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Lighthouse Living : 'It's like living in a separate world,' says one resident of Maine's Isle au Haut, which has a single store, one-room schoolhouse, post office, church and a lighthouse inn.

April 10, 1988|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ISLE AU HAUT, Me. — Gas lamps glow and the wind moans, and the running lights of a windjammer pass in the night.

Peace is a companion on Isle au Haut.

Later, with the dawn, a mail boat carrying passengers sets sail from the village of Stonington for this lonely island in Penobscot Bay. At about the same hour, hundreds of miles away, Buck Gotschall hurries about, greeting arrivals at Big Bay Point on Lake Superior--while Leigh and Linda Hurley prepare breakfast for guests on an island . . . in San Francisco Bay.

What each host has in common is the operation of a magnificent old lighthouse serving as an inn for vacationers seeking escape from the stress of their daily pursuits.

Waves, occasionally thunderous and awesome, wash the shoreline, and gulls cry mournfully overhead. On such days, guests luxuriate in the sanctuary of these sentinels that for years have served as beacons for lonely sailors in distress--from California to Cape Cod.

As darkness settles on Isle au Haut, Jeff and Judi Burke set aflame gas lamps, and candles are lit in guest rooms, for there is no electricity. Neither is there a telephone. Only a VHF radio for emergency communication with the mainland.

The Keeper's House is anchored to a granite ledge with a light tower that still casts its beam. At the same time, other lighthouses blink back from distant landmarks.

Judi Burke, the daughter of a former lighthouse keeper on Cape Cod, is sensitive to the wilderness and peace and the beauty of Isle au Haut. She says simply, "It's extremely romantic."

The island with its post office, single store, church and one-room schoolhouse is home to just 60 year-round residents. Judi's husband, Jeff, 44, a former '60s activist, found his peace on Isle au Haut. Originally from Ohio, he was "overwhelmed by the beauty and the uncrowdedness" of Isle au Haut.

From the door of the lighthouse the Burkes feed a friendly deer by hand. Ospreys nest in a tree nearby, seals and porpoises frolic offshore, and occasionally in summertime a whale will surface, then suddenly disappear again in the waters of Penobscot Bay.

Cars are scarce on Isle au Haut, and so vacationers bicycle along paths that skirt the seven-mile-long island with its groves of spruce, maple and birch.

One full-time resident smiles dreamily: "It's like living in a separate world."

The Keeper's House with its four guest rooms and private cottage features candlelight dinners, antiques and vintage beds that recall a less troubled era. A Great Dane prowls the grounds along with the Burkes' three youngsters, who follow hiking trails that lead to the island's Acadia National Park.

Not even the Burkes, though, enjoy the role of host more than Norman (Buck) Gotschall. A one-time schoolteacher and real estate broker, Gotschall holds forth at the 94-year-old Big Bay Point Lighthouse on the shore of Lake Superior in Upper Michigan. Like the inn operated by the Burkes in Maine, his lighthouse provides a haunting silence at the end of a dirt road a few miles outside Marquette. Occasionally when a winter wind blows up a storm, the lake churns with waves; the wind howls, carrying spray that turns to sheets of ice on the walls of the old lighthouse.

This is the season when guests try their hand at cross-country skiing and ice fishing; others remain behind to read or snooze or listen to tales spun by the 60-year-old Gotschall, for there is no radio or TV at Big Bay Point Lighthouse. With the nearest neighbor nearly a mile away, the lighthouse is best known for its privacy.

With spring the earth comes alive with wildflowers and the summer follows with wild blueberries; lakes and rivers fed by 19 waterfalls become the spawning ground for salmon and trout.

While Gotschall's lighthouse rises at the edge of a wilderness road, it provides such amenities as a sauna, a library and a deck for viewing all that peacefulness.

Lawn for Picnics

Reaching out from the lighthouse are forests and groomed trails and acres of lawn for picnickers. Says Gotschall, "The view of the rising sun over Lake Superior and setting over Huron Mountains will never be forgotten." And occasionally some fortunate guest catches a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

At Big Bay Lighthouse the word is solitude.

Rising on a rocky point, the lighthouse offers the magnificence of the "Gitchee Gumee," the world's largest freshwater lake--Lake Superior.

If the village of Big Bay should appear familiar, visitors are reminded that it was the setting for scenes in that old flick, "Anatomy of a Murder."

Sleepy would best describe Big Bay with its post office, inn, hotel, grocery ("You'll love the clerks," says Gotschall), Laundromat and restaurant.

Primarily, though, vacationers are addicted to Gotschall's lighthouse with its brick fireplace, 7 1/2 baths, accommodations for more than a dozen guests, and a resident ghost that coaxes Gotschall to "take the day off and go fishing."

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