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Special delivery: Helicopters and internet bring creature comforts to lighthouse keepers

It takes time and planning, but keepers can get almost anything delivered to their remote locations

The solitary life of British Columbia’s lighthouse keepers isn’t without its comforts. Sure, most live in remote inlets and rugged coastlines — way, way off the beaten paths of other humans and far from any road.

There’s certainly no pizza deliveries or quick access to the hardware or grocery store — or the convenience store to satisfy a craving.

“Slurpees are the things I miss the most,” says Spence Wilson, the keeper at Boat Bluff, a light ­station on the central coast about 600 kilometres north of ­Victoria.

But everything else within reason can be had — from Oreos and fresh fruits and vegetables to big-screen ­televisions and appliances, even ice cream.

It just takes a little time and usually requires careful planning and a Coast Guard helicopter. And sometimes a ship.

“Ice cream is OK to order and I have in the past,” said Wilson. “It gets here a little soft sometimes, but not a ruined mess. Frozen items are usually kept separate from dry goods or normal refrigerated goods and are in decent shape when delivered by helicopter.”

The coast guard manages 28 staffed lighthouses on the B.C. coast, stretching from Green Island near the Alaskan panhandle down to Trial Island off the shores of Oak Bay. Each has a keeper or two, and there are alternates who take over for designated periods when regular keepers need to reconnect with civilization.

Provisioning each of the lighthouses is no easy task. The keepers have to determine what food and other items they will need a month in advance, and the coast guard has to collect it all and map out the most efficient and timely way to deliver the goods.

Online ordering has made life a lot easier for modern lighthouse keepers, certainly more than their predecessors, who often would get only very basic supplies, and less often, placing orders by telephone and earlier than that by radio calls and mail.

Goods ordered by keepers from the nearest grocery store are delivered to coast-guard bases in Victoria and Prince Rupert, where they are sorted and stored until deliveries can be made.

The same goes for books, clothes, garden seeds, dog biscuits, toilet paper, library books and any medical prescriptions. A keeper’s personal mail is also brought in.

Celeste MacKenzie, who operates the Ivory Island light, about 35 kilometres northwest of Bella Bella at Seaforth Channel and Milbanke Sound, calls food ordering an “art form” that requires careful planning.

“I get food similar to what I would get if I were not on station,” she said. “I’m just mindful of their shelf life.”

MacKenzie likes to buy fresh fruit in season, such as blueberries or strawberries, and eats them right away. She said mangoes, oranges and apples last longer, as do carrots, potatoes, cabbage and squash.

“I’ve gotten into making sourdough bread,” said MacKenzie. “I have on occasion bought frozen fruit and veggies, pre-made lasagna or pizza.”

Alena Mountford, who has worked the light on Lennard Island off Chesterman Beach near Tofino for a decade, said she and her husband prefer lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. The coast guard was even expected to deliver “half a cow” from a local farmer last month.

“We really can get most everything we want online,” said Mountford. “Once a month, it’s like Christmas.”

Wilson, at Boat Bluff, says keepers have to plan for four weeks or longer instead of only one or two for most people.

“For example, fresh vegetables and salad is great, but won’t last for the full four weeks, so I would order enough fresh to last a few weeks, and then frozen vegetables to last the remainder of the time until the next delivery.

“If you run out, you go without,” added Wilson. “But you also learn what you can substitute. It takes some experience, but slowly you get to know how you will eat or drink. Buying a few jugs of milk and freezing what you don’t use right away means you have milk for all four weeks, but if you only get one jug and drink it all the first week then you are using your backup powdered milk for the rest of the month.”

Some of the stations have full greenhouses where vegetables, fruit and herbs are grown, said Wilson.

Mountford has an extensive outdoor garden of raised beds and a greenhouse where she grows lettuce, kale, beans, leeks, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, brussels sprouts and herbs.

Nicola Mancey, director of navigational programs at the coast guard, leads a team of personnel that collect and deliver the goods.

“It’s a very co-ordinated effort and the orders vary depending on the person,” said Mancey. “Some of them like to bake and cook, some like more ready-made foods.”

Food isn’t the only thing being delivered to the stations each month. The coast guard also supplies fuel for generators, tools, lumber, boats and other equipment.

