Island Retreat: My Caribou Light Station Memories

Lake Superior’s Caribou Light Station holds a special place in this Ontario resident’s heart.

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Adam playing on the beach of Caribou Island
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Madigan

Revisiting Caribou Island’s Light Station

In the late summer of 1978, my husband Glenn, who worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, was offered a temporary posting on the Caribou Light Station in the middle of Lake Superior. The regular lightkeeper, Bert Hopkins, had suffered a heart attack, and was on medical leave for three weeks. This particular light station had a special place in my heart, as my grandfather George Johnston was the lightkeeper from 1912 to 1921. Glenn was given permission to bring me and our three-year-old son, Adam, along with him.

Early in September, we loaded up a coast guard truck and drove to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where we met the C.C.G.S. Verendrye. Captain Hodge and his crew safely transported us to the Caribou Light Station; the actual light station was on a small four-acre island, simply called Lighthouse Island, adjacent to the larger Caribou Island. Due to the shallow water around the small island, we completed the trip in an open boat. Bert’s wife Pearl was on hand to welcome us to the light station, and we settled into a comfortable, three-bedroom house for the next three weeks.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, a tiny “hitchhiker” accompanied us on our journey. He soon made his presence known, however, when I began to experience morning sickness! Upon our return to “civilization,” a doctor confirmed that our family was growing, and the following spring we welcomed our second son, Luke.

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Patricia and Adam on Caribou Island
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Madigan

As it had been almost 60 years since my grandfather left the station, I was the first Johnston to step foot on the island in all that time. I had a strange feeling as I looked around the island and imagined my father and his siblings playing right where Adam was playing now. History does repeat itself!

Fortunately, the weather was perfect for that time of year and we spent most of our time exploring the small island, as well as the larger island of Caribou, located about two kilometres away by boat.

It felt like paradise, as we were the only people on the island, and Adam loved playing in the sand of the beautiful beaches. The water of Lake Superior is very cold but clear, and near the shore we were able to see the bottom even though it was several metres deep. Inland, there were small lakes and caribou would sometimes come for a drink, although we never saw any of the elusive animals.

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Patricia and Adam on the C.C.G.S. Verendrye
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Madigan

One of our favourite pastimes was beachcombing; flotsam and jetsam from passing ships washed up on the shores of both islands. Once, we found a wash- tub with wheels that Glenn attached a rope to, which he used to pull Adam around the light station. Adam loved it!

One day, a passing fishing boat stopped and gave us a pail of freshly caught lake trout. The pinkish flesh resembled salmon. Pearl made a fish chowder with potatoes and onions—delicious!

The main attraction on the island was the actual lighthouse, where my grandfather used to tend the lamp several times a day. It meant climbing the steps/ ladder to the top of the lighthouse, where he had a 360-degree view of Lake Superior.

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Caribou Island Lighthouse
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Madigan

I was determined to follow in his footsteps, so, while Glenn and Adam stayed at the bottom of the stairs, I climbed up, up, up almost 30 metres, till I crawled through the trap door at the top. One look out of the windows and I experienced severe vertigo. I ended up in the corner of the room, where I remained for some time. Meanwhile, Glenn was wondering what had happened to me and decided to leave Adam for a short time to climb to the top. He found me cowering in the corner and, after a great deal of persuasion, man- aged to coax me back through the trap door, and down the stairs. What a relief to be on the ground again! I guess I was not destined for lightkeeping duties!

While on the light station, Adam celebrated his fourth birthday and we invited Pearl Hopkins for dinner. We gave Adam a few gifts but were shocked when he bit down on his drinking glass, taking an actual chunk out of it—twice! I guess he was excited, but we gave him only a plastic cup after that, as we were 80 kilometres from the nearest doctor. I immediately thought of my grand- mother, who had six children on the light station at one time, three of them being boys!

During our stay on Caribou, one of the saddest events was the death of a construction worker on nearby Michipicoten Island’s East End. Both the Caribou Lighthouse and the East End Lighthouse were built at the same time, and were very similar. A construction crew was painting the outside of the East End Lighthouse, but one of the men failed to secure his safety belt to the scaffolding and fell 20 metres to his death. That was a very sobering experience for us, especially as it was such a preventable accident.

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Glenn and Adam beachcombing
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Madigan

As for us, all good things must come to an end, and near the end of September Bert was ready to resume his duties. Jim McKenzie from the coast guard base in Parry Sound, Ont., arrived in a helicopter to bring us from the light station to the airport in Wawa, Ont.

It was a bittersweet day, as I knew it had been a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for us, and we had so enjoyed our time on the island. As we lifted off the helipad, we waved goodbye to Pearl and the lighthouse, heading across the clear blue waters of Lake Superior. The thrumming of the helicopter blades soon put Adam to sleep, but Glenn and I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful trip to the mainland.

Autumn had arrived and the leaves had turned gorgeous colours—red, orange, yellow, even purple. Jim caused the helicopter to “hop” over the land formations until we got to the Magpie River. From there, we flew up the river and over the falls to the Wawa airport. We spent the night in a motel, then headed home after our memorable working holiday.

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Originally Published in Our Canada

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