Our Trav­els: See­ing the Light

This bucket-list sur­prise was a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence

More of Our Canada - - Contents - By Richard Main, Thun­der Bay

Cross­ing a visit to the Slate Is­land Light­house off his bucket list was an out-of-this-world ex­pe­ri­ence for one well-trav­elled con­trib­u­tor.

Your bucket list need not be com­posed en­tirely of trips to far­away ex­otic lo­ca­tions with land­scape views cap­tured and re­peated nu­mer­ous times in count­less pub­li­ca­tions.

The high­light of my bucket list was found right in my back­yard and wasn’t even on my list prior to my re­cent trip to the Slate Is­lands.

Imag­ine, if you will, a unique ad­ven­ture back in time, ex­plor­ing past rem­nants and a way of life that lit­er­ally guided the de­vel­op­ment of Canada. Light­houses on the north coast of Lake Su­pe­rior of­fer just such an ex­pe­ri­ence. They tend to be on the outer edges of re­mote is­lands, ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. These light­house lo­ca­tions of­fer unique ex­pe­ri­ences rarely found in a tra­di­tional ad­ven­ture. The paths are not well trav­elled and meet­ing other vis­i­tors is un­com­mon. The night skies are dark, with no light pol­lu­tion, of­fer­ing stargaz­ing and night pho­tog­ra­phy at its best. In gen­eral, the light­house keeper’s houses and sup­port build­ings have weath­ered the years well and give a glimpse into the lives of the peo­ple who pro­vided safe pas­sage for the Great Lake ships.

I had set out to pho­to­graph the Slate Is­land Light­house with the Milky Way gal­axy act­ing as the back­drop for this rem­nant of Cana­dian trans­porta­tion his­tory. The Slate Is­land Light­house is sit­u­ated on an ar­chi­pel­ago com­posed of two main is­lands, five mi­nor is­lands and sev­eral islets lo­cated in north­ern Lake Su­pe­rior 10 kilo­me­tres south of Ter­race Bay, Ont. The light­house stands 224 feet above sea level, which makes it the high­est light on Lake Su­pe­rior. The is­lands were cre­ated by a me­te­orite im­pact, which formed a 32-kilo­me­tre crater. The many islets are a kayaker’s dream with calm, clear wa­ters and many in­ter­est­ing as­pects to ex­plore. The Slate Is­lands are also known for the herd of wood­land cari­bou that in­habit them.

I chose a night with a new moon, which en­sured dark skies and the bright stars of the Milky Way il­lu­mi­nat­ing the land­scape.

Joined by my brother Dean Main and friend Horst Prager, our trip be­gan with the 12-kilo­me­tre cross­ing of Lake Su­pe­rior to the Slate Is­lands, and a tour of the sur­round­ing is­lands and bays. This is where my expectations be­gan to be ex­ceeded, and I truly felt we were in for some­thing spe­cial.

First, we came across a cabin in a shel­tered bay and later de­ter­mined it to be a “Come ’n’ Rest” cabin in the hands of the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources. The cabin, com­plete with bunks, kitchen gear, ta­ble, wood­stove, deck, firepit and dock, is avail­able as a port in a storm. Un­for­tu­nately, the cabin has re­cently been closed to the public. Upon closer in­spec­tion of the cabin, we found a unique fea­ture: a cast-iron bath­tub lo­cated on the shore that is heated by two ad­ja­cent camp­fires. We didn’t fire it up, but we couldn’t help but imag­ine a tired pad­dler or fish­er­man en­joy­ing a hot fron­tier bath while watch­ing the sun dip be­hind the trees af­ter a long day on the wa­ter.

Dock­ing the boat and set­ting up for the night was our pri­or­ity. How­ever, we also an­tic­i­pated meet­ing up with the son of the pre­vi­ous light­house keeper, Bob Bryson. What would the trip be with­out some light­house his­tory and shar­ing sto­ries of past times and chal­lenges? Bob did not dis­ap­point! There were many smiles, chuck­les and laugh­ter as Bob re­counted his time on the is­land and the times spent with his dad, John Bryson, who was the light­house keeper for 30 years end­ing in 1978.

One such story was about the com­mon oc­cur­rence of get­ting the mail and what that en­tailed. Sim­ple but dar­ing by any mea­sure, the light­house keeper’s task was to head out in a row­boat and cross Lake Su­pe­rior at the nar­row­est point (10 kilo­me­tres) to get to Jack­fish, a ghost town now. There, he’d pick up the mail and rest up

a bit be­fore row­ing back, re­turn­ing later that night.

In con­trast, we trav­elled in a large, mod­ern 90-horse­power mo­tor­boat, with all the GPS bells and whis­tles. Nev­er­the­less, we con­stantly checked the weather, as we were still ap­pre­hen­sive, given the un­pre­dictable wrath of Lake Su­pe­rior.

We ar­rived at the light­house around 8 p.m. to set up, take some test shots and catch the sun­set. The skies, as pre­dicted, were clear and dark. The Milky Way was ex­pected to make an ap­pear­ance around 11 p.m. The cen­tre of the Milky Way is only vis­i­ble for short pe­ri­ods dur­ing the sum­mer in the North­ern Hemi- sphere, so we set­tled in for a long, cool night.

By 10 p.m., the sky was dark. Look­ing north, I no­ticed a hint of green in the sky. No way, I thought! The au­rora bo­re­alis (north­ern lights) were go­ing to make an ap­pear­ance! I quickly turned my cam­era around and rapidly set up to cap­ture the show. I didn’t know how long or how in­tense the show was go­ing to be, so the cam­era never stopped click­ing. The show ex­ceeded all my expectations. The lights danced for two hours above us, around us and even lit up the light­house. Af­ter the ini­tial adren­a­line rush of wit­ness­ing the in­tense green with oc­ca­sional pur­ple light, I had to man­age my work. The Milky Way was vis­i­ble to the south and the north­ern lights to the north, so I kept switch­ing my fo­cus back and forth, not want­ing to miss any­thing. Wit­ness­ing the north­ern lights above and all around you from atop a cliff host­ing a light­house was truly a once-in-al­ife­time ex­pe­ri­ence.

Our evening ended with us sleep­ing un­der the stars, gen­tly rocked by waves lap­ping at our boat. Sleep did not come eas­ily, given our adren­a­line rush and hope­ful an­tic­i­pa­tion that the au­rora bo­re­alis would visit us just one more time. At last, with a cool breeze on our face and un­der the warmth of the sleep­ing bags, we drifted to sleep for a few hours.

De­witt Jones, a National Geo­graphic pho­tog­ra­pher, once of­fered this ad­vice: Put your­self in the place of most po­ten­tial and be open to the pos­si­bil­i­ties. This could not have been more true of our trip to the Slate Is­lands.

Au­toma­tion has ini­ti­ated the ob­so­les­cence of these light­houses, and they are now in the car­ing hands of pri­vate groups in­tent on pro­tect­ing them, the sur­round­ing build­ings and the his­tory that con­trib­uted to the de­vel­op­ment of Canada. n

Clock­wise from top left: Dean en­joy­ing the sun­set; Horst and Dean rev­el­ing in the ad­ven­ture; the Come ‘n’ Rest cabin com­plete with tub; the stun­ning north­ern lights.

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