The Lightkeepers by Graham Chandler

Originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Legion Magazine

We hadn’t expected gourmet Hungarian goulash served up on Royal Doulton china. But at the Cape Scott light station on the remote northwestern tip of Vancouver Island–a place that is normally engulfed in wet grey and storms–today is an exception. The sky is azure, there’s not a puff of wind, and Principal Keeper Harvey Humchitt and his partner Assistant Keeper Todd Maliszewski have house guests.

After sweating through 24 kilometres of squishy rain forest trails we’re no match for the fine linens and silver flatware spread impeccably before us on the dining table. The trek through the forest is the only way to get here without a boat or helicopter. After a couple of greeting barks from their dog Lady, Humchitt welcomes us to Cape Scott.

Born and raised in the First Nations community of Bella Bella where his mother was the elementary school superintendent and his Aboriginal father ran his own charter fishing service, Humchitt came to know and love the ways of the rocky west coast with its treacherous shoals, tides and storms. “It has always been a part of me,” he says. For him, the life of a west coast light station keeper was an easy fit.

He and his Canadian Coast Guard camaraderie of 108 lighthouse and light station keepers care for 52 staffed installations: 27 on the West Coast and 25 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Officially the terms lighthouse and light station are interchangeable, but Humchitt offers a distinction: a lighthouse keeper lives in the lighthouse whereas a light station keeper lives in a house separate from the light.

From Canada’s first lighthouse at Louisbourg, N.S., which was approved by the British Admiralty in 1731, Canada now maintains 250, staffed and automated, on both coasts and the Great Lakes.

Always with a minimum of two keepers per staffed lighthouse, the installations are part of the Canadian Coast Guard, but unlike on board ships, keepers don’t wear uniforms. Qualifications for the job are largely self-obtained, followed by extensive on-the-job training. Indeed, there is no formal qualifying course to become a keeper.

When Humchitt left Bella Bella at 19 to join the Coast Guard, he was already in the auxiliary so he had his radio operator’s certificate, marine rescue training, first aid and local knowledge. The rest he and Maliszewski learned on the job, under the tutelage of a principal keeper.

One of their prime functions at the station is accurate weather reporting–not only temperature and winds, but all weather phenomena. Reports are radioed each three hours from 3:40 a.m. to 9:40 p.m. That’s seven daily reports in all, and they take turns doing the morning ‘redeye’. “I get up at 3 a.m.,” explains Maliszewski, “so my eyes can adjust and I can estimate the cloud cover.” Each report has two parts: marine local weather and a supplementary report for aviation. Marine includes sky condition, visibility, wind speed, sea condition and remarks, all required for the Continuous Marine Broadcast (CMB) on VHF. When winds exceed 35 knots (gale force) they must issue a Special Weather Report which they update every 15-knot speed change or 45 degree direction shift. They provide inputs to the Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) which Humchitt explains is similar to Air Traffic Control but for ships. For aviators, more important measurements are cloud heights (especially lower levels), dew point and wet bulb temperatures which are useful for predicting icing conditions at altitude. A 40-page manual helps them interpret everything from sea chop to using psychrometric tables for calculating dew point temperatures, and approved abbreviations for transmitting it all. And from October to April, they do a third report for Environment Canada.

Because of their weather reporting responsibilities, they’re acutely aware of changes different wind directions bring. “The northwesterlies bring in fog,” says Humchitt. “But if they come from directly west in the summer they bring good weather. In bad weather, ocean swells can reach 30 metres out at Triangle Island, located due west of Cape Scott.” And just like their cat Keno, both are finely attuned to unusual noises. As we talk, a distant long blast of a ship’s horn sends them jumping from the table for binoculars and sprinting to the deck. Scanning the horizon and seeing just a lonely sailboat, Humchitt says, “He looks fine. Maybe someone trying to scare a bear or something.”

While we’re on the sunny deck, he points out the channel and islands to the west of the Cape: Cox and Scott Islands. He explains the riptides that whip through here, especially in the channel between the Cape and Cox Island, are the original reasons for a lighthouse on this rock. “The first lighthouse was out there on Triangle Island,” he says. “During the storm season you could easily be stuck out there for two months or more. Not an easy spot for re-supply by ship in the old days.”

