Monday, June 11, 2007
Preserving The Canadian Lighthouse
HALIFAX -- Easily identifiable by their bright lights and sporadic deafening noises, they've towered over Canadian coasts guiding sailors on their maritime journeys for years.
But those behind a new bill that would protect lighthouses as an essential ingredient of Canadian heritage and tradition fear the buildings may soon be lost if Parliament doesn't act soon.
Politicians from the West and East coasts are trying to get the bill through the House of Commons before the end of this session.
"It's now or never," said Senator Pat Carney, a Conservative from British Columbia who has been working on Bill S-220 since 2000.
I guess I would admit that whether Canada's light-houses get preserved as heritage buildings or get paved over to make way for new Walmarts is not the most important issue facing the nation. Nevertheless, I hope Ms. Carney manages to get her Bill S-220 implemented.
For one thing, Ms. Carney and I have something in common which makes me sympathetic to her cause:
Carney, when not in Ottawa or Vancouver, lives on Saturna Island [B.C.], home of a lighthouse built in 1888, the East Point Lighthouse.
When my dad left the armed forces in the mid-1970s, he spent a couple of years going from job to job before he could gather enough post secondary education to start a new career in the civilian work-force. One of those jobs was to serve in the capacity of temporary lighthouse keeper at East Point Lighthouse, during about a six month period between the time when the previous keeper retired and his permanent replacement arrived to take over. My brother and I lived most of one summer in that house in the top right hand quarter of the picture above.
I'd like to say it was one of the highlights of my childhood, but for the most part that was a pretty boring summer. The town of Saturna is about ten miles across the island, and since I arrived after the school year and was too young to drive, I never really got a chance to meet the other island kids.
But there were some interesting moments. For example, isolation had driven dad's predecessors to study the island around them in obsessive detail, and they had made large and thorough collections of the local butterfly species, of beetles, snail-shells, bristle-cones, and so on, and arranged them all in glass display cases. They also had a very extensive collections of books on these topics, and I spent a lot of my time poring through these.
Not only that, time and solitude had turned one of the early keepers towards folk-art. Down by the shoreline (at the very top end of the photo) you could find relief carvings of killer whales in the soft-sandstone that is unique to the area. These were crafted in iconic fashion (ie. not realistically), as though they were meant to represent the spirit of the place. By today (the lighthouse has been in service since the 1880s), I am sure these carvings are over a century old.
And if you stayed at East Point long enough, you came to understand why the old lighthouse keepers would have chosen this particular theme. As I say, that end of Saturna Island is all sandstone, and easily eroded by the salt-water currents. So the "shore" is a really just a shelf of sandstone, maybe a few inches thick, that juts straight out over water that is over 600 feet deep. And every week or so a pod of Orcas would swim past, sometimes not 10 away from the ledge you were standing on, so close that you could see their eyes under the water looking at you, so close that you could have jumped right onto their backs. It made me feel dizzy the first time I saw them.
And I remember on one occasion when several oceanographers motored past just behind the whales in a pair of inflatables, looking incredibly fragile among animals twice the length of their boats. They yelled over to me and made me write down a phone-number; later I dialled it and told the voice at the other end that "J Pod" was heading North at East Point.
The other thing is, if you look at the picture above, the lighthouse proper has been replaced with a steel skeleton structure. But when my dad kept East Point, the old structure still stood (as left). In fact, given the dates I've found here, I imagine I am one of the last people to have been inside the old tower. Once again, it would be nice to say that this was a fascinating experience, but in fact the tower was a plain, off-white structure that contained very little beyond a generator room, a winding staircase, and the light room up top. The only thing that really made an impression on me was the light-house keepers log, which contained page after page of coded short-hand that seemed quite magical even after you realized all it symbolized was the state of the equipment and names of the occasional tanker that would steam past.
Anyway, it must have been an incredibly lonely existence for the permanent keepers. I remember the 2nd time we arrived on the island, near midnight one evening after taking the day's last car ferry, and heard my dad having a lengthy conversation with two of the dogs that came with the place. Needless to say, he was happy to see us.
So good luck to Ms. Carney and her private member's bill. East Point and other sites like it are remnants of an earlier time and a tough profession, which is swiftly disappearing as the old light-houses are replaced by automated structures that need no human minders.