Traveling “Back in Time” on the Winds of a Winter Snowstorm

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Owls Head Light Station
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Owls Head Light Station during the
morning of the December 16, 2007
northeast storm

For nearly a week prior, weather prognosticators were issuing a winter storm watch for Sunday, December 16, 2007, forecasting a northeaster that was expected to bring heavy wind and snow to the state of Maine.

The forecast models were unchanging as the week wound down to Sunday, though few meteorologists were saying with any assurances just how much snow would accumulate over the coastal regions since the elements were expected to turn to a wintry mix of icy dread as temperatures inched up around the freezing mark. So all anyone could do was simply be prepared for the worst and take a “wait and see” attitude.

Waking up the morning of the 16th, I peered out the window of my home and noticed that the outer edge of the low pressure system was beginning to “knock at the door” as snow showers were falling in a rather gentle manner, occasionally being whisked around by unpredictable gusts of wind.

Owls Head Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Owls Head Lighthouse
standing silent sentinel and
shining forth its guiding beam

At that moment, I thought to myself, this is great – I have a fleeting window of opportunity to capture the snowstorm’s arrival at nearby Owls Head Lighthouse before the roads become too risky to travel.

So I quickly got up and around, turned on the computer and washed-up. In looking at the National Weather Service marine forecast for the day, the warnings were foreboding, promising conditions that would rapidly deteriorate within an hour or so.

The forecast read, “Low pressure over the Ohio River Valley this morning will redevelop along the Eastern seaboard later today. This intensifying storm system will then track northeast into the Gulf of Maine this evening…then continue into the Maritimes overnight.”

The storm warning was calling for northeast winds to increase “to 25 to 35 knots with gusts up to 45 knots late this morning and afternoon…seas building to 8 to 11 feet…snow…sleet…visibility less than a mile.”

Based on this morning “greeting,” I knew it was now or never if I was to safely venture out into the snow before my “window” closed for the day.

Can buoy off Owls Head Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A lonely can buoy holds station
in the storm just off Owls Head

Following a twelve minute ride over to Owls Head, I parked my car and got out; the feeling of frozen solitude abruptly overtaking me, for I was alone within the state park. Locking my vehicle, I set out on the cold trek up to Owls Head Light Station, along the way, trying not to slip and fall on the dirt road, which was snow-packed from previous storms, and “littered” with a glaze of ice-imprinted tire tracks throughout.

Rounding the rugged promenade, I scanned the seascape of West Penobscot Bay, my eyes focusing on the agitated motion of a lonely can buoy being influenced against its will by the building wind and seas, but holding station nonetheless. While the pine trees and rocky profile of the land mass on a nearby island were capped in a coat of white.

About that time, having scaled to a bit higher elevation on the bluff, I felt the wind’s bitter sting more profoundly on my face, and my glove-less hands (for better camera handling) were beginning to ache with the numbing effects of the cold.

Owls Head Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The 30-foot Owls Head
Lighthouse was built in 1825

At this moment my mind began drifting back to the bygone era of lighthouses when dedicated keepers and their families routinely braved such weather conditions – and much worse, in an effort to “keep a good light” and safeguard mariners at sea who were caught up in the perils of long ago storms.

Upon reaching the light station, I was suddenly captivated by the brilliance of the light beaming forth from Owls Head’s fourth order Fresnel lens against a gray seascape. Snow was now starting to fall and blow a little more, which only added to the light’s alluring effects. I snapped a bunch of photos from different angles at the base of the bluff and then decided it was time to “go for the summit.”

Walking to the point where the exterior staircase begins leading up to the lighthouse, I looked down and noticed snow and ice atop the planks, holding fast with an icy grip that wasn’t about to give way under the pressure of my boots. With the rubber soles of my boots periodically slipping, safety immediately popped into mind, and I reached for the handrail, only to forgo its sense of stability due to my bare hands “sticking” to its metal construction with each grip.

Sea smoke on Penobscot Bay
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Sea smoke "danced" above Penobscot
Bay as the northeast storm moved in

Now nearly up to the 30-foot lighthouse, and with the storm’s northeast winds wildly racing overtop the bluff, I once again started letting my thoughts drift back in time, imagining how lighthouse keepers at Owls Head encountered these same types of scenarios.

I was only carrying my camera, but I knew all too well that the keepers of old might have been toting additional oil and supplies up to the light tower to keep the beacon lit – and unlike me on this day, they had no choice but to make multiple trips up the frozen exterior staircase day or night. This could not have been a desirable task in the wee hours of the morning when the bitter cold, elements, and sometimes danger itself were you’re your only companions.

When I reached the zenith and stood next to the 1825 brick sentinel, the biting winds forced me to search for a “lee” around the other side of the tower, but the powerful gusts were enveloping the conical structure – there was no place to hide.

Cove behind Owls Head
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The cove behind Owls Head was a
desolate and frigid seascape

Glancing out over West Penobscot Bay from my 100-foot perch above the water, the seas were dressed in white caps and an ominous sea smoke hovered in mysterious fashion just above the surface of the bay. Suddenly, the jolting blast of the light station’s fog horn was heard for the first time, activated by its automated “keeper,” a VM-100 fog detector.

What could be more romantic for lighthouse aficionados than the light ablaze and the fog horn bellowing its audible warning to sea during a severe snowstorm? As time-honored images of our lighthouse heritage go, it simply didn’t get any better than this; though I couldn’t help but notice the condensation on the lantern panes – something the keepers of old would never have permitted.

During one particularly strong wind gust that accentuated the numbing cold on my hands and face, I returned to my senses and decided that all this lighthouse reminiscing was wonderful, but the roads weren’t getting any better and I wasn’t about to find any warm shelter until I returned to my vehicle. A few more photos on my descent of the steps and that was that.

Owls Head Light Station
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

As it has through storms year after
year, Owls Head Lighthouse
continued to shine bright during the
12/16/07 snowstorm

It was time to depart Owls Head Light Station before the storm grew worse, for the snow was now falling more intensely. Once back in my vehicle, I turned up the heat and headed out of the state park, but for those who know me, there was one more stop that I had to make before going home. I “needed” to drive into Rockland for a hot cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Once the delightful hot beverage was tucked in-hand, my morning was complete. Reflecting on my journey, I took satisfaction in the fact that the light at Owls Head was brilliantly aglow and that I was partaking in the savory tastes of my favorite coffee as the storm raged on – just the way the old lighthouse keepers would have ordered things up many years ago.

Created: December 19, 2007