BY LINDA MONDOUX
The days of the traditional lightkeeper toiling all alone in the dark on a wind-swept island, eyes and ears open for a storm on the horizon or a ship in distress are long gone in most of Canada, where the Coast Guard, beginning in 1970, started the process of systematically automating lightstations and removing staff from them. And with the lightkeepers sent packing — not a single staffed lightstation remains in Ontario today — many of the historic lighthouses from which they were banished were left to die of neglect, replaced as navigation aids by beacons set atop utilitarian metal towers.
Fortunately, the memories of lightkeepers past live on in the Bruce Peninsula, where iconic lighthouses and their historic keepers’ cottages have been rescued by caring citizens and preserved for future generations. Thanks to these hard-working volunteers, you not only can visit the heritage lightstations as part of the Bruce Coast Lighthouse Tour, you have the opportunity to step into the shoes of those celebrated lightkeepers — hailed as much for their heroics as for their legendary hospitality — on a unique sleepover.
Both the Cabot Head Lightstation
and the Flowerpot Island Lightstation
offer volunteer lightkeeper programs that invite you to experience life as a keeper of the light might have done more than a century ago — minus the kerosene lamps and hand-pumped fog horns. There will be duties to carry out, however, such as tending the garden and emptying the compost toilet, but mostly you’ll be greeting visitors and shedding light on the history of the stations’ past and present. When the guests have left for the day, you’ll be alone to sleep and to dream as the waves crash into the rocks under the dark sky, the only sound for miles until a new crop of visitors arrives in the morning, eager to soak in the mystery and romance that encircle lighthouses like a magical protective fog.
If you prefer to wake up in a historic lighthouse and enjoy that panoramic water view all day long without the chores, a drive eight hours north of Toronto will take you to an island in the Bruce Mines area, where a heritage lighthouse saved from demolition is now a privately owned all-season self-catering cottage.
“The fact that the freighters turn around right in front of the lighthouse, that is a big drawing card,” says Pat Peterson, who along with husband Larry are the hosts at Bruce Bay Cottages and Lighthouse
. Larry’s father, the late Harold D. Peterson, bought the decommissioned McKay Island Lighthouse from the federal government and restored it in the 1970s. The 1907 lighthouse, overlooking Lake Huron 45 minutes east of Sault Ste. Marie, is now owned by son Larry.
People come from around the world for the chance to sleep in a lighthouse — the bedroom is in the former battery room — and for the fabulous views from the windows and from the widow’s walk outside. “You walk up 10 stairs and up through the hatch hole and all of the North Channel can be seen,” Pat Peterson tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Original documents saved with lighthouse
During the summer, the Petersons make their home in a cottage on the 22-acre French Island, then make their way by car across a causeway to the 15-acre McKay Island for winter, where they stay in the heated lounge, with its puddingstone fireplace, adjacent to the lighthouse. The lounge is booked for weddings this summer, and the lighthouse itself is quickly filling up already, with one group from South Carolina coming back every year.
Besides the fabulous views and the thrill of watching freighters close up, a stay at the lighthouse gives you access to walking trails, with guest-only geocaches hidden on the island. Canoes, kayaks and rowboats are complimentary, with room to dock if you bring your own boat.
Peterson says the best thing about her job is “meeting all the guests” and showing them the original documents from McKay Island lightkeepers — the last one left on Oct. 1, 1955, when the federal government extinguished the beacon light — that were rescued and preserved along with the lighthouse. The lighthouse library also boasts a collection of books on lighthouses and a history of the area. Daily rates range from $100 to $110 for the three-bedroom lighthouse, and from $665 to $730 for a week’s stay.
Just you and nature and 'a sense of history'
If you want to live the life of a lightkeeper, a stay at the Cabot Head Lighthouse, perched 80 feet above Georgian Bay on a cliff east of Wingfield Basin on the Bruce Peninsula, is an opportunity too good to pass up. “It’s tranquil. It’s quiet. It’s nature,” says Robert Rollinson, a member of the Friends of Cabot Head board of directors, when asked what attracted him to the Cabot Head lightstation (he and wife Gwen, now chairman of the board, lived for many years as onsite managers).
“There are no man-made sounds during the evening. Just nature,” Rollinson tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s remote. That’s the calling.”
