Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Lighthouse Keeper in the Bakery

July 9, 2010

Grand Manan

We begin the day just as we did yesterday, at a bakery not far from our hotel. We order our baked goods, and the young woman behind the counter says, "Oh, same as yesterday. Would you also like your two nonfat lattes, one with chocolate sprinkled on top and the other with two sweetener packets on the side?" We do.

This is a family-owned bakery. The baker's daughter is the woman taking our order. She tells Dick that her dad has been in business here since 1988, and they live behind the bakery. Her dad gets up early to do the baking, goes home for a nap at around 2, and then comes back to close up and prep for the next day's baking.

The place is busy all day long. Every time we pass it, there are cars out front, and we understand why. This is our favorite bakery of the trip, with an impressive display of French breads behind the counter, sweets and croissants displayed temptingly in a glass case below, and the aroma of cooling pastry and yeasty bread always in the air. We can catch a glimpse of the baker working in the next room while we stand at the counter. There isn't much room to sit—just a little coffee bar with stools across the front window—so people who stick around to eat are pretty cozy and congenial.

This morning we are reading the paper next to a local man that we saw here yesterday. I notice a story in the paper about the Swallowtail Lighthouse, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this week. Swallowtail is one of the two oldest wooden lighthouses remaining in Canada. I point out the story to Dick, since we are planning to go look at the lighthouse after breakfast. The man next to me says, "I am not the last keeper of the Swallowtail light, but I am the last one living."

His name is Howard Ingalls, and he has led quite a life. He was keeper to three lights—Swallowtail at the north end of Grand Manan; Southwest Head at the opposite end of the island; and Machias Seal Light on the isolated island we visited to see the nesting puffin colony. He said that when he was keeper there, he stayed on the island full time, with just two weeks off in the summer. The Coast Guard keepers today have it easy, with shifts of 28 days on and 28 days off island.

He wasn't much for talking about the hardships of the job. The newspaper article quoted the daughter of the last keeper of the Swallowtail Light who lived there for seventeen years, until the station was unmanned in 1985. She remembered winds so strong and ice so bad that her family had to crawl down the fifty steps to the light. The china would rattle in the cupboards keeping her awake at night. For Mr. Ingalls, it was all just part of the job, and part of life on Grand Manan in the wintertime.

Mr. Ingalls said he could see where lighthouse keeping was going back around the 1960s, so he took a correspondence course and got a job as an electrician traveling from Maine to Miami to service Cotts Soda Company plants.

Mr. Ingalls doesn't hold much hope for preservation of the lighthouse. The Canadian Government plans to decommission this light, along with 500 other lighthouses across Canada, leaving their fate in the hands of local preservation organizations. The government gave the Friends of the Swallowtail Light a $55,000 grant during a ceremony that was part of the 150th anniversary celebrations this week. Mr Ingalls scoffs at that—barely enough to cover the cost of painting it, he says (although Rotary Club volunteers did it back in 2004 for just the cost of paint). He helped with renovations on the keeper's house, but is not sure that project will ever get finished either. Like he said, he saw where lighthouses were going back in the 1960s, and now that they are automated, there is no going back.

We visit the Swallowtail Light after breakfast and hope that he is wrong about the likelihood that this lighthouse will be left to fall into the sea. For now, it is held securely to its rocky perch by guy wires radiating in every direction, and the old fishermen who use landmarks instead of GPS units can still count on it to bring them home.

As an 82 year old commercial fisherman quoted in the newspaper says, "To me, the Swallowtail Light is like our Statue of Liberty."

Long may she stand and light the way.

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