This is how I found inner peace at a lighthouse in the middle of the Baltic Sea
I spend a week at the lighthouse which stands on small rocky islet at the borderline of Finland and Sweden. This is the story of how I found inner peace in the harsh surroundings of the Baltic Sea.
For some, staying at a remote lighthouse is a beautiful dream; a ruggedly romantic setting for powerful experiences and the noble ideas that they evoke. For others, the mere thought causes anxiety. They're sure they'd panic or be bored to death on a lighthouse island.
I got to live out my dream by spending a week at the Märket lighthouse in August. To get there, I'd first joined the Finnish Lighthouse Society, paid the membership fee, and selected a suitable time for the visit.
The trip to the lighthouse took 24 hours by ferry, car, and boat. When the lighthouse finally loomed on the horizon, I was excited and frightened at the same time. I couldn't know for sure if I'd be able to cope with the possible tribulations. Would my stay at the lighthouse be as I'd imagined? Was I a lighthouse person after all?
Märket – 60° 18,2’ N 19° 08,2’ E
Märket is a rocky islet in the middle of the northern part of the Sea of Åland, South Kvarken. It's a little over 5 hectares in area: 350 metres times 150 metres.
On Märket and in its surroundings, past events have intertwined with the history of the Nordic countries and the whole Europe. When Sweden lost Finland to Russia in the war of 1808 - 1809, the new border was drawn through Märket, and it still splits the islet in two. The lighthouse is the westernmost building in Finland, and the islet is the westernmost point of Åland.
This area on the Åland passage from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea is called Eteläkurkku. In the 40-kilometre-wide sea area, dotted with low skerries and underwater rocks, the safe passage for seafaring is only a few kilometres wide. Dozens of vessels have been shipwrecked in these waters.
The need to mark a safe passage was understood early, but building a lighthouse was considered too expensive and difficult. It wasn't erected until 1885, and the traffic to and from Finland was directed away from the Swedish coast.
"Building a lighthouse on this small, low, and naked islet in the middle of an open, stormy sea in a cold climate is an endeavour which is as frivolous as it is fruitless. Even if the building was erected with utmost care and inestimable cost, it would surely soon break and crumble to the ground in storms, which rage on the passage every winter. Hardly anyone would be willing to settle in such a dreadful place, voluntarily or at any price." Quote from a Pilotage Service document from 1836.
Luckily my family understands and encourages me, even if they think my adventures are insane. None of them would have joined me voluntarily. "It's nice that there are army-like experiences available for women, too," quipped my husband. He was terrified by the thought that you can't get away from the island when you want, you can't choose your company, and the weather strongly dictates what you can do.
For me, the discipline of the lighthouse visit was just the thing! The trip would provide a much-needed break from options and dwelling on them. I'd have to be present in the moment and succumb to circumstances. During a lighthouse week, you don't have to decide on what kind of food to eat. Someone else tells you what to do and even exactly when and how. The geographical boundaries of nature determine where you can go, unless the weather brings them even closer. You have to be equipped and prepared for everything - unlike in the city.
The builders of the lighthouse were indeed faced with the harsh conditions in May 1885, when a storm swept all the building materials and the builders' barracks from the islet into the sea. The waves forced the builders to climb into a maintenance boat which had been hoisted high up against an iron sea mark. There, they had to shiver for over 24 hours, soaking wet in unbelievably cramped conditions, before the wind turned and subsided. A storm brought the construction to a halt twice more during that summer, causing material damage. Despite the troubles, the lighthouse was finished in a record time of six months.
To this day, nothing can be stored outside the lighthouse buildings. In a strong wind, waves rush over the islet and sweep away everything that's loose or fastened lightly. It's also forbidden to move on the cliffs during a storm.
Still, a storm is the thing that most people want to experience during their visit. There's something special about witnessing the devastating power of air and water up close! The wind is howling and the sea is raging all around you. But the sturdy lighthouse, built on granite blocks, offers a safe and un-swaying grandstand view for storm-spotting. It's a little sinful to wish for a storm, because they cause all kinds of troubles for those working at sea. My secret hopes were met with only a moderate gale, which blew 16 m/s (36mph) at its strongest. A storm would've required the wind to blow at least 21 m/s (47 mph). Storms like that aren't uncommon at Märket.
For a first-timer, the gale was an amazing experience, too. I watched the situation outside as long as I could. It's hard to measure your strength against a gusty wind. Tears rolled from my eyes as I faced upwind, trying to peer at the frothy waves slamming against the cliffs. And that was the greatest thing! The cracks in the islet begun to fill with water. Wave by wave, the water climbed upward, and finally the waves turned to floods that rushed over the island. Moving on the cliffs became impossible, so I had to give up and get inside.
Building the lighthouse was a near-impossible effort at the time. It's understandable that it was built on the spot that was best suited for it, in the middle of a high cliff. When the borderline was later examined, it turned out that the lighthouse was situated on the Swedish side of the border. In 1981, the border was moved and Sweden was compensated for the area that the lighthouse had occupied without permission. The bow-shaped border is arguably one of its kind in the world.
