Photo collection of Gereaux Island Lighthouse, near Britt/Byng Inlet, Ontario. My grandfather grew up in this lighthouse.
Most pictures were taken on the south shore, Britt/Byng Inlet.
Georgian Bay: July, 1988. The clouds feather high in the cobalt sky. When Evergreen floats near the shore, I climb out the nose and jump to the rock holding the rope. My feet splash into the water. I stumble. My cousin Michael laughs.
From the bay, dad slides up the slippery rock. I had never seen my dad water ski before. Usually the water is too cold. He grabs the yellow rope from me and ties it to a boulder. Water from our feet trickles along the hot, dry island to make it shine.
Uncle Bruce drops the anchor out the back of the boat.
In the shade of the cedars, Auntie Ann and mom pin the red checkered table cloth onto the folding card table. I spot a box of Tim Horton’s donuts, the blue thermos of red Koolaid, and bags of chips and cheesies. The steel blue cooler sleeps by my feet. I open the lid: macaroni salad, potato salad, bologna, ham.
“Did he bring the costume?” Auntie Ann asks, neatly stacking the paper plates.
“Can you believe it?” Mom says.
I snatch an orange cheesy out of an open bag on the edge of the table. Mom raises her left eyebrow. I slink away but she notices the Mug root beer. I slid it into my hat when she looked for the plastic forks. My smile drips with charm.
“You’re going to ruin your dinner,” she chimes.
“No I won’t.” I crack open the silver tab on the can and smile again.
She shakes her head and turns away. “Ann, where do you think we should put the cake?” Mom’s gaze drills a hole in my face. “To keep it from everyone until it’s time.” Then mom grins.
I fan my towel five times before it lies just right on the rock next to Andi. The blue jean coloured water and windblown spruces wave as I watch Uncle Bob and Chantell motor away to a secret fishing spot. The sun twinkles. I tilt my head into the brightness.
Madonna belts “Get into the Groove” on my red Sony walkman. My pen pal from Germany, Clemens, sent the cassette with his last letter. Andi lounges on the sun-warmed granite next to me listening to Def Leppard. She oozes coconut tanning oil.
I sip my warm root beer. “What do you think Lorel is doing?”
“Don’t know,” Andi replies.
At eighteen, Lorel looks just like Brooke Shields and sings the lead in a rock band.
“Do you think it’s because of the snake?”
“Nah,” Andi rolls over to tan the back of her legs.
I wonder how anyone could miss a family picnic. I close my eyes and lean into the ground imagining my ancestors picnicking on these rocks a hundred years ago. Sometimes when I am out in the bay I feel so connected to the landscape. Maybe I lived on these rocks in a past life.
Maybe I’ve even peed in the same bush as my grandmother or great-grandmother or great-great grandmother. Gross.
I always find a rock that slopes into the moss near a big tree. I try not to slip. I try not to pull my shorts down if someone else is nearby. I try not to wander too far and get lost.
At our last picnic on the island at Sand Bay, I didn’t see Lorel go into the bush, but we all saw her sprint out. Yanking her bikini bottom, she staggered, screaming “Snake!”
“Was it a rattler?” Uncle Bruce asked.
Lorel told us how she heard the rattling sound under her as she squatted on the rock. “Ticka ticka ticka ticka.” When she glanced between her knees a Massassauga Rattlesnake stuck out its tongue, coiled and ready to sink its fangs into her behind.
Dad, Uncle Bruce, and his cousin Wally marched into the bush. I wanted them to slice off its head.
My brother Colin jiggles a wet life-jacket over me.
“I’ve been swimming eight times today,” he boasts, shaking his soaking hair.
“I thought you didn’t have to wear a life jacket this year?”
“It’s Sarah’s.” He drops the drenched life jacket on my legs and runs to the other side of the island to give mom a big wet hug.
