Digest>Archives> April 2004

A Frightful Trip to Little River Lighthouse

By Tim Harrison


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A couple of good gusts of wind can change the ...

“Bill Green’s Maine” is a popular weekly television program, hosted by Bill Green. It is aired every Saturday night on Channel 2 in Bangor and Channel 6 in Portland, Maine.

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Although the sea was heavy and it was bitter cold ...

Thursday, January 8, we made what can now be considered an exciting trip, but at the time, it was a frightful trip, out to Little River Lighthouse to enable Bill Green to do a story about the American Lighthouse Foundation’s efforts to save not only Little River Lighthouse but a number of other Maine lights.

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It may look like a peaceful winter scene at ...
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

With wind gusts, the wind chill at any given time was 20-30 below zero.

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If you look closely through the ice covered ...

Our sincere thanks to Capt. Jeremy Cates of Cutler, who took us out on his 45-foot lobster fishing vessel Charlene Gail, and his crew Brian Cates and Andy Patterson, also, both of Cutler.

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You can see by this photo just how cold we felt ...

This is my recollection of that trip.

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Neil Corbett (left), who grew up on Little River ...

As we approached the island where the lighthouse is, just off Cutler Harbor, the winds began to pick up, and I immediately realized this would be a rough trip out, even in a vessel as large as the Charlene Gail. Because of the dangerous rocks lying hidden under the water, it is impossible for a large vessel to get in close to the island, and landing is only possible in a much smaller craft.

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Bill Green and his cameraman were the first to transfer from the large boat to the small skiff for the trip to the island. As I watched the skiff go over the waves and approach the island, I thought to myself, “Wow, I’ve been out here a hundred or more times and never seen waves like this, especially on this side of the island.” As I watched Bill Green and his cameraman Charlie struggle to exit the skiff on the island, I said to myself, “I wish I wasn’t here today, especially now that it’s my turn.” At about that time, the skiff being handled by Brian Cates was swamped with a large wave on departure. Brian had to bail the boat by hand to enable it to make it back to the Charlene Gail. This was no easy feat with a wind chill of 20-30 degrees below zero and waves rocking the skiff in every direction.

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On our way back to the mainland, protected from ...

My trip to the island was scary, just plain scary, there is no other way to describe it. Only this time, I was in the skiff with Jeremy manning the outboard; Brian was too cold and too wet to make another trip. Once I exited the boat, the waves and the winds made it nearly impossible for Jeremy, in the small skiff, to get back to the lobster boat. Somehow or other, up and over the waves he went, with the sound of the engine being totally obscured by the howling of the wind, and safely back to the Charlene Gail. Both Jeremy and Brian showed in those few minutes what the ‘Cutlerites’ are made of.

Little did I know this was just the beginning.

Kathy Finnegan of the American Lighthouse Foundation, who had accompanied us, realized that with the bulky clothes she was wearing, to make an attempt to transfer from the boat to the skiff, land, and then do it all over again on the way back, would simply be too dangerous for her and she elected to stay on the boat. I think Capt. Cates was thankful of that. Although she was able to take a few vital photos of the event from water, the bitter cold had frozen her camera.

Once we got on the island, the wind got stronger and we could barely walk up the walkway toward the lighthouse on the other side of the island. However, when we reached the top of the island, the wind seemed to stop, as the trees protected us. It was still bitter cold. The zipper tag-thermometer hanging on my jacket said it was 10 below zero.

We discovered that several large trees had been toppled (apparently by the last storm) over the walkway to the lighthouse, forcing us to crawl under them to continue our journey to the lighthouse on the other side of the island. The flags from both flagpoles were gone. In fact the third main flagpole to be erected on the island in the last eight months was broken and lying on the ground. We found one flag, which had been ripped to shreds, and Bill Green spotted the other flag in a tree.

While we were filming on the island, we did not realize that the wind was picking up, and Jeremy was circling the island trying to find a place where he could safely pick us up.

Within 45 minutes of our being on the island, the weather got worse. By now the wind was at gale force with the waves easily three to four feet high and close together as they smashed into the rocks that were covered with a layer of salty ice water. For the waves to cause this much havoc is not all that common on the mainland side of the island, in this normally protected harbor, especially by the boathouse, which is the safest landing and departure spot on the island.

Although we were all dressed warm, the crew on the boat was freezing. The onboard heater was no match for the high winds.

The radio on the island at first refused to work allowing for no communication with the crew of the Charlene Gail. Once we were able to get the radio working, the voice crackled back from the Charlene Gail that we should make every effort to leave the island now, before the weather got even worse.

The thought crossed our minds that we might be forced to spend the night on the island. At least the old lightkeepers’ house would provide us shelter from the wind, but not the cold. Although there is electricity on the island, there are no electric heaters.

Maybe, just maybe, we could crank up the propane heater that is in the house. Was there enough propane to keep us warm for any period of time? We did not dwell on those thoughts.

At least the camera man had gotten some good file footage, and we even did a brief interview on the outside deck of the lantern room. I felt that if we didn’t hang on to the railing Mother Nature would have plucked us from the deck and thrown us into the house below.

“Bill Green’s Maine” is an outdoor show, and I kept thinking to myself, this is about as “outdoors as it gets.”

We were able to talk with Bill about our efforts to save not only Little River Lighthouse but also the other lighthouses and their history. We stressed that one way to accomplish our goal is by getting public attention through a TV program as widely watched and respected as his.

