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Still light: Portraits of a Trial Islands lighthouse keeper

Amidst threats of obsolescence, the Trial Islands lighthouse is still home to keepers continuing this work, and caring for the Island

By Ryan Hook
November 8, 2022
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Still light: Portraits of a Trial Islands lighthouse keeper

Amidst threats of obsolescence, the Trial Islands lighthouse is still home to keepers continuing this work, and caring for the Island

By Ryan Hook
Nov 8, 2022
John Gillevet has been a lighthouse keeper for over 12 years, living almost exclusively "on the lights," as keepers say. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
John Gillevet has been a lighthouse keeper for over 12 years, living almost exclusively "on the lights," as keepers say. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Still light: Portraits of a Trial Islands lighthouse keeper

Amidst threats of obsolescence, the Trial Islands lighthouse is still home to keepers continuing this work, and caring for the Island

By Ryan Hook
November 8, 2022
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Still light: Portraits of a Trial Islands lighthouse keeper
John Gillevet has been a lighthouse keeper for over 12 years, living almost exclusively "on the lights," as keepers say. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Just off the south coast of Oak Bay, practically within range of a strong mulligan from Victoria Country Club, the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits converge from several directions to surround a cluster of islands.

Photographer James MacDonald knows the currents around the Trial Islands well. In May 2020, he and his two friends grabbed a tandem kayak and a paddleboard, setting off from Gonzales Beach with the goal to see the Trial Islands, and the 93-foot red and white lighthouse. “I’d been living here just over two years at that point, so I was new to the tides and oceans,” MacDonald says.

As they paddled out, getting closer to the west side of the Trial Islands, the tides became a lot stronger and more unforgiving. MacDonald and company got caught in the riptide, and they started drifting out into the Juan de Fuca Strait. MacDonald took out his phone and called the coast guard.

The Trial Islands are caught in the crosshairs between the currents of the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

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As he recounts the incident, MacDonald stands at the base of the lighthouse while dozens of seagulls squawk around him. He points to the tides swirling around the shoals. “They [the coast guard] didn’t sound worried; in fact, they had obviously gotten this call before,” he says.

The Coast Guard says its members make, on average, seven rescue missions off the southeast coast of Oak Bay each year.

The origin of the islands' name is disputed. The Maritime Museum of BC said the name comes from the early 20th century, when British naval ships would do trial runs around the islands, before returning to the Esquimalt naval base. The name for the islands was officially adopted on May 1, 1934—but, according to the BC Geographical Names Office, was reported to be labeled on maps as early as 1855. The office told Capital Daily that in 1927 a representative from the Exchequer of Canada reported that “the name originates from the 'trials' in navigation experienced by ‘ancient mariners’” facing strong winds and tides in the area.

The islands are close enough to see civilization—silhouettes of people and cars are visible while sirens sound in the distance; to the south, Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and the Olympic Mountains loom large over the small towns at their feet. To the east of the island is the distinct cone of Mount Baker, ringed with towns of its own and marking the entrance to busy Puget Sound.

While MacDonald and his trio waited for the coast guard, as instructed, they looped around the southwest of the island as best they could, where the tides weren’t as strong.

Out of nowhere, he says, a voice called out to them.

The first lighthouse on the Trial Islands was built in 1906, but the red and white concrete lighthouse you see now was built in 1970. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The Trial Islands lighthouse is one of the few on Vancouver Island still manned with lighthouse keepers. In Canada, very few lighthouses are actually staffed now and it’s an occupation that, since automation, has survived a few attempts on its life.

Day to day, the lighthouse alerts pilots and boat captains of their proximity to the shore—but lighthouse keepers at Trial Islands are also the first responders in any emergency situation too.

“This middle-aged woman and her massive German Shepherd ask how we’re doing,” MacDonald laughs. “She was super warm and friendly, and we chatted for a while until we were picked up [by the Coast Guard].”

As soon as the trio loaded onto the Coast Guard’s zodiac, MacDonald says he knew he needed to return, safely, to the Trial Islands. “I just kept thinking about the lighthouse keepers and their lives,” MacDonald says. “I just wanted to know more.”

Two years later, MacDonald would get his chance.

To the south of the Trial Islands, Washington’s Olympic Mountains loom large over the small towns at their feet. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

A day in the life

Almost every day, for the past 12 years, principal lightkeeper John Gillevet watches the world go by—from the boats full of cargo and IKEA furniture to the ferries and float planes full of people. Last summer, he watched the smoke waft into the strait from the Zim Kingston, alerting pilots and ship captains to changing conditions throughout the ordeal.

He splits his time between the lighthouse itself and a few more matching buildings on the island: a living quarter, an engine room, and a storage garage. A couple of radio towers poke out of the north end of the Island, like the CFAX radio antennae owned by Bell. A few solar panels have been added to the buildings’ roofs, and in November of 2021, the University of Victoria anchored a buoy nearby to study wind patterns.

Gillevet jots down sky conditions, visibility, and sea and wind states in his notebook before officially reporting it to marine communication services. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Beneath all of the mythology and romanticism surrounding lighthouses and their keepers, there is a less glamorous and more prudent reality. Keepers need to be comfortable with the unique lifestyle: the isolation and fierce winter storms.

“I’m actually going to be alone for two months,” Gillevet says, in front of his matching red and white home beside the lighthouse. He says there are relief workers, but these days, he more or less works alone for the better part of a year, due to a labour shortage.

Each keeper has a phone line that connects to marine communications and traffic services, as well as other keepers “on the lights.” For some, it’s a lifeline in areas that don't have cell phone service.

In the control room, Gillevet logs his weather reports, which is communicated to nearby ship captains and pilots. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Gillevet's work days all start relatively the same way: looking out to sea.

