Saturday, September 1, 2012

Estevan Point Lightstation Summer of 2012

Except for the slithering gang of garter snakes, the constant presence of three or four neighbourhood bears to be on the look-out for, the friendly hikers who may show up needing fresh water just when you need a shower more than anything else in the world....Estevan Point is a great lightstation. We are here for another long stretch of nearly six weeks as relief keepers while the permanent keepers take their annual vacation. Just as in 2010, when we worked here from August to early October, the true summer sun, a sun packing heat beyond 14 Celsius, is the prevailing and welcome element. Estevan and Nootka lightstations tend to be north of the “fog bowl” that is all too often our lot at Lennard Island and of the southern stations: Cape Beale, Pachena Point and Carmanah Point.

Previous keepers like Dave and Louise Edgington and the current couple, Brent and Sylvia Hacking, have established a greenhouse, garden beds and flowering borders. Seaweed, lawn clippings, and kitchen scraps are composted to bolster the acidic clay soil. Everything from lavender to roses to globe artichokes grows outdoors as well as prolific ever-bearing strawberries. Four kinds of peppers and at least as many varieties of tomatoes produce amazing results in the greenhouse. Against a south-facing wall of the assistant keeper’s house, an elderly espaliered pear tree grows. In the winter, I was told that the ferocious winds can lift the greenhouse up and away so the lightkeepers throw a sturdy fishing net over the entire structure and peg it down securely!

The boulder beaches trap countless plastic buoys and oyster tubs, which the resourceful lightkeepers carve into hanging plant pots and heat-loving squash family container gardens. The buoy pots of strawberries, fuchsias and other flowers dangle from a re-purposed satellite dish and an old clothesline pole. Also on display inside the principal keeper’s residence are the hand-blown green and blue glass floats in all shapes and sizes collected over the years from those same beaches. We keep looking for those increasingly rare beauties too but so afar, all we’ve found are tantalizing shards. One happy discovery is that sea asparagus aka samphire grows in abundance on the Point and along the beaches, a perennial vegetable packed with Vitamin C and long a staple of coastal First Nations’ diets. Steamed and served with butter and lemon or jazzed up with a drizzle of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar, samphire complements a platter of salmon or halibut perfectly.

My favourite building here is the concrete tower, a two year project completed in 1909, and still the tallest lighthouse on the B.C. coast at over 150 feet. Cruisers and sailboats often slow down to admire the dramatic lines of the flying buttresses supporting the tower. I’ll never forget the crews of two tall ships out on their 19th century decks all staring at our tower while we stared back at those magnificent sailing ships.

We hike up and down the boulder beaches, carefully putting our feet on secure, dry rocks and using our beautifully varnished hiking sticks, complete with metal points, made by our son to sustain us when rocks inevitably roll beneath our feet. A twisted ankle would be very bad news indeed. Walking on this terrain is hard enough with two good legs but hopping back to first aid and safety at the lightstation for several hours would be a test of physical and mental strength. We always come to a complete stop when we want to look around, a necessity to keep track of any bears in the area or just to admire boats going by. Or to take in the dramatic shapes of the clouds above or the eagles chittering anxiously or a stately Great Blue Heron poised on a boulder far out in the bay.

We manage to find the path leading up from the beach to a lonely gravesite. Sarah Jamieson Hamilton died in 1921 at the age of 72. Who was Sarah and how did she die? A relative from England hiked out to see her grave some years ago so somebody remembers her. A holly tree grows beside her grave and a tall granite headstone gives the sparse details of her life. Birth, death, wife of. The site is just up from the shoreline to the north about a kilometre from the lightstation, near where the road used to bring in supplies from Homas.

Homas once was a summertime Nuu-chahl-nuth settlement, a place for fishing and drying seaweed, with its small but deep natural harbour, now popular with sailboats and cruisers. Several families still meet annually to spend time together in their traditional camp. I admire this enduring connection to the land and the sea, to food, and to the extended family.

Estevan once had a small settlement of people connected to running the lighthouse in three round the clock shifts and, like Pachena, a crew of radio technicians and their families. Historic ship to shore achievements were made at Estevan, as 1907 newspaper headlines proudly proclaimed the news that Estevan maintained radio contact with an Australia-bound ship for 6000 miles.

For a gripping description of the World War II “shelling” of Estevan by a mysterious Japanese submarine and an unexplained boat in the vicinity, with not one shell in twenty-six attempts successful in hitting the tallest lighthouse on the coast, read Don Graham’s excellent book, Keepers of the Light (Harbour Publishing). Along with his second book, Lights of the Inside Passage (Harbour Publishing) this is required reading for anyone interested in B.C.’s maritime history and especially, the history of its lighthouses and their keepers.

What I will remember most about our time at Estevan Point is listening to the skipper of a fishing boat whom we’d spoken with by radio near Lennard Island during an incident where a man had taken a 14 to16 foot runabout out into swells approaching twelve feet, strong wind gusts and fog. With this perfect trifecta for disaster and no life jacket visible, we’d called it in to Tofino Radio and immediately hailed the forty foot fish boat coming in out of the rough conditions. The skipper had impressed us then with his good sense then (unlike the dude in the runabout who seemed to be engaged in a bizarrely macho contest of some sort with the ocean but who eventually returned to safety with the alerted Lifeboat crew on hand to escort him home), saying that “nobody should be out in this water today.” But this summer at Estevan, he was advising us that he’d be anchoring at Homas, a place where his ancestors had camped during the summertime. In fact, his family had erected a totem pole in Homas several years ago, a fact we’d heard about from hikers who had stopped to photograph it. Then he shocked us by saying that in 2013, all his family would be gathering in Hesquiaht to honour the memory of his grandfather, who had been hanged with another unfortunate man before the men in the village in 1869, and for which he said the government has since apologized. The government's public "regret" for this incident took place in November of 2012.

See this 2008 article about the petition for the apology and the circumstances leading to the trumped-up charges, with flames fanned by histrionic Times-Colonist newspaper headlines back in the day, where people were hanged to “set an example” and where translators unfriendly to the accused were used in courtrooms. It’s really appalling to read about how often this happened to First Nations people, from the Coast to the Chilcotin incident and beyond.

A book written in 1999 by Peter Wilton Johnson for Heritage Books, Glyphs and Gallows: The Rock Art of Clo-Oose and the Wreck of the John Bright also sheds light on the court case and the multiple accounts of the wreck and what happened to the survivors and the possible fates of the two bodies found. What is clear is that the racism of the era was recognized by the attending doctor, acting as the coroner, who refused to lend his credibility to the kangaroo court-style proceedings and that the pivotal role of the translator, an enemy of the Hesquiaht, makes the public hanging of these two men all the more reprehensible. Despite the predictable ignorant online braying about government apologies for past crimes, the families of the two innocent men hanged in public on that dark day can now go forward with the stain on their family names removed.