By Chris Mills
(Reproduced from the Fall/Winter 2021/22 edition of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society publication The Lightkeeper with permission of the author.)
I first ran across Rip Irwin in 1986. I don’t recall the circumstances that led to that first meeting, but I was about to embark on a year’s university study in Scotland. Rip, a former Chief Petty Officer First Class in the Canadian Navy, was about to embark on his own exciting adventure – to visit and document every lighthouse (165 or so!) in Nova Scotia, as the Coast Guard slowly but surely automated and closed down our last few staffed stations. It was a daunting task, considering the remote and dangerous locations of some of our lights, but Rip was committed to the idea, and we agreed to keep in touch while I was overseas.
Upon my return in mid-1987, Rip and I reconnected. Rip had purchased a small zodiac and outboard, which he’d already used to visit several offshore lights. Travelling alone, and in sometimes dangerous sea conditions, Rip had a number of close calls. While he attempted to land at one isolated island, his zodiac capsized in heavy surf, spilling Rip and his belongings into the surging waters. He hauled his boat ashore, gathered its scattered and soaking contents, and wandered, sans vetements, around the abandoned lightstation, all the while hoping that no other unexpected visitors would show up at this rather inopportune moment.
For some of the larger offshore stations, Rip engaged local fishermen to land him. On a few occasions, we travelled together to visit the last of Nova Scotia’s island keepers. In 1987 we visited Robert and Geraldine Spears, the final keepers of Scatarie NE light in Cape Breton. The next year we sat around George and Ethel Locke’s kitchen table on Cross Island, off Lunenburg, listening to their stories of family life on four Nova Scotia lightstations. That trip was even more special with the company of three Scottish Lightkeepers, who’d won a British TV quiz show. The prize? But of course! A holiday to visit other lightkeepers at work!
Rip’s quest to visit every lighthouse in Nova Scotia took about eight years to complete. However, his work was not done. He spent the following years re-visiting and documenting many lighthouses around the province. He catalogued his photographs and he organized his research. Much of this activity took place in what Rip affectionately called “The Pit”, in the basement of his Bible Hill home. I spent many happy hours visiting with Rip in the pit, reminiscing, researching, laughing and planning more lighthouse visits. In 2003, Nimbus published Rip’s Lighthouses and Lights of Nova Scotia, the first comprehensive guide to and history of the province’s guiding lights. In 2006, Rip donated his entire collection, including an estimated 18,000 photographs and some 20 volumes of research, to the Lighthouse Research at Interpretive Centre at the Northumberland Fisheries Museum in Pictou.
In the early 1990s, Rip and I, along with lighthouse enthusiasts Graham McBride and Patricia MacDonald, visited Sambro Island, site of the oldest operating lighthouse in the Americas. As we tramped around the deserted island and looked at the decaying lightstation buildings, we decided we needed to form a society to preserve Sambro Island and Nova Scotia lighthouses. In 1994, Rip became the founding president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society. His tenacity and his passion for Sambro Island led in large part to federal protection for the lighthouse, a legacy that continues to this day.
Rip was a passionate defender of Nova Scotia lighthouses. He was strong-willed and he was a polarizing figure at times. But first and foremost, he was my friend and my partner in lighthouse adventure. In 1991, when I was working as a lightkeeper on Gannet Rock N.B., Rip decided he’d like to visit. Launching his tiny zodiac from Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island in a thick fog, Rip drew some interest and not a little head-shaking from skeptical fishermen who thought he was “ f’n nuts” to attempt the eight mile crossing to Gannet. Later that morning, The Bay of Fundy’s tides swept Rip and his tiny zodiac well west and south of Gannet. Happily, our foghorn alerted him to this, and likely saved him from a one-way trip into the open Atlantic. Rip landed safely (well, his zodiac was punctured on our landing in a bit of a swell, but that’s another story for another time) on Gannet Rock.
Rip told me once he made it a point to hug every lighthouse he visited. That’s just the kind of guy he was. It was an honour to know Rip Irwin. We owe him a debt of gratitude for all of his lighthouse adventures and for his desire to save as much of the history of our guiding lights as he possibly could. He certainly did that.
Rip is survived by his partner Maxine, and by his children Cathy, David and Jimmy, as well as his brother Robert and his sister Lois. His wife Anita pre-deceased Rip in 2005.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org