Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Cover image courtesy of Harbour Publishing

Book Review: Light Years

What is it like to run away and join the circling lights?

Authored by

by David Leach

Article body copy

Over the centuries, lighthouses have become the quintessential symbols of our not-quite-domesticated coasts. Perched on wave-swept clifftops, the beaming icons suggest resilience, guidance, wisdom, and lend their glow to brand everything from insurance companies to craft beers.

Radar and GPS, the Global Positioning System, have diminished the navigational necessity of lighthouses, most of which have been automated and de-staffed. And yet, for artists and other dreamers, lighthouses remain the maritime equivalent of Henry David Thoreau’s pondside cabin or a forestry fire-watch tower: a romantic fantasy of escape and solitude.

A chance encounter with a lighthouse keeper aboard a ferry in British Columbia inspired Caroline Woodward. The Canadian author coaxed her husband to break free of their middle-aged rut and apply to work on one of the 27 light stations in the province that survived de-staffing by the federal government.

Internet access and helicopter resupplies make life as modern lighthouse keepers less lonely than it was for their 19th-century forebears, who risked madness from the isolation and poisoning from the mercury baths in which the prisms floated. The Woodwards discover more modest challenges on their remote island off Canada’s west coast: growing vegetables in fog-bound gardens, retrieving dogs that wander away with passing hikers, and maintaining cordial relations with eccentric fellow keepers.

The joys are many. Spotting peregrine falcons, humpback whales, and super-pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins make the author feel “like I’d stepped into my own personal Nature of Things documentary.” By tracking the weather every three hours and recording bird sightings to help biologists, Woodward learns the nuances of coastal ecology and microclimate at each station. The Zen-like discipline helps Woodward weather the isolation of being both a lighthouse keeper and a writer.

As a memoir, Light Years might not appeal to hardcore “pharomaniacs”—named for Pharos, the lighthouse of ancient Alexandria—who are obsessed with technical minutia and historical factoids. Guiding Lights and Keepers of the Lights, by former lighthouse keeper Donald Graham, remain the must-read historical accounts of life (and death) on Canada’s wild west coast, chronicling the lighthouses’ architectural histories and the keepers’ adventures.

However, anyone who has fantasized about giving the heave-ho to their nine-to-five job for a life of coast-watching will enjoy a vicarious (and often humorous) tour of duty as a modern lighthouse keeper provided within the pages of Light Years.

Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper
By Caroline Woodward
221 pp. Harbour Publishing