After dinner we sit by the campfire. I put on my red Roots sweatshirt and sit next to Uncle Ernest. His fingers are yellow from rolling tobacco. I like how he talks out the side of his mouth.
Uncle Bruce stirs coffee in a beat-up black pot. A cloud of tanning oil, beer, cake, smoke, and Folgers coffee dances just over our heads.
Chantell giggles at Colin when he makes a funny face. Mom chats with Aunt Bernice about the time dad ironed the living room sheers. Andi and Sarah snuggle up under Aunt Estelle’s beach towel whispering sisterly secrets. Uncle John shoves another log onto the fire. Everyone glows from family picnic magic.
Grandpa and Grandma are here too. Even though I can’t see them I know it. Grandpa died in 1975, the year I was born. Grandma died in 1979. Mom had lost both her parents before she turned twenty-five.
Aunt Pat, Aunt Estelle, Uncle Bruce, and mom were smart. They decided to meet on a picnic island on Georgian Bay each summer. They wanted to keep close. They wanted to stay connected to the landscape of their childhood.
Our family history seeped into the moss and granite, whispered through the needles of the lonely spruces.
As dusk begins everyone talks at once. The juicy blend of hushed tones, deep belly laughs, and animated chimes weave and flourish in the spaces between us.
Aunt Bernice sits on a green plaid lawn chair. She crosses her long slender legs. “Yes, our only entertainment—”
“How did you get there?” Aunt Pat hoots.
“What?—That dance hall out on Salem’s island?” Uncle Bruce asks.
“Your father hated it. Muriel and Ernest came sometimes. Me, I danced for hours.” Aunt Bernice waltzes. “One two three, one two three…” She freezes.
“Would you look at that!” Aunt Muriel squishes out her cigarette between her loafer and the rock. Everyone turns.
Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live glides over the hill.
I recognize him instantly as my dad. He wears a black gown with a white collar, large brown sunglasses, and mom’s witch hat without the peak.
“How did a priest get all the way out here?” Aunt Bernice blinks.
“Anda how did you-a come to be all the way outta here? Sucha beee-a-uuutiful lady!”
“Are you here to see me?”
Father Sarducci’s head bobs. He traces his mustache with a finger. “Iva come with a verrrrrrr-y special message from the Pope. La Papa.”
Aunt Estelle rests her hand on Aunt Bernice’s shoulder. “Imagine! A priest!”
“In seventy years, I’ve never seen a priest out in the bay. He must’ve walked on water…” Aunt Bernice gasps.
“Ahhh..yes. Iva gotta some miracles to use onca in a while.”
The colour drains from Aunt Bernice’s face. Tears fill her eyes. She squeezes Aunt Estelle’s arm.
“It’s just me, Aunt Bernice. Dave.” Dad takes off the sunglasses and hat. Everyone laughs.
I’m assigned to the last boatload home. The hum from the motor on Evergreen’s floor mixed with the rocking of the waves make me tired. I sit at Auntie Ann’s feet wrapped in a large royal blue and yellow beach towel.
“There’s the lighthouse.” Auntie Ann pats my head.
I peer over the side of the boat at the red and white building, Gereaux Island Lighthouse. I imagine Grandpa climbing the ladder in the tower to change the oil in the lamp on a foggy night. And then I imagine Uncle Ernest and Aunt Bernice playing with giant turtles and waving at the passing oil tankers. I wish I grew up on a lighthouse too.
With the boats unloaded we settle into the warmth of the cottage. Outside, the black sky swallows the last bit of light.
We cram into the living room. Mom’s cousin Nancy passes out bright orange song booklets. The title page says ‘Lamondin Family Picnic, 1988.’
Uncle Ernest tunes his guitar. Aunt Estelle and Aunt Pat sip white wine by the woodstove. Mom laughs at something Uncle Bob says when he joins her on the couch. I lean on the grey stairs leading up to my bedroom in the loft. On the top step, Andi and Chantell flip through a songbook.
