It was the beginning of the darkest days at home when I got the invite to Maine, to spend the summer tending a lighthouse. My non-profit was on the skids and from all appearances my life was ending.
I figured rather than get shot on a street corner in Bridgeport, I might just as well pack off north and get lost for a few months.
The proposition I was presented with was interesting to say the least. In exchange for doing a few handyman tasks and driving guests out to the spark plug-style lighthouse in the Fox Thoroughfare of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, I could stay in an ancient, somewhat decrepit, bungalow on the island of North Haven, Maine for the summer free of charge.
The island was a quiet little island community complete with one really nice restaurant on the island and a limitless supply of farmed oysters, lobster and wild blue mussels. It didn’t have a Walmart or a Stop and Shop, but they did allow cars on the island and if you could keep yourself occupied when they rolled the streets up at night, you could gain a little perspective of Island life of down east Maine.
The only way there was a ferry ride from the mainland, and so I loaded my car with a box full of tools that I was given to me by my friend John, after all my tools were stolen in Bridgeport, and my dog Buxton, and boarded the ferry at the end of a long hill at the end a rural Maine highway and set out to get lost for the summer.
When I disembarked the ferry, the docks were bustling with locals unloading groceries from their day on the mainland, and a smattering of tourists wandering about looking for a ride that would take them to the only accommodations on the island that also boasted the only restaurant on the island.
Instinctively, I drove upland toward the center of the village where I was told the house might be and quickly found my residence. A silver-shingled two-story cottage with white paint smeared over rotted wood and a slight lean backwards from years of standing guard against the wind and weather of Maine’s winters.
When I got inside, the floor sloped and the smell of wood smoke permeated the air. Buxton immediately found a spot by the wood stove to call her own, and I threw my bag on the couch and watched the golden setting sun through the dirty window panes.
Having no place to get dinner at 6 o’clock on a Sunday on the Island, I heated a can of beans with some hot dogs I had brought, and sipped a beer before quickly falling off to sleep.
I woke the next day around 7 am and reread the directions I was given on how to find the boat I would use to access the lighthouse. By 8 am, I had the boat planing on its way out to the lighthouse through a crystal clear morning in early June that still had reminders of the stubborn winter that had just abated a few days before.
The water was a chilly 40 degrees and harbor seals darted off the mussel encrusted rocks as I approached the towering light. Built in the 1800s, Goose Rocks Lighthouse was part of Maine’s heyday of maritime glory. It was purchased by the woman who contracted with me and had been turned into a bed, but no breakfast. My job was to drive folks out to the lighthouse, and ready the light for their stay, along with doing a few chores to help maintain the aging house on shore.
As I approached the base of the light, it seemed to emerge from the water like an AC Delco on my lawnmower, pointing up to the heavens. I nosed the boat in and eyed the wrought iron ladder that rose up from the water to a plated steel trap door. I tied the boat off to a rung and started to climb, careful not to cut myself on the barnacles adorning every part of the ladder except where hands and feet were required to go to make the ladder useful.
When I pushed the trap door open and pulled myself onto the main platform, I was shocked by the blast of the fog horn. The sound echoed across the quiet harbor, and I took a deep breath of salt air in my lungs to regain my composure.
Opening the door and stepping inside, I noticed a stern warning from the US Coast Guard not to touch the battery system that now powered the light and fog horn. I was a little disappointed to see the brains of the light sequestered safely on the first deck, when for decades before, men of grit and courage had to climb the narrow staircase aloft with buckets of oil to save mariners from certain death. Now a few deep cycle batteries tucked neatly behind the entrance door did the job and I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated.
Ascending the spiral staircase to the living quarters, the smell of time and salt permeated every surface of the rooms. I began to make the beds, and the smell of the clean linens seemed out of place in the dank sea air.
After the beds were made up, I went to the top and stepped out past the light onto the viewing platform. The air was cold and the height above the water surface made my knees shake. The breeze, though slight, seemed to want to blow me over and I was all too happy to get back down and return to shore in my boat.
By the time I got back to the dock, it was almost 3 and my guests would arrive shortly. I waited in the boat until the ferry docked and it became readily apparent that the couple with the lost look on their face were my guests.
I approached them with a smile and offered to help them load their bags in to the boat. They smiled and tentatively hoisted themselves over the tubes of the inflatable, and we were off to the lighthouse. I deposited the couple and their bags on the first deck and closed the trap door behind me as I left.
Once back in the boat, I started towards the dock, stopping briefly at a rock to harvest a bucket full of mussels for dinner. Just as I threw the line over and cut the motor, I heard the faint wail of the fog horn and laughed. The couple would be out there for three days, but the fog would be there for four.
Back at the house, I steamed the mussels with some garlic and white wine and shared them with Buxton. That would be the meal of choice for many of the next few days when I failed to make it to the restaurant before it closed. Believe it or not, but the fresh seafood was a fair second to the micro pickles made from locally grown baby beets, cucumbers and carrots, but the freshness of all the food on this island couldn’t be beat.
I didn't last the whole summer and packed off after only a month. The owner and I had a disagreement about the value of my work, and in all honesty, I was ready to get back to a town with access to Walmart.
Ultimately, though, the time I spent on North Haven in the Fox Thoroughfare was magical. I never made it over to Vinalhaven, but sailed past the islands a few years later on the SV Roseway and vowed to go back some day. I can only hope to find those pickles again.