Honorary Keepers of the Lighthouse!

Being married to an artist definitely has its perks. For me, one of the greatest parts of being the Less Creative Other Half to a Creative Genius is getting to accompany my beau on some stellar “art research” excursions. We’ve been invited to experience the inner workings of a chocolate factory before, got to hang out at a micro-brewery when Marty’s custom-designed beer bottles were being filled, and most recently, we were whisked away to a nearby island to be Unofficial Keepers of the Race Rocks Lighthouse for 24 hours! It’s a tough job, but somebody has to be a tag-along bride! πŸ˜‰

Race Rocks: Our new home away from home!

Race Rocks Lighthouse is one of the two oldest lighthouses on Canada’s west coast, and it can only be accessed by boat. (Fisgard is the other oldest lighthouse, and both have been in operation since 1860.) Marty and I had been by Race Rocks Lighthouse before (en route to see the Super Pod of orca whales, natch!), but we never imagined we would ever get to set foot on the sacred island, let alone spend a night at the Lighthouse Keeper’s house! (As Honorary Lighthouse Keepers, even!!) So what if the beacon itself has been automated for decades? Allow me to take a single night’s worth of credit for keeping the passing ships safe… πŸ˜‰

Don't worry, ships passing in the night-- you're in great (albeit inexperienced) hands!

How on earth did this happen? How did the chance to hang out at Race Rocks Lighthouse fall into our laps?

I’m glad you asked! Last autumn, Marty was asked to donate an item to a charity’s fundraising auction here in Victoria. He generously donated a custom painting of the winner’s choice, and we were thrilled to bits when the auction winner requested a piece of the Race Rocks Lighthouse! Even better was the fact that the winner had actual, physical ties to Race Rocks and could arrange for us to spend an evening there, for “research purposes” obviously. Hanging out at the Race Rocks Lighthouse is not an opportunity that comes along very often or to very many people at all, so you can bet that I dubbed myself Marty’s “Art Manager” ASAP and insisted that I accompany him to the remote island when the invitation was extended. πŸ™‚

I'm the manager. I go everywhere Marty goes.

Getting ready for our journey, I fretted about what to pack and how to prepare. What, exactly, does one wear to be a Lighthouse Keeper? How much food does one pack, especially if there’s a chance of being stranded on the island? Should I bring my own toilet paper? (Was there even a primitive toilet there?) Would I need a book to read? Would I get any sleep at all? (Race Rocks is home to a substantial bunch of migrating sea lions during many seasons of the year and is a notoriously loud and stinky place while they are there. Thankfully, the sea lions weren’t basking on the surrounding rocks during our visit, so we didn’t need to use our ear plugs or hold our noses for 24 repulsive hours!)

We were told by the auction winner to “bring a sleeping bag and food” with us– in addition to our signed waivers, of course– but I had no idea what to expect from the accommodations. Would we be roughing it on a rustic wooden pallet on the floor? Would we be crammed into a storage closet-sized ‘room’? Would there be heat? Could we cook? Call me naive, but I’d never been an Honorary Lighthouse Keeper before and had no idea what awaited me. (For the record: I resisted the urge to prepare all of the remaining food items we had in our fridge and pantry for a 24-hour stay, and instead packed enough food to last us 2 days, just in case. The weather forecast looked promising for a timely exit from the island, so my OCD kitchen tendencies were kept in check.)

On Wednesday afternoon, we met the official Lighthouse Keeper at the docks of Pearson College with our overstuffed (and impressively heavy) expedition backpacks on hand. We were wearing our most rugged hiking clothes, vintage PFD jackets (on loan from the college), and we had warm and dry clothing reserves waiting in our sacks, just in case our very small and otherwise exposed transportation boat left us soaked and freezing before we even pulled up to the jetty at Race Rocks. Luckily, the sail there was dry and mostly warm, if bumpy and a little nerve-wracking. (Did I mention I don’t know how to swim? Heh.) First hurdle: cleared!

On our way!

Our first surprise was encountered right at the jetty, where we were supposed to dock and make our way onto the island. Blocking our only pathway to the island was a moulting (read: cranky!) female elephant seal, who snorted, hissed, and generally threatened to bite us when we made even the slightest move towards her.