Toes tap. Hands clap. Together we sing “Green, Green Grass of Home,” grandpa’s favourite song.
When Dad was dragging his kayak away from the shore to store it at the end of the summer his foot twisted a bit on this rusty old metal piece hidden below some juniper branches. He said:
At first I thought it might be an old dock spike but was happy to see this was the metal component of what is known as a “peavey” log roller. I last saw one of these about 45 years ago at your mother’s home, your grandfather had one of these. He told me the name of this weird looking tool and explained it’s use. Grandpa’s had a stocky rounded hardwood handle about 5 feet long. So I attached the rusty metal part to a piece of pressure treated wood and have already used it a number of times to effortlessly roll and move logs at the shoreline.
Dad explained how this peavey log roller was from when the logging industry was in Britt/Byng Inlet. What a treasure for a piece of the area history hiding on our property! Byng Inlet had one of the largest sawmill operations in Canada in the late 1800s. During the logging days the population in Britt/Byng Inlet was larger than Sudbury at the time, with over 4000 people. There was even a theatre!
On my mother’s side, my ancestors were drawn to the area around 1860 from Penetanguishene likely for the work. On my father’s side, my ancestors came in the early 1900s and worked on the railway for CNN.
A few summers ago, Dad and I looked along the Magnetewan River and into Georgian Bay for rings and spikes that were used during the logging days. We found so many. It surprised me that I hadn’t noticed them before. Were the rings used to attach log booms? How did they decide which islands to attach these rings?
Some people might call it the woods, but our family has always called it the bush. Rolling granite, moss, and long grasses topped with juniper bushes, birches, maples, and pines extend for many kilometres from my parents’ place across Crown land.
Fall is the best time to go for a hike in the bush. The deer flies, horse flies, and mosquitos are gone. The bears are preparing for winter and most have gone deeper into the bush, beyond where our feet would take us in a day. I’ve never seen a rattle snake in the fall but we have seen other kinds of snakes–grass snakes, water snakes, fox snakes. We know there are wolves in the area but we’ve been lucky. It’s rare to see a wolf during the daytime. Usually it’s winter when the wolves are spotted by the residents. The most worrisome is the hunters. Dad always encourages us to wear bright colours when we go out in the bush in the fall.
Our hike is about 45 minutes each way. It follows a one-lane path or dirt road that cottagers use to get to their remote places. When my dad was a kid he had a family camp at the very end of the path. He remembers when the narrow road was made in the 1960s. Before that they would hike in, walking 45 minutes to an hour with their food and gear.
Sometimes at Thanksgiving it’s just dad, my brother Colin, and I making the trek out into the bush. Other years we have a big group of 15 going. It all depends on the weather, who is visiting, and the timing of Thanksgiving dinner.
Yesterday there were five of us. We decided to drive most of the way. Not everyone is able to hike that far these days.
Usually when we get to “our spot” it is quiet and the silence is the kind that fills you from your feet up through the top of your head. But yesterday was different. As we approached the beaver dam we heard gunshots. Lots of gunshots. Too many to be hunters.
Dad and Colin got out of the car to investigate. I shouted, “I have First Aid but we didn’t cover gun shots!”
Dad said, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing a red hat. They will see me.”
It was skeet shooters. Across the marsh was a big group of young people, as disks shot up into the air they shot at them with a rifle. We could see them. They could see us. They were shooting out in the other direction. It was safe to explore. But the sound of gunshots changed the peaceful silence I love.
Eventually the skeet shooters were done. We were able to soak in the beauty uninterrupted–just as it should be.
Not everyone has a chance to go for a hike in the bush on Georgian Bay in Fall. So I put together a slide show to share some of the photographs I took yesterday:
A couple times a summer dad takes me out for a sunset cruise on Georgian Bay. Every year it looks different. I wonder if it is me that has changed so I see the water and land and sun setting differently or if the bay is changing (for example: time of day, water level, location, weather). Last year we went out by Gereaux Island Lighthouse. There is something about the architecture of a lighthouse isolated on an island with the grand sky and big water that calms me. (Do all people feel a connection to lighthouses?) So every time we go out into the bay I always look for the lighthouse.
