Photo: Coastal Lights

(Credit: Michael Healey)

As a child, I lived at Pachena Point on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a tiny out-port of civilization between forest and sea. At that time, the lighthouse and the marine radio station, where my father worked, were vital links in the navigation system that allowed cargo vessels to move safely along our dangerous and rugged coastline.

Virtually all that system is gone now, replaced by radar, satellite communications and GPS. But in the 1940s and 50s, the winking of the lighthouses told mariners where they were, the bellowing fog horns warned them away from the rocky coast and the hourly weather forecasts from the marine radio stations kept them informed about storms and other hazards.

For a child there was no shortage of intriguing mysteries to explore in this world but the most fascinating of all was the light tower, with its slowly revolving Fresnel lens that shot powerful beams of light into the night. If I had been "good", the light keeper would allow me to climb the steep stairs with him to the light platform and watch while he lit the lamp. This was a meticulous, ritualistic process in which he would fill the reservoir with kerosene, light the round wick, and then trim it carefully to ensure an even flame. The final step was to lower very carefully the delicate, dome shaped, mantle over the flame. Suddenly, the dim light of the lamp would flare like the sun and the hundreds of prisms that made up the Fresnel lens would be shot through with rainbows. Once the lamp was lit the lens had to be activated. It floated on a pool of mercury and was turned by a clockwork motor. Once engaged, the motor turned the globe so that its light was sent seaward in a double flash every 7.4 seconds. Any mariner, seeing this double flash and counting the time between flashes, knew exactly where he was on the coast.

The electronic navigation of today may be safer and more accurate but it is an impersonal, abstract system with none of the romance of the coastal lights of my youth.

Message to Canadians: Manned light stations were and are a critical component of Canada's extremely thin marine search and rescue capability. Virtually all have been unmanned and closed.
Author photo

By Michael Healey

Peachland, BC

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1 Comment

Oct 19, 2012
3:44 AM

You wrote a very lovely story and it prompted me to say that I also spent time up in the northern lightstations where the life was quieter full of natures own cycles visitors from the deep and storms of incredible power Thanks for posting your old photos Sorry to say my lights were lightbulbs and steel girders Not as romantic as the prisms

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