Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2013

Posing as a Lighthouse Keeper

By Nancy Frye Bergeron


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Isles of Shoals Lighthouse on White Island, New ...

“Life isn’t about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain” - unknown

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Looking over from White Island to Star Island.

Recently I had the opportunity to stay on New Hampshire’s White Island at the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse as a steward for The Lighthouse Kids organization. I learned about the Stewardship Program because my daughter Wendy is a new member on the Board of Directors. Long time subscribers to Lighthouse Digest will recall that in 2000 a local teacher, Sue Reynolds, decided to interest her students in helping to preserve the 82-foot tall lighthouse built in 1859. The lighthouse and its surrounding buildings, including the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, had fallen into disrepair. In 1986 the lighthouse became automated and no longer required the presence of the Coast Guard to maintain the light. So in 1992 the Coast Guard gave White Island Lighthouse back to the state of New Hampshire. The damage of New England storms and the lack of revenue left the lighthouse and the other buildings in pretty bad shape.

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Pulling the skiff.

The Lighthouse Kids, with the help of a $250,000 matching grant and the generosity of many local businesses, has been able to greatly improve the condition of the buildings, but there is much work to be done. In 2011 the Stewardship Program was formed to give volunteers an opportunity to stay on the island and offer their skills to continue the restoration project. The first stewards arrived in the summer of 2012. Dates are set up by the organization throughout the summer and interested stewards can elect to stay three to four days with a maximum group of four people. My group of four elected to stay from June 27 through June 29 this year.

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Returning from Seavey Island and the tern blinds.

Having lived near the ocean all my life I knew the minute I heard about the program that the sea was calling me. I put the word out to a group of friends and quickly found three who were more than willing to join me on this adventure. We were warned that landing on the island could be risky and the living conditions were somewhat rustic. Due to the rocky shoreline, we would need to arrive at high tide, plus we would need to pack light, bring sleeping bags, our own food, and plenty of drinking water. All our necessary forms were signed and turned in to Sue, the Stewardship Program Director, and we met to prepare the list of provisions we would need to take, which, of course, included wine and chocolate. We arranged our transport through a local fisherman.

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Getting water from the cistern.

Finally we arrived at the Rye Harbor dock at 2:00 pm on Thursday June 27th - me and my friends Mary, Sue, and Donna. Sisters Sue and Donna’s great grandfather, Jonathan Godfrey, had been a White Island lighthouse keeper during the Civil War. The captain of the fishing boat helped us stow our gear on board, including water, battery lanterns, and food for five days, just in case the weather delayed our return. We climbed on board and head out across the sea with the skiff, to be used for our landing, following behind us.

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View from the lantern room of Isles of Shoals ...

The weather was a bit foggy, but all of us loved the trip, with the roll of the waves and the sea breeze on our skins as we scanned the sea for our first glimpse of the islands. The first island we spotted was Appledore, the largest of the islands and one off the islands residing in the state of Maine. The second largest island is Star Island of Rye, New Hampshire and this island hosts the Unitarian Universalist Association for the United Church of Christ conference center. White Island is across from Star, and before long the island came into view.

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The enclosed walkway to the tower at Isles of ...

Soon the Captain was mooring the boat on a buoy and pulling the skiff alongside to load our gear and two team members. The skiff arrived safely on shore, but a wave washed over the bow, so we had to start bailing so that the skiff can return for Mary and me, who were waiting patiently for our turn. We climbed in with the remaining gear and headed towards the lighthouse, excited to join our friends. We were greeted by two female college graduates who were working on the island all summer for Terns, LLC, an organization that studies the terns nesting on White Island and the adjoining Seavey Island, which is connected to White Island at low tide. We were also greeted by Diesel, a Newfoundland dog, who is staying on the Island to deter the terns from nesting too close to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. We quickly learned not to leave the cottage without a hat or a tall stick to keep the terns from attacking our heads.

We hauled our gear up to the former keeper’s house to unpack and settle in. The keeper’s house has all new windows, but they were in need of trim work, and several drop ceilings needed tile replacements. There were a few walls that needed patching, but none of this mattered to any of us. We were here to work and we planned on getting an early start in the morning. But the rest of the day was ours and our new friends, Leah and Vanessa - the Terns, LLC employees, ask if we wanted the key to the lighthouse so we could go exploring. Of course the answer was a resounding “Yes!” Off we went to climb the lighthouse tower and see the Isles from a bird’s eye view. First we entered the enclosed walkway that had been replaced in 2011. It is constructed over the ledge that leads up to the lighthouse and we entered to see a sloped floor that ends with a door to the base of the tower. We exited that door and entered the lighthouse to climb the spiral staircase, pausing at the first landing to check out the view from the window in the tower wall. Finally we reached the top and saw the light which was waiting to be repaired. Fortunately for us, the foghorn was also in need of repair or we would have enjoyed the foghorn blast every 30 seconds during our somewhat foggy stay on the island.

