The last few months I’ve been drafting a brand new book. It’s a paranormal murder mystery set on the British Columbia coast. In 2013-2014, I worked as a Relief Lighthouse Keeper for a year with the Canadian Coast Guard. I kept a journal and blogged my adventures here. Last summer, I went back to the Nootka Lightstation by Yuquot on the western shore of Vancouver Island to refresh my memory and take more photographs. This is the setting for Ghost Light.
Naturally, I’ve been digging into my old journals as I write and I came across this one. I’m so glad I took such detailed notes! Here, I explain a little of what lighthouse keepers do. Here’s where you can apply for a position as a Relief Keeper.
December 29, 2013: Lighthouse Keeping—Physical Rigours
When I say, I am a lighthouse keeper, most people are surprised. Unknowingly they smile. Do they still exist? How did you even think of doing that? Is there training? How did you get the job? I understand this fascination; asked many of the same questions myself, when my friend became a keeper a few years ago.
Romantic. Captivating. The Lighthouse. That fiery beacon by the misty sea is ingrained in our ancestral memory. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a tower, stirring up a cauldron of chowder, or sipping tea as you scan the horizon for floundering ships, you know what I mean. But be forewarned. As merry as it seems, lighthouse life is not a dream.
In my late fifties, I wanted a new career, something different from my stressful, chaotic, sedentary high school teaching job, something that would allow me to think and write and create.
When the online job posting appeared at last, I applied and waited, interviewed and waited; and finally, was informed that if I passed the medical, I would be accepted as a candidate. Assistant lightkeeper. Entry level position: relief. Much like a teacher-on-call, I would fill in for someone going on leave. Variable times. Various locations along the coast. Yes please.
But, being a lighthouse keeper is demanding: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Because stations are in remote locales, you must be in good health. If you’re on any kind of medication, you must remember to bring plenty with you. There’s no slipping out to the 24 hour pharmacy.
There are still twenty-seven staffed lighthouses on the B.C. coast, and each is unique. As a relief keeper, I travel between them, work with different Principal Keepers, and stay in different houses. Some are bungalows, some are two-storey, some are spare houses sparsely furnished; while others–especially if it’s a keeper’s residence—are cozy and comfortable. But, if you don’t like sleeping in different beds, this is not the job for you.
Though we don’t live in the light towers, we do climb inside them. Someone has to clean those windows and make sure everything is functioning as it should.
Tower Stairs at Lennard Island (near Tofino)
And we climb stairs, countless stairs, and cement steps, some ancient and uneven. We scramble up and down ramps, hike forested trails (whenever possible) and pick our way through rocks and boulders. It’s all hard on the hips and knees. I’m petite, so even getting in and out of the helicopter is a challenge for me.
Apart from doing a marine weather report every three hours, lightkeepers take care of the station, inside and out. Here’s just a sampling of work I’ve done in the last few months:
- Dipping diesel fuel tanks from atop a ladder.
- Helping to refuel domestic tanks.
- Dipping cisterns. Rainwater collects in a 5,000 gallon cistern in the basement and is filtered for drinking. Filters also must be changed.
- Scraping and painting buildings, decks, and walkways.
- Testing the fire pump and hoses, and checking fire extinguishers.
- Pumping up the zodiac and angling it down the high line
At one station, armed with trimmers and clippers, I battled English ivy, knowing full well that in weeks, it would be back, sucking the life out of every living thing in its path. Carving a space in the salal is a constant challenge.
Still, wearing personal protective equipment, we maneouvre and maintain self-propelled lawnmowers–my personal bane–weed-whackers, hedge-clippers, tractors, and pressure-washers. We are coastal caretakers.
Lifting. Besides packing in all of our own food–that’s a whole story in itself–when there is a grocery tender, lightkeepers unload boxes from the helicopter, deposit them in a trailer, and then carry them gleefully into the house.
You should be able to lift about fifty pounds. When I fell at the beginning of August and sprained my back, I had to stay off work until I was healed sufficiently; in fact, I had to see a Coast Guard doctor before returning to the job.
Not exactly sipping hot tea by the sea.
So, what do I love about being a lightkeeper? The adventure.
Carmanah Lightstation from the Air
Lift off in the helicopter! And cruising up the coast like a dragonfly.
Driving the tractor. (That’s all my gear)
Watching and recording whale sightings.
Eagles. Ravens. Seals and sea lions.
Clouds that are never the same twice.
The wind. Even the rain. Challenging my mind and body to perform.
Time to think and write and create.
Living deliberately, as Thoreau would say.
And especially those times when I do get to sip hot tea by the sea.
I had a wonderful time presenting a workshop at my local library last night. Libraries are just such positive, enriching places. They’re safe, they’re secure, they’re free! They offer knowledge, entertainment, companionship, a perfect environment for sparking creativity, and they’re ideal for introverts. I spend so much time visiting my local library, I was happy to give something back.
