Digest>Archives> July 2009

Porphyry Point Lighthouse

By Jane Byers


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The current Porphyry Point Lighthouse near ...

On Porphyry Island just off the northern shores of Lake Superior proudly stands the Porphyry Point Lighthouse. Named for the black volcanic rock it’s perched on, the lighthouse has watched over the entrance to Black Bay since 1873. Only the second Canadian light station established on the great lake, the McKay’s have tended the light for three generations, Grandpa being the last. The light station was manned vigilantly from just before the ice melted in the spring until the lake’s winter freeze. Time spent on the island was a magical experience never forgotten by those fortunate enough to have visited there.

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Cliff McKay at Porphyry Lighthouse when he was ...

Lying just east of the mighty Sleeping Giant and only accessible by water or air, Porphyry Island was a seventeen nautical mile or a two hour passage by boat from the mainland camp. Grandpa’s expert maneuvering of the fishing vessel and Superior’s restless waters would make the voyage to the island an exhilarating adventure. A few drops of the lake’s frigid spray could take one’s breath away, and the enormous swells would make one’s stomach drop with each surge. Plowing into the harbor’s calm was always a welcome sensation as the powerful engines subdued and one glided to a stop at the dock. From there, it was just a fifteen minute tractor ride through the woods to the lighthouse.

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Fran and Cliff McKay at the lighthouse.

The days flew by on the island. Hours were lost on the beaches collecting pieces of broken glass, polished to perfection from their trip along the rocky bottom of the lake. Against the black pebble sand, they looked like sparkling treasure and came in every color. Smooth pulp logs washed ashore and were perfect for constructing massive forts. Exploring the woods one would occasionally discover an Ojibwe Indian burial mound. Their arrowheads were sometimes found and fashioned into tomahawks again. Fishing with Grandpa entailed helping with the nets and cleaning the fish for Grandma to fry to perfection and eat with fresh produce from her garden. The greatest thrill of all was climbing to the top of the lighthouse tower to gaze out from almost ninety feet above the beautiful blue lake. Looking down on the huge freighters as they made their way along the shipping channel was breathtaking. Days when the thick, heavy fog would move in Porphyry’s horns would start their deep, eerie warnings. The radio would periodically crackle with “Maydays” from frightened boaters lost in the disorienting haze. Alone, Grandpa would head to his boat and always find the distressed vessel to rescue, towing them safely into the harbor.

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The 1873 Porphyry Point Lighthouse no longer ...

Animals were abundant on Porphyry. Each spring would find a moose living on the island, having walked across the ice in the winter. Shortly after the light keeper’s return, they would swim away. Foxes and deer were spotted frequently, and rabbits were everywhere. The fall brought bears from the mainland as they swam over to feast on the Mountain Ash berries.

The Porphyry Point Light was made fully automated soon after Grandpa retired in 1979. He was awarded The Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship and also presented to Queen Mother Elizabeth. The light tower is locked, and the island is now deserted, a nature preserve owned by The Canadian Coast Guard. Only visited by the lone sea kayaker, the forest and animals have reclaimed their island. The era of manned light stations is now mainly a thing of the past. Being a light keeper’s granddaughter is a cherished memory experienced by the extremely lucky and very few.

This story appeared in the July 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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