The bow of the NPA Eagle bobbed just close enough to the edge of Entrance Island for it to be an easy climb onto a barnacle-crusted ladder – the only access by sea to one of Canada’s newly recognized heritage lighthouses.
“Watch out for the rock,” called out principal lightkeeper Glenn Borgens as the boat rocked close to the jagged wall. He stood at the top of the ladder in a green T-shirt and ball cap, a red derrick hanging in the background next to steps with “Welcome to Entrance” blazoned across them.
Only about a half dozen people visit the lighthouse every year, which sits 5.5 nautical miles from Nanaimo Harbour on an island no larger than a hectare and surrounded by the choppy blue-green of Georgia Strait’s inside passage.
It’s become an iconic picture of British Columbia’s West Coast, with buildings covered in red tin roofs and white vinyl siding and a 12-metre red and white apple core lighthouse. But the light station is also an active navigational aid of the Canadian Coast Guard.
It’s a role the station has held since a fish-oil light first shone in 1876. This summer, Entrance Island became one of 74 lighthouses across the country to get heritage status from Parks Canada.
It’s been five years since the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared nearly 1,000 lighthouses as surplus and indicated plans to divest the properties.
The list of heritage-status lighthouses has just been released under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, with 21 in B.C. While the designation for Entrance Island is being seen as a good thing to preserve its character, there’s also disappointment and concern for lighthouses that haven’t won the new status.
(Story continues below photo)
Entrance Island’s assistant keeper Toni Adams is “thrilled to death” with the designation, believing its history and its safety value today are reasons for preserving the station, but she’s also sad other lighthouses have been taken down, she said.
Ivan Bulic, a director of the Canadian Lightkeepers Association and Gabriola Museum board, sees it as a case of good news and bad news. While the government has responded by looking at how to preserve Canada’s lighthouses, the vast majority of the navigational aids haven’t been included in the act, including Point Atkinson near Vancouver and Victoria’s Race Rocks.
Entrance Island is still functioning, so even in spite of the protection it would still be maintained.
“When you hear heritage protection and heritage designation, yeah it sounds great, and it was good that they did it and it’s good the 25 or so per cent have been saved, but in a way, the glass is a quarter full,” said Bulic, who says the rest of the lighthouses will either be left to rot, sold off or somehow lost.
Entrance Island was commissioned in the 19th century as miners chased coal-rich seams in the Nanaimo region. The lighthouse was meant to safeguard the entrance to the harbour, which was notorious for fog, and would protect the region’s shipping interests, Parks Canada documents show.
Today, it’s solar power that runs the automatic lighthouse, but the lightkeepers still perform much of their same role as the eyes and ears on the water. Weather is recorded every three hours for the Canadian Coast Guard and seaplane companies call for updates on cloud ceiling. Boaters are also carefully watched.
It also continues to be a visual aid for mariners even in the age of GPS, electronic navigation and radio communication, says Bulic, who adds that the function it performs is still “extremely valuable.”
Borgens considered the meaning behind the new designation as he walked the path from his home to his assistant’s house on the far side of the island.
It’s pretty special out here, he said.
“How many times in your life do you see something that’s been around since 1876? Always got to tear it down and start again and put new stuff up,” he said, adding they now know the lighthouse will be here into perpetuity.
“Whether they keep us here or not is another story.”