He stares out towards the horizon, checking just one more time if any ships can be spotted. Everything today has been accomplished within the lighthouse. All that can be fixed has been fixed. Now, alone on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the keeper turns to filling his free time.
There’s just one question: what does a lighthouse keeper do during this free time? What are the hobbies he uses to ward off the silence and occupy his mind?
Perhaps to best answer those questions, we must first understand the following:
There’s Really Not That Much Free Time
If the mental image you’ve conjured inside your mind is of a lone individual spending his days staring out at the sea, you’re unfortunately mistaken. A keeper is something akin to a handyman who has a massive penalty for failure. Saltwater and constant waves wreak havoc on all that’s manmade, and it takes constant work to make sure that things don’t rot away into the ocean. This, combined with the regular maintenance on the light, the multitude of required reports, and the necessity of interrupting one’s sleep to check for fog, means there’s really not as much time for fun and games as one would hope.
That being said, it’s not the life of a servant. There is still time to relax on occasion. And when that time does come, to what does one turn?
The Trend Amongst Hobbies
Over and over again, we see the same trend amongst the interviews of lighthouse keepers – they like to read. A lot.
Thom Drew, keeper at Mosher Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, says this is one of the chief ways by which he fills his free time. Granted, he also operates a functional farm right beside the lighthouse, so there’s really not that much time to read when you combine taking care of animals with the constant upkeep of an incoming ship’s lifeline.
Meanwhile, at Carmanah Point off Vancouver Island’s west coast, Justine Etzkorn notes that books fill a great portion of her free time as well, particularly poetry. She seems to be one of the rare lighthouse keepers who has found the means of maintaining contact with society, though, as she’s actually joined a poetry club with her sister to further cultivate this interest.
Over at Lennard Island, Caroline Woodward is the keeper. Here, books once more are a constant companion. But for Caroline, it’s more than just absorbing written word. Creating it is vital to her sanity as well. She’s composed her own poetry (perhaps Justine Etzkorn has read some?), written several children’s books, and has even pumped out a biography of sorts – Light Years: Memoirs of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper.
While perhaps these keepers don’t know it, they’re following in a long tradition with lighthouse keepers. Reading has been an obsession amongst keepers at least as far back as 1876. It was this year that the United States Lighthouse Board began to ship out small libraries of about 40 books to lighthouses, swapping out the books for a fresh batch every three months.
By 1912, there were 351 of these libraries at lighthouses throughout America. But what do you do when your eyes can no longer focus and the sunshine beckons?
Simple. You get outside and get your hands in the dirt.
Gardening is a Common Endeavor
It’s not uncommon for the most isolated of lighthouses to have to have their food shipped in every couple of months. This often leads the mouth to crave fresh produce. And to satisfy this desire while trapped on a rock in the middle of nowhere? Gardening proves to be the answer.
Take the Pendergast’s of the Michigan Island Light Station, for example. This couple apparently found plenty of time for homestead-style endeavors, for they not only raised oats, corn, and potatoes but carved out the space to plant several thousand fruit trees, predominantly apple.
Elizabeth Lane of the Michigan Island Light Station did what she could to turn her splotch of earth into a flower gardener’s paradise. Coast Guard Chief Walter Parker would say of her, “How she used to love to get up to that island and get at that garden of hers. That whole station was one mass of flowers.”
Once more, we can turn to Thom Drew of Mosher Island to see this trend reiterated. The entire reason he got into being a keeper, he says, was so that he could farm. Manning the lighthouse was the economic means by which he was going to find land he could raise crops and livestock without having to go deep into debt for land he couldn’t afford. So, when he’s not maintaining the lighthouse, or trying to raise ships on the radio, he can be found tending to his livestock.
Jessie Siebler and his girlfriend Taylor, keepers at Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania, noted that they both became master gardeners after the sheer amount of time they spent tilling the soil at one of the most forsaken lighthouses on the planet. Not only did they have to live off of a six-month shipment of food, but they had to properly calculate what that looked like before they set out to the island.
Gardening not only added much-needed variety to their diet; it served as something of an insurance policy as well.
Odds and Ends
Keeper’s hobbies are as varied as the wickies who have them. There’s the occasional knitter, music lover, and lighthouse-specific hobbies that only the keeper understands.
Sally Snowman of Boston Light enjoyed spending time in the gear room every day at exactly 5 PM. It’s then that the sun beams through the window at just the right angle to cause the glass to act as a prism. “I love to stand so, as it turns, as the light is turning, the rainbow flashes across me. I call it being rainbowed,” she says.
Separated from the many distractions of modern society, forced into a different world without many modern conveniences, in many ways, you’re forced to learn to enjoy the simple things as a keeper.
So, what do lighthouse keepers do for fun? Really, the exact same stuff that the rest of us do, albeit just with a bit more drive and tenacity. I suppose that’s to be expected. After all, you can only check the horizon so many times.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2023 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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