This year it was just dad and I for the sunset cruise. We got into the boat and he said, “Where do you want to go?”
I didn’t have a preference other than “out there”–on the bay. I find the expansiveness of the bay healing. I’ve come to learn it’s my church. We don’t always need a building to feel connected to something bigger than us. I was thrilled for the chance to go out, it didn’t matter where.
So I sat back into my front seat in the pontoon boat. Dad drove out toward the bay. Soon we moved from the Magnetewan River to the open waters. Then dad turned out of the channel. The boat slowed down.
Since he retired dad has gone kayaking most mornings out in the bay. He often talks about the McNab Rocks. I had never been to them (as I am not so steady in a kayak and not ready for open water paddling).
What amazes me most about this trip is that I’ve passed the McNab rocks hundreds of time on our way out by the lighthouse. From afar it looks like a cluster of generic Georgian Bay rocks. But it isn’t until you’re among them that you can really appreciate the detail of the McNab rocks.
Dad turned off the motor and paddled the pontoon boat through the rocks. It was incredible. These are the photos I took on August 1, 2016. What a wonderful way to start a new month!
The pictures were all taken using my Nikon Coolpix S8200. Cropped/edited on my Mac using Photos’ simple tools.
PS: I don’t recommend paddling a pontoon boat through here. It was shallow and tough to navigate. Canoes, kayaks, and row boats are better choices.
I’ve spent time in Britt every summer for over 40 years. It always feels like a homecoming. On July 29, 2016 I had my first boat ride of the year (Which is shameful. Boat rides should begin far earlier in the season). Mom and dad took me out in the bay for swimming and a picnic, visiting many of our regular spots. We started on the north shore. We swam in Sand Bay and cruised by old picnic rocks, visiting all my favourite windblown trees. This landscape inspires reflection while it serves as a living definition of resiliency.
Being immersed in such a grand, expansive, open place reminds me of how big the world is and how small we are by comparison. Hours on the water, far out from the towns, surrounded by diverse islands and infinite skies and big water, I know that we humans are just part of the story. We need to continue to protect our Canadian wilderness and waters because I think it’s nature that grounds us as a nation, showing us who we are and where we fit. Nature can show us how to coexist, remind us of what is important, reveal to us what we need to do, instil in us a sense of belonging, return to us a feeling of joy, give to us a space for healing, bring to us a knowing of peace, release for us a year of stress, and provide for us an experience that goes beyond high-definition, beyond video game simulations, beyond escape rooms, beyond the noise of our every day to the quiet wisdom of earth’s every day, a planet that will far outlast us and our work here.
Dad drives a pontoon boat. Mom sits in the back, under the canopy in the shade. I always sit in the front in the sunshine, my legs stretched out. We don’t talk much in the boat. The scenery is too awesome. We all love to watch the islands go by peacefully. I had a lot of fun with my camera, a Nikon Coolpix S8200 I bought in 2011. One day I’ll save for a better camera with lenses and more chances to make creative choices, but for now I love my little red point and click device. I like to capture trees, rocks, clouds, and patterns in nature that interest me. My friend Tom was visiting this week (and he is an incredible photographer–check out his stuff by clicking here). He reminded me to think about what I’m shooting (is it a picture of the clouds or the water?) and to consider the rule of thirds. I started that process a little, but I think the art of seeing will be a lifelong learning journey for me. I’m not a photographer by any stretch, just a big fan of Georgian Bay trying to preserve what I love most about it in pictures.
