Digest>Archives> February 2002

Canadian Coast Guard Fills in for Rudolph

By Eric W. Manchester


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Eurocopter on helipad at Pachena Point ...

“Reindeer are faster and more fun,” according to a flier who is an acknowledged expert in such matters. “Helicopters are noisy and the ride is bumpy, but for some special missions they’re the only way to go.” Each year, Santa Claus buckles himself into a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter bearing the same colour scheme as his suit.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Approaching Carmanah Point Lightstation, on ...

For the past 23 years, retired lightkeeper Penn Brown personified the Santa spirit to children of all ages on remote lightstations along the Vancouver Island coast. Besides the traditional red and white uniform, and snowy-white beard, this airborne St. Nick’s ensemble is complimented by a Mae West (life jacket)— in case of unexpected soggy landings.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Carmanah Point Lightstation from helipad. Juan de ...

Brown, at age 78, has been in the Kris Kringle brigade for so long that many of the infants he once bounced on his knee are now teens taller than he. “Memorable visits of long ago were with large families,” says Brown, “But there aren’t as many kids on the lightstations anymore.”

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Santa (a.k.a. Penn Brown, age 78) at Pachena ...

Delivering Christmas cheer is a team effort. “Lots of preparation goes into this, to find out where all the kids are, and their genders and ages,” according to Brown, “We used to go by ship, but we switched to a helicopter about five years ago.”

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Santa (a.k.a. Penn Brown, age 78) at Carmanah ...

This year, Santa’s mechanized sleigh was a small Eurocopter B0105, built in the 1980’s. It is well suited to hauling Christmas gifts, as it can lift a one-ton payload. The elves weren’t left unsupervised for very long because its twin turbine engines propelled the craft among the lightstations at 120-knot speeds - with four passengers and a pilot aboard. St. Nick’s teamster for the 2001 tour was veteran Canadian Coast Guard pilot Gerry Emery. “I’ve piloted Santa Claus quite often. The best part was meeting all the children,” says Emery.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Santa (a.k.a. Penn Brown, age 78) arrives at ...

The Canadian Coast Guard has operated a helicopter base at Victoria, British Columbia for nearly 30 years. The base is staffed by thirteen people - pilots, engineers and an administrator. Coast Guard helicopters are a collaboration of government agencies. The machines are owned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, of which the Coast Guard is a division. The pilots and engineers who fly and maintain the craft are provided by Transport Canada’s Aircraft Services branch.

The long stretch of bad weather broke on the dawn of departure - more sun than cloud, and no blustering winds - although the Christmas express could fly with a minimum of one-mile visibility. The southern leg of Santa’s tour was short, beginning with a quick round-trip to Trial Island, off Victoria’s waterfront, before loading and refuelling for the run along Vancouver Island’s wild Pacific coast to lightstations at Pachena and Carmanah points.

The powerful turbines roared, the rotors whirled and the tiny craft leaped into the morning chill. A steady climb from Victoria to 5,000 feet put the crimson machine into calm air above the moisture-rich clouds, over the Sooke hills and along Juan de Fuca Strait.

“Pachena Point, this is Coast Guard 357,” Emery’s voice crackled over the radio, “We are 20 minutes away and have Santa aboard.” The reply was prompt and exuberant, “Pachena - roger - the children are standing by!” Two families live and work on Pachena Point Lightstation - Peter and Sheila Redhead with their children, 13-year old Emily and 11-year old Thomas; and, Robert and Lise Desmanches, with their dog Bailey.

The principal keeper’s residence featured an abundance of yummy home-baking and hospitality, but no Christmas tree. “I can’t believe we live next to a huge forest, and haven’t found the right tree yet,” mused Redhead. The absence of decorated foliage didn’t dampen the assembled spirits. “Santa’s visit is a lot of fun and the kids love seeing him,” says Sheila Redhead.

Laughter and reminiscence filled fleeting time until the procession returned to the helipad. With one eye on the weather, and one eye on the clock, Emery launched the little Eurocopter toward Carmanah Point Lightstation. Deteriorating weather and impending darkness urged Santa to complete his rounds.

Touchdown at Carmanah was witnessed by the station’s entire population amassed at the helipad’s edge. The craft’s rotors barely stopped twirling before Santa dispensed presents to a crush of adoring fans - Jerry and Janet Etzkorn with their children Jake (age 19) and Justine (age 17); and, Calvin and Lorraine Martin with their children Tamara (age 14) and Tory (age 11). A wheelbarrow was needed to handle the incoming mail - long delayed by continual storms.

A tall, rotund Christmas tree consumed the keeper’s living room. “It’s just the top of a tree, not the whole thing,” said Etzkorn, “It looked much smaller outdoors.” Scrumptious treats tempted the crew, and some even disregarded the weight limitation of the tiny helicopter by having several helpings.

“Holidays seem bigger on lightstations,” says Janet Etzkorn, “They mark the passing seasons and brighten a dreary winter.” Christmas on a lightstation is a special time for families who spend their entire year close together, and is no less exciting than anywhere else. “The kids are up at 4:00 a.m.,” according to Sheila Redhead, “We try to restrain them for another two hours, but they’re very eager!” All seem to agree that one of the nicest aspects of the festive season is the quiet enjoyment of just being together.

Soon - too soon - Santa and crew again sat buckled-in as the turbines’ whine intensified, the little helicopter rocked impatiently on its skids, and those remaining exchanged heartfelt waves with those departing. The aircraft heaved skyward and raced the elements home. On final approach to Victoria, Santa pensively gazed toward the ocean, probably already planning next year’s mission - and maybe wishing for reindeer next time.

This story appeared in the February 2002 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History