Sister Island Light sits alongside the southeastern end of Grenadier Island. Built in 1870, its first keeper, Captain William Dodge was a good friend of Grenadier’s Billy Buell. Despite both islands being close, communication wasn’t easy as cellphones weren’t very efficient in those days. Dodge’s solution was to train his Newfoundland dog to swim the quarter mile, delivering messages back and forth.
When I first began to learn about the River, I was confused that this seemed to be known both as Sister Island and the Three Sisters. The explanation came when I succeeded in winning an eBay auction for a pencil sketch, dated 1870, the year the lighthouse was built. Beyond being a treasured piece of River art, the drawing revealed three islands (the sisters), joined by bridges.
While shooting my first book, I was fortunate enough to capture an up-bound freighter mirroring the island’s shape which I included on page 67. That image shows a single, long island with three wider patches of trees. A closer look shows the gaps have been filled with stone, presumably by Dodge or one of the subsequent (very bored) light keepers, thus expanding their estate.
I’ve tried to shoot this scene many times since, but it requires luck and persistence, timing arrival just as one of the maximum length freighters passes on its way upstream. Downbound ships don't work as well. My best ever shot can be found on page 12 of Volume VII and getting it was somewhat more stressful than simply showing up.
At the end of a late afternoon’s shoot, I spotted an upbound CSL freighter about 4 or 5 miles downstream as I was passing Sister Island. The problem was that I was flying on fumes. Seeing perfect warm light and a bright red ship coming this way, I couldn’t miss the opportunity, but didn’t have enough fuel to wait and still make it home. So I landed in the bay at the foot of Grenadier, switched the engine off and waited.
It’s stressful sitting and waiting as a race goes on that I couldn't monitor from where I was. The sun was very close to setting Would the ship arrive in time? I could hear the low rumble of the engines, but the setting sun was out of my view behind trees. I kept wanting to take off so I could see what was going on, but knew that I’d run out of fuel if I did it too soon. Eventually, the stress forced me into the air. It was too early and I would have to loiter in the air while figuring out the the timing and track of my pass.
The challenge was timing it exactly as the ship's superstructure lined up with the lighthouse. There would be no time to do a 360 for a second try. Again, I moved too soon. My only chance was to try to stay put and eat up a few seconds by doing very steep, aggressive “S” turns. This being not long after 9/11 when air marshals were being put on planes, I worried that the Seaway would have done something similar. I could almost hear them on their radio calling Homeland Security; “There’s a small plane, very low, making crazy turns and coming for us.” Finally, I leveled out, snapped quickly and amazingly, got a perfect shot. As a bonus, I made it home without running out!
Since that day, I’ve tried to capture this scene several additional occasions, hoping to record it with a higher resolution camera. Last summer, my quest was rewarded with this shot. It may not be better, but it’s far higher resolution. Should this scene prompt memories of Sister or Grenadier Islands or that area, please don’t be shy to share below.
I’ll also remind you that our winter home at the mouth of Jones Creek (National Park) is available as a vacation rental on the River, as is our tiny jewel of a home in Séguret (Provence), France.