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On The Lights
It all started with a headline. "Take a Picture. They’re All Soon Going To Be Unmanned," The Vancouver Sun declared on January 13, 1995.

For British Columbia’s Lightkeepers, it was the next round of a decades-long fight to keep lightstations staffed. For photographer Chris Jaksa and me, it was the beginning of a journey that led us to some of the most remote regions, of the province and introduced us to the unique people who operate one of the most extensive networks of staffed lighthouses remaining in the world.

Chris and I had always been attracted to lighthouses in the same way that most people are, whether they’ve seen one or not. I grew up in landlocked Ottawa, so the only lighthouse I ever saw was the tower relocated from Cape North, Nova Scotia, to the lawn of the capital's Museum of Science and Technology. The closest Chris came to a hothouse was the short fibreglass beacon on a pier from which he and his father fished in Lake Ontario. It wasn't until we moved out west that we encountered the real thing. At Point Atkinson, we met Donald Graham, the keeper who retraced the turbulent history of his predecessors in his books Keepers of the Light and Lights of the Inside Passage.

Lightkeeping began on the West Coast in 1859 when George Davies stepped off the boat from England to tend Fisgard light. Fisgard was the first of 59 lighthouses erected over the next 100 years along the BC coast. Although lights were established on the East Coast as early as 1733, it wasn't until the shipping boom of the late 19th century that the federal government decided more lighthouses were needed in the West. By that time, hundreds of lives had already been lost to the 27,200 kilometres of unmarked coastline.

Life was not easy for early lightkeepers like Davies. With no assistance, no escape in times of crisis, and no emergency communications, keepers were sometimes reduced to flying their flag upside down in the hope of being seen by-a passing vessel. Others were forced to make perilous trips in their own small rowboats, more than once perishing in view of their horrified families. More often, however, it was passing mariners who had the emergencies and the keepers who had to make dangerous, sometimes heroic, efforts to save them.

Chris and I were intrigued. Graham's books opened up the rich past, but we wanted more. We wanted to see the towering lighthouses designed by engineering genius Colonel William Anderson. We wanted to witness the wave-swept wilderness that wrecked so many ships and both crushed and inspired so many keepers. But mostly we wanted to meet the people who choose this career for themselves today. Who are they? What do they do? Why do they do it? We decided to hit the road.

As we soon learned, there are few roads to hit. Even today the majority of British Columbia's staffed lighthouses are accessible only by boat, by aircraft or on foot. And though technology has eased the burden of isolation, life on the lights can still be trying. The conveniences that most people take for granted are unavailable at many lighthouses. Supplies are delivered by helicopter or ship once a month; if keepers run out of milk, the nearest corner store is a long way away. Private chats with "townfolk" are impossible since most stations don't have regular telephone service. All calls must be directed through a Coast Guard radio operator who, along with anyone else who has a scanner, can hear the entire conversation. At times even flushing the toilet is a luxury. When the station's cistem of rainwater gets low come summertime, every drop needs to be conserved.

Despite the inconveniences, many keepers cherish their isolation. They want to be alone. As they often told us, there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. "on the lights, the first person you meet in isolation is yourself, "explained one 38-year veteran, "and you better like the company."

Most lightkeepers find great satisfaction in the job itself. Operating the equipment and maintaining the station fixtures are among the obvious duties, but one of the keepers' less recognized tasks is providing accurate weather reports. Day and night, keepers relay detailed observations about the sea and sky conditions in their area for the Coast Guard's continuous marine radio broadcast. Because weather can vary greatly within just a few kilometres, the lightkeepers' information is vital to pilots and mariners planning their routes along the coast.

Lightkeeping has never been limited to these regular duties, however. Keepers also collect environmental data for scientists, offer mariners advice over the radio, assist boaters with engine trouble, and participate in rescues. They are often the first to spot boats in trouble. Armed with their radios, binoculars and intimate local knowledge, keepers notice immediately when something is amiss in their piece of the ocean.

Nevertheless, the Canadian government has worked for three decades to bring the tradition of staffed lighthouses in British Columbia to an end. User groups as diverse as the Coastal Communities Network, the Sea Kayak Association of British Columbia and the BC Aviation Council challenged the policy. They argued that the new technology designed to replace lightkeepers would cost more than retaining them and wouldn't be as reliable. Even people who had never used the services of a lightstation felt strongly about the issue. The philosophy of replacing humans with machines offended some, while others pointed out that automation often resulted in the destruction of historically significant buildings.

Despite the controversy, the Coast Guard automated Discovery, Ballenas, Point Atkinson, Sisters, Active Pass, Satuma, Porher Pass and Race Rocks Outstations in 1996 and 1997. But in a surprise announcement on March 28, 1998, David Anderson, the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announced that the keepers at the rest of British Columbia's staffed lights would stay. However, their future is far from secure. At some stations, the automation equipment remains, towers are slated for removal and keepers wait anxiously to see how long this latest decision will last.

Guiding Lights is a tribute to the great tradition of staffed lighthouses on the BC coast. It is a portrait of the people who continue, despite all odds, to keep that tradition alive.