Digest>Archives> July 2009


By Jeffrey Burke


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Maine's Isle au Haut Lighthouse, also known as ...
Photo by: Jeremy D’Entremont

After more than two decades of living at Maine's Robinson Point Lighthouse Station on Isle au Haut and running it as a popular inn, Jeffrey and Judi Burke have retired and put the property on the market. Jeff shares some of his favorite memories of their time at the Keeper’s House.

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The 5th order Fresnel lens from Isle au Haut ...
Photo by: Jeremy D’Entremont

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The kitchen where all the good food is cooked at ...

Twenty-three years I’ve lived at this island lighthouse station and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that lighthouses don’t get thrown up in just any old place: there’s magic here, something in the rock, some strange and wonderful force that leads ships around the world, and makes people care about each other, and pulses through the darkest nights, and, in my case, gets me in a lot of hot water.

For instance, I’ll never forget the time the crinkly-haired lady from Texas got lost on the mountain in late October after I had failed to provide her with a trail map. She’d rented a room here at the lighthouse so she could bring her out-of-control teenage son and his buddy here to straighten them out. She was a high-powered VIP from some famous legal firm; they were skinheads festooned with tattoos and studded belts, rippling muscles and sneering smirks. She figured a good lighthouse experience of salt air and serene sea would cure their behavior, get their lives leaning in a better direction.

She managed to get them to hike with her up Duck Harbor Mountain, but as soon as they hit the trail the boys had to go break all the rules, flipping their cigarette butts on the dry earth and bushwhacking through the puckerbrush, clear violations of National Park Policy. But without a map, soon they were lost. The sun came down. The fog rolled in. The temperature dropped. The wind picked up. I bumped around the loop road in the jeep, probing the darkened forest with my high beams, searching, yelling into the now-howling October wind. On the radio I contacted the ranger station: Wayne would round up the townspeople. In Head Harbor, I stopped at Bud Blasdell’s house and asked him to alert folks over there to be on the lookout. At one o’clock in the morning, we all gathered at the Town Hall and mapped out the search strategy. By then, the temperature had plummeted to well below freezing and the wind blew so hard that branches on spruce trees whipped till they tore off at the trunk, the crack of snapping wood like gunshots.

At sunrise, the mail boat arrived loaded with additional rangers from Park Headquarters on Mount Desert Island, with sniffing dogs, portable megaphones and first aide teams with trundled litters. Ten separate teams of villagers searched the trails while the fishermen poked along the storm-tossed coves around the island perimeter and housewives swarmed in the Town Hall brewing coffee and making skillets of scrambled eggs.

At ten o’clock the next morning we found them. In a low spot in a grove of cedar they had shuddered through the night buried in a pile of autumn leaves, rubbing each other trying to stay warm, clenched together in a human knot.

Several years later I got a nice letter from the Texas lady. She explained how that night on the mountain had been a cathartic experience, how the dramatic response from the island people had overwhelmed her and changed her life forever, that the dramatic visit to the lighthouse had become a guiding light to a whole new life for her. She had resigned from the corporate world, she explained, and gone to work on the streets of Houston providing services to the homeless. The two boys, however, were now in prison.

The power of lighthouses breeds that sort of stuff. Happens all the time. Like the summer we were raising funds to restore the tower and that cast from New York City found out. They were doing an Off-Broadway production about a Maine lighthouse station

(“The Logic of Solids”, written by Peter Valentyne) and volunteered to do a benefit performance staged on the island.

The Lighthouse Committee swung into action. We borrowed planks and posts from all over the island and built bleachers. From the Town Hall, we brought all eighty-two of the folding chairs, and tables to sell tickets and serve punch. The mail boat volunteered to ferry over a load of summer people from Stonington for the performance and the Sunday before the big weekend the Reverend Hoskins announced the event from the pulpit. The buzz was on: a real New York play taking place at our own lighthouse!

On the day of the performance the hot August sun rose into a cloudless cobalt sky. Volunteers busied with feeding the hustled cast, prepared refreshments, set up seating and helped the theater technicians run wires and set up props. Concerning the final scene of the play, (when the winsome Joyia casts the ashes of her lover from the lighthouse lantern room), the Committee had been split on whether or not we needed Department of Environmental Protection permits due to potential pollution issues, but since the remains were fake anyway, the committee had decided not to pursue it.

Everyone on the island came to the play. The Reverend Hoskins and wife sat in the front row, center. Even old Gordon Chapin (who never went to anything) was there with Maybelle, dressed to kill with snappy new chinos and a fresh denim shirt. Special transportation had been arranged for the less mobile folk, so a procession of snorting island vehicles labored over the hill to deliver the incapacitated. The kids all came and sat in the rocks so they didn’t have to pay.