Race Rocks is a protected ecological reserve site, so one of the first and most important rules for guests is to not disturb the animals, at any cost to themselves. (In realistic terms, this means that regular visitors to the island have to stand back and witness the normal life cycles of resident animals, including mating, birth, death, abandonment, starvation, disease, stand-offs, etc.) This female seal showed no intention of moving off the jetty, and there was obviously no way for us to move her ourselves, so we ended up having to creep around her while grasping to theΒ outsideΒ of the protective handrails on the jetty. Welcome to Race Rocks!

I was terrified as I scaled the very outer edge of the jetty, knowing that a sharp drop into still-tumultuous waters awaited me if that female seal lunged in my direction. (The group consensus, made before we exited the boat, was that it would be better to let go of the rail and fall into the water rather than risk being bitten by a moulting seal– if it came to that, which hopefully it wouldn’t. For the record: this is much easier said and done by people who know how to swim. Luckily, I scrambled past the seal without being bittenΒ orΒ plunging myself into the icy waters. Welcome to Race Rocks, indeed!)

Once we were safely past the Unofficial Race Rocks Guardian, we met our next animal friend around the corner– a gigantic male elephant seal named Misery who had taken up residence mere feet from the door of the Lighthouse Keeper’s house.

Meet Misery. (We are smiling in this pic but we are secretly afraid of waking the beast).

This particular MiseryΒ does notΒ enjoy company (as evidenced by his continued maiming and killing of rival males and young seal pups), so we tiptoed gingerly past him while he slept, sending furtive prayers to the universe to keep him snoring until we were safely inside. Thankfully, the universe obliged. (I don’t know if I could have handled two seal antagonists within mere minutes of arriving at Race Rocks, especially one of the 1000+ lb, Alpha Male variety.)

But the lighthouse! Oh, the lighthouse!

Race Rocks Lighthouse by day

I was blown away by the actual light tower! A giddy grin affixed itself to my face and refused to budge or wane for the next 24+ hours. I was overcome by all sorts of romantic notions about lighthouses and spent most of the time on the island either admiring the light tower, photographing the light tower, thinking about the light tower, climbing the 98+ stairs to the top of the light tower, or enjoying the spectacular views from atop the light tower. Marty and I took occasional breaks inside to make tea or grab snacks, but the majority of our time was spent outside appreciating the magnificence of Race Rocks Lighthouse!

Race Rocks Lighthouse by night

The weather was perfect for the outing– not raining, not too windy, and we visited there the night before the Full Moon, too. We stayed up as late as possible, watching the sunset first and then witnessing the moonlight playing on the light tower several hours after our camera decided it could no longer capture the magnificence of the setting digitally. (The brightness of the full moon enabled us to keep a sharp watch on Misery, too. God knows we wouldn’t want to accidentally trip over him while we were skipping around like fools on the island! Antagonizing a male elephant seal in the dark would have been a definite– and probably fatal– Race Rocks FAIL.)

What did I tell you, fools? I OWN THIS ISLAND!

After what felt like a very short sleep, we crawled out of bed in time to catch the sunrise. (Would we have missed our only sunrise at Race Rocks Lighthouse? Never!!)


(In total, we snapped over 1150 photos in less than 24 hours on the island! Our first sweep helped us whittle this down to 500. It was nearly impossible to “just” pick 20 or so for this post.)

If this is what it’s like to be a “starving artist”, sign me up please! πŸ˜‰

Final notes and details: The Lighthouse Keeper’s residence at Race Rocks is actually pretty classy and modern. (The Lighthouse Keeper offered us freshly baked cookies right out of the oven, which came in stark contrast to my idea of the house as a tiny, uber-drafty campsite.) There is no flushing toilet on site, but thereΒ isΒ a primitive, indoor-outhouse-type toilet that more than suffices, especially when I was bracing myself for a day of peeing on rocks. There’s electricity, heat, a fully-equipped kitchen, and even wireless internet access there! (I decided not to bring our laptop with us, though. Contrary to popular belief, I can last for a day without checking my e-mail.)

