When Santa Came to Gannet Rock
Gannet Rock in 2009, showing major deterioration. Canadian Coast Guard photo.
By Chris Mills
‘Twas the night before Christmas
And on Gannet Rock
The wind it was blowing
At forty-five knots
The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1992. I’ve got an old 8mm video camera in my hand and I’ve just made up a little variation of the famous Clement C. Moore poem as I pan around the well-worn, but cozy living room at the Gannet Rock lighthouse.
It is indeed gusting to 45 knots, out of the nor’west. The wind hits the big old wooden lighthouse and slithers along the walls of the concrete dwelling attached to it. The one we two keepers live in.
It’s just me and my shift partner Rodger Maker, stuck out here in the Bay of Fundy, about 12 kilometres south of Grand Manan, New Brunswick, in this 161 year-old lighthouse. It’s my first Christmas on Gannet, and Rodger’s too. On a good day he can almost see his house in Deep Cove, on the southern Grand Manan shore. My home is far away, south of Halifax.
We’re out here for our 28 day hitch, which this time around, includes Christmas. It’s bloody cold out, but the lighthouse diesel is thudding away next door and the Kemac in the kitchen is roaring and the massive Enterprise pot burner in the living room is giving off a warm glow.
We’ve installed a Christmas tree - a small balsam fir I cut down in the woods behind my home in Ketch Harbour, near Halifax. It’s survived being wrapped up, thrown in the back of my truck, loaded into a helicopter and dragged into this house in the middle of the sea. It’s got sparkling coloured lights on it and the lighthouse cat is lurking beneath, ready to pounce on stray bobbles.
Snow coats the windows of the keepers' house on Gannet Rock on a blustery night. Chris Mills photo
It’s dusk, and I’m filming the tree and view through the leaky old wooden sash windows, with the concrete deck and railings outside, the rolling sea and beyond that, the broad mouth of the Bay of Fundy.
The wind gauge now shows a gust of 60 knots. Earlier, I’d attempted to run a few laps on the tiny deck surrounding the tower and the house, but it was almost impossible with the wind, and it was bitterly cold. Plus, I was wearing a bulky Mustang floater suit. Not a great rig for running.
Just after dark, Rodger and I hatch a plan. In the living room, we’ve got a VHF radio we use to keep in touch with the local fishermen. It sits alongside the wind gauge, the barometer, the lighthouse logs and the weather books. We mostly keep it on channel 69, which is frequency the fishermen use to call us all hours of the day and night, to check our weather conditions.
Rodger also has his own radio, which he keeps by his bed on a small table in his room. He keys the mic and in his best Santa voice, calls:
"Ho, ho, ho! Gannet Rock, this is Santa Claus. Are you on this channel?"
The plan unfolds. I walk to the living room VHF and answer: "Copy that Santa. This is Gannet Rock."
Rodger and Chris enjoy Christmas Dinner in the lighthouse kitchen. Chris Mills photo.
"Santa" responds with another hearty. "Ho, ho, ho!" (in the best style and tradition of the Coca Cola-type Saint Nick). "I’m coming to Grand Manan tonight," he says "and I’d like to stop in at Gannet Rock to give my reindeer a rest. Request clearance to land on your helicopter pad."
I snicker off-air and then key the mic. "Roger, copy that Santa. Altimeter 998. Wind north west 40, gusting 50. You are cleared to land Gannet Rock."
More laughter from each of us. We’re having fun. We’ve each had a couple of "Pink Gannets" (a stylish and singular concoction comprised of pink lemonade crystals, desalinated Bay of Fundy water and a splash or two of vodka). Then, something happens. Someone else calls Santa on the radio.
"Are you there Santa?" says a little voice. It’s a boy.
Rodger keys the mic with a deep "Ho, Ho, Ho! This is Santa. And who am I talkin’ to?"
The boy responds: "Duane Green!"
Of course Rodger knows who Duane Green is, but in his efforts to keep the magic going, he responds: "Duane Green! Yes, of course. Ho! Ho! Santa knows all about you, Duane. You’ve got two brothers, haven’t you Santa er Duane?
