While traveling up and down the Inside Passage, one often sees the red and white light stations along the B.C. coast. I have often wondered what life is like as a lightkeeper. I sometimes picture a couple of grizzly coasties, sitting by a pot-bellied stove with the ever-going coffee pot, standing by for the next weather observation. Sometimes I see signs of life at a lighthouse, usually laundry drying in the breeze and wonder if freshly-baked cookies or a pie are coming out of the oven. A few times I even called the Egg Island Lighthouse to say hello on VHF 16 with no response. After reading Caroline Woodward’s book Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper I now have some of my questions answered.
- There are 27 staffed light stations on the BC coast. You can call them on VHF 82a for a weather briefing or just to say hello. Unless away from the radio, they will typically answer.
- Each light station typically has one or more lightkeepers who work seven days a week providing weather observations from 4:30 am – 10:30 pm. In addition, they work tirelessly maintaining the equipment, buildings, and grounds at the light station. Their actions have directly saved the lives of mariners in trouble.
- The lightkeepers have a unique lifestyle. Some are on duty with partners while others lead a solitary life. They are a hardy, resourceful bunch, some completely isolated and only reached occasionally by supply ship or helicopter.
All photos by Jeff George.
Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper
Author Caroline Woodward weaves a story, actually a number of stories, about life as a lightkeeper. She chronicles her upbringing and how at mid-life she and her partner, Jeff George, chose the job of becoming lightkeepers. Initially, they worked as relief lightkeepers, Jeff first, and then Caroline. She made the transition from working in the publishing world to being a qualified lightkeeper.
She not only tells the story of lightkeepers but also weaves in rich descriptions of the flowers and plants that flourish in the moist coastal air around the lighthouses. Caroline’s knowledge of flowers and plants is impressive. Her descriptions of the sea life including whales, sea lions and birds have inspired me to be a better observer.
While visiting Egg Island, she describes an amazing encounter with humpback whales.
“One night humpback whales circled the island singing their eerie whale songs, some basso profundo, others swooping up into the helden tenor range. I had to pinch myself. Imagine falling asleep to whales singing deep sea lullabies.”
Caroline also writes about the food and recipes shared amongst the lightkeepers. For many assignments, they can only shop every month or two. Desserts and special baked items make up for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Caroline’s food descriptions make you wish a few recipes were included in the book.
My only complaint about this book is – it was hard to put down. Her writing is light and engaging, and if you are someone who cruises the Inside Passage, you will especially enjoy the description of lighthouses you have been passing for years. Caroline tells a great story with passion and conviction, and you will develop an appreciation for the men and women who work very hard to assure our safety and comfort while cruising. After reading this book, you may want to sign up to be a lightkeeper.