THE LIGHT AT OLD GROUCHY
Roiling fog banks slithered around the rocks of Old Grouchy, obscuring the cliffs one minute, then parting to let a shaft of sunlight touch the island’s one grassy knoll. No beaches, not even rocky ones soften Old Grouchy. Fisheries and Oceans Canada had, many decades ago, built a stone and concrete jetty on the western shore, the generally leeward shore. It is here that I moor my revamped fishing trawler in relative safety. Then make the long trek up an old iron staircase, anchored deeply to the rocky cliff side, to the heights above. To spite the elements I keep the stairs and railings painted, a bright-orange ferrous oxide inhibiting paint. I like its cheerful look.
Old Grouchy Rock, some fifty nautical miles beyond Port Hardy, at the north end of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and some five miles off the mainland of the inland passage, has been the site of a lighthouse since 1852. It was decommissioned in 1995. And I am proud to be the only resident of the island, having purchased the Keeper’s House and surrounding acreage from FOC. Despite most peoples’ feelings, my life is not lonely. I am too busy for that. Bimonthly trips to Port Hardy for supplies, lugging groceries and generator fuel from my trawler up to the house, growing a little patch of vegetables, and attempting to become a famous writer, keeps me fully occupied. Thank god there is a good supply of potable water for me and my garden. I am happy here, but the fog today is worrisome.
Nightfall and total fogbound obscurity. No stars, not even white foam from the pounding tide which is usually visible at the base of my cliffs. The waters of the Queen Charlotte Strait are dangerous waters. And very well populated waters, from camping kayakers to cruise liners ferrying tourists to and from Alaska, from fishing boats hauling in salmon to tramp steamers doing whatever, the waters north and east of Vancouver Island are busy. And in a fog such as this, potentially life threatening. I checked my radio for any local broadcasts. Then tucked in for a fretful night.
Three weeks later, I watched as a sailing yacht—a ketch I thought, from its double masts, headed towards my island. I was near the head of the iron staircase, when I heard a loud “Ahoy, Old Grouchy” being shouted from the jetty. The ketch had landed.
I yelled back. “Ahoy, ketch. Come aboard.” This was in deference to the Canadian Coast Guard custom of referring to light houses as ships. A tanned and fit looking middle-aged man waved up at me. He jumped to the pier as I descended the last transverse of the stairs.
He clasped my right hand in a hard, double-handed grip, and met me with a broad smile.
“I had to come and meet the man who saved my life.” He turned toward the yacht. “I know you were just doing your job, but I have a case of Alberta Springs on board for you. Hope that works?”
The yachtsman leaned back and looked up the cliff side, his hands on his hips. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid. Used to come from Toronto to stay with my grandparents. Gramps was the Keeper then. That would have been in the 70’s. My brother and sisters hated having to visit. Even claimed the island was named after Gramps. But I loved it. Every minute.” He smiled at the memory. “So after a few years, I just came alone. Made everyone happier. Specially Gramps. He taught me how to handle a skiff, how to fish, how to read the tides.” He sighed, far away in his memories. Then he shook his head. “He died when I was sixteen. My best friend.”
“And you’ve never been back? Since?”
“No. Too busy being a success.” He grinned. “But when I got the chance to sail up this coast again, I took it. Three weeks ago today, I was caught in that fog bank. That wouldn’t be a problem, but my GPS went out. I was lost.” He looked at me seriously. “I mean really lost. Almost panicked. But then I saw your light. I’ve never seen anything so lovely. Knew exactly where I was.”
“My light?” I thought about my rather dim house lights, produced by gas generator and limited in both scope and wattage.
He looked at me strangely. “Yeah. The light. I knew the group occulting immediately. Gramps was a good teacher. Three eclipses repeating every ten seconds.”
He was referring to the flash pattern of the old light. Every lighthouse is assigned a beacon sequence, so seamen can tell by the timing of the light flashes which beacon they are seeing. It’s that way all over the world. Mistaking which light you are seeing can be lethal, so the lamp sequences for local lighthouses are shown on the charts
He kept on. “I knew right away I was too close inshore, so I moved out into the strait. Got through to Bella Bella, no problem.” He was still regarding me strangely.
“But the light was decommissioned over twenty years ago,” I managed to say.
He laughed. “Well, officially. I know that. But thank god you kept the old thing working. And knew the flash pattern.”
He was still looking upwards, towards the heights of the island. “When I came in today I thought I would be able to see the tower. I think I remember seeing it from the water when I was a kid.” He laughed. “But time can fool anyone.”
“That’s just it,” I gulped then continued. “When the light was decommissioned the Coast Guard razed the tower completely. Didn’t want nosy tourists playing around in there. The lights, reflectors, clockwork mechanisms, everything was removed, and the building levelled. There is no light.”