Some of today’s supplies still come by ship–especially diesel fuel. Just below the light station is an ingenious cable system to haul packages up the rocky shore from a tender off a freight boat. There’s no dock. But re-supply now is mostly by helicopter which lands on the nearby helipad once a month.

So grocery shopping takes some planning. Humchitt and Maliszewski say it’s like planning a month-long expedition–if you forget something, tough. You just have to wait another month for it. “All our meat comes in frozen,” says Humchitt. “And fresh vegetables for just a week.” But they do have some of their own homegrown treats once in a while. Humchitt takes us down the neat rock-lined pathway to a small outbuilding with a glass lean-to attached on its south wall. It’s hot in there but Keno the cat clearly loves it–he’s basking in the sun. “This is our greenhouse,” says Humchitt, leading us around the raised soil-filled enclosures and pointing out the crops. “Here’s carrots, here’s beets, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, sage and dill.” It’s all nourished with their own composting system.

As well as the recycling of compost, the whole site is as eco-friendly as can be. Recycling is a strict regimen with all recyclables taken out by ship; they compost for the greenhouse and burn all papers. And Coast Guard policy forbids herbicides and pesticides.

As well as weather reporting, important responsibilities include keeping the equipment shipshape. Beacon mechanisms are today much simpler than those used in the past.

Back in the house, Humchitt shows us photos of the original mechanism for the Langara Point lighthouse on Haida G’waii (Queen Charlotte Islands) where he worked previously.

Built before the days of ball bearings, the heavy light and lens rotated in a bath of mercury powered by an ingenious system not unlike a grandfather clock where the keeper had to wind up the weight every three hours by hand. It remains the only mercury bath lighthouse in Canada, but the rotation is now electrically powered.

The concrete base on which the Cape Scott light station stands has a unique history too: it was built during World War II to set the antenna for a then top secret Royal Canadian Air Force radar installation to watch for Japanese military threats in 1941. We had passed remains of the original barracks and buildings as we walked the old corduroy roads on the hike into Cape Scott. The original radar shack where the operator sat watching the screen now houses two diesel generators. We don ear defenders and Humchitt takes us in to show the two noisy machines–critical to the operation of the light and communications as well as living quarters. Three 8,000-litre tanks provide the two generators with up to seven months’ fuel. He demonstrates his twice-daily checks and we exit to the quiet of the summer day and climb the low tower to the beacon.

“There’s really not much we need to do on the actual beacon,” says Humchitt as we stand on the platform. The rotating unit is maintained by Coast Guard tradesmen and the keepers’ responsibilities are limited to replacing the bulb–incredibly only 20 watts, about the same as a fridge bulb. He holds one up in his hand to show us. “With the Fresnel lens, you can spot the little light 30 nautical miles out at sea,” he says. A Fresnel lens, named after its French inventor in 1828, revolutionized lighthouse efficiency with its ability to concentrate a point source of light into a coherent beam that travels many times farther than the simple reflectors of old. Humchitt explains how each installation in Canada has its own distinctive flashing ‘signature’ so that mariners can know where it originates. “Cape Scott’s is 0.3 seconds flash, then 9.7 seconds of obscurity,” he says. Should the power ever fail, back up batteries supply the beacon for up to four days.

And that is how long some storms can last here on the Pacific. But they love it. “I’m a huge storm fanatic,” says Humchitt. “From October to the end of March we get hammered with powerful winds of seven or eight on the Beaufort scale.” The scale is used to measure wind speed ranging from 0 (calm) to 12 (hurricane).

“We’re 71.9 metres above sea level up here but when the gusts hit 110 knots we get spray from the waves. Your ears are always popping.” he says, adding that they’ve seen hailstones the size of ping-pong balls and once reported 600 millimetres of rain in 2½ days. “We’ve seen it all,” he says.

All of which adds up to a lot of potential danger to marine craft. But, Humchitt says, they don’t have a rescue capability or responsibility. “We don’t have a rescue boat,” he says. He has his own little 12-foot aluminum skiff he uses for fishing, but because of the riptide, he won’t even take it out at high tide, let alone for a storm rescue.

