Advice on how to be alone during COVID-19 from a former N.S. lighthouse keeper

The lighthouse on Cross Island, off Lunenburg, N.S., was semi-automated by the time Chris Mills landed by helicopter in February 1989.

It meant he had a lot of time to kill.

“The next day a storm blew up and we were essentially isolated for the next couple of weeks. It was a real eye-opener for me,” said Mills, who has worked at 11 different lighthouses and written two books about his experiences. 

Nova Scotians like Mills who work or live in remote areas of the province have become unofficial experts in how to not only endure, but enjoy, life in isolation. They were social distancing long before it was mandated to limit the spread of COVID-19, and the same activities that brought them solace then help quell the anxiety now.

As a lighthouse keeper, Mills woke up early to record the weather, he radioed in important information and kept the buildings maintained. He also had to get creative to pass the many hours of down time.

Mills’s love affair with lighthouses began early. ‘It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I can remember,’ he said. (Chris Mills)

“I wrote really bad poetry. I kept diaries. I’m looking at them now. I’ve got 700 pages of dairies that I kept over the years,” said Mills, who lives in Ketch Harbour, N.S. 

His photographs and diaries (which he hopes to turn into a new book) offer a window into a way of life that’s now gone in Nova Scotia. All the lighthouses in the province were de-staffed by about 1990, he said.

Mills’s career as a lighthouse keeper took him to other provinces, including B.C., and lasted from 1989 to 1997. He didn’t realize it then, but it prepared him for living through a pandemic.

“There’s so much anxiety piled on top of this isolation, and that’s the most difficult part, and I feel that anxiety too,” he said. “But I feel like I’m in a privileged position having had all that experience alone, and I’m finding it easier to deal with.”

The Gannet Rock lighthouse, built in 1831, is 13 kilometers south of Grand Manan, N.B. (Chris Mills)

Why not move things around?

For Allen Shepherd, learning to be alone took practice. Before he became a fire tower operator in 2003 at Cape Chignecto Provincial Park near the Bay of Fundy, he was “the opposite of a loaner.”

Then he moved into an 18-metre tower for eight hours a day where his only company was occasional radio chatter or a holler from a visitor down below.

“I would always have to be around people … and after that I became a lot more comfortable being by myself,” said Shepherd.

Allen Shepherd had a 360-degree view of the park and beyond from the tower, and would spend his days watching turkey vultures and hawks. (Allen Shepherd)

His first summer, he found mold growing by the windows of the two-metre-diametre room. He scrubbed the windows, painted the walls and laid down carpet, he said, so it “felt like I could get my shoes off and kind of sit back. I felt more at home instead of like you were on guard.”

Shepherd’s advice for people forced to spend more time inside these days is to simply rearrange your living space. “It might go a long way toward breaking the monotony,” he said.

Shepherd quit working at the park in 2011 to start his own business, but to this day he misses the solitude of the job and the freedom it gave him to pursue interests he’d long forgotten.

Even though he hadn’t read a novel since high school, one summer in the tower Shepherd finished 104 books by western writer Louis L’Amour. 

“When we didn’t used to have time to do those sorts of things, now we do,” he said. “So take advantage of it.”

Learn to be flexible 

Residents of Pictou Island, a small spit of land about six kilometres off the coast in the Northumberland Strait, are used to being on their own.

And they like it that way, said Nancy MacDonald, who has lived there for nearly 40 years. The island is essentially cut off from the mainland in the winter, except for a small plane that delivers groceries once a week. 

Only a handful of families live on Pictou Island year-round. (Google Maps)

“It’s funny, when the last boat goes in the fall people think that we’re depressed or whatever, but we see it as going into a different season where we’re more of an island and more settled,” she said.

MacDonad hasn’t left the island since November when she stocked up on supplies for another winter. When people were busy clearing toilet paper off grocery store shelves, she had her usual three months’ supply ready to go. 

MacDonald said the secret to spending time in isolation is to have a routine that keeps you busy, but to also be flexible.

While the plane is supposed to land on the island every Tuesday with fresh fruit and veggies, the weather doesn’t always co-operate.

“That’s the reality of living on the island, is that you don’t get things necessarily when they’re scheduled to come,” she said. 

Mills said he cherishes his time as a lighthouse keeper. Last summer, he returned to Gannet Rock for a visit. (Chris Mills)

Although his career as a lighthouse keeper is over, Mills still cherishes his time alone.

“I think it’s really important that we learn to be happy on our own because there’s so much input in the world now, and we seem to rely on input, whether it be music, or social media, or news or just noise,” he said.

“And for me it doesn’t do it. You have to get away from that so that you can let nature seep in.”

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