Fortunately, the moulting female seal left the jetty during the night, so we didn’t have to deal with her menacing presence on the way back to the boat. Our return trip was delayed by a few hours due to wind and sketchy water conditions, but we had more than enough food to tie us over and the delay just meant more opportunities to take excessive amounts of photos! πŸ™‚

What do you think, dear readers?

Was that an adventure or what?

Was the story worth the wait?

PS: A big thank you to everyone who visited Lake Superior Spirit on Thursday when I had the honour of guest posting in Kathy’s absence! Apologies for being a shoddy guest and not telling you I was even there until after the fact. What can I say? I was lighthouse keeping! (Please feel free to check out Kathy’s blog when you get the chance. She is one of my favourite stops each morning, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to guest post there.)

65 responses

  1. OMG–I can’t even begin to imagine how totally cool this would have been! And what about the seals? Is that cool or what? I am so, so jealous. Your photos are incredible–really awesome! Will we get to see more?

    Hope you are having a wonderful weekend back again in the non-lighthouse world!


    PS Loved you post on Kathy’s blog!

    • Haha Kathy! This post provides a pretty good taste of the photos we took at Race Rocks, but there will ALWAYS be room for more! (Our hard drive is literally STUFFED with Race Rocks pics now, so I’ll be more than happy to include more of them in future posts!) πŸ™‚

      We had a GREAT time at the lighthouse, and it feels so strange to be back. While we were on the island, I kept waking up in the middle of the night, seeing the gigantic lighthouse tower right outside our window, wondering “am I dreaming?” and then drifting off again. My bedroom window at the lake feels so lonely without a lighthouse now. πŸ˜‰

  2. Totally fun! Love the photos. Tagging along with the hubby is absolutely an imperative perk! Lighthouses are cool and romantic. Split Rock lighthouse on Lake Superior (Minnesota) is a State Park. No overnights or elephant seals, but fun to climb up and appreciate the view.

    • We have a bunch of easily accessible lighthouses in and around Victoria, too. We’ve always loved hanging out at these lighthouses, but the draw of a HARD TO GET TO lighthouse proved to be irresistible! Romantic, cool… and “exclusive”. We’re so hip! πŸ˜‰

  3. Wow, so that was the mystery adventure! I am so envious. I have had a love affair with that island for years now and was a daily visitor/user of the now kaput remote-controlled webcam there. What a great experience for you two !

    • Rumor has it that the web cam still works just fine. (We were warned by the keeper not to do anything embarrassing if we could see the webcam, so I assume that’s because we could be caught on tape?)

      We were actually thinking of telling you to log on to the camera at a specified time while we were there so we could wave hello, but that would have ruined the mystery of our adventure in a big way. Maybe next time! πŸ™‚

      • Sent you a foto from that webcam taken exactly three years ago … during a rare blizzard.
        Damn, I wish I could get it to work for me now, but I can’t. Let me know if you are able to. It is camera 5.
        There is also one working on top of the lighthouse and an underwater one.

            • I was totally tempted, but 1) there were cameras everywhere, and 2) I might have tempted the fates by doing so and ended up as Misery bait. πŸ™‚

              We “took only photographs” and “left only footprints”, as the old saying goes.

            • True: stealing from a protected ecological reserve would be no good, but I don’t think any of the other beaches would mind. It’s de-cluttering! πŸ™‚

    • The sea urchens are so very fragile that once on the beach it is not long before they break up from wave action. Makes them a rare find out of the water.

  4. I am oh-so-impressed and would have been greeeeeeeen with envy, but you gave us a PHENOMENAL virtual tour — almost the same as being there with benefits: we didn’t have to personally encounter the cranky female elephant seal, nor did we have to tip-toe around Misery in the dark of night. (“Misery hates company” love it!). An adventure of a lifetime — THANK YOU for sharing it!

    • My pleasure, Laurie! I was envious of *myself* for getting to go on this adventure, so the least I could do was take my readers along for the experience (sans elephant seals, of course)! I kept telling Marty while we were there: “I can’t wait to BLOG about this!” (to which he just shook his head with a slight smile-slash-frown on his face. The appeal of blogging can never make 100% sense to a non-blogger.)

