Carmanah lightkeeper lives on the wild side, and loves it
There’s a trick to dragging half a tonne of dead sea lion out of a creek. First, you have to pull on your bathing suit, grab your pike pole and set out from your lighthouse with a rope looped around your shoulders.
Which was the incongruous vision that greeted Victoria’s Jennifer Jasechko and family as, halfway into a six-day backpacking slog down the West Coast Trail, they encountered Justine Etzkorn marching up the beach.
Etzkorn believes she probably looked “a little silly.” Jasechko, on the other hand, thinks the Carmanah Point lighthouse keeper looked marvelous. For here’s what Etzkorn was doing: going waaaay beyond her job description to prevent trail users from getting sick.
“She had heard that a sea lion had died in the ocean and the tides had carried him up into the creek where the hikers were getting their freshwater,” Jasechko wrote this week, describing the end-of-August encounter. “They didn’t realize there was a decaying sea lion upstream.
“She climbed down a set of ladders, walked along the beach about three hours, went up the creek, tied a rope around the sea lion and physically dragged it back along the beach.”
This is even harder than it sounds. Climbing the Carmanah ladders is like scaling a skyscraper. Distances on the rugged, 75-kilometre West Coast Trail should be calculated like dog years, multiplied by seven to appreciate the degree of difficulty.
Also, it was a major mammal that Etzkorn was trying to shift over the lip of sand that separates the pool at Carmanah Creek from the open ocean — even if death had robbed the creature of some of its considerable bulk.
“It was a bull Steller’s sea lion, so it was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds when it was alive,” Etzkorn said this week, contacted at the lighthouse. “If it hadn’t floated, it wouldn’t have moved.”
So, she waited for a flood tide to help her out.
“I would wait for the waves to lift it, then I’d pull it a couple of feet.” Then she’d wait for another wave, and heave again. And again, repeating the effort until the carcass was safely away from the creek. Offered assistance, she declined.
The hikers were appreciative. “What an amazing woman,” Jasechko said.
Etzkorn seemed less impressed. “When I was younger, we moved a whale once,” she said. It had expired right close to the lighthouse, was getting ripe, so they pulled it out with a boat.
The story was, if nothing else, a reminder that there’s a whole other Vancouver Island out there, a breathtakingly wild one where hikers drift off to sleep with the drumbeat of a thundering surf pounding in their ears and wake up, as Jasechko did, to wolf tracks in the morning. It’s a place where self-reliance is a must, where solitude is treasured, not feared, and where it’s wiser to respect nature’s power than to try to conquer it.
That’s Etzkorn’s world, the one the 33-year-old has inhabited her entire life.
Her parents, Janet and Jerry Etzkorn, were stationed at the Quatsino Island lighthouse when she was born. Justine was 21⁄2 when the family — she has an older brother, also a lightkeeper — moved to Carmanah in 1986.
She actually appeared in a 1995 Times Colonist article detailing the adventures of a group of West Coast Trail hikers: “At Carmanah they met a delightful 11-year-old young lady, Justine Etzkorn, who seemed mature beyond her years, having lived most of her life at the lighthouse and being very knowledgeable of life on the West Coast.”
She spent some summers in “town” — Bamfield or Nanaimo — then moved to the latter for college at 19. It didn’t take her long to get away from the bright lights and back to the isolated ones, though. She worked at 10 or 12 of the West Coast’s 27 staffed light stations.
That included a summer way up the central coast at Egg Island, where the only person she saw, other than the second lightkeeper, was the guy who delivered the groceries every four weeks.
“I got a lot of books read that summer.” She still borrows from the Vancouver Island Regional Library, which sends books by mail, which gets shipped in periodically with the rest of the supplies.
By 2010 she was back at Carmanah Point as junior lightkeeper. (A 2011 TC story told how she used a block and tackle to pull a light aircraft to safety after it crash-landed on the beach.) She became the principal keeper when her parents retired a couple of years ago, is married now, loves where she is, the place where she grew up.
What’s the attraction? She quotes her mother: “It’s unendingly beautiful.”
“I like how varied it is,” she said. There’s always a storm coming in, a whale swimming by. Sea lions abound (and reek). Lately, she’s been watching for that young wolf, hoping to haze it away from the hiking trail.
Some lightkeepers shy away from Carmanah because of the steady stream of hikers in the summer, but she finds the visitors interesting. Besides, the trail is closed seven months of the year. (That the West Coast Trail exists is a reflection of its isolation; it grew from the Dominion Lifesaving Trail hacked through the bush in 1907, the year after the steamship Valencia wrecked near Pachena Point, killing 136.)
There aren’t a lot of lightkeepers left. Canada went from 264 staffed lighthouses in 1970 to 50 by the late 1990s, victims of an automation-only policy that might have made sense in Ottawa but seemed reckless to storm-tossed mariners.
Public pressure forced an end to the federal Liberals’ destaffing campaign in 1998. A similar effort went nowhere in 2003. The Harper government tried to crowbar the lightkeepers out in 2009, but, with a federal election pending and a fresh-off-the-press Senate committee report defending the need for lightkeepers, backed off in 2011.
“Because of their presence at isolated and critical points along Canada’s coasts, lightkeepers perform a variety of safety-related functions and services that are vitally important to mariners and aviators,” the Senate report read.
It didn’t specifically mention sea lion haulage, but …
Waves break on the beach below the Carmanah Point lighthouse. Lightkeeper Justine Etzkorn impressed a Victoria family by hauling the corpse of a massive sea lion out of a creek from which West Coast Trail hikers draw drinking water.