Coast guard ships take care of much larger supplies or moving keepers between stations. Ships will also remove recycling, scrap and trash, and any unusable equipment.

A large number of applications

The coast guard has 54 full-time lighthouse keepers, with most stations staffed by two people at a time. There are also backup personnel for relief or emergencies.

The ratio between men and women has fluctuated over the years, but remains fairly even, says Kiri Westnedge, spokeswoman for the coast guard.

In the recent past, some keepers had children who were home-schooled at the stations.

Last January, there was a hiring blitz to attract more people to the lights after a wave of retirements and others moving on.

The job posting was for assistant light keepers to build “an inventory for future vacancies,” and that process is continuing. Westnedge said the coast guard received a large number of applications and is in the process of staffing available positions from that pool.

In mid-December, the call for assistant keepers was reposted, with a salary range of $49,813 to $66,842.

Barry Tchir, regional vice-president at the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents lighthouse keepers, says the job is not for everybody. “It’s not a great wage — it’s one of the lowest in the public sector.”

The upside, however, is that your housing is included, and you’ll get trained on the job.

Other than being really out of the way, lighthouse homes are equipped much like any other home, with modern appliances and other comforts.

Qualifications include experience operating and performing maintenance on mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as routine maintenance on buildings and grounds. Keepers also have to pass security and medical clearances and have first-aid certifications and a valid restricted operator’s certificate (maritime) or higher.

They also must be prepared to travel by helicopter and by boat, to live in isolated or semi-isolated accommodations, and to “work shifts in a 24-7 environment in all weather conditions.”

It’s all for a good cause, says the coast guard posting: “Western Region light stations ensure the safe passage of mariners in the most beautiful, remote, and rugged locations on British Columbia’s breath-taking coastline.”

‘I fell in love with the job’

Keepers say the job allows them to be creative cooks, start new crafts and hobbies, tend to gardens and stay in good physical condition with walks and other exercise.

But there are a few downsides. Alcohol is not allowed. You’ll have “some” internet, but it’s spotty. If you use a satellite connection, you’ll pay for that on your own. Cellphone coverage is hit or miss.

You’ll have to capture rainwater, and distill it for drinking. As for the toilet, well, “it’s complicated,” said Tchir.

Keepers work 10- to 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. They do weather reports every hour, and maintain the lights, the generator and the grounds — and the pesky toilets.

They monitor marine traffic, look for vessels in distress and provide safe harbour if, say, a lost kayaker washes up on their shores in the middle of the night.

Mancey said being a keeper is a unique job that’s best for someone who is “confident being in a remote place.”

Wilson, who has been working in light stations for four years, said it’s been a good career. “I really enjoy the ability to run my own life at my own pace.”

While there is always lots to do, he enjoys the pace of the work, the quiet and having the ability to “spend my time doing what I like, instead of dealing with things like a commute, or having to go out for groceries.”

MacKenzie, a nurse for more than 30 years, started at the Ivory Island Station in May 2021 after a stint as a relief keeper.

“It was time for a change [and] I fell in love with the job,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge, the self-reliance, the ingenuity and flexibility that the job demands. You cannot beat that.”

She works with another keeper on station and stays in touch with her family through WhatsApp, as she doesn’t have cell service at Ivory Island.

MacKenzie said she works the morning shift, waking at 3 a.m. to do the first weather report.

Weather reports are issued from the light every three hours. Once that weather report is done, she likes to make a cup of tea and plan out the day, make breakfast, all the while monitoring the radio and watching the weather.

She spends the rest of her shift walking around the station, checking the engine room and ensuring the generators are working well.

She acknowledges there are downsides to isolation, including lack of connection to technology the world increasingly relies on. “When you need to verify who you are, but you can’t receive texts, or when you get sent a new bank card and to activate it you need to go to an ATM machine. Those types of things can be problematic.

“Or perhaps, the fighting with the computer, like when the computer won’t connect to the printer, and the kids are too far away to do it for you, that is incredibly annoying.”

But there are upsides as well. The keepers see it all when it comes to wildlife — several species of whales as well as otters, mink, bear, eagles, seals and sea lions are bountiful around the stations.

“Abalone dancing on rocks at really low tide is quite something to see,” said Mountford.

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