      Apparently there are talks of establishing an artist/writer’s retreat on the island in the future, which would open up the opportunity for a lot more people to experience the lighthouse first hand. Of course, the college that owns the property would need to ensure that the site and resident species were kept protected despite the increased human traffic. But what a place to be inspired (if not also a teensy bit afraid of Misery!) πŸ˜‰

  5. Ha! So the crazy elephant seals were the reason for the earplugs? That sounds horrible. I loved picturing that scene of the “guard” seal blocking your passage! So funny, yet so terrifying. Those seals know they totally run that island.

    • It’s actually sea lions (similar to, but different from, elephant seals) that would normally be the reason for the ear plugs. Hundreds upon hundreds of them usually hang out on the surrounding rocks, and they bark, burp, and grunt non-stop. The few times we went past the lighthouse (in September) before, the sound and the smell of those sea lions was TERRIBLE! We packed ear plugs with us, thinking that the sea lions would be there, but luckily they don’t come back to the island until the summer months. πŸ™‚

      That guard seal was pretty intimidating, even though she was only about 1/4 the size of Misery. When seals moult, their coats fall off in chunks and even leave some open sores behind on the skin. She was barking and growling at the lighthouse keeper when he tried to get off the boat, and when she moved, it was obvious that she could be quick if she wanted to. Yikes! I don’t blame her for being cranky and cantankerous, but she could have literally been ANYWHERE ELSE on the island without us needing to go near or around her. What a way to start our stint on Race Rocks!

        • Sea lions AND moulting seals are terrible. (Both are stinky!) πŸ˜‰ I had no idea that seals moulted, either, but I know now firsthand that they do and that they don’t enjoy it, either!

          We have a close up shot of that guard seal on the jetty, and she looks awful (like a raggedy seal zombie!) I felt really bad for her but also appreciated the fact that she didn’t bite us and turn us into moulting seal zombies forevermore. πŸ™‚

    • Understatement alert! I haven’t had that big of a smile on my face since my wedding day, probably. πŸ˜‰ Glad I could take you along on this virtual adventure!

  6. This is AMAZING!!! I am going back to read it again to capture more detail. And to have a full moon too! Simply amazing experience…I’m so happy for you, and so glad you shared it all with us!!

    • Pretty cool, right? πŸ™‚ I felt like I could have written a novel-length post about the experience, but I didn’t want to take up hours of everybody’s time as they scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled through my babbling! (Misery deserves a full post of his own, as does the jetty guardian seal, as does another seal pup that I didn’t even mention!) Oh, well. I might do a reprise post at some point; otherwise, there’s still plenty here to keep people occupied. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment!

  7. Lighthouse keeping – an adventure indeed! What an amazing opportunity you seized, even if you did have to step carefully around the seals. It must have been thrilling to be so close to them… The pictures you got are awesome, especially the ones in the moonlight and sunrise. My favorite shot, though, is “Thou Shalt Not Pass!” There could be no misinterpretation of the seal’s warning!

    • Yes, there was no ambiguity in her body language whatsoever! “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT, MISTER! I AM MOULTING AND I’M CRANKY!!” πŸ™‚

      I have seen seals at zoos before, and we also see a lot of harbour seals in the waters where we work (at the harbour, go figure). I’ve never felt threatened by one before, though– must be because I’ve never encroached on their personal space until a few days ago!

  8. Wow, I almost said when you were asking everyone to guess where you were going.
    Congratulations you’ve just won a 6 winter months paid vacation in a light house off Cape Breton Island.
    I posted this comment about a hour ago on facybooky.

    • Maybe I’m crazy, but winter at a Cape Breton Island lighthouse still sounds kind of fun and appealing! πŸ™‚ (Damn romantic notions surrounding lighthouses– they can really cloud better judgment!)

  9. What a story! I love reading all the details, almost felt like I was there with you. And the pictures are amazing! OK, so now you guys are officially the Coolest Couple Ever. What an incredible opportunity. I have to admit my husband and I would have seen the seal and turned around and went home.

