Ladies of the Light

A tour over the barrier beach to one of the loneliest little lighthouses in the world

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There’s a certain kind of privilege bestowed on any Island visitor or resident who either owns an all-terrain vehicle or knows someone with an all-terrain vehicle, which can take them over the otherwise unreachable stretches of shore such as, well, the most stunning and unreachable of them all, the Great Barrier Beach of Cape Poge.

If you glance at a map of Martha’s Vineyard and its satellite island, Chappaquiddick, you’ll see, at the northern reach of Chappy, a long strip of land that embraces a big bay like a loving mother’s arm. At the northwest end of this arm, about where the wrist would be, stands a lonely white wooden lighthouse, 63 feet high, with a red door and exquisite upper phalanges of black metal. This metal curves around into an open-air balcony, where you might imagine a 19th-century lighthouse keeper’s wife clinging to the rail, her waist-length hair uplifted by stiff winds, her long skirt trailing behind her as she stares out to sea.

Now, just as our government is rolling back all manner of environmental protections, we have so many lovely private groups taking care of our natural resources, and some of them are here at home. Chappaquiddick’s 750-ish acres of woods, sandy beaches, marshlands, and ponds are tended by The Trustees of Reservations, proud owner of eight great Island properties: Wasque, Norton Point, Mytoi Gardens, Menemsha Hills, Long Point, the FARM Institute, and, as mentioned, Cape Poge.

The trustees of Cape Poge, headquartered at the exquisite Japanese-style Mytoi Gardens at the foot of Dike Bridge, are always on the lookout for new themes and tours to educate the public, and to treat visitors to the visual delights of the Vineyard’s cousin island. Engagement site manager Rebecca Uva and her colleagues have created a new tour, Ladies of the Light, to honor all the unknown and largely unheralded women who, over the course of three centuries, helped to keep America’s wicks trimmed and beacons ablaze, sometimes singlehandedly.

A maiden tour was planned for Saturday, March 18. For anyone with a keen memory, you’ll recall that a terrific storm swept over the East Coast and the Cape and Islands. Not quite the Godzilla the meteorologists predicted, but bad enough. The first tour was canceled, and tentatively rescheduled for Saturday, March 25. This time the weather gods cooperated; a little stingy with the sunshine, and in fact providing a daylong spitting rain and temperatures in the upper 30s, but still, Ms. Uva and her team were good to go.

This reporter from the MV Times and photographer Teresa Kruszewski reached the Chappy ferry, “curbside” on Chappy at 9:45 am. Ms. Uva met us in a dark green Trustees SUV, along with the first real customers to sign up: Gretchen Snyder, teacher at the Chilmark School; Barbara duBois of San Diego and Vineyard Haven; and Beth Dickinson of Vineyard Haven, manager of Middletown Nursery.

Ms. Uva, 29 years old and lively enough to light up Cape Poge herself, grew up in England, but has an only barely detectable accent. I suggested she watch Emma Thompson movies to reproduce that plummy, posh inflection. She’s engaged to former trustee, now conservation biologist, Brian Vasa, who had the good romantic sense to propose to her recently at the top of the Cape Poge Light.

We piled into the back of a canopied open-air Jeep with education assistant Shannon Hurley at the wheel, and with Mary Spencer, who described her job as “moral support,” while Ms. Uva added, “She’s the brains!”

It took three days to bump and lumber along the sand. I exaggerate, of course; it took a pleasurable eternity to phlump and flail along the six miles of barrier beach to the lighthouse.

Along the way we passed many of the most scenic coves, marsh meadows, saltwater inlets, and wide ocean views on the Island. Ms. Uva made sure we missed nothing.

Ms. Uva and Ms. Spenser doled out exciting historical facts. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Matthew Mayhew as keeper of the spanking-new lighthouse on Cape Poge. No worries about Mr. Mayhew suffering from loneliness at this isolated spot; he had a wife and eight children, all of whom inhabited a 15-foot-by-32-foot cottage alongside the beacon.

Mrs. Mayhew kept a kitchen garden, and homeschooled the kids. She was occasionally upset by sheep let loose to swim across the bay to manage the weeds, but they’d also home in on her veggies. She and the children shooed them off (maybe bagging one, suggested Ms. Uva slyly, for a hearty mutton dinner).

It took the sharp eyes of Ms. Uva to spot, across a narrow bay, an orange-billed oystercatcher and, minutes later, a snowy owl. Binoculars were swapped so we could all ooh and ahh.

When we reached the quaint white lighthouse — one of only two wooden towers left in the country — Ms. Uva spooled a key through the lock on the red door and, indescribable delight! — we were inside this hard to reach, impossible to visit without a trusty Trustee, lighthouse. It’s all in who you know.

Some fun historical tidbits: In the year 1824 alone, more than 20,000 boats sank in our seas. The need for more lighthouses was crucial. In 1814, lighthouses up and down the coast were extinguished to improve the odds of our side against the English during the War of 1812. In the mid-1800s, 122 women worked as lighthouse keepers in the States, including the vast wash of the Great Lakes. Women usually took over the running of a lighthouse from a deceased husband, although she had already been doing half the work anyway, and raising children, and tending the kitchen garden.

To book your own trip, ideally on a day brighter and warmer than the one we experienced, call the Trustees at 508-627-3599. Ask for Rebecca, and offer to bring her a latte from Edgartown.