Recently we were reminded of the number of emotions that occur when you climb a lighthouse. We were with dear friends visiting Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey. The April day was cool and the sky was remarkably beautiful. We were all looking forward to the view from the top, as the visibility was incredible from below. We were climbing to the first landing area, some 40+ steps to the top, when Dawnelle, my wife, insisted that she could not continue any further. It was at this junction that Mike, our tour host, broke into a discussion on how vigilant the former lighthouse keepers must have been. He said something to the effect that “they were able to carry a ten gallon container of oil, weighing some remarkable total pounds, more than ten times daily to the top of the tower.”
All my poor wife and I could think about was how we could keep from hyperventilating and breaking out in a cold sweat. Perspiration was quite a feat for a day when the temperature barely broke into the fifties. Next, Mike added to our two daughters that, “you may have to carry some of the oil in the dark, because carrying a candle to light your way may cause the oil to ignite.” Do you get the same picture that I got, the top of Sandy Hook Lighthouse rocketing into the sky headed towards New York City?
Let me side-step this opening scenario to tell you that we have climbed a few lighthouses in our day. I am not fond of numbers but it is well into the double digits. When climbing a lighthouse, a few words of wisdom are in order.
For starters, do not look down through the open staircases found in most lighthouses. This has a tendency of making a person dizzy, unless this is a feeling that you enjoy. Next and always appropriate—take time at the landings to catch your breath. I am constantly reminding our seven year old Richelle of this. Third, prepare yourselves prior to beginning your climb for the worse part of the climb. It will undoubtedly be when you get to the top and discover that there is a ladder. Those of you experienced in climbing know about the dreaded ladders. Some of them are only a few steps, but they are always wearisome.
Perhaps it is the smallness of the rungs that cause alarm. Other times, it is the opening that you need to squeeze through to enter the lantern room. Inevitably, one of the corners of the ladder is not connected properly and you can feel the ladder move in your hands as you embark upwards to the lantern room. Wondering out loud, do you disembark forward or do you do it backwards? It seems that each tour guide has his/her own opinion on how it should be done, that is, if you are fortunate enough to have a tour guide.
Wait, I almost forgot to warn you about carrying all your paraphernalia with you on the way. It is most helpful to have both hands free (while most of us will not break out a bag lunch at the top, we usually bring along cameras and binoculars). Long past are the days that I carried each of my daughters, separately of course, at one year of age, to the top of Barnegat Lighthouse. Just a sneaking suspicion, but carrying children is probably not allowed any longer, nor would I recommend it.
Then there is your experience at the top. As a true lighthouse enthusiast, one of your top priorities will be not to damage anything that is within reach. Vividly I remember being inside the lantern room at Cape Bonavista Lighthouse in Newfoundland, Canada. The tour guide was encouraging us to be careful of the original lighting apparatus, nearing 150 years of age, a type of lens which is unlike any type we had seen before and may never see again. We all know the value of a Fresnel lens. Then you notice an eerie sensation.
You notice that the tower is moving. It starts as a slight back and forth movement. Then it seems that the rocking of the tower has increased; maybe it is just your knees knocking and your thighs throbbing (I’ll talk about that later). Before you know it, your eldest child, in our case that would be twelve-year-old Kendyl, finds the door outside to the catwalk (an appropriate name I might add; I only wish I had four paws to stand on when I am out there). The view is breathtaking; it is only surpassed by your gasping for breath as you try to catch your next one amidst gusts of wind in the 30 to 40 miles per hour range. You inch your way around the tower, with you back to the wall, so that you can proudly boast you circled the top when you reach the bottom.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2011 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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