    • Ha– there was peer pressure to stick around even after we saw the guard seal. The Lighthouse Keeper had made the trip into Victoria specifically to pick us up by boat, so it would have been ultra impolite to ask him to shuttle us back before we even set foot on the island. πŸ™‚ (Otherwise, I would have been right there with you: moulting seal? No thanks!)

  10. Wow – what a great adventure! Great photos too! Looks like you took your managerial role very seriously for a seriously great time! I love unique adventures like that – so much fun!

  11. Fabulous. The story, the photos, the adventure. The only thing I can relate to with the ‘live animal’ is when we visit Kauai for a few weeks, and the monk seals lumber up from the sea to the beach and plop down for hours…or days. The park rangers place little yellow string around them so the beachgoers do not disturb. Near a lighthouse or on a Hawaiian beach, these animals are impressive!

    • I like the idea of a yellow string keeping beachgoers away, but I was perfectly alright giving the seals as wide a berth as possible even without a rope! πŸ˜‰ (The Keeper was mostly comfortable walking on the path alongside Misery to get into the house, but Marty and I always took the roundabout way (i.e. as far from Misery as possible) whenever we wanted to go back inside. No sense disturbing the giant, especially when you’re on an island and have little chance of being rescued in time.)

  12. First of all, sweet pea, (Forgive me, dear Marty) if you ever refer to yourself as the Less Creative Half again I shall…I shall…I shall type another sentence just like this one! We are all creative in different ways and you are equally creative to your wonderfully creative equal-half. Now, on the adventure. What fun! What fun! It sounds like a blast. What an opportunity you two had. I love the pics you took and the way you illustrated them, too.

    Thank you again, six billion more times (at least) for doing that wonderful guest blog over at my house. Didn’t we drink a lot of tea? Didn’t we have fun? OK, I have to go fill the wood room this afternoon…we burned so darn much wood at our party!

    • (bows head in shame) I know that I’m creative too, Kathy– differently creative, but not less creative. πŸ™‚ I’m always stoked to get a default invitation to adventures like these, though. My particular brand of creativity hasn’t yet materialized in invitations to go see lighthouses or chocolate factories, but maybe one day it will be Marty who’s tagging along with me? Haha– that would be fun to see!

  13. Wow! That’s great, well worth the wait to hear about this story! And you tell it so well. That is so cool that you got that overnight experience, and great photos too (I see a photography career in your future). Okay now I get about the earplugs mention in your earlier post… Hehe I also would not have had a clue what to pack! Great post Dana.

    • Thanks, Christy! I have a tendency to overpack for EVERYTHING, but thankfully, the only extraneous item I packed along for this journey was actually a book. (Silly me, thinking I would be bored or unoccupied enough at the lighthouse to READ!) Next time, I’ll know better. πŸ˜‰

  14. Those photos are AWESOME. Especially the night shots of the lighthouse by moonlight – those are absolutely beautiful (I especially love the one with the little house on the side). You can no longer claim to take terrible photos! I’m singularly jealous of your trip. How magical!

    • Yes– after this trip, I think my position as decent photographer has been solidified. Oh, well– terrible shots were fun while they lasted! πŸ™‚

      How fortunate it was that we got to be there the night before the full moon! I only wish we had brought a tripod with us– our camera refused to cooperate when it got darker (mostly because our hands were trembling with joy and excitement at being there!)

  15. Wow What an exciting adventure. Todd’s uncle is lighthouse keeper on a remote island here and I would love to visit. So I am jealous. The pictures you took are spectacular. It’ll be nice to see Marty’s interpretation of the experience. We have harp seals on this side and they are very saucy. So I know the fear of them. But that is a part of the story here isn’t it. It’s all about the experience. Glad you had a great time and thanks for sharing it was worth the wait.

    • Thanks, Lesley! I’m surprised you haven’t been able to visit the lighthouse where Todd’s uncle is keeper yet! (Then again, remote islands can be pretty treacherous and hostile, so maybe it’s a good thing you’re staying on the rock for now.)

      “Saucy” is the perfect word for those seals. That female had ATTITUDE!