Operated by the Friends of Cabot Head, the not-for-profit volunteer organization that maintains and manages the historic lightstation that it renovated in the mid-1990s using volunteer labour and only a smattering of grants, the assistant lightkeeper program acts as an important fundraiser while increasing the group’s membership.
“The lightstation gets about 16,000 visitors for the operating year,” says Rollinson. “There is much work involved in keeping it up.”
Located down a long gravel road about eight kilometres north of Dyer’s Bay in the municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, the lightstation includes the lighthouse and museum, keeper’s cottage, fog horn building, observation tower, trails and picnic area. It has been estimated that more than 12,000 volunteer hours are spent managing and maintaining the lightstation each year. Revenue is generated from membership dues, the volunteer lightkeeper’s program, sales from the gift shop and art studio and visitor donations. The lightstation is open seven days a week from the Victoria weekend to the Labour Day weekend.
Visiting is one thing. Living there is another.
Here’s what Gordon Gibson wrote in the 2004 issue of the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society newsletter about the week he and his wife Jane spent as volunteer assistant lightkeepers at Cabot Head Lightstation, established in 1896:
“Part of our job was to greet visitors, who started coming at 10 a.m. and continued to 7 p.m. By bedtime we were ready for sleep, lulled by the sound of water lapping the rocks.
“ ... Wednesday night saw rough water on Georgian Bay, the waves hitting the rocks. It was then you realized why lighthouses and lightkeepers were needed. You had a sense of history. Total darkness and gale-force winds. The only light was the one on the tower.”
“ ... By the time everything was finished, a good time was had by all. It was an experience that we will remember, along with the spectactular sunrises and sunsets, and the wonderful scenery.”
If you’re lucky enough to win a spot in the popular May-to-October assistant lightkeeper program, you and a guest will stay in the lighthouse for a week. Accommodation includes one bedroom with two single beds, separate dining room, four-piece bath and fully equipped summer kitchen. For the special low fee of $350 (plus a mandatory annual membership at a cost of $35), you will take on the role of assistant lightkeeper and help the onsite manager, who lives in the adjacent keeper’s cottage, in the station’s day-to-day operations.
'You're high up, so the water is below you. It's beautiful'
According to the 1905 Rules and Instructions for the Guidance of Lighthouse Keepers issued by the federal government, the revolving beacon at Cabot Head obliged the keeper or his assistant to be on watch throughout the night. The lamps were lit and kept at full brilliancy between sunset and sunrise, as well as in foggy or dark weather or “as may be necessary for the security of navigation.” As for the staff themselves, “The lighthouse keeper and his assistants are required to be sober, industrious, attending to their duties and orderly in their families.”
Luckily, the workload and the rules governing today’s volunteer lightkeepers are much easier to live with. In your role as volunteer keeper, you will greet visitors, help out in the gift shop, located in the cottage, and at the Shipwreck Art Gallery, located in the old fog horn building. When you are not working, you can spend your time off as you please, as long as you don’t smoke in or near the lighthouse.
While you might be yearning for some quiet time after all the visitors have left for the day, it’s when they’re gone that it can get lonely and scary out there. “That’s why we ask people to visit Cabot Head Lightstation first before they apply,” says Rollinson. “It is remote. There’s bears around. And rattlesnakes. You’re in the wild.”
There are also plenty of walking trails where you’ll find a bird sanctuary and wildflowers in spring. When it rains, it’s so quiet that Rollinson says you can hear water drop from one leaf to another. And nothing beats the waterfront views from your lighthouse accommodation. “You can see the sun rise and the sun set. And the moon rise, too,” Rollinson says. “You’re high up, so the water is below you. It’s beautiful.”
Up the coast on Flowerpot Island, northwest of the Cabot Head Lightstation, another lightkeeper adventure awaits. Accessible only by boat — it’s a 15-minute trip from the harbour at Tobermory — the remote lightstation has been home to a volunteer lightkeeper host program since 1998.
A membership in the Friends of Bruce District Parks Association ($15 for a family and $10 single) offers the opportunity to apply for a three-night stay at the lightstation, which was refurbished by the volunteer Friends beginning in 1996. Accommodation for up to eight people is provided in the three-bedroom assistant lightkeeper’s bungalow built in 1959 on the cobble beach of Georgian Bay, below the observation tower on Castle Bluff.
