A Touch of Pure Magic Shin­ing a Light on Cari­bou Is­land

Cari­bou Light Sta­tion holds a spe­cial place in her heart

More of Our Canada - - Front Page - by Pa­tri­cia Madi­gan, Parry Sound, Ont.

In the late sum­mer of 1978, my hus­band Glenn, who worked for the Cana­dian Coast Guard, was of­fered a tem­po­rary post­ing on the Cari­bou Light Sta­tion in the mid­dle of Lake Su­pe­rior. The reg­u­lar light­keeper, Bert Hop­kins, had suf­fered a heart at­tack, and was on med­i­cal leave for three weeks. This par­tic­u­lar light sta­tion had a spe­cial place in my heart, as my grand­fa­ther George John­ston was the light­keeper from 1912 to 1921. Glenn was given per­mis­sion to bring me and our three- year- old son, Adam, along with him.

Early in Septem­ber, we loaded up a coast guard truck and drove to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where we met the C.C.G.S. Verendrye. Cap­tain Hodge and his crew safely trans­ported us to the Cari­bou Light Sta­tion; the ac­tual light sta­tion was on a small four-acre is­land, sim­ply called Light­house Is­land, ad­ja­cent to the larger Cari­bou Is­land. Due to the shal­low wa­ter around the small is­land, we com­pleted the trip in an open boat. Bert’s wife Pearl was on hand to wel­come us to the light sta­tion, and we set­tled into a com­fort­able, three-bed­room house for the next three weeks.

Un­be­knownst to us at the time, a tiny “hitch­hiker” ac­com­pa­nied us on our jour­ney. He soon made his pres­ence known, how­ever, when I be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence morn­ing sick­ness! Upon our re­turn to “civ­i­liza­tion,” a doc­tor con­firmed that our fam­ily was grow­ing, and the fol­low­ing spring we wel­comed our sec­ond son, Luke.

As it had been al­most 60 years since my grand­fa­ther left the sta­tion, I was the first John­ston to step foot on the is­land in all that time. I had a strange feel­ing as I looked around the is­land and imag­ined my fa­ther and his sib­lings play­ing right where Adam was play­ing now. His­tory does re­peat it­self!

For­tu­nately, the weather was per­fect for that time of year and we spent most of our time ex­plor­ing the small is­land, as well as the larger is­land of Cari­bou, lo­cated about two kilo­me­tres away by boat.

It felt like par­adise, as we were the only peo­ple on the is­land, and Adam loved play­ing in the sand of the beau­ti­ful beaches. The wa­ter of Lake Su­pe­rior is very cold but clear, and near the shore we were able to see the bot­tom even though it was sev­eral me­tres deep. In­land, there were small lakes and cari­bou would some­times come for a drink, although we never saw any of the elu­sive an­i­mals.

One of our favourite pas­times was beach­comb­ing; flot­sam and jet­sam from pass­ing ships washed up on the shores of both is­lands. Once, we found a wash­tub with wheels that Glenn at­tached a rope to, which he used to pull Adam around the light sta­tion. Adam loved it!

One day, a pass­ing fish­ing boat stopped and gave us a pail of freshly caught lake trout. The pink­ish flesh re­sem­bled salmon. Pearl made a fish chowder with pota­toes and onions—de­li­cious!

The main at­trac­tion on the is­land was the ac­tual light­house, where my grand­fa­ther used to tend the lamp sev­eral times a day. It meant climb­ing the steps/ lad­der to the top of the light­house, where he had a 360de­gree view of Lake Su­pe­rior.

I was de­ter­mined to fol­low in his foot­steps, so, while Glenn and Adam stayed at the bot­tom of the stairs, I climbed up, up, up al­most 30 me­tres, till I crawled through the trap door at the top. One look out of the win­dows and I ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere ver­tigo. I ended up in the cor­ner of the room, where I re­mained for some time. Mean­while, Glenn was won­der­ing what had hap­pened to me and de­cided to leave Adam for a short time to climb to the top. He found me cow­er­ing in the cor­ner and, af­ter a great deal of per­sua­sion, man­aged to coax me back through the trap door, and down the stairs. What a relief to be on the ground again! I guess I was not des­tined for light­keep­ing du­ties!

While on the light sta­tion, Adam celebrated his fourth birth­day and we in­vited Pearl Hop­kins for din­ner. We gave Adam a few gifts but were shocked when he bit down on his drink­ing glass, tak­ing an ac­tual chunk out of it— twice! I guess he was ex­cited, but we gave him only a plas­tic cup af­ter that, as we were 80 kilo­me­tres from the near­est doc­tor. I im­me­di­ately thought of my grand­mother, who had six chil­dren on the light sta­tion at one time, three of them be­ing boys!

Dur­ing our stay on Cari­bou, one of the sad­dest events was the death of a con­struc­tion worker on nearby Michipi­coten Is­land’s East End. Both the Cari­bou Light­house and the East End Light­house were built at the same time, and were very sim­i­lar. A con­struc­tion crew was paint­ing the out­side of the East End Light­house, but one of the men failed to se­cure his safety belt to the scaf­fold­ing and fell 20 me­tres to his death. That was a very sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us, es­pe­cially as it was such a pre­ventable ac­ci­dent.

As for us, all good things must come to an end, and near the end of Septem­ber Bert was ready to re­sume his du­ties. Jim Mcken­zie from the coast guard base in Parry Sound, Ont., ar­rived in a he­li­copter to bring us from the light sta­tion to the air­port in Wawa, Ont.

It was a bit­ter­sweet day, as I knew it had been a once-in-al­ife­time ad­ven­ture for us, and we had so en­joyed our time on the is­land. As we lifted off the he­li­pad, we waved good­bye to Pearl and the light­house, head­ing across the clear blue wa­ters of Lake Su­pe­rior. The thrum­ming of the he­li­copter blades soon put Adam to sleep, but Glenn and I thor­oughly en­joyed the beau­ti­ful trip to the main­land.

Au­tumn had ar­rived and the leaves had turned gor­geous colours—red, or­ange, yel­low, even pur­ple. Jim caused the he­li­copter to “hop” over the land for­ma­tions un­til we got to the Magpie River. From there, we flew up the river and over the falls to the Wawa air­port. We spent the night in a mo­tel, then headed home af­ter our mem­o­rable work­ing hol­i­day. ■

Above from left: Adam play­ing on Big Cari­bou Is­land; Pa­tri­cia and Adam on the C.C.G.S. Verendrye; Cari­bou light­house and dwelling; Glenn and Adam beach­comb­ing.

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