What it is prefer to be a 21st century lighthouse keeper
(CNN) – Caroline Woodward wakes up each morning to the sound of waves crashing onto the rocks that surround her home, tiny Lennard Island, at the head of Clayoquot Sound near Tofino, British Columbia, Canada.
On this rocky, green island is the Lennard Isle Lightstation, a bright white wooden lighthouse with a fire engine red tip that has been attached to the western Canadian coast since 1904 when it was established to guide seafarers through the surrounding waters.
There has been a lighthouse keeper on Lennard Island ever since, and today that job falls to Woodward, who also writes poetry and children’s books, and her husband, Jeff George, who took the picture above.“I think a lot of people have romantic ideas about 19th century lighthouses,” Woodward told CNN Travel.
Not many of them are right, she says.
No, she doesn’t live in the tower itself – and no, she doesn’t have much time to kill.
What Woodward has is a busy, fun, and rewarding role that she wouldn’t trade in for the world.
Caroline Woodward’s husband Jeff George took this picture of Woodward working on the Estevan Point lighthouse. It is visible on the left and takes the card from the sunlight recorder.
Courtesy Jeff George
Woodward and George take turns broadcasting a weather report at 3:15 a.m. to the Coast Guard’s local radio. It’s the first of seven they deliver every day.
Sometimes they catch the sunrise illuminating the sky in a deep, bluish-purple haze.
Woodward records the daily weather report in her logbooks, knowing they may be of interest to climatologists, and provides Environment Canada with two daily reports of precipitation and temperature.
Woodward and George overlook the sea and the sky from the lookout points. They use an anemometer to calculate wind speeds and monitor wave heights by looking at the white caps of the waves and seeing where the sea has splashed on nearby rocks.
Day-to-day operations also include the maintenance of the twelve buildings at Lennard Isle Lightstation. This of course includes the tower, three houses, a boathouse, a radio room, an engine room, a battery shed that controls the two wind turbines on the island, and a garden shed.
“I think a lot of people have romantic ideas about 19th century lighthouses.”
Caroline Woodward, lighthouse keeper
Woodward and George also keep an eagle eye from the island’s vantage points for passing boats that may be in distress. They also call on site, including from the BC Air Ambulance pilot, who sometimes wants to know something about the fog conditions at sea.
The couple work seven days a week – vacations only come when the Coast Guard organizes relief workers. In return, Woodward acted as an assistant for “about a dozen” of the 27 occupied lighthouses on the British Columbia coast.
In between, there is time to tend the garden, explore the island, and observe the abundance of wildlife that populates Lennard Island and its spectacular surroundings.
When the sun is shining, Woodward and George have enviable views over the turquoise seas, distant mountains, and rocky islands that characterize this corner of Canada.
“We see the annual offshore gray whale migration from their calf / winter seas off Mexico en route to their summer waters off Alaska,” says Woodward.
“We have bald eagles, lots of seagulls, crows and the sturdy sparrow and wren families, kingfishers and waterfowl and waders all year round. We also host Pacific tree frogs and wonderful insects like the square camel cricket.”
Fortunately, Lennard Island doesn’t have bears, cougars, or wolves, Woodward says – though she’s encountered such animals on other BC light stations.
The wildlife and remarkable landscapes also inspire her writing. Woodward recently completed a dystopian novel for young adults that they think was directly inspired by the stunning surroundings of the North Pacific.
Looking for adventure
Jeff George, Caroline Woodward and their son Seamus, pictured on Lennard Island a few years ago.
Courtesy Jeff George
Woodward and George moved to Lennard Island in 2008.
Before that, Woodward spent many years in the publishing industry (“in various roles including editor, publicist, managing editor, bookseller, publisher’s agent, creative writing teacher.”). At one point she even ran her own bookstore.
Wooward’s also traveled extensively, including a solo bike tour of Greece and a time hiking in Nepal.
Woodward always loved to write, but when she and George got married and had their son, Seamus, she found it harder to find the time to work on her books.
By the mid-1990s, Seamus was an adult and Woodward was looking for “another way to buy myself time to write.”
Her own childhood, she suggests, paved the way for both her writing career and her role as lighthouse keeper.
Woodward grew up on a “homestead” in British Columbia in the 1960s and 70s. She was one of three children born to her Dutch mother and Welsh father, who met during World War II and who emigrated to Canada.
“We had no electricity, no running water or a telephone until I was 12. We had horses to transport until a tractor and then a car were bought while I was in elementary school,” she recalls.
“The hard work of plucking roots and rocks and riding horses to check the fate of cattle and many chores from an early age has been well trained for any other job I’ve ever had, especially as a lighthouse keeper.”
Woodward and her husband were inspired to turn to the life of the lighthouse after meeting a light keeper by chance on a ferry to British Columbia in 2006.
Woodward spoke to him and she was instantly fascinated by his stories and fascinated by the lighthouse lifestyle.
She had assumed that occupied lighthouses were a thing of the past, but was pleased to hear that she was wrong.
“I knew in my bones that I had found the next adventure for my husband and I,” says Woodward.
Initially, George became an assistant light keeper temporarily stationed at various lighthouses across BC while Woodward stayed ashore.
George later applied for the vacancy on Lennard Island and Woodward became the deputy keeper. They have been there ever since.
Jeff George took this picture of Lennard Island on a stormy day.
Courtesy Jeff George
Lennard Island’s beautiful oceanfront location means it’s fairly exposed to the elements. For much of the winter there are choppy rains, howling winds, and wild seas. The lighthouse itself is often shrouded in fog.
The climate means that patience is necessary.
“The weather can change and we can all be grounded for some frustrating days as we try to rebook our precious dentist, optician, and other important appointments,” says Woodward.
But Lennard Island, on the other hand, is enjoying an early, hopeful spring. This year, snowdrops have been popping up on the island since January 18, says Woodward, who takes photos of island life and uploads updates to her Facebook page.
Her husband is also an avid photographer who takes pictures of the ever changing seas and skies from their perfect vantage point.
Woodward and George were used to living in isolation even before the Covid-19 pandemic turned everyone’s lives upside down, giving the couple an additional perspective on social isolation.
Woodward says she is grateful that working on the lighthouse feels like “one of the safest jobs on the planet” during the coronavirus.
The couple’s routine hasn’t changed too much. Now they keep a safe distance from the ship’s crews who arrive on the island to refill fuel tanks, take away litter, or bring them food and mail – but otherwise “life isn’t really that different”.
For the past 10 months, Woodward’s has handled medical appointments, book readings, and meetings with ease.
Even so, she was disappointed not to have seen her son and sister this past Christmas.
And while the couple make the most of the outdoors, they also share many of the same hobbies that survived the pandemic as the rest of us.
“Yes, we watch TV and Netflix like everyone else!” says Woodward.
“We have our makeshift gym where on stormy days when we’d rather not get drenched, we pedal or risk being impaled by branches as we stroll under swaying spruce trees on the trail around the island. “
Woodward is an avid reader and enjoys browsing her large library and getting books from her favorite bookstores.
She tries to avoid “doomscrolling” on social media and instead advocates reaching out to friends and family and offering friendliness.
“Even if you can only be kind when someone else is going through a difficult period and has to leave their frustration on a safe and non-judgmental ear. Help them carry that burden and say goodbye,” she says.
The most important piece of advice Woodward can give from years at the lighthouse is to be present.
“Take the time to appreciate where you are, go outside, take a deep breath, and remember that this too will pass,” she says.