Much laughter ensues. Santa signs off, with a promise that he’ll visit Duane on Grand Manan tonight, provided he’s "all tucked in and sound asleep when old Santa arrives." Meanwhile, I have the camcorder pointing at Rodger, sitting at the edge of his bed. He’s wearing a green work shirt and work pants. He’s got brown hair and no beard. He doesn’t look like any Santa I’ve ever seen. But he sounds an awful lot like the jolly old elf. Except when he says to me "Geeze, I started something!"
By now, channel 69 is getting busy. This time it’s a woman’s voice, strong and full of fun.
"Hell - oo there," Santa drawls. "And who am I talkin’ to?"
"You’re talkin’ to the Mom," she responds, "and I’ve been reeaalll good!"
A loud snort of very poorly suppressed laughter from me. Then, a long pause from Rodger as he attempts to regain his composure. It’s long enough that the voice inquires saucily: "Where’d you go Santa?"
Santa, still shaking with laughter, responds with "Just about fell out of my .Oh! Ho, ho, ho, no siree! Old Rudolph kept her on her skis!"
With a short and merry "I’ll see you later!" (we can hear an explosion of laughter in the background at the woman’s home) she signs off, and Santa replies with "You’d better not! You’d better be under the sheets!"
Despite almost upsetting Santa’s sleigh, we’ve got the routine down to a science now. Kids keep calling, from Grand Manan and from across the bay on Digby Neck. They all want to know when Santa’s coming, and where he is now and when a little, shy voice says something hard to make out, Rodger wings it, saying "Ho, ho,ho! Sorry, didn’t quite get that. The old wind’s a blowin’ and Santa didn’t hear you too well, but I’ll be there a little later, okay?" and the like.
It’s getting late. The wind is still gusting to 40 or more. I can see the beam of our main light racing along the tops of the waves outside the living room window. The calls are dropping off, but there’s one more, before old Saint Nick has to get busy delivering presents.
"Merry Christmas Santa!" says a little girl. Her voice is tiny, and shy.
"Ho, ho! Merry Christmas," says Santa. "And who is this?"
A pause, then "It’s Lori."
"Ho, ho! Have you been good, Lori?"
"Yes", says the little voice.
"That’s great," says Santa. "Well, old Santa’s on his way to Grand Manan."
Another pause and then a worried "Are you coming to Whitehead?" This is a smaller island south east of Grand Manan, about 10 km north east of us, with a small population of fishing families. I can see the regular flash of its lighthouse through our living room windows.
Santa responds with a hearty "Oh, ho, yes sirree! Chris Mills has got some fish chowder for me and I’m comin’ to Whitehead right as soon as I leave Gannet Rock!"
We laugh as the little voice, now relieved, says "I’m going right to bed! Merry Christmas to you!" It’s so sweet and touching and a fitting end to our little escapade. And, as it turns out, it’s a pretty good Christmas out on Gannet Rock.
Although it stays bitterly cold and windy, we’re warm enough in the old, uninsulated house. We open presents that our families have sent out with us. We cook a huge Christmas meal, complete with all the trimmings. Then, Rodger and I settle in for the rest of the shift, with the regular lighthouse weather reports, maintenance jobs, installing storm windows, painting, and cleaning. Aside from the relentless cold and the fog horn blasting through tall, ragged columns of sea smoke, it’s an uneventful shift. But in retrospect, it’s an intensely memorable time- with Santa’s visit, the battering of the wind and sea and a healthy does of Christmas spirit.
Today, Gannet Rock is empty of human life. The dwelling has been gutted and solar power for the battery-operated light and foghorn means the old thudding diesel is long gone. The wooden tower is rotting and its paint is peeling, and there’s word it may just disappear one day. I can’t bear that thought, but fortunately, the good memories prevail.
I’ll always remember the night Santa made a whole lot of kids happy around the Bay of Fundy, and helped two lightkeepers with their own unforgettable Christmas out on Gannet Rock.
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