Life On The Lights

By Enice Olding

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"I'll give it a year and if I don't like it I'll leave!" That's the deal Evelyn Bruton made with her herself when she was 19 and headed out on her own from Ellerslie, Alberta to Vancouver. Unbeknownst to her, she'd make a similar deal in the future that would change her life forever.

Within two days of her arrival in Vancouver, Evelyn landed a job as a stenographer and life looked grand. When she met James he was logger and later, after they married, Evelyn joined him in the logging camps of British Columbia where she participated in camp life, and moved from camp to camp, where the work took them.

Jim had previously been "on the lights" as a junior keeper and when he saw an ad in the Vancouver paper for an opening, he was eager to apply.

"Of course, I knew nothing about lighthouses and had no idea how you'd get there," recalls Evelyn. "I was petrified of the water."

Jim was successful in getting a position at the Discovery Island Lighthouse situated near the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island and about three miles east of Oak Bay. This was when Evelyn made her second deal; but this time it was with Jim. She told him that she'd give it a go for one year.

Hugging her fear of water and her three little children closely to herself, the pregnant Evelyn set off in a 14' wooden boat to her new home. The family lived at Discovery for a couple of years where they fished, dug for clams, learned to live with the water, paddled around the shores near the boathouse and did a lot of pebble picking, finding many agates, which Jim later made into jewelry. Without television, the family read a lot, played board games and had many visitors.

"The children loved it," beams Evelyn, "and I loved it!"

For some time Evelyn was the only woman on the island and truly appreciated the regular visits from and to her mother-in-law. Groceries were a weekly affair, and the responsibility for the children's educations fell to Evelyn. With Joe, 7, Linda, 5, Elanie, 3, baby Sharon and the Correspondence School operated by the B.C. Government, Evelyn prepared lessons and oversaw the tuition keeping to a tight schedule, which mirrored regular school hours.

With Jim's promotion, Chrome Island Lightstation, off the tip of Denman Island in Georgia Strait and about a mile east of Deep Bay on Vancouver Island, was their next home. In the warm summer waters, it was here that Evelyn and the children learned to swim. They also enjoyed abundant bounty from the sea: oysters, clams, scallops, abalone, cod and salmon. A rare and wonderful experience, Evelyn recalls.

Most lighthouses, at that time, were still run on kerosene burners, which entailed more work than the electric models. The prisms had to be cleaned daily and, if there was a flare-up, all the windows in the lighthouse had to be cleaned. Other challenges included the minimal availability of electrical power, limited drinking water and lack of household appliances that today's generation take for granted.

As Evelyn says, there was no time be bored when bread was baked from scratch, laundry was done by hand, lessons had to be prepared, children raised, and all the other usual day-to-day family demands seen to. Rather than an isolated existence, the Brutons had the company of the other families who lived at lighthouse stations, many visitors who came to stay with them and, every year, took a long travelling vacation together. The tender was a welcome visitor delivering mail, groceries and at times replenished water tanks.

Lennard Island Lightstation on the West Coast of Vancouver Island near Tofino brought the family into a wilder environment.

"It was a lot rougher than the other locations, but at least we had an aluminum boat, [and then] an inflatable," says Evelyn. "It was fantastic!"

The Brutons couldn't get off this station as easily, so mail and other necessities were delivered on practise runs from the Lifeboat Station in Tofino. When the weather calmed, Evelyn and the children would head out looking for Japanese glass fishing floats; they found quite a few.

Sheringham Point Lighthouse on the south side of Vancouver Island overlooks Juan de Fuca Strait and is just west of Sooke. A popular location, it meant a drop in income, but the family was pleased when they were posted there and stayed from 1968-1987, their longest posting.

By now, the children were older, and Evelyn had to study long into the night to remain one step ahead of them in their schooling. Jim took over supper duties during the week and the children took turns on Sundays.

"I even learned the new math," she smiles.

Eventually the children went off to school in Sooke.

While some other keepers sent their children to board elsewhere, "we never, ever thought of not having them around," says Evelyn. None of the children were behind in their schooling, but they were enriched by their life experiences. Today, "they are self-sufficient, independent, thoughtful and helpful children," she says.

From 1958-1987, the Brutons lived on the lights. They rescued stranded mariners; progressed from wooden boats to inflatables; from catching water off their roof to well-filled tanks; from kerosene lights to electricity but, through it all, they remained a close and caring family. They always went on vacation together; they even joined Jim in Ottawa where he went on training courses.

"As a woman, I didn't miss anything," says Evelyn. "I got a lot more from life."

Considering her four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, Evelyn sums it up by saying "appreciate your children, they grow up too fast and leave home, make the best of your life whatever it is."

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