Climbing down from the tower, we spot two hikers coming up the path. “Your turn,” says Humchitt, and Maliszewski steps out to welcome them and offer a cup of coffee. “We like the hikers,” says Humchitt. “But not all keepers do–many choose the life because of the solitude.” He tells us about the Canada Day party they held this summer, putting up announcements at the nearby backcountry campsites. “We made cakes and cookies and had prizes too,” he says.

Solitude of course characterizes light keepers’ lives. Apart from the summer hiking season, they see no one except for the monthly helicopter visit and once-a-year stops by the “head honchos.” “The SANP (Supervisor Aids to Navigation Program) and the SLO (Supervisor to Lightstation Operations) come at the same time,” says Humchitt.

In winters, the dominant grey and stormy conditions do test their cabin fever resistance. Without the summer drop-ins from Cape Scott Provincial Park, visitors are really rare. “Isolation is not for everybody,” says Humchitt. “You need a good sense of humour, like to be alone, and a good degree of personal strength.” As modern light keepers, they have the luxuries of satellite TV, DVDs and the Internet. “I love computer games,” says Humchitt, “and we fish for halibut and cod, and hike a lot, too.” And there’s always maintenance, painting, building decks etc. to while away the hours. Their only voice communication outside the site is by VHF radio telephone. Because it can be monitored by anyone, “there’s no privacy,” he says.

But those grey clouds have their silver linings. “You get in touch more with your thoughts,” says Humchitt. “I’ve gotten to know myself better.” Even then, one can only introspect for so long; it’s fortunate that winter is finite. “By spring you’ve started to not feel like yourself, small things set you off.” And if they do have an argument, there is a room called the Getaway Room.

And with isolation, they do have their fears. Although helicopter medical evacuation can be called in, both have their pet phobias: For Humchitt, it’s scurvy; for Maliszewski, it’s appendicitis. And to preclude dental emergencies, “you need good dental hygiene,” says Humchitt. Drinking water contamination shouldn’t be a worry. They have an 8,000-gallon reservoir that collects rainwater. Off the roof, it goes into a silicon sand and gravel filter to the main cistern. A pump drives it through a 0.5 millimetre separator, it’s then bombarded with UV light, passed through another fine filter and the last thing is one ounce of bleach. And after all that, “we boil it,” says Humchitt.

Infrastructure, including the systems mentioned above, is expensive to install and maintain. Terry Tebb, Assistant Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard Pacific Region, estimates that the Coast Guard’s annual lighthouse budget for both coasts is $15 million. “Salaries run about $100,000 at each site,” adds Tebb. “There’s fuel, groceries, medical evacuations. Then there’s the cost of re-supply and transportation–that’s actually the most expensive part.” The life allows keepers to save a lot of money, often staying on one site until they retire.

It didn’t always sound so promising for those devoted to the keepers’ life. In 1995, the federal government did a program review and decided all lighthouses would be automated. “We started the automation process but then received instructions from the minister in March 1999 to stop (it),” says Tebb. “By that time there were still these on the West Coast and East Coast that were not yet de-staffed.” He explains the likely reasoning for ending the automation changeover. “You know there’s a lot of folklore around these–it’s kind of a romantic thing to have light stations and so there was a lot of emotion around the whole exercise of de-staffing to save money. There were the foghorns, the old stories about the shipwrecks and how the lights actually saved people in Newfoundland and so on.” Many have been turned over to Parks Canada as heritage sites. Tebb says there are no plans at the present time to continue de-staffing light stations.

Humchitt tells us about the advantages of staffed stations. “I’m not automated,” he says. “I can tell you the sea or sky conditions right now. The automated (stations) have sensors but it’s not the same. For example, small float planes will often radio a light station to see what the weather is, like fog or low ceiling.”

And there are others. Tebb says light keepers are the Coast Guard’s eyes and ears in remote locations. “Although it’s really not a part of their job, a number of our light keepers have been involved in assisting people in the water if they’ve had a boating accident or something. And at times they have been able to direct our ships or aircraft to the location.”

We’re convinced.

Well satisfied, we leave Humchitt and Maliszewski to wash the Royal Doulton and step down the manicured path back to our campsite and freeze-dried chili. A final question to the happy pair: what do they miss most? From the gourmet cook, a surprising reply: “Fast food, pizzas, KFC, going to 7-11 for five-cent candies.”

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