If you are a hoarder, as I believe many of us have the tendency to be, there can be no better collection than adventures and memories. They take up little space except in our minds, give us something to talk about at parties, and can expand our horizons.
My husband Jonathan and I collect lighthouses. No, not the kitschy stuff mass produced of resin and stuck in land locked gardens, yards and unnecessarily guiding us through waters no more treacherous than what can accumulate in kitchen sinks and bathtubs. Jon and I collect the real deal – visiting, with a partially closed eye toward buying, real honest hard working lighthouses. But here’s the great part – though there are many available lighthouses for sale in the US as well as Canada at reasonable and sometimes free prices, the upkeep is beyond our meager budgets and abilities. So we’ve become the worst possible real estate customers visiting dozens and dozens without ever making an offer, though in our defense almost always making donations.
After 10+ years of visiting lighthouses together including two meals in the lens room atop Newburyport MA Rear Range Lighthouse, they remain out of our home and our portfolios and in our photos (and one William C. Thompson painting) and in our adventure memories and plans. For a couple of years we have been in the early planning stage of staying overnight in a lighthouse through a program sponsored by the U.S. Lighthouse Society. We’ll get around to it sometime.
In early September we like to take in Maine’s Open Lighthouse Day. This allows the obsessed and those merely interested to converge on a lighthouse and climb inside to its raison d’etre – the lens room. Lighthouse lenses fascinate me as much with their hundreds of rainbow producing angles amplifying a light so small as to seem impossible to penetrate a dark room much less a foggy ocean night, as the birds eye view of the surrounding land and seascapes.
The 2016 trip to Biddeford Pool, Maine’s, Wood Island Lighthouse was an easy drive from MA fueled not by DD’s but by Starbucks. I fell in love with the town a little bit that day, and chalked it up as another possibility for an eventual seaside home. The volunteers were super lovely, interesting, funny, passionate, accessible, and well informed (what wonderful neighbors they must be); we watched clammers in the mud flats at low tide; ocean front properties were modest, livable homes rather than giant wealth indicators. There were of course a few exceptions to the modest home observation, including the stately manse that we were told might be the home of author Anita Shreve who fictionalized the real life murders on the lighthoused Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire in her book The Weight of Water.
There were so few negatives – but they included the facts that parking is limited, the only bathroom was a very very stinky port-o-potty in the country store parking lot, and my mistaken belief that this ugly concrete cone was the lighthouse we were headed to. I spent considerable time trying to generate some affection for that unappealing and desolate peak, before Jon redirected my gaze to the more charming lighthouse to the far right of the horizon. Also the rules and regulations are extremely cautious to the point of making the place sound downright unvisitable. Rules like: If you don’t have the right shoes you will be sent home, if you carry a camera it must be strapped diagonally across your chest to prevent loss, no back packs, very difficult walking conditions, giant treacherous step getting off the boat. I was very concerned about my recovering sprained ankle of 5 weeks but tightened my brace and decided to risk it.
Here’s the thing, I know New England weather is super changeable, but on our visit NONE of this seemed true. The tour guide wore slip on Ked’s style shoes, the half mile walk is on an easy, enjoyable, and super nicely maintained boardwalk, my camera never felt at risk from anything more than a bit of sea spray. That giant step no higher than the typical home threshold. My husband noted that his 98 year old father could have easily made the trip though we should note he is a very active nonogenarian who walks two miles a day. Again, we have no idea what weather does to the trip though the last ferry of the day was most certainly hit by rain, but we were there on a super calm trip, in fact the boat captain said it was one of the first days all season when the ferry was actually able to go all the way around the island. I asked the guides about the warnings and learned there is a lawyer in the volunteer group, so they may be more cautious than most to protect their most valuable asset.
Our entire trip was over two hours if you add in the shore side talk about the history of the Friends group and the changes to the light over the years. The trip is free but a suggested donation of $15 per person seems more than worth it for the effort and fuel and upkeep that is afforded this treasure.The ferry looks like a mini military transport ship where the bow drops down for easier access. Our Captain Russ Lowell was the former lighthouse keeper, his wife Terry, an island guide. Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse, hostess Michelle Fecteau was a fount of information and enthusiasm. The mile boat ride out to Wood Island passes the concrete cone which was much nicer now that it wasn’t our destination and appeared to have a decent coastal trail that could be of interest, and the rumored link to the underground railroad on neighboring Negro Island. Disembarking seemed the most risky for me with wet wood covered with asphalt roof shingles providing grip to combat potential slipperiness, but we were easily conveyed to the island with a helping hand as necessary. The wooden boardwalk is about a half mile and crossed protected Audubon property that afforded both gorgeous views and patches of cool wooded stretches.
Our group was first to climb up the narrowing and sturdy granite steps to the top of the tower. We learned the seemingly important hand rails on either side are a recent addition brought in by the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse. The lens is LED now so the bulb is minuscule and the lens less ornate. Once on top of the lighthouse, you can access the outer rim by exiting something that resembles little more than a large size doggy door. That was a little tricky to maneuver but we did it for the views. Once we returned to ground level, we retired to the rocking chairs on the front porch because the attached house is under repair and off limits for the time being. It was shaded and warm but every once in a while the air was interrupted by a strange, lingering and random cool breeze. There Terry and Michelle both told us about the ghosts that inhabit the house, and the island. The spirits may enter through a closet portal as determined by a visit several years ago by The New England Ghost Project.
Most recently, construction workers on the house renovation quickly gave up on their plan to sleep onsite to avoid the commute and save time after being kept up all night by mysterious voices and the sound of people running throughout the building. While active lighthouse keepers, Russ and Terry Lowell attributed the loss of dozens of wax pencils needed to post weather updates to a ghostly prank, and ultimately found an enormous batch of them tucked in a hidden storage space. There was also a murder on the island which was the result of liquor and a request for payment between a homeowner and his tenant. A prior year’s visit to Seguin Lighthouse also in Maine was populated by ghosts, too. Apparently the wife of the lighthouse keeper was bored to tears for years and asked for a piano. She received it along with only one piece of sheet music that she played over and over until her death at the hands of her driven-crazy husband. I can almost understand both sides of this tragedy especially if the song were some sort of pop music of the day by a one hit wonder with minimal skills and a lucky break. Where do you go when you’re going crazy on an island, where you are tied to task and place keeping the light going, in isolation, with the pressure of sailors lives on your hands, and that damn song playing over and over and over. There are so many ghost stories connected with lighthouses, they are nearly as ubiquitous as rocks on the Maine coast.
We met Staff Writer for the Journal Tribune, Liz Gotthelf, on our voyage as she reported on Open Lighthouse Day. She intuitively and agilely figure out how to get out that dog house door in the tower “Reporters need to be able to figure things out instantly” she explained. We followed her example only after our own attempts failed. Later Liz graciously took a photo of Jon and me on the front porch – a harbinger of our lives together? Not for a while at least. We need to build up our music library.
(c) Alison Colby-Campbell
NOTE: the internet went down repeatedly as I tried to enter the stories of the ghosts. Did we bring someone home with us? Hard to imagine our view from the second story deck can compete with the top of a lighthouse. But to be safe, better check my pencil supply.