Keeper of the light

Vis­it­ing Puf­fin Island, one of only five manned re­mote light­houses left in N.L.

The Central Voice - - Front Page - BY ADAM RAN­DELL

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.

Daily rou­tine

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.

Cru­cial

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.

Keep­ing busy

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.

ADAM RAN­DELL/THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

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.

ADAM RAN­DELL/THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

Light­keep­ers at the Puf­fin Island light­house have been suc­cess­ful in grant­ing ves­sels with safe pas­sage for 145 years.

ADAM RAN­DELL/THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

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.

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