Lighthouse waits for its lifeline

lighthouse_webGEORGIAN BAY — The state of decay is startling.

The last two Mondays, I’ve taken advantage of the fact I’m not sitting at town council to head out onto the bay in one of the canoe club’s outrigger canoes.

While I generally eschew distance paddling when the bay is on the choppy side, I decided to challenge myself the last couple of weeks, heading in the direction of Nottawasaga Island in the face of waves a couple of feet high from crest to trough.

It’s not a route I usually take, even when the water is like glass. I usually head out to a green buoy about three-and-a-half clicks off the end of the spit, then across to a red marker about a kilometre northeast of the island, and back to the harbour.

But when I headed out last Monday, I took a turn northwest of the channel — and just kept paddling.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been close enough to the Nottawasaga lighthouse to get a sense of how much deterioration has taken place. The last time was 2007, while I was operating a safety boat for an adventure race and took the photo that accompanies this article.

The steel bands had only been installed a year or so prior, intended to prevent further deterioration of the outside layer of the 150-year-old structure.

Those bands had a five-year lifespan.

First, some history:

The lighthouse, built in the 1850s and staffed until the late 1950s, was powered in later years by solar energy. While it was no longer maintained by the Coast Guard as a navigation building, the light was still working until 2010.

I haven’t seen the light on in some time, and suspect it has either since burned out, or the solar panels are no longer functional.

The 32-metre tower — one of six Imperial Towers erected on the Great Lakes — was a frequent target for lightning strikes, superheating water that had worked its way past the limestone exterior and into the interior core.

That generated steam that pushed out and widened cracks in the wall — which in turn would allow more moisture inside.

In 2004, a piece of the section facing Collingwood slid away, necessitating action by the feds — at the urging of local officials, and, most notably, Jim Kilgour.

Hence the steel bands, which cost $400,000.

Jim, who passed away last year, was like a dog with a bone when it came to the lighthouse. He lobbied politicians at all levels to step up to the plate, to come up with the nearly $4.5 million needed to restore the lighthouse to its former glory.

In 2003, when Kilgour brought the lighthouse’s condition to the attention of politicians, Fisheries and Oceans estimated the cost to restore the tower would have been about $600,000.

In a letter to the town’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Committee in 2010, Kilgour warned the tower could “collapse with no further attempts to stabilize the structure.

“A significant part of our town’s marine heritage could be lost,” wrote Kilgour.

In 2010, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared Canada’s more than 1,000 lighthouses surplus. The Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, passed in 2008, would normally protect the lighthouse and require the government to maintain them; ironically, the Act excludes lighthouses that are declared surplus from being designated under the Act unless a community group or private owner commits to acquire and protect their heritage character.

In a story written by Emily Innes last year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the Nottawasaga lighthouse is by far the lighthouse in the worst condition in Georgian Bay, but that they will do “nothing at this time.”

This Monday, I again paddled to the island, just to confirm what I’d seen the week previous. The bands have begun to loosen their hold on the lighthouse’s exterior, and have started to sag.

More bricks have fallen, even from the most recent pics posted to the Help Save the Nottawasaga Lighthouse Facebook group by Nick Brindisi.

A local group has been trying to find a way to preserve the lighthouse, but without any money or political will behind them, it’s hard to say what kind of impact they’ll have.

I’m no engineer, but I would be very surprised if the lighthouse is still on Collingwood’s horizon past 2014.

The question remains: will someone throw the lighthouse a lifeline before it’s too late?

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