This was the first time I’d used Prezi and I’m surprised how easy it was. I just used the free version—there is an upgrade that gives many more features—but it worked fine. If I start doing more of these talks, I will upgrade and play with the other features. Here’s a photo of my main screen:
Each of the black circles has hidden wonders like photographs, text, and videos which can be embedded in the free version. If you have Internet access, you’re good to go.
“The Hero’s Journey” is one of my favourite topics. I’ve used it to plot my last three novels, so was able to share my personal experience; as well as, provide examples from well known books and films like Jaws, The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and Outlander.
I have adored Joseph Campbell since I stumbled upon The Power of Myth in 1990—it was a life-changer for me. But I really appreciate how Chris Vogler has adapted Campbell’s monomyth into a useful tool for writers. This is the book I recommend. Whenever I start a new writing project, I reread it, and characters and scenes pop into my mind. It’s become an inspirational power tool for me.
In this video, Chris Vogler describes how and why he wrote The Writer’s Journey, and encapsulates the journey.
I’m usually adept at multi-tasking. So far it hasn’t damaged my brain, lowered my IQ, or affected my work performance as documented by Forbes. I don’t think. It did, however, cause a glitch in my breakfast plan this morning. It happened something like this.
Rachael Herron emailed me and invited me to be a guest on her podcast and video show. I am thrilled! I met Rachael at SiWC where we shared a table (Herron and Hawkin) for the Author Signing Event and discovered we were kindred spirits—not just alphabetical authors. Rachael sent me a link to her latest youtube interview with Eve O. Schaub. You can find the show here. I thought, Hey this is perfect. I can sit and watch this while I eat breakfast. I can even have that manicure I’ve been putting off for days. My nails were looking like claws and I can’t type out my words with claws.
So, I put on the interview and started watching as I prepared my oatmeal. Now, I make the BEST oatmeal ever. It’s thick-cut flakes with almond milk and nuts and fresh blueberries. While the oatmeal was simmering, I heated up the kettle and got a bowl out for soaking my nails. Remember Madge and Palmolive? Soft on hands. You’re soaking in it.
No, I didn’t use Palmolive. I squeezed a little low-chem shampoo into the bowl and continued watching the interview. When the oatmeal was perfect, I scooped it out into — OH WHAT? Was that the bowl with the shampoo in it? Sure enough it was and there was no saving that oatmeal! So I cleaned everything up and kept watching the show. But I was starving!
Rather than start at the beginning with the oatmeal again, I decided to just stir up some way too expensive vegan yogurt with homemade granola and fresh blueberries. I squeezed some shampoo in the clean bowl and then — NO! I DIDN’T!
Yes. I did. I spooned the way too expensive vegan yogurt right into the shampoo!
Is it time for a mindfulness meditation retreat?
On my third attempt, I was able to get the yogurt concoction in the right bowl and the shampoo concoction in the other bowl AND watch the end of the interview! Phew!
I want to be clear that this was no senior moment. This was all about trying to do too many things at once. If you are guilty of multi-tasking—I think women do this much more than men—here’s an article that lists 12 ways to stop doing it.
Meanwhile, I’m eating a big bowl of rice and dahl as I write this. And so far, no soapy aftertaste!
As I sit here watching the snow fall—yet again—in Vancouver, I’m hopeful. Spring is coming, and I’m gearing up for another Writer’s Conference. Every year, I go to the SiWC at the end of October, and then I wait and wait and wait. Writing is a solitary activity—just me and my dog and my laptop, and the odd online writing sprint I can manage in between. But this year, I’ve discovered a new local conference at half-time!
Creative Ink is only a few weeks away—the last weekend in March! Hurray! After a winter of rain and snow and cold, the promise of writer camaraderie injects me with inspiration.
I’m feeling green and ready to grow!
Several writers, I met at SiWC will be there and many are presenting. I’ve been hanging out with them online doing writerly things at The Creative Academy, and am excited to make a physical connection (AKA sharing stories over a glass of wine;). I also have some very excited meetings lined up.
Kelley is a prolific CANADIAN writer who writes in my genres, more or less—mystery, thriller, and urban fantasy. I’m thrilled to be in her master class and can’t wait to hear her speak. Check out the ad below—you can still sign up for her master class! I also have a Blue Pencil Session with her, meaning she will sit with me, read a couple of pages of my work, and give me some tips. I’ve reviewed her first three Rockton thrillers for the Ottawa Review of Books and I’m reading her latest, Watcher in the Woods, right now!
I also have a Red Pencil Session with thriller writer, Jonas Saul. It’s red, rather than blue, because I have to send three pages ahead of time. Jonas will take his red pencil to my writing and inject it with blood? passion? error marks? Oh my! Red pencils conjure all kinds of images.
I’m also sitting down for a chat with Sylvia Taylor. There’s just too much to write about Sylvia Taylor. Read her “about” page to get some inkling of what she does.
I think it’s incredibly generous of authors to give their time and expertise to other authors. It’s something that makes conferences like this GOLDEN! The presenters are all writers who volunteer their time to make it happen. Creative Ink is held at the Delta Hotel, Burnaby, and there is still space.
Here’s the full scoop on Creative Ink!