Sentry of sound, keeper of light
December 2, 2012 - 4:16am By AARON BESWICK Truro Bureau

C.B. man no longer guards the sailor’s guiding beacons, but his fiddle shines on

Paul Cranford manned lighthouses for 35 years and in his spare time has recorded and published traditional Cape Breton fiddle music. (AARON BESWICK / Truro Bureau)

We share a desire for there to be steady eyes watching out for us from some high tower as we toss about on life’s too-often dark waters.

The lighthouse keeper has a symbolism in our culture that reaches beyond his historical role of casting a light to wayward mariners.

So we have expectations of the stoic keeper who would reach down to grasp our wrist with firm and calloused hand as we cling at the granite of his ironbound island.

But that’s not Paul Cranford.

Gleefully, and perhaps incompetently, the 59-year-old retired lighthouse keeper attempted to turn huge knotty spruce stumps into firewood with a tiny electric wood splitter last month at his home in St. Anns, Victoria County. Music played on an iPod from his station wagon as Cranford wrestled with his softwood, planned his next book of fiddle sheet music and remembered 35 years manning some of Atlantic Canada’s loneliest islands.

“Oh, it was about four acres with 100-foot cliffs, but it wasn’t as romantic as one might imagine,” said Cranford of his 14 years at St. Paul Island, where Cape Breton reaches up into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“I had the 20th-century light keeper experience.”

Don’t get me wrong — Cranford’s paid his dues.

He was on St. Paul Island for the Groundhog Day storm of 1976, with its 185-kilometre-an-hour winds, and put in 19 years on Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy.

Cranford wasn’t what the Canadian Coast Guard considered ideal material when he showed up decades ago.

It started with — and has always been about — music for Cranford.

After a short stint as a social worker, he hitchhiked to Cape Breton from Toronto with his fiddle and a long head of hair when he was 21. After two days camped on a beach in Dingwall, a fisherman mentioned that the coast guard would soon need to find a new lighthouse keeper for St. Paul Island.

“I was at their office in Dartmouth on Monday morning when it opened to tell them they needed a new keeper,” he said.

After a morning-long interview, he got a haircut at lunch and returned to the office.

“I think the haircut might have done it for them. They told me to pick up six months’ supplies and head out to the light. I just wanted time out there to play music.”

It was a baptism by fire for Cranford. During a solid year’s stint at the light, a strict military discipline was enforced by an old-school lighthouse keeper also stationed there.

To supplement the meagre rations of rice and beans he’d brought, and not having received his first paycheque before being shipped out, Cranford jigged cod and mackerel and set lobster traps from a small boat during his spare time and filled the rest with music.

“You might as well say it; it’s not like they can charge me with poaching now. It was like prehistoric times out there with these stark cliffs and crystal-clear water.

“It was known as the graveyard of the Gulf for a reason.”

A reassignment brought him to the shore-based lighthouse at Point Aconi, where he worked a month on, a month off.

That was a good year. During breaks, he travelled Cape Breton in a GMC camper van, showing up at the doors of veteran fiddlers like Winston Fitzgerald and members of the Stubbert clan.

Cranford lived nomadically with his fiddle and his van while ashore for eight years before renting his first house.

Back at the light, Cranford transcribed and began publishing books of traditional Scottish and Cape Breton music. He’s now working on his 12th book.

“By the time I got there, all the equipment was automated.

“So while out there, you’d monitor the radios, give weather updates, do maintenance on the house and generator, help some boats any way you could. It left a lot of time for the music, which was a wonderful thing.”

He met his wife a decade ago. She had been lured from her home in British Columbia by Cape Breton’s music as well. Now retired, she keeps a pottery studio and second-hand bookstore by their home looking over St. Anns Bay, and he continues to perform and publish music.

They spend whatever time they can travelling Cape Breton in their Airstream trailer.

“Oh, we like to go down to the beach and look at the water,” Cranford said.