Car­manah light­keeper lives on the wild side, and loves it

Times Colonist - - Front Page - JACK KNOX

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 …

JUS­TINE ETZKORN

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.

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