When you're moving around the islet, it's hard to perceive on which country's soil you're walking, even though the turning points are marked on the cliffs. Of course, there are no border formalities for people staying on the island. The citizens and officials of both countries are allowed to disembark wherever the wind is the most favourable.
During the Second World War, the situation was peculiar. Fortifying Märket as Finland's westernmost military post was a strange manoeuvre to say the least. The island was occupied by Finns practically all through the war, while Sweden was a neutral country. The light of the lighthouse was turned on and off depending on how it accommodated war strategies.
Life at the lighthouse then and now
Once the operations of the Märket lighthouse had become stabilised, it was manned by five men, of which one at a time was on leave. The keepers' main task was to maintain the flame in the lamp, and the clockwork which rotated the lenses also had to be taken care of. It had to rotate at exactly the right speed. In addition to these tasks, the staff had to keep the lighthouse clean and do small repairs, such as installing windows, painting, and regular upkeep jobs. The lighthouse supervisor had to make sure that the equipment was carefully operated as per instructions and that the lantern was lit every day at an appropriate time. During the sailing season, the lighthouse was lit from sunset to sunrise.
I feel a twitch of conscience when I read a list of food supplies from 1902:
442 kg bread, 100 kg salted pork fat, 185 kg corned beef, 45 kg butter, 17 kg coffee, 11 kg syrup, 2.5 kg tea, 95 kg hulled barley, 95 kg wheat flour, 1 kg mustard, 5 l vinegar, 34 kg sugar, and 2 hectolitres salt. These had to sustain four men for five months without restocking. In addition, drinking water was delivered in large tanks, as well as steres of firewood for heating.
These days, the visitors get weekly supplies from a village store in Åland. There's no shortage of fresh vegetables and special treats. Still, preparing for a week's consumption seemed exciting to a city dweller who's used to going to the store every day and running back in case she forgot something.
The contemporary life at the lighthouse is surprisingly similar to a hundred years ago. You have to have authority figures and plans, so that things won't get out of control - especially these days when visitors change weekly. The group of about five people doing voluntary work at Märket has been relieved from maintaining the light, but repairs and maintenance work are still carried out. And there's enough cleaning, cooking, and taking care of random visitors to go round.
My own visit was exceptional because, due to cancellations, I spent the week alone with an experienced Märket veteran. Pasi Koski was safe company because he knew the lighthouse like the back of his hand and had built many of the devices with his own hands. The distribution of work was clear and traditional. I was busy with kitchen chores and writing the diary, while Pasi took care of the manlier tasks, such as repairs. Since there were just the two of us, we weren't assigned any big renovation projects.
At times, I needed to remind myself that I came to the lighthouse to do voluntary work, not just to enjoy the views and the sea. Many of the chores are quite entertaining because they're done in exceptional circumstances.
My days were very similar to one another. I woke up early and went down to the kitchen to make breakfast. Pasi had started the morning chores even earlier by heating the washing water, among other things. After a morning swim, I washed the dishes outside, admiring the sea view that opened up before me. On the lighthouse islet, there's an infinite amount of sea water available, but it's not used limitlessly because all the greywater is cleaned with a filter system before it's run back into the sea.
My main task was to update the English-language diary of the lighthouse. I photographed the lighthouse, the surrounding nature, and weather phenomena. I liked this job because it gave me an excuse to escape the kitchen and wander around with a camera round my neck, marvelling at everything. The diary, which spans several years, gives a good idea of everyday life at the lighthouse. My entries can be found at week 32.
The fresh air and physical labour guaranteed a good appetite. Breakfast, two warm meals, and afternoon coffee were surprisingly time-consuming. The meals had to be planned with the supplies in mind and so that there'd be as little compostable waste as possible. I already considered myself quite the waste sorter, but at Märket, I honed my skills to a new level. It's important that nothing gets into the sea that could pollute it. At departure, all the packaging materials that were brought to the islet and the waste produced there are taken to Åland for recycling.
Dilapidation and new life
Märket was constantly inhabited ever since it was built, until the lighthouse was automated in 1977 when the last lighthouse keeper left the island. Märket was deserted for 30 years. The uninhabited lighthouse building quickly fell into disrepair.
Finally it seemed that humidity, changing temperatures, and wind would render it beyond repair. Radio amateurs were the only regular visitors on the island. They were sad to see how the humidity and changes in temperature were rotting the buildings and weathering them away.
The lighthouse islet holds a special status among radio amateurs, since they consider Märket a country of its own in their DXCC list of countries. That's why it's the destination of many contact expeditions (DX-peditions). On those trips, amateur radio stations have the chance to operate a contact station at a remote location, which Märket is.
At Märket, I met a German group of radio amateurs, who spent a weekend at the lighthouse in order to achieve top scores in an amateur radio contest. As a journalist, I find it hard to understand that they make radio contacts all around the world but don't relay any humanly relevant information. Still, it must be interesting and important to the enthusiasts, since this group had travelled for days from South Germany to Åland with a huge load of equipment and waited for days for suitable weather until they could take a boat taxi to Märket with their load.