It went off beautifully. The crowd roared with approval and we collected thousands of dollars for the lighthouse restoration project. Even Gordon Chapin went home with a smile. But even today, ten years later, I’m still trying to convince the Reverend Hoskins that I never knew that at the end of the second act the winsome Joyia would strip off her top.’

Here’s another thing about living in a lighthouse: Food tastes better. Some say it’s the salt air, or the emotional thrill of the spectacular setting. But if you ask my wife, Judi, she’ll tell you it’s the skill of the chef.

“But Judith,” I argue. “Don’t you think the brain’s synapses vibrate from the forces here, the pulse of the lighthouse, the rote of the sea, the scent of forest pine and bayberry, all working in harmony to stimulate the taste buds.”

“Malarkey,” she says. “Good recipes. Accurate measuring spoons. Proper kitchen equipment. That’s what it takes. You can’t serve up any old slop. It takes work!”

“Chemistry counts, too. Don’t you agree,” I offer, unwilling to give up.

Her dusky red hair reflects the sun ricocheting off the stubbled waves as she stands by her kitchen window, her hand poised over a mixing bowl, her fingers tightened around the wooden spoon. “Ask Lisa. Ask Debra. Ask Kate. Ask anyone who’s cooked here for our guests. They’ll tell you straight; it’s the recipe that counts.”

The truth is, though, these marvelous island cooks don’t always see eye to eye. In fact, one summer things got downright testy. It all had to do with who made the best chocolate cake. Lisa claimed it was moisture that counts. Debra said flavor. Someone else vouched for more esthetic characteristics. Judi tried to moderate the argument, but couldn’t resist pointing out that hers was made with the most organic ingredients. It was Debra who came up with the challenge: the question could be decided only by having a chocolate cake bake-off, a tightly organized un-biased blind test with the island people judging once and for all who’s cake was best.

“So be it!” they all assented.

It didn’t take long for the word to get around. The problem was that every cook on the island wanted to be included. This was the event of the year, reputations at stake. No honorable baker could stand aside with their culinary ego at risk.

Harold VanDoren even made a special trip off-island to Ellsworth in search of a certain style of bunt cake pan. Lisa had a friend who had a friend who had a source to get special cocoa beans from a shaman somewhere deep in the Amazonian jungle. There were now thirteen individual challengers. Ruth VanDoren, who is allergic to chocolate (hence, no vested interest), was selected to organize the judging. A date was set.

Relationships got pretty frosty during the two weeks prior to the contest. At the Island Store, competitors brushed past each other in the aisle, mute and secretive, selecting exotic ingredients from the backs of dusty shelves and shielding them from view. In the lighthouse kitchen, things struggled along. I sensed in those days prior to the bake-off that the fancy meals our guests usually enjoyed might have even suffered. I sensed a bit of sabotage. Distrust hovered in the pantry. Nerves on edge. Day by day ticked by as we headed for the showdown.

The night of the chocolate cake contest arrived. In the beckoning glow of the lighthouse, each cook wound up the hill and appeared in the kitchen with their entry. Ruthie worked efficiently in the pantry, assigning a number to each of the glimmering umber mounds, then slicing them delicately and placing a wedge from each on a corresponding number marked on a paper plate. Thirty-five islanders attended. Each got a plate with thirteen small slices and a pencil to mark their choices, a fork, a paper napkin and a glass of water. Palpable tension permeated the dining room where clusters of tasters gathered in hushed silence and licked at the tines of their forks. The cooks hovered in the shadows. I swear I saw Lucy’s lips quivering in silent prayer, and sweat forming on the brow of more than one baker, although the night was unusually cool.

Ruthie tallied the results. Walked to the center of the crowd. Silence.

“And, the winner is . . . Gerry Turner!”

Muted congratulations. Audible muttering. Some downcast eyes. A visible tear.

Gerry remained seated in the corner by the wood stove in Mattie Belle’s old rocking chair. Startled by her victory, she sat frozen as granite. As the reality of defeat and concession seeped through the crowd, an accepting applause gathered; Gerry seemed to relax.

“What a thrill!” she said. Thank you all for voting for my cake. And thanks to Jeff and Judi for hosting the event. And a super thank-you to all my friends and fellow cooks who entered the contest.”

Then, a guilty countenance crept across her. “But most of all, I’m afraid I have to give my greatest thanks to Betty Crocker, who provided the wonderful box cake I used.”

People often ask me how we ever found this wondrous lighthouse. I tell them we were never searching, that it fell from the sky into our laps. Besides, long before we ever arrived here this timeless place had been carved from stone by the sea, modeled by the storms of time, nursed by the hand of Native American clam gatherers, the fishermen, masons, lighthouse keepers and islanders who came before us. Now our turn is done, and we will move on to fresher adventures. But no matter who follows us here, one thing is for certain; whatever the magic is in this rock, it will endure long after we are gone.

This story appeared in the July 2009 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.

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