  16. Wow, what fun! Thanks for the wonderful tour – and the great pictures as well. I would have loved the whole experience – especially the cookies warm from the oven! πŸ™‚ Hope you will share the Artist’s rendition of it! I love to paint but am more of a hobbyist painter than making a living from it. Have exhibited and sold a few here and there – I just love the creative outlet, so different from writing, yet it is writing in colors rather than words. I do both because I could choose just one, haha!

    • Thanks so much, SuZen! Those cookies from the oven were a welcome treat, to say the very least. πŸ™‚

      I will definitely share Marty’s next rendition of the lighthouse when it’s ready. He’s already done one painting of Race Rocks, but we haven’t photographed it yet for the website. (A combination of bad weather and laziness on our parts!) But doesn’t selling your own artwork feel GREAT? My heart always swells with joy at the thought of being creative and earning a living at the same time. πŸ™‚

  17. What a fantastic adventure for you both, Dana!

    Lighthouses are so cool. Your pictures are amazing. And I love the captions you superimpose on the pics. How do you do that? The formatting of your groups of photos is also so visually appealing.

    The seals, the lighthouse, the pure adventure – what a thrill! Thanks for packing us in your backpack and taking us along for the ride.

    • Thanks, mj! I *just* learned how to do things with my photos (like adding text and grouping several of them into one collage). I use Photoshop and Corel Draw (PS for the text, which is just a simple “A” button), and Corel for the collages. I’m sure collages can be done in PS, too, but I’m still working on the skillz. Give me a year… or two. πŸ˜‰

  18. You just lived out one of my fantasies. (And can you believe I managed to be patient enough to wait to read this post?? I can’t!) Oh, to spend the night in a lighthouse! How wonderful for you and Marty! (I am going to overdo the exclamation points in this comment. Sorry. I will tone it down now.)

    Your photos are wonderful and I can’t believe you only took 1150. It looks like such a marvelous adventure. I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to walk past Misery. Scary dude. Well done on getting past him unscathed. πŸ™‚

    • You should know by now that I am a HUGE fan of exclamation points! (!!!!) This experience is fully deserving of them. πŸ˜‰ It was a pretty exciting adventure for Marty and I, and yes– I can’t believe we had enough courage to walk by Misery. After the keeper took that one shot of Marty and I on the path near Misery, we were careful to give him a VERY WIDE berth! πŸ™‚

  19. What a delightful – and exciting – story! You had MY heart racing when you described having to skirt the female on the outside of the jetty. I mean, I can swim but that doesn’t make the prospect of plunging into freezing water because I’ve been attacked by a large mammal any more appealing. Sounds like it was a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience, one I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy without your excellent narrative! Gratitude in abundance! πŸ˜€

    • I like your perspective, Michelle. Plunging into icy waters would be no fun, regardless of anyone’s swimming abilities. πŸ™‚ Thankfully it didn’t come to that…

    • They look like aliens! If you’ve ever seen Frozen Planet, there’s one episode where you can see two male elephant seals sparring. They look and sound like ALIENS! Pretty frightening actually.

  20. Hey there!

    My partner Ryan and I were the Race Rocks eco-guardians (me for one year) and him for 3 years. We left just a few months ago and miss the islands so much! It really is an incredible opportunity to spend all your days on an island surrounded by wind, fog and thousand pound animals. Sorry we missed you though. The island is a fantastic, amazing place to live and work. We have thousands of photos that you can view at http://www.flickr.com/ryanjmurphy and at http://www.flickr.com/raisamirza if you are interested. Thanks for bringing back some good memories of our home!


    • Thanks, RaΓ―sa! Marty and I had an incredible time there, and we were only on the island for a day. I can only imagine what it would be like to spend entire seasons and/or years there. It would really get you into the rhythms of nature! Thanks for stopping by and sending the photo links. I’ll definitely check them out. πŸ™‚

  21. Hi there,
    Just wanted to say what a pleasure this was to read… since Marty is doing the painting for us! We are eagerly looking forward to the results, which we will hang in our gallery of lighthouses, right alongside a picture taken by a former lighthouse keeper, Ryan Murphy!

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