For mariners trying to safely navigate their way along the rugged and often foggy southwest coast of Vancouver Island, Fisgard Light is vital.
The oldest lighthouse on Canada’s west coast, it was built in 1860 on little Fisgard Island, just off the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (the passage separating British Columbia and Washington State). Just beyond Fisgard, to the west, lies Race Rocks Light, and both feel plenty of the wind, waves and fog that roll down the Strait from the Pacific Ocean. Those influences, along with the off-lying reefs along the Vancouver Island shore, mean these are not waters with which you want to trifle.
Up until its destaffing in 1929, Fisgard was maintained by a series of 12 keepers – 13 if you include the widow who took over her husband’s duties for six months after he drowned on his way back to the island. The longest-serving keeper stayed 19 years; the shortest, only 12 days – leaving, he said, out of “boredom and monotony”.
Nowadays Fisgard is a national heritage site, run by Parks Canada, which hosts an interesting historical exhibit inside the old lighthouse. Since 1951 it’s been joined to Vancouver Island by a causeway from Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site, making the island accessible by land. The day we visited, however, we arrived by kayak, having left our boat moored in Esquimalt Harbour. Some renovations were underway, which is why you can see scaffolding on the lighthouse.
It was a clear day with a light breeze, so we had a brisk but easy enough paddle and a great view beyond the lighthouse to the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. But the dense fog bank across the whole length of the southern portion of Juan de Fuca Strait served as a powerful reminder of how dangerous these waters can be – and how essential light stations like Fisgard and Race Rocks remain.