Pointe au Baril,
August 15, 2019
Trent Severn Waterway
Ponte au Baril, Ontario, Canada
I was excited to see a big OPEN sign as I pulled up to the small dock for the Pointe au Baril Lighthouse Museum. It had been highly recommended by a Canadian couple who shared my interest in history. But somewhere I missed the small print. The door was locked and as I peered inside, I saw a sign saying it was closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It was Tuesday.
Back on L.T. I decided to make my way 6 miles inland to Pointe au Baril Station via, what else, the Pointe au Baril Channel and Brignall Banks Narrows. A review on Active Captain claimed the local Shell Station has some of the best pastries around. Not exactly exploring a lighthouse, but better than anchoring and feeling sorry for myself.
I was greeted at the Pointe au Baril dock by Al, who put a quick end to any lingering doubts about going 6 miles out of my way. Al is, for lack of a better term, the dockmaster of the public dock in the town. He is a government employee, though I have no idea of who actually pays him because I haven’t mastered the bureaucratic labyrinth of Canadian local government. Whoever it is, I hope they realize how good he is.
Ponte au Baril, Ontario is not really a town, much less a tourist town. It’s a ‘Station’, a gathering point where year round residents cater to the cottage industry in the natural beauty of the Canadian Shield. Al has the sometimes tricky job of balancing the rules and regulations of the dock with the actual usage he has to sort out every day by the people who ultimately pay him. He takes a commonsense approach with minor infractions, while still letting those who are actually abusing the rules know that he’s aware of them.
He was a grocer most of his career, occasionally in a supervisory position but usually working the shelves. I know from my own year or two in the business that it’s a hard job, but one that can be very rewarding for a meticulous person who takes pride their work. I totally empathize with his quitting on the spot when some clueless supervisor questioned his work ethic. From his description, I don’t think his wife was as empathic.
He went on to H&R Block as a tax preparer for almost 10 years and eventually to this dock job. He knows most of the locals by first name and is amazingly quick to help those he knows are more likely to crash into the dock. Pointe au Baril is a designated trash collection point so a lot of his job is helping cottagers unload their garbage, a job he performs just as energetically as helping a Looper with the lay of the land.
Al is a natural ‘people person’. His happiness is contagious. You can’t help feeling better after meeting him, even if you’re just doing the cottage version of dumping the trash. It staggers the thinking process to wonder what the world would be like if there were just more Als. He’s due to retire (again) this September. Stay retired this time my friend. Travel and spread some happiness.
I stayed over for two nights in the Pointe au Baril area so I could visit the Lighthouse on Thursday. Al made that decision more palatable and I got a couple nice bike rides in. But there was no Wi-fi and the pastries were good, but not that good. I was ready for the lighthouse.
If I had to conjure up two people to tend a lighthouse museum, Emmaline Madigan and Bill Pugsley would be the result. It’s more a lighthouse than a museum, first lit in 1889, though for years before that, the first fisherman in for the day would light a lantern in a barrel to guide the others, hence the name. There are some period furniture, typewriters and sewing machine artifacts that have been donated by long time locals, including a pair of four fingered scissors and a huge anchor salvaged by Emmaline’s kids. There’s a unique a collection of coins, bottles or whatever else that can be sunk in a boat or lost overboard displayed by a local who dives as a hobby and a small collection of exquisitely crafted Ojibway quill and bark baskets loaned by another local.
What makes this museum special is Emmaline and Bill. Emmaline was the last lighthouse keeper, from 1954 when she married the resident keeper and on her own after he died in 1977. In addition to her duties, she raised six kids at the lighthouse. It’s said that the drying laundry on the cloth lines identified the Pointe as much as the light, at least in the daytime.
She lost both her job and her summer home of 29 years when the government ‘demanned’ the lighthouse in 1983. Others were apparently nearly as heartbroken as Emmaline. It took 17 years, but the Pointe au Baril Islanders’ Association and the Township of the Archipelago finally finagled a lease of the lighthouse building from the federal government and in 2000 asked Emmaline and her partner Bill to return home as ‘lighthouse attendant’ from June 15 to Labor Day.
Bill’s the greeter, Emmaline is more reserved and busies herself with baking the homemade pies ordered by locals until she’s comfortable with your conversation with Bill. It’s a routine that works for them with the 2,000 plus visitors every summer.
But when she warms to you, it’s like being hit with a ray of sunshine. You can hear the pride in her humble descriptions of life at the lighthouse. She doesn’t minimize the hardships, but you just know that it was more difficult than she describes. I really wanted one of her pies, but she refused to sell any to me: “They’re already sold!”. But she gave me a small one out of her freezer, ones saved for “special people”, made out of scraps. “I hate to waste anything.” She wouldn't accept any money for it. By now, she had me melted into a blubbering idiot.
I could go on and on. There’s the school boat (not bus) picking up three of her kids with their lunch bags and captain’s hats. There’s the local newspaper clipping from 2015 quoting Emmaline wishing her twin boys happy birthday and wondering out loud if there any chance of a wedding anytime soon. An “Unsung Hero Award” from 2012. Another with Emmaline describing the resident ghost as friendly, probably one of the former keepers: “It makes sense – if I died, this is where I would want to come back to. I loved it here.”
Bill is the local knowledge guy. At a time in my life when I often can’t remember what is was I wanted as I walk into a room - or stick my head into my V-berth - to get something, I was astounded by his memory of people, buildings, fisheries, fishermen, ships, sunk ships, wharfs, factories, and a way of life that disappeared from this area decades ago. He led me through an album of clippings and pictures page by page and was starting another one when my bladder finally cried Uncle.
People ask me why I’m boating the Great Loop. I often say to discover America, and Canada too. That usually draws a variety of blank looks. Here’s a more direct answer: to meet people like Al, Emmaline and Bill. My thanks to all three of you. You have enriched both my trip and life.