My big challenge is taking pictures while the boat is moving. Dad knows so many stunning places to go but he just keeps moving so I have to quickly decide on a shot and grab it while we move on. So I take hundreds of photos. Then I upload them to my MacBook Air, choosing the ones I like, often surprised by what “got caught.” Using the simple editing tools in Photos I straighten some of the drunken horizons (it’s so hard to shoot a straight horizon line in a moving boat), crop to focus the shot better, and click the magic “enhance” wand. This time I tried the classic slide show feature in Photos and created a video.
Here is our day on Georgian Bay:
The contrast of the clear blue skies with the fluffy grey clouds was so interesting to watch as everything was always changing: the clouds shifting, the sunlight adjusting, the water changing colours.
The Lamondin family has lived in Britt, Ontario since the beginning of Britt’s history. I’ve heard stories about when Britt was a logging town, when the coal docks were the centre of activity, when the railway was installed, when electricity arrived, and when the lighthouse became automated and no longer required a keeper. As my parents drive up and down the Britt road, they recite histories of the buildings and the families, sometimes going back a hundred years.
My grandfather, William Lamondin, lived at Gereaux Island Lighthouse as a child. His father, Louis Lamondin, was the lighthouse keeper there for at least 29 years. My grandfather died before I could ask him about his experiences there. It was so much a part of the family story that no one talked about life at the lighthouse much.
Grandpa’s sister, Bernice, also lived in the lighthouse. We were lucky to spend lots of time with her each summer. I often asked her to tell me stories about her life growing up in Britt and living in a lighthouse. In June 2002 I took notes on our conversation. Aunt Bernice was in her eighties at the time. Here is what my great-aunt Bernice shared:
Aunt Bernice’s grandfather, Joseph Normandin (1835-1912), piloted the first ship into the Britt Harbour. She didn’t remember the name of the ship or the year and I haven’t been able to find any sources to verify this. Joseph Normandin became the first keeper of the Gereaux Island Lighthouse in May 1875.
The year he was born, Joseph moved to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island as a displaced Metis family. (His father, Joseph Normandin Sr. (a Voyageur born in Quebec, 1797), describes the move in a documented oral history. And it’s likely that Joseph Sr.’s father was also named Joseph Normandin and a Voyageur.
In 1858 Joseph Normandin Jr. married Scholastique Berger (1839-1923) in Simcoe, Ontario. It is likely that they moved north to find work and they were probably in the Britt/Byng Inlet area from the beginning of its history in the late 1860s when the sawmill was built. Other families had also moved from the Penetanguishene area during this time too.
Joseph Normandin and Scholastique Berger had six children:
- Charles Napoleon Normandin (1863-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- Marie Josephine Normandin (1866-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- George Normandin (1872-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Gregoire Normandin (unknown)
- Jean David Normandin (1874-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Louis Normandin (1877-1948); born in Byng Inlet
- Adelia Normandin (1879-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
In the records, the family name can appear as Lamondet, Lamondin, Narmandin, and Normandin. Even my grandfather, William, often interchanged between Normandin and Lamondin.
I wonder if the name changed because the family felt out of place. After generations of living in a community of Métis people in Michigan, the family was given land but not jobs in Penetanguishene. I wonder if they tried to hide their Métis heritage by using “Lamondin” to appear more French and less Métis. Or maybe I’m over thinking this and it was simply a family feud among siblings trying to create space in a small town by changing their name. Or maybe it was just bad spelling skills!
Aunt Bernice’s father, Louis Lamondin (1877-1948) lived in Britt all his life. He worked at the lighthouse for about 30 years. Aunt Bernice says Louis was upset and disappointed when his term as keeper came to an end in 1946. Perhaps at 69 years old, the work was getting too challenging for him to manage. He didn’t want to retire. Louis wanted to keep working.
Some other details:
- At some point Louis worked as a Tug Captain for the lumber mill Graves Bigwood.
- Aunt Bernice talked about how he won a sail ship race and received a silver medal.
