A Tour of the Western Islands Light
– or –
Canadian Coastguard Shame
October 14 to 17, 2010
Charts: Canadian Hydrographic Service Chart 2242 – Giants Tomb Island to Franklin Island
Topographic Maps: 041H01 Sans Souci
1. Twelve Mile Bay to Doubletop Island.
2. Doubletop Island to Sans Souci/Massassauga Provincial Park
Atypical for Heart of Stone, this is not a kayak trip report. It was a glorious day in mid-October, with one of those Georgian Bay skies that’s so ridiculously blue it doesn’t seem real. So, jumping at the chance, we packed up the aluminum beast with 150 four-stroke horses on the back and aimed west. We packed the kayak too, the Western Islands (or Westerlies as they’re sometimes called) are so remote that, if something happened to the mighty Stanley, the kayak would at least be a good floating backup.
Located almost twenty kilometres from the mainland, the Western Islands are as remote as remote gets in Georgian Bay. Even with a good-sized engine it’s almost an hour to get there, upwards of four hours in a kayak with nothing on the horizon but wind and waves. And in October the water is cold, this sort of trip is very unforgiving if anything goes awry.
But there’s good reason to go, besides the solitude: the Westerlies are home to the Western Islands lighthouse. The original 1895 octagonal wooden tower is still standing after all these years, but it’s in deteriorating shape. The Coast Guard is in the business of navigation, they don’t want to be property owners, and maintaining these heritage structures against the ravages of Georgian Bay weather must be an expensive proposition.
The first obvious thing about the Western Islands that you notice, besides the lighthouse, is the incredible lichen that grows there. Like the Bustard Islands, these rocks see few feet and are covered in a glorious golden lichen. The other obvious thing is that there’s nothing there. This is a desolate place, even more remote for the Keepers of old than the tiny living space of the Red Rock lighthouse. At least they could see the shoreline. An old box of popcorn remains spilled in the kitchen, untouched by anything. Even the mice have forsaken Doubletop Island.
Inside the lighthouse the light is dim, filtered through windows with occasional broken panes. Water damage is evident, some of it major, some of the broken windows face due west and must admit large amounts of rain and, in the winter, snow. The building is quiet, but for now the weather is calm. The wind must simply howl during a good storm.
The view from the top is spectacular, but sparse. The Western Islands are nothing more than a lonely grouping of rocks, so far offshore that nothing else is visible but water and sky. In all directions there is only the horizon, a reminder that our time here is limited.
Sad to leave such a glorious day behind, we packed up the camera gear and headed for home. There was still an hour’s worth of crossing to do in an open boat, and despite the large high-pressure system overhead, we were nervous. Like so many license agreements say, conditions can change without notice. Closing the door firmly behind us, we left the Westerlies and headed east.
Reviewing the imagery later, it was obvious that the Western Islands lighthouse is in dire need of some care. Some cosmetic, some structural, some basics like window panes need replacement, or this wonderful structure will soon be lost to the elements. Historical preservation may not be their core business, but surely there must be some way for the Coast Guard to keep these active monuments alive. All that’s needed is a little political, or managerial, will.
A future Georgian Bay without these beautiful aids to navigation would surely seem a lesser place.