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Thom Barker: A delightful discovery - the allure of the fog horn

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

“Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone/They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot… oo la la la la…”

My mom used to always say, “Be a tourist in your own town.” She probably still does, but I haven’t heard it for a while.

I grew up mostly in Ottawa. Because of my parents’ attitude, very early on I got to do and see pretty much everything the nation’s capital had to offer to tourists. It was just what we did as a family.

I have no empirical data that our hometown tourism was exceptional in any way, but it never ceased to amaze me how many long-term residents of Ottawa I knew had never been inside the Parliament buildings or visited the National Gallery or strolled the grounds of the governor general’s residence.

Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say, as the aforementioned Joni Mitchell lyrics suggest, that humans have a tendency to take for granted what is most familiar.

I have only recently arrived in St. Anthony. I will play tourist, but have yet to take advantage of all the great opportunities here as I am waiting for my wife to arrive so we can do it together.

I have to say, though, I was very pleasantly surprised and grateful to learn about one thing Newfoundlanders did not take for granted.

The first time I heard the fog horn moaning up at Fox Point, it took me off guard. I’ve never lived in an area where there is a coast guard light station and had assumed they were pretty much obsolete given technological advancements in navigation and automation.

Still, every time the fog rolled in, the horn started its slow, rhythmic beat and I found myself mesmerized by it. Despite having no experience as a mariner, and very little as a coast dweller, I found it to be a compellingly comforting sound.

I should not, perhaps, have been surprised. In the past, I’ve done entire series of articles on pipe organs and church bells. I seem to be drawn to and fascinated by sound.

At first, I simply enjoyed this newfound delight, but as I continued to hear the horn every time the ceiling came down, my curiosity piqued. I decided to investigate, hoping it would make a good story.

I asked the editor, who grew up around lighthouses and fog horns, what he knew about the local horn and he said, “You know, not much, I never really thought about it.”

So, I went up to Fox Point to see what I could find out and met a very pleasant fellow named Morris Green. As it turned out, Morris is an actual Canadian Coast Guard lightkeeper. The station is not just a tourist attraction. It almost was, though. I found out that twice in the last 20 years or so, the coast guard looked at de-staffing light stations, but a Senate of Canada committee found “overwhelming opposition” to the plan in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia.

And that opposition wasn’t just from lightkeepers. Ship owners, fishing and touring boat operators and the general public stepped up to save 23 light stations around the island from being de-staffed.

A second Senate study found that not only was there utility to keeping the “eyes and ears of the coast” for public safety and sovereignty reasons, but that they also had cultural value.

So, I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to those who kept the working light station in St. Anthony from becoming a historical footnote. I am delighted every time I hear that mournful yet soothing sound echoing through the fog and look forward to what other delights I will find being a tourist in my new town.

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