- During the winter, Louis worked for a lumber camp in Britt (located behind St. Amant’s current store).
- He earned $62 per month to feed the whole family.
- Louis and Cecilia (1888-1966) had five children: Alcide, William (my grandfather), Florence, Ernest, and Bernice (1921-2012).
- Louis was a self-educated man. Cecilia only learned to write.
At the Lighthouse:
- In the early 1900s, when the railway came to Britt, the town became a centre for coal. Louis would notify the coal docks when he could see boats six miles away. He would keep the town posted on their whereabouts so they could be greeted and receive help with tying. (There was a big boom on the coal ship, a deck hand would jump from it as it swung to the dock to tie the ship.) The coal served all of Northern Ontario. Sometimes there were up to 5 ships at the coal docks in Britt. Aunt Bernice remembers going to the coal docks to play, sliding down the coal dumps in her new silk pants.
- Louis hauled five gallons of gasoline up the lighthouse stairs. She described it as an inside and outside staircase.
Childhood Memories at the Lighthouse
Aunt Bernice said they sometimes ate seagull eggs as they were “very poor.” The eggs were grey in colour and some eggs had real seagulls in them. (We always wondered if this was a long “I remember when I was your age” story like the classic walking to school six miles in the snow story.)
When they were on the island, they used ashes to brush their teeth. The kids bathed in big metal tubs; the water had to be carried in jugs from an outdoor waterhole.
The kids began working at a young age. Her brother, Alcide, began working in the tower at the coal docks at 10 years old. He would dump coal from the ship into a moving car (that went by like as a conveyer belt). My grandfather, William, would take the cars of coal and help dump the coal into train cars. The boys made 20 cents an hour and when they came home they were all black, covered in coal from head to toe.
Louis put a swing for the children in the boathouse on Gereaux Island. The kids would swing for hours on a rainy day. Louis also made candy out on the rocks. He boiled water and added brown sugar, waiting until the sugar was stringy. He put the mixture outside in a puddle in the granite. Then he would pull and pull and pull. He broke off a piece of candy for everyone. Aunt Bernice said it tasted like caramel.
Her brother, Earnest, sometimes tied a string to a leg of a huge turtle. When Aunt Bernice was a little girl she would stand on the back of the turtle and Earnest would lead her around the island, taking her for a turtle ride. The boys also played with snakes as though they were pets. Turtles, snakes, fish, rock, windblown spruces, water, and each other were all they had to pass long summer days.
Louis would often make eggs for the kids. He’d put the eggs on toast. When the eggs were ready, Louis would clang a pot and yell, “Okay snakes and rabbits, chicken ass on toast!”
They all slept in one room in the lighthouse. They ate a lot of local fish, so much so that Aunt Bernice wouldn’t eat fish as an adult for many years.
Aunt Bernice went to a school that was in the same location as the current Britt school. It had three rooms for Grade 1-8. She remembers there being 3 teachers. It was common for students to skip grades. After Grade 8, Aunt Bernice took extra lessons at the school in Latin, French, Geometry, and Algebra. Aunt Bernice wanted to continue her education by becoming a nun. It cost $54 to buy a habit to be able to join the convent. Unfortunately, the family didn’t have the money for a nun’s habit to help her achieve her dreams of becoming a teacher or a nurse.
The local youth went to weekly dances hosted on Salem’s Island, not far from the lighthouse. Boat access only.The island dances always fascinated me. Aunt Bernice talked about these the most over the years.
While her brothers worked at the coal docks, Aunt Bernice worked at the local store for 10 or 15 years. She said she worked for $20 a month and worked 14 hour days. After she got married she negotiated 6 hour work days and $75 a month wage.
Aunt Bernice spent a lot of her time sitting in a docked boat at Gereaux Island, watching the ships roll into Byng Inlet. She ended up marrying a ship boat Captain, an American named Art Armstrong. She had only danced with Uncle Art a few times before he proposed.