Naturally, we would hope that the program would also help bring in donations, especially when people would see what we and the crew of the Charlene Gail did to help make this TV episode possible. On the other hand, I kept thinking, why couldn’t we have done this in the summer? Plus, you never know how much of what you say will actually make it on the air. I’ve done enough TV and radio interviews to realize that most of what you say and do ends up on the cutting room floor.

Approaching the new departure area, as we had discussed on the radio, it was soon realized that leaving the island would be even more difficult than getting on the island was, especially with the increased force of the wind and the size of the waves.

Several attempts were made to land the skiff at different locations on the island, but all proved to be either too dangerous, or the seaweed too thick, or there were too many hidden rocks. Plus, between the combination of the wind, the bitter cold and the waves, the small outboard motor on the skiff was no match for the elements.

By this time, the boat crew had gone back to our original site by the boat house and Captain Jeremy Cates figured this was still the safest and best location to make one final attempt to get us off the island. Bill Green turned to me and asked, “Tell me, why are we doing this again?” To which I replied, “For the lighthouse cause.” At some point I recall Bill saying, “Well, I have my wallet in my back pocket, so at least they can identify my body.”

It was then decided that the easiest and safest way to get us off the island was to tie a rope to the skiff, and with the assistance of the outboard engine, we would slowly be pulled back by hand to the Charlene Gail. My mind flashed back to all the amazing sea rescues I had read or seen photos of when a line was shot out to a vessel to carry people in a bos’n chair to safety.

I watched as Bill Green was the first to slowly make his way back in the skiff to the larger boat. I watched in fear as he and Jeremy bobbed up and down over the waves in that tiny skiff making its way to the Charlene Gail. Now, I was scared. We now realized what the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear had to contend with, but I doubt even they would have ventured out on day such as this.

As soon as Bill Green was safely back on board the Charlene Gail, Jeremy again maneuvered his way back to the island, using all his boatmanship to bring the skiff up close to the rocks. As I watched him, I could see how his experience was paying off in the blistery cold. He looked confident and knew exactly how to handle that small skiff in the dangerous waters created by this wind and cold.

Somehow or another I slipped my way into the ice covered skiff. Jeremy hollered to the cameraman, “Let’s go, I’m taking both of you.” Trying not to fall or slip out of the skiff, Jeremy passed the camera to me. It felt like it weighed 100 pounds. I thought to myself, “How does that guy carry that thing everywhere? Why don’t we just take the film and leave that heavy awkward camera on the island? We can retrieve it in the springtime.”

With the extra weight of a third person and the camera, the top of the skiff appeared to be level with the water. As we bobbed up and down in the water, with the skiff slowly making its way back to the Charlene Gail, I noticed the windows of the lobster boat ahead were covered with ice from the spray. Why I even noticed this is amazing, especially since I was hanging on to the ice covered skiff in total fear. At the same time the only real thing I was focusing on was Andy Patterson, who was pulling on the rope and drawing the skiff closer to the boat, as the wind and sea smoke swirled around him.

As we got on board and headed back to Cutler, I looked at the crew and suddenly realized just how cold they looked. Did I look that cold? A thought went through my mind, a crazy thought; my mustache was frozen. But, what I was really thinking was how great these guys from Cutler were. They had gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us, especially on a day like this.

I’ve had hundreds of amazing experiences at lighthouses, several where I thought I would not get back alive. Once, when a helicopter I was in, coming back from Seguin Island off the coast of Maine, a wind gust or something caught us, and for what seemed like a lifetime, the pilot had lost control and we were going down, straight down, nose first, before he regained control. Another time was with a camera crew from a TV station on the way back from a visit to Middle Island Light, nine miles out in Lake Huron, known for its freak storms and shipwrecks. I remember seeing the look of fear on the Captain’s face on that day as he skippered a boat about the size of the Charlene Gail, fighting to control the boat as waves tossed the vessel around like we were a toy, not just up and down, but sideways.

Was I scared on this trip to Little River? Yes. Was I frightened? Yes, but something deep inside me knew this trip would end safely. Maybe it was because what I have heard about the history of the fishermen from Cutler. They are rugged and they know how to handle a boat, any boat. More importantly, they respect the sea, they understand it, they know its power and they don’t use their knowledge or training recklessly, and they take nothing for granted. Anyway, in my book, they deserved some kind of medal.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, although the camera was acting up due to the change from the bitter cold to the warm indoors. We spent most of the rest of the day at Neil Corbett’s house, sitting by a toasty warm woodstove sipping on warm coffee and hot chocolate that Neil’s wife Allie had made for us.

Bill Green was interviewing Neil on his memories of growing up at Little River Lighthouse where his father was the last keeper of the United States Lighthouse Service to serve there. Neil had some great stories and photos from the family album to share.

As we left Neil’s house, the cameraman said he hoped that the film turned out okay after all the problems he had with it because of the weather and condensation in the lenses. To which Bill Green replied, “So do I. We want this to air in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to have come back and do this all over again.” “Me too,” I thought. I can’t imagine Jeremy Cates and the crew being too eager to make that boat trip again! Would you?

— Footnote: I would not recommend to anyone to attempt visiting a lighthouse in those frigid weather conditions and I would never do it again.

This story appeared in the April 2004 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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