September 23, 2019

Lighthouse Living Birch Harbor man finds love of his life on a Maine island

A strong front came through last night as expected, pushing out the fog and southwest wind.

At 9 a.m., I cast off my mooring line just as the tide turns, and head down Winter Harbor Sound in my Boston Whaler for the two-mile run. The newly arrived northwest breeze is gusting to 25 knots and kicking up a good-sized chop.

My primary and backup motors are both fired, the heavy dock lines curled and in place, and three large fender balls ready to toss overboard. We never know exactly what she holds in store, and we must be prepared for a difficult landing.

“She” is Mark Island, a 4-acre outcropping west of Schoodic Peninsula and home of the Winter Harbor Lighthouse. Built in 1856 to warn mariners of the island and nearby ledges, the lighthouse was manned until 1934 when the beacon was replaced by a lighted bell buoy, and the island sold by the U.S. government. I am headed out there to open the lighthouse for the 2002 season from May through November.

A peat-covered island sprinkled with spruce trees, where daisies, foxglove and raspberry and rosa rugosa bushes abound, its deceptive shores are known for dangerous sea surges, particularly around the spot where I plan to land. Extreme caution is the watchword if a sea has been running outside, which it had been for two days.

Rounding the northern tip of neighboring Ned Island, I swing the bow south and poke into what is known as the Middle Ground. The seas immediately increase, and continue to do so as the boat bangs across the waves toward Mark and the float on the island’s northwest shore.

I watch as surging water is forced up the boathouse rails, curling under as it rises, then sucking back down amid a rush of white spray and foam. No room for error out here. Setting just 20 feet too far north could be catastrophic.

Rollers lift and drop the float on its heavy chains as I slowly approach, using the strong wind on my starboard quarter and the sea on my port bow to set the Whaler gently against the bucking float. Four quick turns of the boat’s midship dock line around the center cleat on the outboard side of the float secure us. A bow line, a stern line and two spring lines, tied while duckwalking on the float, hold us tight.

I climb the knoll next to the boathouse and gaze up the long path, quickly surveying the oil house and shop. I begin the walk to the lighthouse, alert to signs of winter’s wrath, purposely not looking up to the house and tower until they are almost upon me. My friend, a male bald eagle, is not perched on the kitchen chimney top today. He must be out hunting.

With its eyebrow-topped windows, the house seems to look me straight in the eye, silently asking, “Where have you been?” Telling me patiently of the winter storms. It is difficult to check my emotions. I am home once again on my beloved island. Feelings of gratitude and humility tug at me. I think of the generations of lightkeeper families who have lived here. Always protecting from the sea, but never able to protect a fool from himself.

Painted less than two years ago, the house and tower must now be done again. Roaring November gales send sea spray over the top of the tower and house. It is quickly apparent that seawater has come past the kitchen door and under the steps during one or more winter storms. A week’s worth of work digging and planting rosa rugosas last summer was for naught. The sea has seen to that. I planted the bushes knowing full well that there is usually a reason why even the hardy rugosas are absent from certain spots out here. I should have known better. Sometimes one can sneak plantings by for two or three years.

Then the harsh conditions send an unmistakable rebuke. Interestingly, large rhubarb and horseradish patches planted in 1939 continue to thrive behind the vegetable garden next to the outhouse.

But, all that seems minor today. The big concern is always whether or not water has found its way into the house or tower. I remove the kitchen’s heavy winter storm door with my 5-pound hammer’s claw, and poke inside. A quick check of the kitchen with its old Atlantic wood cookstove and fall-cleaned kerosene lamp chimneys reveals no surprises. Through the dining room, the music room with its 1895 organ and celtic harp, and hallway. Then to the bedrooms upstairs. No sign of water damage anywhere. And all windows are intact.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I pass through the service room and begin to climb the winding iron staircase to the top of the tower, still shaking my head after seven seasons at my good fortune just to be here. At the top of the tower, I find some flaked rust and water stains from a leak around one of the panes. I must tighten things up here soon. Transfixed, my eyes scan the open sea, unbroken to the coast of Africa.

This will be a brief trip today. I will clean the burner in the kerosene-fired refrigerator, hook up the cisterns to collect water from the roof, walk the island, checking for erosion and any surprises from the winter sea; survey the oil house, shop and boathouse, the latter two perched precariously for 145 years at the water’s edge; then make a to-do list for the next trip out, an unbroken stay of a week or two.

I lean my ladder against the shop, and step up to where I can reach the flag halyard, the carefully folded red, white and blue tucked under one arm. I cut out two pieces of frayed rope and retie the two shackles before hoisting. This moment is always a special one for me and it seems to take on even more significance this year.

Rounding the bell off the southern tip of the island, I pull back the throttle. The boat slows and sits down on top of a wave. I look over my shoulder. “Leaving so soon?” she asks. I smile to myself. “Yes,” I say. “But I will be back. Very soon.”

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