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A Necklace of Lighthouses

By LYNN TANOD

© St. Petersburg Times


Chuckling at his passengers' white-knuckled grips, our captain sped us away from Vancouver Island. We were traveling to Race Rocks Lighthouse, an island station isolated in a treacherous section of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A strong wind blew in from the Pacific, and whitecaps spilled onto our boots. Against the gunmetal-gray sky, we could see the black-and-white striped lighthouse, its beam flashing on and off, on and off.

As we bounced across the water, sea lions as big as station wagons lunged in our wake.

For more than 130 years, mariners have had the comfort of knowing that someone was watching over them as they traveled past Race Rocks. Despite opposition from fishers, recreational boaters and the public, the lighthouse on Great Race Rock, along with the 30 other staffed stations in British Columbia, is scheduled to be automated by the Canadian government. If the lightkeepers disappear, so will an important part of West Coast heritage.

After our voyage, it was easy to understand why the Rocks have claimed dozens of ships. A powerful seven-knot current flows past the group of small islands, sweeping the water into whirlpools. Watching Henry struggle back home from the dock of the island, we recalled the tragedy of Race Rocks' first lightkeepers.

It was Christmas morning, 1865. George and Rosina Davies had prepared a holiday feast and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of family and friends. As their guest's boat drew near the island, it hit a whirlpool and capsized, throwing the occupants into the freezing water. With no boat, rope or life buoy available, the keepers could do nothing but watch in horror as their guests were swept away.

Today, keepers Mike and Carol Slater have access to a rescue boat, VHF radio and a satellite global positioning system. The couple ensures that Race Rocks' light and foghorn are working, gives out detailed weather reports every three hours and participates in marine research projects, but the lightkeepers' most important role remains the same today as it was 100 years ago: watching the water.

Despite modern technology, accidents still happen. Mike Slater has pulled several people from the sea.

"These currents are nobody's friend," he says. "They can sink anything and anyone."

Except maybe the sea lions. Hundreds of California and Steller sea lions make Race Rocks their home, barking and splashing at visitors. Divers often explore this environmental reserve that teems with wolf eels, rockfish, sea anemones and other invertebrates. Transient orcas also occasionally pass by. The Slaters once watched a killer whale snatch a fat sea lion off the rocks.

Storm-tossed and rugged, Race Rocks finds its opposite in Trial Island. Quite close to Victoria, the lichen-covered island seems soft and serene. On this rare plant reserve, the rocks are smoothed by moss, and their cracks sprout bright yellow blossoms. It is hard to believe that danger could lurk off the island's shores.

After a leisurely boat ride to that light station, we climbed to the highest point of the island and looked out at Enterprise Channel. Reflections of the clouds moved slowly along, and the water appeared safe, but that is a dangerous misconception. Though the channel is just 300 feet wide, sea water can sluice through it rapidly, catching a ship and tossing it against the rocks. The lighthouse serves as a reminder to beware.

Keeper Iain Colquhoun, a blue-eyed Scot with a love for painting and building boats, showed us around the station. We saw the generators in the gleaming engine room that keep the island self-sufficient and the boathouse that shelters Iain's handmade wooden canoe and, from the catwalk of the tower 100 feet above the water, we viewed the Georgia Strait and the mainland to the east, Victoria to the west and the Channel in the north.

"It's as if we died and went to heaven," says Kathy Doyle of her life with Iain on the island. The couple have chosen to live away from civilization for the past nine years at four lighthouse posts. "That's why we do it -- we like the isolation," she says.

Iain nodded and added, "And when things happen, when you pull someone from the water ... it makes you feel good."

Iain recently saved a kayaker from drowning in the strait. The Doyles have also assisted hypothermic hikers, lost surfers, bumbling campers and even victims of a cougar attack.

In the beginning, the lightkeepers' role was to keep the light on and ensure the safety of mariners. Stories about keepers' hardships and adventures are told at Victoria's Maritime Museum.

Outside the museum, the special Fresnel lens from the Trial Island lighthouse sits in Bastion Square. Inside, we learned about the keepers' role in preventing marine disasters, and we also found out about Bill the Collie, honored with a bravery medal for his part in an incredible rescue.

More history about the lighthouses and their keepers is on display at Fisgard Light, British Columbia's oldest lighthouse. Since 1860, this sentinel has marked the entrance to Esquimalt Harbor.

The first beacon, brought over in pieces from England, rotated via a clockwork mechanism that required manual rewinding every three hours. The beacon floated on a tub filled with 500 pounds of mercury; keepers inhaled the deadly poison day after day as they tended to the light.

After the last keeper left in 1928, the dwelling was restored to its original state. We climbed the wrought-iron spiral staircase and looked out the tower window. The museum also has accounts of the West Coast's worst shipwrecks and a dramatized video featuring a salty old keeper recounting his life on the lights. Lynn Tanod is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, B.C. If you go: Ferry service to Victoria:

BC Ferries-from Vancouver -- (604) 669-1211.

Victoria Clipper-from Seattle -- (206) 448-5000.

Victoria Line-from Seattle -- (250) 480-5544.

Fisgard Lighthouse is within Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site, a pleasant half-hour drive from downtown Victoria. 603 Fort Rodd Hill Road, Victoria, B.C.

Trial Island Lighthouse is most readily accessible via Oak Bay in Victoria. Boat charters and rentals can be arranged through the Oak Bay Marina, (250) 598-3369.

Race Rocks Lighthouse can be reached by rental or charter boats via the Pedder Bay Marina. A round trip cost us $60 (Canadian). From downtown Victoria, take Highway 14 to Happy Valley Road and follow to Rocky Point Road. Turn right and continue until you reach the marina. Pedder Bay Marina, 925 Pedder Bay Drive, off Rocky Point Road in Metchosin, B.C.; (250) 478-1771.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia, 28 Bastion Square, Victoria, B.C.; (250) 385-4222.

Originally published February 23,1997



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