dock? There are many worse places for such a fate to befall them. They can take surfing or kayaking lessons; dine on fresh seafood at some of the best restaurants in Canada; browse the art galleries, bookstores and gift shops; go bear and whale and bird watching; and enjoy the village ambience on foot, with good coffee and bakeries on nearly every block to keep up their strength.

Once welcomed onto our rocky paradise, where the thermometer rarely climbs past 18°C (64°F), we hike with our guests around the island trails that my husband, Jeff, has bushwhacked, following a century’s worth of lighthouse keepers before him, through the salal underbrush, under towering spruce trees. It’s only a 20-minute hike, but it has challenging parts, so we’ve fastened salvaged ropes between the trees to hang on to, to prevent anyone from striding over a cliff and splatting onto the rocks below. We take our company—unless vertigo, bad knees or claustrophobia prevail—up the lighthouse tower and around the cupola walkway fortified with red metal handrails. There, we have a 360-degree view of our daily working lives.

Below us are the 11 buildings of the Lennard Island Lightstation, which we clean and paint and maintain, from the eavestroughs on the roofs to the water cisterns and basements below all three residences. A stand-alone cistern holding 91,000 litres (20,000 gallons) of non-potable water for use on the gardens, as well as for pressure washing and fire suppression, was built in 1904. The only other building from that era is the largest building housing the current workshop and radio room and former fog horn and engine rooms, the latter converted to our gym.

Lighthouse Lupins

Lighthouse Lupins

We constantly monitor the skies and seas because we give seven weather reports daily and special weather reports when conditions deteriorate drastically enough to affect mariners and aviators. Visibility, sea state, precipitation, and wind strength and direction—these are the constants in our lives, working seven days a week. The excitement of someone landing in a plastic kayak with no VHF radio or functioning cellphone while fog rolls in and night falls is rare, but it happens, and we keep such visitors warm and hydrated, and then call in the Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat to evacuate them. (The Tofino-based lifeboat crew run a fast Zodiac for shallow-water rescues, as well as a big ocean-going Cape-class boat.)

On exceptionally fine days, we play freeform bocce on the turf of the helipad, freshly mowed for the occasion, being certain beforehand that we aren’t expecting any helicopters to drop in. We eschew a proper bocce court, the long, walled-in rectangle of exact measurements as decreed by bocce-mad Italians for centuries. Our bocce court goes with the flow. Or, more precisely, we follow the throw of the little white jack ball, which we permit to be flung in any direction as long as it stays on the mowed surface or even on one of the two gleaming white mussel shell circles created to make the landing site visible from above, even in the thickest fog of “Fogust.” (This end of the island is an ancient pile of crushed, sun-bleached mussel shells, compacted and transformed into earth, so when we dig away the shallow turf to sharpen up the helipad circles, the shells directly below the roots of the lawn grass are revealed.) Our dogs are a course hazard, but they are warned off when they are overly keen to retrieve the jack ball for us.

We have the regulation made-in-Italy green and red bocce balls. We form teams, pick our colour, and the game is soon afoot, ranging from the sidewalk leading to the engine room and around the fuel tank “farm” over to the bull’s eye of mussel shells in the middle of the makeshift court. There are pauses for refreshments kept in the cooler on the shady side of the fuel shed. We discuss putting handicaps of certain friends with Italian roots, as they are so much better at this game than the rest of us. We continue chasing the little white ball all over the lumpy lawn of the one-tenth hectare (quarter acre) helipad until one team is too humiliated to continue.

This is the cue to head up to the boat deck, with its million-dollar view of black volcanic reefs, several forested islands neighbouring ours, and the endless Pacific Ocean. We seat ourselves at the picnic table, with binoculars for chance whale sightings and to spot the raucous oystercatcher fly past at 4 p.m., as well as the resident eagles on a flat-topped rock we call The Eagles’ Table, for the fish and seabirds who end up on the menu there.

Platters of our own appetizers arrive from our kitchen and up the cement stairs to the boat deck, via many helping hands and strong legs, to fortify the athletes fresh from bocce triumphs or travesties. More toasts are raised to the belted kingfishers perched on the high-line cable or to a grey whale spouting offshore. If we’re extra-lucky, we’ll spot travelling pods of orcas, who surprise us several times a summer, or not at all, if they glide by in the middle of the night. One summer, we hosted humpback whales, who are not as acrobatic as the orcas but are certainly more agile than the slow-moving grey whales, which grow barnacles on their backs.

Orcas in Lennard Channel July 2010

Our favourite guests always bring edible treats: rounds of Oka, Camembert, brie and my all-time favourite, Cambozola, along with deluxe crackers and wine. I bring out another platter of bruschetta topping my own pagnotta (Italian sourdough bread), and a long platter of endive spears stuffed with a mixture of ricotta cheese, finely minced dried tomatoes and homegrown garlic. The five varieties of garlic planted back in November are pulled by mid-July. They are dried in several stages, but are still so freshly removed from the long braids hanging in our cool room that their plump cloves actually spurt garlic juice when sliced.

Next up, warm ciabatta bread rounds hacked into rustic chunks on the spot and dunked in bowls of olive oil, kosher salt, fresh oregano and balsamic vinegar. More bowls filled with olives arrive, often as gifts from our guests’ coolers, as we cannot grow olives or figs this far north, more’s the pity… Well, if we haven’t managed to time travel directly to northern Italy for the afternoon, we’ve certainly given it our most sincere and enthusiastic attempt!

There we stay, watching the sunset spread shades of coral across the southwestern ocean horizon, unless the wind decides to get frisky and nip at our sun-warmed limbs. After resolving some of the world’s problems and discussing future travels, perhaps, we escort our guests to the crew house. There, they will, as many say afterwards, sleep the best sleep they’ve had in years, soothed by the rhythmic swell and swoosh of the waves on our reefs, and serenaded by the basso profundo chorus of Pacific tree frogs in the lily pond beside the crew house.

lighthouse

When it’s time for our guests to depart, we either hail the water taxi or winch our boat down the high-line cable to the channel below, where we manage the safe boarding of people and belongings from our steep cement ramp into the waiting boat. I usually stay onshore, waving and blowing kisses and waving some more until the boat and its precious cargo are out of sight. Then, it’s just me and the dogs until Jeff returns, and a fresh batch of memories and recipes, both to treasure and savour for years to come.