“The volunteer house is well-equipped,” says Holly Dunham, a Friends board of directors member. “There’s hydro, running water —most of the time — three bedrooms, one bath, there’s even a barbecue.”
Volunteers must supply their own food, sheets, pillowcases and towels. Then haul everything from the boat dock to the lightstation on foot — expect a hike of about one kilometre with several uphill sections and a set of stairs to manoeuvre. There are no porters here! “That’s why there’s a three-night stay maximum,” Dunham tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “We figured a three-day supply is about all you would want to carry that distance.”
You're in charge at Flowerpot Island Lightstation
Unlike the program at Cabot Head, there is no onsite manager at the Flowerpot Island Lightstation. You will be completely in charge of daily operations. You’ll be supplied with a list of duties, which include watering the vegetable garden and cleaning the composting toilet every day. Perhaps the most important duty is greeting the public dropping in to tour the museum at the lightkeeper’s home, built in 1901, and selling visitors drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Revenues from sales are what the Friends count on to maintain the lightstation.
“There’s not a lot of work, but a ton of visitation,” Dunham tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The island sees 1,000 or more visitors in a day, not all at the lightstation, but at least a couple of hundred. It’s very busy during the day, then after 6 p.m. the site becomes private. It’s theirs and the volunteers can relax and enjoy.”
Who would make a good volunteer lightkeeper?
First, the candidate must like working with the public. Second, you must be OK with living in a remote location. Remember, you can only get there by boat, so you can’t just run off to the corner store. And while there may be a few campers on the other side of the island, you are basically all alone after visitors are gone at 6 p.m. There’s no television. And no Internet.
There’s also no lighthouse.
While the Flowerpot Island Lightstation’s host program is all about celebrating keepers of the light, the lighthouse where they worked until 1969 no longer exists. When the government that year replaced the lighthouse with an automated steel tower, the lighthouse building was pushed from the cliff where it had stood 88 feet above the waters of Georgian Bay since 1897.
“We look at the whole package,” Dunham says of the lightstation. “It’s about the lightkeepers and their families — how did they pass the time?” Volunteers will find a stock of board games and puzzles on hand. Of course, there are plenty of trails to investigate on Flowerpot Island. And beaches to swim at. And wonderful views to be had on Castle Bluff on the observation tower.
Cabot Head, Flowerpot Island keeper programs all booked for 2012
There is no trouble finding takers for the coveted lightkeeper spots, the cost of which is $150 for up to four people for three nights. In fact, both the Cabot Head and Flowerpot Island lightkeeper programs are all filled up for 2012.
“We have a really good supply of repeat volunteers,” Dunham tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “We have a couple from the U.S. in Michigan who keep coming back, and one family does it as a family reunion every year. Some people book their holidays around it. Some are teachers. Some retirees and even a group of friends. We’ve also had young families, though children can’t be under six.”
For Dunham, who stays at the lightstation each spring when she and a group of volunteers head over for seven to 10 days to set things up for the season — painting and fixing what needs fixing so the volunteer lightkeepers don’t have to worry about maintenance — living on the cobble beach where lightkeeping families lived for almost a century is an amazing experience. “I like everything about it,” she says. “It’s spectacular.”
If you want to climb a circular staircase to meet a real live working lightkeeper, you’ll have to travel to Machias Seal Island off New Brunswick, or to remote coastal communities in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. These are the only places remaining in Canada with staffed lightstations. Sadly, there are only 51 staffed lighthouses in Canada today, compared to 264 in 1970, when the Coast Guard began automating lightstations.
Lightkeepers in B.C. and Newfoundland/Labrador celebrated in March when the federal government, citing mariner safety, announced it was finally cancelling plans to destaff the 50 lightstations in these two regions. After decades of protest, the government has finally seen the light.
There may no longer be lightkeepers on duty in Ontario, but volunteer groups with a passion for history have done a fantastic job in preserving their stories and their lightstations. You can meet these keepers of the history while touring lighthouses across the province this summer, with the Bruce Coast Lighthouse Tour
a great place to start your adventure. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — April 2011