On the islet, the radio amateurs erected masts and antennae, built the station all through the day in difficult weather conditions, and then kept watch by the transmitters in turns around the clock. They didn't seem to mind the harsh conditions at the lighthouse. Among radio amateurs, Märket is legendary.
Along with Bengtskär and Utö, Märket is one of the most significant remaining lighthouses in Finland. It would've been a national shame to let it be destroyed. In 2007, the Finnish Lighthouse Society rented Märket from the state in exchange for its renovation. Since then, repairs and renewals have been made in order to save the lighthouse. The worst threat is now behind it. The annual work seasons have become longer, spanning from March to November. Hundreds of members of the Society have returned again and again to do voluntary work in the magnificent and demanding conditions of the lighthouse islet.
There's still work to be done. In harsh conditions, renovations like painting and plastering have to be carried out constantly all the same. The Finnish Lighthouse Society wishes that the Finnish State and the province of Åland would bear their responsibility for this valuable building.
Travellers have already found Märket. Visitors arrive by their own boats or use boat services available in Åland. They're interested in the history of this extraordinary place, but the Märket lighthouse could just as well be developed into a research site for observing the Baltic Sea, climate change, and seals, to name a few. At the same time, it could be a destination for artists, lighthouse enthusiasts, radio amateurs, and storm spotters.
It's possible to spot seal colonies, even large ones, near Märket. Unfortunately I didn't see even one during the week I spent on the islet, but sometimes the wind carried a strange smell into my nose, which I interpreted to be from seal islets. I watched the early migratory birds, who gathered on the cliffs to wait for suitable winds. I marvelled at their ability to rest in the wind that was about to knock me over. "Ringed plover, dunlin, arctic tern," Pasi instructed the uninformed visitor.
There are no rules against camping around the lighthouse. It's not uncommon that paddlers, for example, have to camp on Märket and wait for the winds to subside. On the first day of my visit, 20 kayaks appeared at the old harbour. The visit lasted over 24 hours, until the weather allowed their journey to continue. The strict waste sorting and filtering systems of the lighthouse were hard-pressed due to the large number of visitors, but hospitality and putting safety first are self-evident in these conditions. There always have to be fresh water and food supplies to spare.
"Three people on their islet, vulnerable to the open sea and shut up inside thick, damp granite walls, unable to descend down the cliffs without being in danger of being washed away by the raging waves. That kind of life can be likened to a prison cell." Nya Pressen on the harsh conditions at Märket on December 8th, 1885.
Positions of lighthouse keepers were still sought after. At the time, fixed-salary posts were rare, and there was also a certain status about the job. The sea was a natural environment for the people on the shore, and sailors had to live away from their families for long stretches on end. Even then, some people were attracted by a simple life far away from the temptations and obligations of the mainland. Life at Märket was hard and rough, but also bohemian and free.
Romantics were drawn to lighthouses even back then. People were interested to see how life was on the isolated lighthouse island. Visits to Märket were arranged in the summertime, weather allowing. Artists have always been interested in lighthouses. Painter Victor Westerholm immortalised Märket in several paintings. Lighthouses also provided peace for composers and writers to concentrate on work, as well as themes. This is the case to this day.
Lighthouse people can be roughly divided into three groups. There are romantics, who are drawn to lighthouses for emotional reasons; there's just something about lighthouses for them. They seek their way to a lighthouse to connect to themselves, the sea, and the wind. The second group is history buffs: diligent students of archives and restorers of the lighthouse. They make sure that everything is done according to the instructions from the National Board of Antiquities. Thirdly, there are practical friends of sea life, who only want everything to work and to go to the sauna after a long day of physical labour.
The latter two sometimes disagree on what's sufficient and sensible in modern circumstances. Vibe-seekers get their dose of romance from the details of Märket's history, but would maybe prefer to sit on a cliff observing natural phenomena, rather than scratch paint off an old iron stove. Still, everyone is welcome at the same table, and everyone shares a love for the lighthouse.
I think I belong to the group of romantics. I've never felt so safe, whole, and secure anywhere else. I'd never experienced such peace of mind that descended upon me soon after I arrived at Märket. It was even a little awkward and weird because I happen to have a family that I love and a job that I like on the mainland. Maybe the pleasure was possible because I knew that the isolation would be temporary?
I didn't miss the pillars of my life on the mainland because I managed to seize the moment at Märket. I didn't think about the past nor worry about the future. I carried out the tasks assigned to me obediently and didn't question them. After that, I just kept my senses open. I savoured the view, its grey tones, sniffed the sea and the wind, listened to the barely audible pulse of ships passing on the horizon. I sat alone on the cliffs for hours and enjoyed myself immensely.
On my last night, when an impossibly beautiful sunset coloured the sky and everything was so perfect again, I experienced a kind of enlightenment. I realised that this immense happiness I experienced at Märket wasn't because of this place. It happened in my own mind; I made it happen. It's possible to feel the same way on my sofa at home. It's still important to travel to the end of the world every once in a while, to look at the world from a different angle and discover something about happiness and peace of mind. I was ready to go back to my own people.