I’m not quite sure when I first heard mention of The Wolves, that evocatively-named cluster of five small islands in the Bay of Fundy, southeast of Blacks Harbour and north of Grand Manan, Canada. But The Wolves have always had an air of alluring mystery for me; just the word “archipelago” has its own mystique. So, I was delighted to hear from Hugh French at the Tides Institute in Eastport, Maine that he’d come across a document in their collections, entitled “The Wolves: Letters from a Lighthouse,” written in June of 1938, by my great-aunt, Alice Doane Whalen, about her extended stay at the Southwest Wolf Island Lighthouse.
I remember Alice as a twinkly-eyed, silver-haired figure, a charming ancient who sent me postcards written in her spidery scrawl with chatty news of the day from Eastport. Her memoir of her time on the island, written when she was 57, broadens my sense of her, revealing her to have been lively and adventurous, as she describes her arrival at the island like this: “Up a ladder and onto the wharf, where I am always inclined to do a little dance, partly in gratitude to the sea gods for our safe arrival, but also for the sheer joy that I am alive and able to climb, and to thoroughly enjoy the lovely June morning with beauty all around me.” She sounds like a pip, doesn’t she?
Alice spent a little over three weeks at the lighthouse that summer visiting her friend Madge Norton Holmes, whose father, George Norton, long served as City Clerk in Eastport. Madge had married Hazen Holmes, the lighthouse keeper on Southwest Wolf Island, the southernmost island of The Wolves, and so it was that Alice found herself heading to one of those “lonely, lovely islands in the sea.” She arrived laden with packages, “For at the Wolves, you know, there is no market, delicatessen shop, or store of any type, as ‘our’ house, which is also the Light House, is the sole and only habitation” upon the island.
Alice paints a vivid picture of life and the inhabitants of that sole habitation. In addition to Madge and her husband, there were the lighthouse keeper’s “dauntless” mother; the “incomparable” Erkie, who served as the assistant lighthouse keeper, a man of “humble dignity” and prodigious carpentry skills; Teddy the “very intelligent little bird dog”; Tubby the huge cat; and a cow and her heifer rounding out “the dramatic personae of the island.”
What follows is a sweet and compelling description of everyday life for this small band of folks on that remote island. Remote as it was, they were not without company. At one point, four fishermen stop in for a visit and are treated to “smoking hot coffee and doughnuts” before heading back out to their day’s labors. She tells us, “Their faces were young, but weather-beaten and browned by the sun”; “the radio and [its] gay lively music pleased them, for it was a direct contrast to their hard labor” on the sea. In another instance, a party of more than a dozen people shows up, having traveled from the Pea Point Island and the lighthouse there. We hear, too, about the delivery of supplies – coal, oil, rope, even brooms – by a Swedish crew aboard a government boat.
A couple of times, she mentions more distant encounters, both of which are slightly unsettling to the modern reader. At one point, she mentions the steamship Hestia going by; given the date, this cannot be the Hestia that wrecked off the coast of Grand Manan in 1909, but we’re left to wonder about that. More unsettling is her description on June 16 of the passing by of “the great dirigible” the Von Hindenburg: “Slowly she moved like a sweeping hand and then skirted the sharp edges of our island, in the manner of a great, dark bird. So low was she flying that we all instinctively raised our arms and waved our scarves and aprons,” but the “strange, dark-blue cloud” sailed on and “gradually disappeared over the skyline.” I can’t make the dates here work, as the Hindenburg exploded in May 1937, a year before the date of this letter. It’s possible she saw instead a Goodyear blimp, The Puritan, which toured New England in the summer of 1938. Whatever the case, I’m struck by the power of her description and the image of that little cluster of people – and, apparently, a little barking dog – gazing in wonder at the sky.
For most of her 44 pages, though, she writes of their daily life at the lighthouse – exploring various beaches and other islands in the archipelago, reveling in the beauty of rocky shores and the lupines, checking the fish weir, pulling lobster traps, making a stone path to Madge’s garden, churning butter, making a birthday cake, talking in the evenings, or reading in the small library of the lighthouse. The radio was, she writes, “a vital part” of life on the island. “It was our daily newspaper and bond with the world. It also served as a radio-telephone, and three times daily” they would talk to the lighthouse keepers on other islands, exchanging general news and weather conditions. There was also the steady responsibility of keeping the lighthouse itself functioning: in a “small, square room the steel ropes are lodged...which must be turned and cranked over their iron wheels, without fail, winter and summer, every four hours and twenty minutes, in order to keep the light itself revolving during the night.” Clearly, it was not a job for the slothful or faint of heart.
She goes on to describe the room up another flight of stairs leading “directly to the Light itself, the pièce de résistance! A small, square chamber, exactly the size of the room below, with iron walls, doors, floor, and great plate glass windows upon all four sides, has an outlook that is truly marvelous, upon the sea, cliffs, woods, and world below . . . A heavy iron base, with a cylinder on the same, having three large, powerful reflectors, supports the Light, and everything is then in readiness to be set in motion, cranked, and a lighted match applied to the little burner at the very top. Slowly, but very steadily, gaining momentum, the Light revolves, making bright, fantastic patches upon the cliffs and sea below, telling the world we are Southwest Wolf Island Lighthouse.”
I love the glimpse that her account offers us of life at a lighthouse over 80 years ago. I love, too, the more vivid picture I have of her now. On July 2, Alice headed home to her beloved Maine community of Eastport—she calls it “my little frontier town” – and she closes with a line that seems as apt now as when she wrote it all those years ago: “If you cannot be a lighthouse, be a candle in this good old world.” Good advice, don’t you think?
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Quoddy Tides, the most easterly newspaper published in the United States. The photos were added by Lighthouse Digest.
This story appeared in the
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