Each morning, at the crack of dawn, he reports sky conditions, visibility, and sea and wind states, to marine communication traffic services who communicate the conditions to ship captains or pilots. He does that three more times throughout the day and into the evening.

The role of a lighthouse has been simple from the start: it needs to be the first beacon of light, indicating to boats they are near the shoreline or the shoal. Historically, lighthouses have always needed lighthouse keepers to assure the light is on; in fact, before the invention of the light bulb,  they would tend to a flame—which resulted in disasters.

Over time, the role of a lighthouse keeper has changed.

Until the invention of the Fresnel lens, lighthouse keepers would tend to a candle. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

In the 18th century,  lighthouses shifted to Fresnel lenses, which refract and reflect oblique light to create the pulsating beam. The Trial Islands lighthouse used a Fresnel lens until the new lighthouse was built in 1970. In fact, for a period of time, the original light used to be on display at Bastion Square and then at the Maritime Museum. Now, it’s in storage with the Coast Guard.

Gillevet explains that because the lens spun more quickly and easily in mercury, keepers would often be breathing in and touching the toxic heavy metal. He says this led to many keepers getting mercury poisoning, symptoms of which include sudden emotional changes, difficulties breathing and sleeping, and in some cases, hallucinations. Now, lighthouses use halogen bulbs, which are much easier to replace, are less toxic, and last much longer.

Despite the proximity to Oak Bay and its creature comforts, Gillevet might as well live deep in the wilderness. He says he usually gets his groceries shipped to him by helicopter, but will occasionally take a boat across to pick up any essentials.

Gillevet’s voice echoes in the room atop the lighthouse while he surveys the outside conditions—it’s overcast, with peaks of sun here and there. Down the spiral staircase of the lighthouse, it’s a tight squeeze, and Gillevet hurries and waits for us down at the bottom. “I just gotta do my weather report,” he says and then disappears into his living quarters.

Gillevet hurries down the lighthouse staircase to log his afternoon weather report. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Fighting for their job, and their way of life

Ninety lighthouse keepers remain across Canada, 54 of them in BC, according to the Canadian Coast Guard, which employs them. All but one of the West Coast lighthouse stations double as homes. In fact, many families will raise their children “on the lights,” as keepers say.

Justine Etzkorn—one of the keepers at Carmanah Point Lighthouse on the West Coast Trail—told Capital Daily’s podcast in February she was raised on the lights by her parents, both retired lighthouse keepers.

Listen to the Capital Daily's Podcast episode: The Last Lightkeepers of Vancouver Island here

“My brother and I were fairly little … we were both born in town but were moved on the lights fairly young,” she said. “The Coast Guard is not too hot about kids being born on the lights.”

Carmanah Point Lighthouse is one of two manned lighthouses on the West Coast Trail. Across Vancouver Island and the smaller surrounding Gulf Islands, there are 29 lighthouses—10 of which are on the island's west coast—though not all of those are human-operated.

It’s a job that’s slowly dwindling, but like the light, has never completely gone out.

For 25 years, the debate on whether keepers still have an essential role to play along our coasts, and on the lighthouse, continues. In the ’90s, parts of BC laid off keepers, and in September 2009 it was announced that the Trial Island lighthouse would begin the transition to automation, in order to cut staffing costs.

Gillevet wanders down to his living quarters. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

But in 2010, two acts came into effect that saved the job.

The Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act prevented historic heritage-designated lighthouses—such as the Trial Islands lighthouse—from being torn down or abandoned.

Then, a Standing Senate Committee, after visiting some of the staffed stations in Newfoundland and BC, recommended that de-staffing efforts be stopped. In its report, the Committee said that a lightkeeper at the Trial Islands reported how they aided 12 kayakers who were capsized by a boat.

“The timely interventions of the lightkeepers at Trial Island have in fact been instrumental in saving dozens of kayakers over the past several years,” the report said.

Saving kayakers is one thing, but they’re not the only beneficiaries of the lighthouse keepers’ presence: Trial Islands is home to some of the most significant concentrations of rare and endangered plants in North America. The Department of Fisheries (DFO) and Oceans and BC Parks have a partnership agreement to protect the ecosystem.

The report said the DFO values how lightkeepers, such as Gillevet, are volunteer stewards of the provincial ecological reserve, managing the plant resources and natural environment.

A great concentration of rare and endangered plants also call the Trial Islands home. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

“If we did de-staff, things could get pretty messed up pretty quick with kids and partiers,” Gillevet says. “A part of the job is having a presence here for the purpose of the plants.”

Tiny plants like bear’s-foot sanicle, dense-flowered lupine, Victoria’s owl-clover, and Macoun’s meadowfoam—a plant only found on the coast in BC—thrive here and, in some cases, only here.

As MacDonald snaps photos, Gillevet walks us around to the North end of the Island—near the radio towers. As he does, a symphony of sounds surrounds us: growlers rumble in the distance, birds chirp and flutter, and the cold wind whistles between the leaves. Figures of dog walkers can be seen in the distance at Clover Point. On this end of the island, civilization is merely a stone’s throw away.

Just a stone's throw away, life carries on in Oak Bay. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily


MacDonald’s time on the Trial Islands wraps up in a much calmer, less dramatic way than the last. As Gillevet and MacDonald make their way around the Island, back in sight of the lighthouse, they say goodbye, and MacDonald boards the boat en route to the Cattle Point boat ramp. He snaps one more photograph, and Gillevet disappears.

MacDonald safely says goodbye to the Trial Islands. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Article Author's Profile Picture
Ryan Hook
Food, Arts & Culture Reporter
[email protected]

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