Stepping out – and up – 150 times at Swallowtail Lighthouse

Norma Neves, right, is shown here with her daughter Jennifer Neves. Saturday, the two Grand Manan women will reach their goal of 150 trips to Swallowtail Lighthouse, seen in the background. They embarked on their rigorous treks in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Grand Manan – Saturday, Norma Neves and her daughter, Jennifer Neves, both of Grand Manan, are going to walk to Swallowtail Lighthouse, where they plan to each enjoy some cake, and a glass of wine.

They’re celebrating the completion of 150 treks to the island’s iconic landmark, a project they decided to undertake to improve Norma’s health, and in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

After being sidelined for a while with serious health issues – a heart attack last August, and major bowel surgery in February – Norma, with her daughter’s enouragement, decided to start walking to boost her physical wellbeing.

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Saturday at 4 p.m. they will make their 150th trek, and are inviting anyone who wants to come to join them.

Mother and daughter made a trip together to the lighthouse on April 14 this year. After that first visit, Jennifer had an idea, said Norma.

“She, in all her wisdom, said ‘We should do this 150 times for Canada’s birthday’,” said Norma, laughing. “Me, in all my wisdom, said ‘Sure’.”

That was the beginning of their journeys, and they’ve not been alone. Sometimes friends accompany them, sometimes family – children, grandchildren, and some of Norma’s 25 great-grandchildren – tag along.

“We go rain or shine,” said Norma, 76. “We’ve gone with umbrellas, in hoodies, and in pretty bad weather. We kept going. Now we’re at the end. I don’t know what we will do next.”

The couple parks in the parking lot adjacent to the lighthouse, and then go down the steps and over to the structure.

“There’s 54 steps going down and 108 going back up,” said Norma, joking about the steepness of the stairs. She said if one goes over and back without stopping, the trip down the stairs, across the gulch and back, only takes about 15 minutes.

But often, the two sit on a bench on the far side of the lighthouse if it’s not raining and watch the water. Norma said they’ve seen whales, porpoises, seals, and recently they think they might have seen a shark, a glistening grey creature they couldn’t readily identify swimming in the water.

The lighthouse holds special significance for Norma and her daughter. Norma’s father, Addison Naves, was once the lighthouse keeper there.

“I was a Naves and I married a Neves,” said Norma, chuckling over the similarity in the names.

Her dad also worked at the lighthouse on Gannet Rock until it was decommissioned. “He worked there a month on and a month off. The last of it, he went there by helicopter.”

Jennifer said the weather didn’t always cooperate when she and her mom went for their lighthouse treks.

“Many days were rainy, almost all of our trips were windy,” she said, noting this past week was kind and they haven’t had to wear jackets.

Jennifer said Trip 38 was very special to her. She and her mom were joined by all of her children and grandchildren.

“Trip one hundred we had 28 friends and family go with us and we celebrated by singing O Canada at the door of the lighthouse.”

One Sunday the women made four trips. They said they have met people from many different places and countries during their lighthouse visits – Fredericton, Quebec, Maine, Texas, Florida, New Hampshire, even Germany.

And the landscape has been a high point of their visits. “We’ve seen Swallowtail turn from brown to the beautiful greens with blue bells, lupins, dandelions and daisies. It’s a lovely, beautiful spot,” said Jennifer.

She admits the trips to the lighthouse have “really cut into my summer.”

“I haven’t been out in my kayak much,” she said with a laugh, noting she works through the week and when the water is nice, flat and calm and at high tide, she’s often at the lighthouse instead of in her kayak.

When she’s voiced any mild complaints about lack of kayak time, Jennifer says, with another laugh, “Mom throws it back at me it was my idea.”

Making treks to the lighthouse isn’t the only thing that keeps Norma busy. She’s a longtime volunteer with Charlotte County Cancer. She is the island’s representative for the organization which helps Charlotte County cancer patients and their families with the expense of treatments, and financial difficulties caused by absences from work.

In May, Norma hosted a bake and food sale, and raised $5,600 for the organization. She made a lot of the items for the sale, with contributions from her daughters, granddaughters, and friends.

She held the sale in her garage. “People are very generous,” said Norma. There weren’t any prices on the food; donations were accepted and receipts provided if the customers asked.

Island resident Grant Avery said everybody knows Norma. He praised her work for Charlotte County Cancer. “She’s a pretty special lady,” he said.

Winnifred Young of St. Stephen is the treasurer of Charlotte County Cancer. She said Norma is a friend, as well as an amazing volunteer for the organization.

“When she calls here, and Bill answers, she tells him it’s the ‘Queen of The Fundy Isles calling’,” said Young, laughing.

“She is a great volunteer for us, and she’s more than just a volunteer. She looks after Grand Manan for us. Anyone who needs help, they contact Norma.”

Help is most usually in the form of ferry passes and gas funds, unless there are more extenuating circumstances said Young.

Young noted Norma isn’t just a volunteer with the cancer organization, but for several others as well.

She noted “Norma’s World Famous Apple Pie” often brings in more than $100 once bidding stops. “She’s just one of those people you want on your side,” said Young.

Norma’s husband, Lester, died four years ago in October. She said she and Jennifer have become especially close since then and the trips to the lighthouse have further strengthened that relationship But the senior admits the lighthouse trips are “getting quite tiring” and she’s glad to be almost done the 150th one, although she admits they will “keep going until the weather gets bad, maybe a couple times a week.”

Tuesday and Wednesday this week, Norma was busy making mustard pickles. A friend came over and helped her peel the vegetables and she cooked the pickles up in separate batches over the two days.

“Maybe I’ll sit in a rocking chair now,” she joked.

 

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Kathy Bockus
Journalist Kathy Bockus is based in St. Stephen and has worked for The Saint Croix Courier as a general news reporter and feature writer for the past 15 years. She began her lengthy newspaper career in 1974 with a daily in Saint John. Bockus says she always jokes being a reporter is a licence to be nosey, but firmly believes that everyone has a story to tell. She can be contacted at 321-0759.