I peer out of the lighthouse window, watching the wide, murky Saint Lawrence River easing past on its journey to the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of sea birds squawk and shriek on the rocks below.
I think about the men who spent years cooped up alone on this little island in the remote wilds of Québec, illuminating the way for the weary mariners who sailed by in the darkness of night.
The wave of Canada’s colonial history breaks on the shores of Îles du Pot à l’Eau-de-Vie, or the Brandy Pot Islands—my home for the next 24 hours.
On his first sailing expedition up the Saint Lawrence in 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier is rumored to have stopped off here for sustenance before beginning the long passage back to his homeland. (A year later, Cartier transcribed the Iroquois word kanata—meaning “settlement” or “village”—as Canada, helping to secure the country’s future name.)
Cartier’s was the first of many voyages that would pass by the islands, which served as a popular anchorage spot for ships making their way to and from Québec’s onetime capital city, Montréal. The lighthouse, commissioned in 1862, was one of hundreds that were eventually positioned along the St. Lawrence to guide sailors through the river’s notorious treacherous waters.
After a century of use, the government of Québec abandoned the lighthouse. In 1989 the Duvetnor Society, a private organization committed to protecting the unique biodiversity of the Lower Saint Lawrence, was able to raise enough money to restore the structure and, eventually, convert the lighthouse into a cozy inn.
And tonight, I am its only guest.
My guide for the day, Cindy Garneau, meets me on the steel jetty outside the lighthouse. Flocks of seabirds whirl overhead as we board a small boat for a tour of the three islands.
“All these birds require undisturbed breeding and feeding grounds,” she tells me. “This is why it is so important that these islands are protected.”
A brown, duck-like waterfowl flies by.
“That’s a female common eider,” Cindy says, “the most important bird [to this area].”
In order to raise the money needed to protect the islands, the society had to adopt a unique form of fundraising: the sale of down feathers.
For two weeks each year, Duvetnor employees scour the islands, collecting fine eider feathers—just enough to not disturb the eggs—from approximately 12,000 nests. As the demand for high-quality down for pillows, blankets, and coats is high, this is a very profitable endeavor.
In addition to enabling the society to restore and maintain the lighthouse, Duvetnor is using the profits from this annual endeavor to continue its conservation efforts in the Lower Saint Lawrence area.
After our tour, Cindy bids me goodbye and leaves in the boat. It suddenly seems very lonely on the island.
Brandy Pot is one of the few live-in lighthouses in Québec, wherein the living quarters are attached to the tower and lantern room. All the items in the house—beds, chairs, paintings, an old disused stove—retain their historical charm. It is as though I have taken up residence among the ghosts of past inhabitants.
In the entrance hall, there is a list of rules to be “strictly observed by the Lighthouse Keeper.” Among them is the charge to “light the lamps every evening at sun setting” and “to keep them continually burning, bright and clear, until sun rising.” Finally, and most ominously, there is a directive to “report to the Clerk of Trinity House all wrecks occurring in the neighborhood of the lighthouse.”
Dinner is served in the kitchen, where a chef from the staff quarters brings in a surprising number of tasty courses. After placing a perfectly prepared créme brulée before me, she disappears for the night, leaving me with only the creaking of floors and the whistling of the wind for company.
I head up the spiral staircase to the lantern room, which no longer houses a working beacon. These days, sailors are directed by an automated red flash emitted from a nearby iron tower. It’s a blustery night, and as I look out over the water, I can see the shimmer of another lighthouse on the Saint Lawrence’s far shore.
In Patrice Halley’s Sentinels of the St. Lawrence, one passage stands out in the foreword as I read by the light of my torch:
Who hasn’t dreamed, while walking along the north and south shores [of the St. Lawrence], or vacationing in the Gaspe or Natashquan, about those curious souls who worked as lighthouse keepers? Who hasn’t wondered where they hailed from, why and how they succeeded in cutting themselves off so completely from the outside world? And there they remained in the depth of winter, so high above the ground (but what a view), those lonely lifeguards for seafaring folk.
After working as a guide in Africa and an editor at a travel magazine for years, Paul Steyn now spends his time working as a freelance writer and photographer while traveling the world. Follow Paul on Twitter @paulsteynless and on Instagram @steynless.