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Keepers of the light

by Jill Collins

Cape Beale lighthouse near Bamfield, BC has been keeping marine traffic safe since 1874.  It was the first lighthouse built on Vancouver Island and is currently one of 27 manned light stations remaining in BC.  I did not pay much attention to this fact when planning a backpacking trip on the Cape Beale trail.  My focus was on the usual priorities: food, gear, and the itinerary.  All I knew going in was there was a lighthouse at the trails end, a beautiful sandy beach to camp at and a rugged muddy trail that would lead me there.
Hiking the Cape Beale trail is an adventure.  Its one of those hikes where one has to cross a swampy bog, hoof it up steep rocky hills, climb up, over, and across fallen trees the size of trucks all while trudging through wet sloppy mud.  It was exactly what Joel, Ben, Liv and I were hoping for.  Hiking through the giant forest and all its challenges is not without reward.  Halfway along the Cape Beale trail is Topaltos Beach, a crescent shaped sandy beach with stunning views of the Deer Group Islands.  We claimed a patch of sand that would be home for the next few days and set off to explore the beach.  Searching for rocks and shells turned into following animal tracks of deer, racoons, birds, and bear with cub in tow.  It would have been great to see some of these creatures.  At least the marine life did not disappoint.  Amongst the many fishing boats in the Trevor Channel were gray whales feeding near the kelp beds.  We ended our first night on Topaltos Beach watching the sun set, the moon rise, and stars appear.  As I drifted off to sleep I thought nothing could top this adventure.

The next day the four of us continued our hike on the Cape Beale trail to the lighthouse.  I did not expect to get much out of the visit other than a few pictures of the lighthouse.  I was content with our adventure thus far but saying we hiked the entire trail would be a bonus.  After hours of climbing up hills and over trees we finally emerged out of the forest and into the open sand flats surrounding the light station.  The lighthouse was not yet visible but outbuildings, fuel tanks and noise from a generator confirmed it was close.  Suddenly I felt as though we were trespassing.  I had no idea if we were allowed near a manned light station. Ben, Liv and Joel approached the outbuildings and proceeded up some stairs to the lighthouse.  I had reservations about continuing on but followed reluctantly.

Half way up the stairs the lighthouse appeared.  For a few moments I was completely in awe of the lighthouse and the amazing view before me.  Standing 51 metres above the Pacific Ocean on a rocky bluff was a panoramic view of blue skies and ocean as far as I could see. The grounds surrounding the lighthouse were equally spectacular.  There were three well kept white houses with red roofs.  It was obvious someone visited the light station often or perhaps lived here given the immaculate shape everything seemed to be in.  There was a sunken garden complete with a greenhouse, garden boxes and strategically placed Adirondack chairs.  I noted a laundry line, patio furniture and open windows on the houses.  My thoughts were interrupted by a dog barking.  Immediately followed by a warm hello from a friendly woman waving as she came out of one of the homes.  No longer did I feel we were trespassing, in fact Patti, the assistant light keeper, was delighted to have visitors.  Patti treated all of us like friends reuniting after many years.  She showed us around her garden and shared stories of the lighthouse’s past. Tosh, the friendly Border Collie no longer barked at us.  Instead she played fetch as Ben and Liv took turns tossing a frisbee.  The more I was around Patti the more I began to like her spirit.  She engaged in conversation with Ben and Liv which made them feel special and part of the moment.  Patti took the time to answer all the questions Joel and I had about life at a light station.  She even shared with us her story of becoming a lighthouse keeper and mentioned all the must sees at Cape Beale.  Patti kindly offered fresh produce from her garden which we accepted with delight.  Not often do we backpack with fresh veggies so this was a treat.  We shared Patti’s sweet cherry tomatoes sitting on the helicopter pad watching gray whales feed near the entrance to Barkley Sound.  Then we munched on her garden carrots perched on the cliffs of Cape Beale as ships sailed by.  Extra bonus was the fresh kale and basil we took back to camp with us and made the best stir fry ever.  Kale, basil, and salal berries steamed in salt water.  It was amazing!

Our adventure continued on after lunch and just kept getting better and better.  Patti met us on the sand flats and led us on a wonderful walk exploring the rocky shorelines and tide pools of Cape Beale.  Many times Patti was hunched down alongside Ben and Liv just as enthusiastic as they were at whatever marine creature was found.  I really liked spending time with Patti.  She was kind, easy to talk to, made my children feel important every time they spoke to her.  As we made our way back across the sand flats I hesitated for a moment.  Up ahead I could see the Cape Beale trail and knew our time at the lighthouse had ended.  I felt as though I should have given Patti a hug goodbye.  In just a few short hours she had become my friend.  Somehow the topic of mail came up and we exchanged information.  She very much wanted me to send her some of my articles.  I suspect, given how remote life is as a lighthouse keeper, getting mail is a big deal.  By the time this article hits the press Patti will have received the first of many packages full of drawings, a few of my articles, and letters from the kids and me.

Bear tracks on Topaltos Beach

Over the years I have come to realize the adventures my family and I have are not just about hiking or exploring new areas.  It is also about the people we meet and it is usually these people that make the adventure memorable.  I will remember our adventure to Cape Beale lighthouse forever.  Hiking the Cape Beale trail had us climb over more trees than any other trail we have hiked; we found more animal tracks on Topaltos Beach than any other beach; and we ended our adventure with one more friend than when we started.

Patti The Lighthouse Keeper


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