A beacon of hope for Race Rocks ( Times Colonist, 2007)

A beacon of hope for Race Rocks — Times Colonist (Victoria) February 6, 2007

When Garry Fletcher pulls his hand away from the wet wall of the Race Rocks light station, chunks of stone come off in his palm and fall to the steps of the curving stairwell.

The 147-year-old tower’s base, built out of Scottish granite, isn’t so bad, but up at the top, salt and water have worked through the sandstone. Outside, on the parapet encircling the light, old orange paint peels off in sheets.

The structure was well maintained through the 1990s, says Fletcher, who has been visiting Race Rocks for close to 30 years. “When the heat was cut off, that’s when it started to go.”

And this is what’s happening to a light station with heritage status. Just imagine what’s it’s like for those with no such designation.

It’s why Senator Pat Carney was boarding a plane in Vancouver yesterday, subjecting her bad back to the long flight to Ottawa, where the latest version of her heritage-lighthouse bill is expected to get first reading in the House of Commons tomorrow.

The legislation would create a way to select heritage light stations, allow for public consultation before they are blown up, burned down or otherwise disposed of, and ensure the structures are reasonably maintained. Just nine of 52 B.C. lights have some form of heritage designation, and even then that doesn’t guarantee their upkeep.

“It’s a motherhood bill,” Carney said. Alas, this mother never quite makes it to the delivery room. Five times the bill has gone to the Commons, only to see Parliament rise or the government fall before the legislation works its way through the process. “It languishes in committee at the bottom of the order paper.” No politician objects to the bill, but neither is it anyone’s priority.

The problem, says Carney, is no one takes responsibility for maintaining historically valuable light stations, particularly those that, like Race Rocks, lost their keepers to automation. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is focused on keeping the lights and foghorns working, while Heritage Canada says it cares, but doesn’t have any money for the job.

Yet the lighthouses are worth saving, Carney argues. “They’re part of our marine heritage.” No light was ever erected on this coast unless some horrible shipwreck, or the threat thereof, forced far-off Ottawa to loosen the purse strings.

Race Rocks light is a case in point. One nautical mile south of Rocky Point, the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, it was built by the Royal Navy in 1860. Today, the light stands as an island within an island — the surrounding land and outbuildings are part of the province’s Race Rocks ecological reserve, but the tower itself is held by the coast guard, its light and foghorn powered by solar energy.

Race Rocks is a fascinating place for those who get permission to land. The reserve is managed by Pearson College, which uses it as a sort of ecological classroom; last month Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to extol its tidal-power project.

It’s also a birder’s paradise: Black turnstones, brants, pelagic cormorants and on and on. An overwintering colony of Thayer’s gulls gives way to glaucous gulls in February. Eagles drop by to pick off guillemots and juvenile gulls, as evidenced by a ghastly grey mass of feathers. The cacophony raised by scores of grunting, growling sea lions can drown out even the crashing waves and howling winds. Hyundai-sized elephant seals loll on the rocks like giant couch potatoes. Hundreds of harbour seals join them in summer. (The smell of ripe guano assails the nostrils for the benefit of the deaf.)

A clutch of outbuildings include a Cold War concrete Diefenbunker. Built just big enough to house the lightkeeper and his assistant in a nuclear attack (presumably their families had to huddle in the fallout outside), it now houses the desalination plant.

A cannon sits at the base of the light tower, pointing south. Fletcher, the education director at Race Rocks, retrieved the gun from the wreck of the Swordfish, which had carried the artillery piece as ballast before coming to grief in 1877. The Swordfish was just one of the vessels that went to the bottom near Race Rocks. Just three days before the light was turned on in 1860, the tall ship Nanette went aground and was lost. In 1886, the coal carrier Barnard Castle went down just off Bentinck Island (best known in later years as a leper colony); sport divers still fetch up big lumps of coal from the wreck. According to racerocks.com, the crew and 50 passengers died when the ferry Sechelt, bound for Sooke from Victoria, capsized and sank in Race Passage in 1911.

The wrecks testify to the area’s wicked weather. This December’s hurricane — the winds at Race Rocks reached a record 158 kilometres an hour — left softball-sized stones strewn across the lawn and sent boulders the size of garden sheds tumbling to the shore. The storm shifted rocks that had been part of aboriginal burial cairns for 1,500 years.

Buildings exposed to that kind of thrashing need to be maintained if they are to last, which is why Carney, who lives on Saturna Island, is in Ottawa championing Bill S-220.

“I’ve spent more time on this light bill than I spent on some parts of free trade,” says the senator, Canada’s international trade minister in the Brian Mulroney government of the 1980s.

A handful of politicians and lighthouse lovers hope the outcome will be different this time, are pushing for support.

– Senator Pat Carney and Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer will be among the speakers at a Victoria meeting sponsored by the Heritage Canada Foundation on Thursday. It’s at 7 p.m. in the Maritime Museum of B.C., 128 Bastion Square.

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