The view was spectacular in spite of the misty day. Sue and I were the most daring of the group and we went out on the ledge to get a better view. The terns were flying around down below, protecting their nests and as the waves crashed against the rocks, the spray lifted up in an array of sparkling water diamonds. The panoramic vista of the nine islands is breathtaking. Reluctantly we made our way down the spiral stairs to return to the cottage.

The next morning I was up at 4:30 am, hoping to see a sunrise, but instead White Island was a solitary island surrounded by fog. No one else is up, so I go out to visit the outhouse with its compost lavatory, then returned to do some journaling. Soon Vanessa was up to do her first round of inspections on the tern nests. She checked the solar electricity level, which was low due to the lack of sun, but high enough to start the drip coffee pot. The rest joined us and we started our indoor painting tasks as a light rain fell outside.

Mary and I decided to tackle the floor in the room attached to the walkway. We finished putting down a coat of paint and joined the rest of the crew who were painting windows inside the keeper’s house. In the afternoon the sun made an appearance and I headed outside to work on outdoor clean-up projects. Sue soon joined me and we filled some trash bags full of debris and also cleaned up the errant rocks that seemed to be everywhere, probably tossed around in stormy weather. We finally called it quits after 4:00 pm.

Vanessa and Leah returned from their stay on Seavey Island where there are six blinds. They were both assigned three blinds and spent about 4 1/2 hours of observation time in the blinds each day before returning to White Island before high tide. This particular evening they had to swim back because the tide was too high due to the stormy weather. Vanessa shared with me a bit about the tern population on the two islands the first morning. The Common Terns are the majority of the tern population and the ones that will use their red bills to attack people’s heads if they step too close to a nest. There was a small population of Artic Terns, slightly smaller than the Common Terns, and sixty Roseate Terns, that are on the endangered species list. The Roseate Terns are similar to the Common Terns, but shorter with black bills. Neither the Artic or Roseate Terns will attack, and they both live in harmony with the Common Terns.

We prepared our evening meals and played cards while enjoying an evening of wine, chocolate, and shared laughter. Saturday morning I was up at 4:30 am and we were again fogged in. It was Leah’s morning to do the morning rounds, and she reportedthat the electricity was too low for the coffee maker. So Donna unpackedher perculator and we made coffee on the gas stove. There are two propane gas refrigerators, one for Terns, LLC and one for the stewards, two microwaves, and a toaster. Both the kitchen and bathroom have sinks with no running water. Strategically placed on the sink counters were two large containers, one was drinking water and one was water from the cistern in the basement. The cistern was full from all the rain during the past weeks and the bacteria level is checked each day and bleach is added as needed. If cosssstern water is boiled for twelve minutes, it is safe to drink.

We received a phone call at 7:15 am from Sue Reynolds telling us that there was a chance that we may not get off the island at our scheduled departure time. She was concerned that we might not have enough food, but we assured her that we did. After breakfast we got back to work and the lack of electricity was hardly noticed, but the lanterns did come in handy. Around noon we received another call from Sue and one from the boat captain letting us know that we were back on for a 2:30 pickup time. All of us agreed that we were not ready to leave, but we started our clean up and got packing. The stay was too short, and although we got quite a bit of work done, we wished we could have accomplished more.

We left our remaining chocolate and wine with a note for Leah and Vanesa, who were over at Seavey Island sitting in the blinds. We lugged all our gear down to the shoreline and waited for our transportation. Leah and Vanessa returned in full tern observation gear: baseball caps with thick socks duct taped to the tops and “tern” sticks. We took picures of them and they took pictures of us. Then they headed back to the cottage to get cleaned up and returned to thank us for our gift. We were the fourth steward group since they arrived on the island, and we were their favorites so far. The boat arrived with our replacements and way too soon we were leaving the island. The waves were rough and it takes several skiff trips to unload the new group and get us onboard the boat to return. As we motored across the sea to the mainland, we all looked back sadly to see the islands disappear into the fog again.

My stay on White Island as a Lighthouse Kids steward was one of the best experiences of my life. I hope to return next year to help out once again and to see that elusive sunrise from the Isles of Shoals, weather permitting. To review some of the stories done about The Lighthouse Kids in Lighthouse Digest, you can go to the Lighthouse Digest web site at www.lighthousedigest.com and type in Lighthouse Kids in the sarch box. If you are interested in learning more about The Lighthouse Kids organization, check out their website at: www.lighthousekids.com

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 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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