China cabinets, sofas and major appliances weren’t designed to fly. Nevertheless, during certain seasons at remote locations along British Columbia’s coast, household furnishings levitate then soar across the sky at 100 miles per hour. The spectre of objects with no aerodynamic properties in low-level flight can stir powerful anxieties in the hearts of their owners. “Don’t look up”, says lightkeeper Calvin Martin, “You might not like what you see.”
Moving day for Canadian Coast Guard lightkeepers – usually to and from roadless, isolated sites – typically requires helicopters and ships to haul goods and people. The event combines a frenzy of brutish labor with the ballet-like grace of perpetual motion–and carpentry skill is mandatory. Since the more substantial or breakable of the keeper’s possessions must be crated to survive slinging by helicopter and ship, moving day begins several weeks earlier with the construction of enough large wooden boxes to accommodate a house-full of valuables. The immense containers are then loaded, sealed and covered against the harsh elements until moving day. Lightkeepers have concerns similar to folks relocating under more genteel conditions–like safeguarding their fine china, computers and an occasional piano or pool table, and, minimizing their pet’s fright. A challenge for the packers is that everything must be weighed, as a single lift can’t exceed 950 pounds.
After four years at Carmanah Point Lightstation (west coast Vancouver Island) Calvin and Lorraine Martin, with daughter Tamara (age 15) and son Tory (age 13) moved in October to a new assignment at Cape Scott Lightstation (northwest of Vancouver Island). There, Calvin took over as principal keeper, and spouse Lorraine plans to qualify as a relief-keeper. “Our biggest problem was lack of time to prepare – we got three weeks notice”, says Martin, “Fortunately, Jerry Etzkorn (Carmanah’s principal keeper) took over most of the station duties, otherwise, we wouldn’t have been ready. All I did was prepare weather reports, build crates and pack.”
Weather conditions and bad luck often frustrate the coordination between the helicopter and ship needed to accomplish a move. A keeper’s relocation can have false starts and interruptions, as another family discovered in October. After four years on Egg Island Lightstation (on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound), Will Rose took a post that is unique within BC’s lightkeeping profession. Will joined the crew of remote Triple Island Lightstation (near Prince Rupert), where he’ll rotate on and off the island every 28 days, instead of having a residence there as is the custom at all other BC lightstations.
Families aren’t permitted on Triple due to the harsh conditions. Spouse Sherry, and their children Nicolas (age 14), Brandon (age 10) and Alicia (age 7) set up the family home in Terrace. There, the children attend public schools and Sherry hopes to become a teaching assistant. “I’m happy to move off the lights - I’m ready to go”, says Sherry, “But, I’m glad to have had the experience.”
The accidental grounding of the Coast Guard ship assigned to transport their effects, and deteriorating weather conditions, caused a hurry-up-and-wait ordeal. “Another ship was diverted to take our belongings earlier than planned”, says Will, “We did some last-minute scrambling to be ready.” Thirteen loads were slung off the station, taking possessions and food supplies. Since the helicopter was smaller than expected, the family of five – plus two cats – had to wait for a larger machine. But, their escape was delayed three days when massive fog banks smothered the area. Fortunately, Steve Allison (Egg’s principal keeper) graciously sacrificed his pantry to feed the trapped dinner guests.
In good conditions, a move off a lightstation can be accomplished in just a few hours – with the helicopter slinging loads in continuous round-trips, while a conga-line comprising all the available strong backs passes smaller boxes from inside the keeper’s house to fill cargo nets on the lawn.
While it may be traumatic seeing all your worldly possessions dangling 100 feet beneath a helicopter heaving skyward to clear the treetops, a keeper’s transfer today pales by comparison to those of a bygone era when only ships were used. Then, a move could take many days of dawn-to-dusk labor, which involved hauling possessions to a precipice where they would make an angled descent of several hundred yards on a cable to a tender waiting in the swells below. From there, boxes were ferried out to the ship and hoisted on deck by its crane. Lightkeepers and their families then joined the ship via the same tender that transported their effects. The process was repeated in reverse order at the new station, where belongings often arrived wet and broken – as did their owners.
After weeks of effort focused on readying family and effects for the scheduled departure day; followed by the hustle and bustle amidst powerful rotor-wash dispatching possessions
skyward; there is ominous silence when the last box is gone. For it is then that the full impact of the event is felt. Those leaving have brief emotional moments to bid farewell to those remaining – tearful youngsters leaving the only friends their young lives have known; families saying good-bye to neighbors who feel closer than relatives; and misty-eyed lightkeepers hugging colleagues with whom they share an uncommon bond. But, schedules and helicopters wait for no one. Too soon, the machine returns to whisk the keeper and family to a new life on another illuminated rock, where they’ll again watch their belongings fly.
This story appeared in the
June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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