Keeper of the light
Visiting Puffin Island, one of only five manned remote lighthouses left in N.L.
A helicopter, its blades turning at about 400 revolutions per minute, hovers above the northern shores of Bonavista Bay the morning of Oct. 4.
It’s destination, Puffin Island, one of only five remaining manned remote lighthouses in Newfoundland and Labrador.
It’s cargo, supplies and a turnaround crew for the lighthouse just to the south of Greenspond.
As the small desolate island comes into view, the pilot begins his descent. Less than a kilometre in circumference, its only occupants are the lightkeepers, who have been stationed on the island for 145 years, since the island’s first lighthouse went into operation in 1873.
Finishing up a 28-day shift, principal lightkeeper Craig Burry meets the replacements. He exchanges a few pleasantries and sets to work unloading the supplies, namely drinking water.
Apart from rain collection, the island is too small to maintain a fresh water supply.
Once the task is completed, he sets about showing off the lighthouse’s amenities. Leading the charge is Molly, a threeyear-old black Labrador retriever Burry calls his “lighthouse dog.”
“They used to keep dogs on the island years ago,” he said as he walked, but Molly always makes the trip back home to Wesleyville. “They’re great companionship.”
As he reaches the power station and pulls the door open, his companion barrels off to the side, frolicking through the grass. The inner workings of a lighthouse are low-priority for Molly, but inside is the heart of the entire operation.
When Burry started in 1993, the entire operation was diesel dependent. While the generator is still in place, green energy – five wind turbines and solar panels feeding a large battery bank – carry the bulk of the lighthouse’s power needs.
“We probably only need the generator for about an hour a day now,” he says.
With everything looking shipshape, Burry heads across the path to the lighthouse. Molly is nearby greeting the new crew.
Burry climbs the metal stairs, as so many times before throughout his 25-year career, and gives the automated lamp a quick inspection.
While the keepers don’t dabble with the electronic component of the lamp, they are responsible for minor repairs, like changing out bulbs.
But it’s just one small aspect of the daily routine. On top of keeping vigil and relaying information to fishermen, the lightkeepers are responsible for maintaining the power supply so the light never fades. This involves constantly inspecting windmills, solar panels, batteries, engine oil and fuel levels, which are documented in daily logs.
Furthermore, the lightkeepers are responsible for the upkeep of the lighthouse facilities, painting and cutting grass, and are trained for emergency response should the worst happen.
However, his job was nearly eliminated back in 2009, after the Canadian Coast Guard looked at removing staffed positions from lighthouses throughout the country.
Ultimately, a senate review and intense public backlash staved off the terminations. Release of the report in 2010 indicated the many functions of lighthouse keepers are crucial in maintaining marine safety and sovereignty.
The late Bill Rompkey, who chaired the senate committee, according to CTV News, told reporters, at the time, “We’re suggesting that those that are there now stay -- keep the keepers.”
And Burry maintains it was the right decision.
“Safety is our number one priority,” he said, noting, having personnel on hand allows for a speedier response.
“How can you put a price on life?” he said.
Continuing the tour, Burry makes his way towards the boat house, where an emergency vessel is ready and waiting.
Along the path, he points a finger to fencing that has long dried out and faded, remnants of the time he tried to establish a root vegetable garden during his spare time.
“Field mice kept destroying it, so I had no other choice but to give up on it,” he said.
But keeping busy during idle time is the key to it all, he said.
While Puffin Island maintains two lightkeepers to a shift, and he has Molly at his side, life as a lightkeeper is lonely work, especially when there’s a wife and two children back home.
“It’s hard,” he says about being away. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but it always seems like you’re missing something important, family events and get togethers.
“But it’s goes with the job and you learn to live with it.”
While technological advancements have threatened his job, Burry sees some merit in modernization, as it’s allowed him to keep constant contact with his family – with internet and cellphone service to bridge the gap.
After a 28-day stint, principal lightkeeper Craig Burry and Molly, his three-year-old black Labrador retriever, head home to Wesleyville to spend time with family.
Lightkeepers at the Puffin Island lighthouse have been successful in granting vessels with safe passage for 145 years.
Canadian Coast Guard pilot Brad Marshall helps with the loading of supplies for Puffin Island. A large portion of the supply run includes drinking water, as aside from rain collection, the site has no dedicated fresh water source.