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Jack Knox: How would you feel about becoming a lighthouse keeper?

Even with a reduced number of light stations, it hasn’t been easy to find people to live/work at them.
Lighthouse at Entrance Island. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

News item: Canada is advertising for assistant lightkeepers for its West Coast lighthouses.

“How would you feel,” I asked her, “about spending the rest of our lives together in a lighthouse?”

There must have been a draft in the room, because she shuddered.

“That depends,” she replied, “on whether ‘the rest of our lives together’ means ‘beyond next Thursday.’ ”

“Just the two of us, cut off from the world,” I continued. “Week after week, month after month, year after year, time stretching on as infinite as the ocean itself.”

“Maybe until Friday,” she told herself. “I could probably outlast the milk.”

I pressed on. “It would be great: no commuting, no street crime, no shopping, no ­restaurants, no doing stuff with friends, no popping out for ice cream. We could sing karaoke duets, every night! We could dress alike! Do you feel OK? You look like you’re going to be ill.”

So much for that idea. No point being a lightkeeper if she’s going to get seasick just thinking about it.

Apparently the light life isn’t for everyone. It sure isn’t popular with families, at least not lately. Thirty years ago, half of the West Coast’s staffed light stations had kids living at them. There were so many that Santa Claus would hitch a ride on the helicopter making the pre-Christmas supply run to the isolated outposts. For real. Today, by contrast, just one child remains living at a B.C. light.

Not that there are, in fact, that many lights to live at. Canada went from 264 staffed lighthouses in 1970 to 50 by the late 1990s, the result of an automation-only policy that might have made sense in Ottawa’s ivory towers but seemed reckless at sea level.

Public pressure forced an end to the federal Liberals’ ­destaffing campaign in 1998. A similar effort went nowhere in 2003. The Conservative 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.

That left B.C. with 27 staffed lights, some as close to city life as Trial Island off Oak Bay or Entrance Island near Nanaimo, others as remote as Langara Point, the Siberia of B.C. light stations, up at the north end of Haida Gwaii.

Even with a reduced number of light stations, it hasn’t been easy to find people to live/work at them. Five years ago the shortage got so bad that some lights were periodically left unstaffed. Keepers were aging out and not enough people were applying to replace them.

What’s the situation today? The coast guard says all of those 27 lights are staffed. The reason it is advertising for assistant keepers now is that it wants to build a roster of people to fill in as needed.

You could make the argument that the pandemic has made the job more attractive. The enhanced online connectivity we all enjoyed (?) while hunkered in our COVID bunkers — all those family Facetime chats and office Zoom meetings where you forgot to remove your empties from the background — actually opened more of the world to lightkeepers.

“My church has moved online, so it’s more accessible now,” one lightkeeper told me in 2020. She had joined a poetry club with her sister in Alberta, too. She could attend weddings by Skype.

It was, in fact, the rest of the world that was catching up to a way of life with which those inhabiting rocky redoubts at the edge of the world were already familiar. Lightkeepers were maintaining remote relationships long before the rest of us fled under our beds three years ago.

Ask yourself: is it a job — a life — that you would choose? And did the pandemic change your feelings about being alone?

As restrictions eased over the past year or so, some people couldn’t wait to flood back to group settings, but others discovered they were quite happy by themselves, thank you very much. As of December, 16 per cent of Canadian workers continued to work exclusively at home; did that reflect fear of COVID or a love of alone time?

One person’s idea of hell on Earth is another’s heaven. The idea of going off the grid, the dream of a simple, even monastic, life in nature can hold an allure to those slowly rotting to death in their office cubicles. Note that the bestselling B.C. book of 2022 was Grant Lawrence’s Return to Solitude.

Some couples wouldn’t want to live anywhere but far from what Thomas Gray called the madding crowd. West Coast Trail hikers might remember Monique and Peter Knighton at Chez Monique’s, the unlicensed, ramshackle restaurant and store that emerged from the wilderness just down from the Carmanah light. Paradise.

On the other hand, did you watch The Shining? It seems the degree to which we enjoy isolation comes down to whom we’re isolated with. When I suggested the idea, the name of Colin Firth came up.

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