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A light that fails

The Bar Harbor Times, "Mount Desert's Hometown Newspaper," brings me the news that the lighthouse on Bear Island will almost certainly be closed down in the near future. I wish I could say that Bear Island exists far out at sea, a dangerous reef upon which mariners have long been wont to wreck their vessels. The truth is, it stands but a few hundred yards off shore, deep within the great harbor of Mount Desert.I have often wondered why a lighthouse should have been placed there in the first place. Now that the light is doomed, however, I find myself full of regrets and memories.

Despite its closeness to shore, and its proximity to the busy settlement of Northeast, Bear Island has long been noted for its peculiar beauty. Here in the 19th century, landscape artists like Bierstadt and Frederick Church, drawn to what was then a foggy outpost of the known world, came to paint the island's striking rock formations. In later years, no yachtsman would ever fail to remark upon something at once wild and noble in the aspect of these rocks as they rose abruptly from the blue sea, precisely as they were heaved up by a glacier aeons ago. Upon their summit for a century and a half has stood a lighthouse gleaming white in the afternoon sun; the whole has been an image so impressing itself on the mind that it could be summoned up in the long watches of a landlocked winter night.

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Yet it wasn't, as I have already hinted, a very necessary lighthouse. Sailors coming from the east caught a lighted buoy off Bunker's Ledge long before they saw the Bear Island light; the approach down the western way found it obscurred by islands. Yet its beam glowed cheeringly through the dark, and often at night from my house ashore, I have heard its faint bell sounding, a reminder, as I turned over safely in my bed, that the sea lay under a blanket of fog.

Now, it seems, a few lighted buoys strategically placed, and a newly anchored gong, will provide adequate guidance into the great harbor; the lighthouse will be evacuated and eventually sold off by the government. It is sad to think of its going. The Maine coast was onece dotted with lighthouses faithfully manned, their keepers standing watch through all seasons and all weathers: men of a special breed - yes, and women, too; for the wives of those seabound guardians put up uncomplainingly with the loneliness, the isolation, the long periods when they were without fresh supplies. When the Bear Island light is gone, only one that I know of will remain, upon Duck Island some miles at sea. I have often anchored off the Duck and clambered ashore to share a cup of tea with the keeper and his family, enjoying a warm welcome and feeling that I was not undully interrupting the allotted work. Are the days of Duck Island light also numbered?

At Bear Island, according to my informant, a young family has been in attendance for several years. They didn't mind their relative isolation; they found pleasures in the sense of being close to one another. Now one of the children is approaching the age of compulsory schooling, and they will have to abandon their post in any case. But Steve Loiver is nevertheless regretful. "This light hasn't missed a blink since I've been here," he says, and he fears an impending loss in the passing of his job. "I just hope that in the need to economize we don't destroy the things that give flavor and uniqueness to life."

The lighthouse and its surrounding shelters, kept so starkly white under his care, will no doubt be left to molder for a while and then will crumble in desuetude. Sailors will ply their course safely enough under the Coast Guard's new arrangements. But does anyone like to think of one more light going out in our world, or of even a faint bell being stilled? For myself, when the fog comes in, I'll give silent thanks for journeys that long ago ended safely under the arc of that Bear Island light.

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