North Stonington lighthouse keeper appears on National Geographic Channel
Brooks Kuhn can rebuild a diesel engine, install Sheetrock, remove dead rodents trapped in walls, and has a license to operate a 100-ton boat.
But what this 69-year-old North Stonington grandmother could not do was hide the black eye she had on the first day of filming a monthlong stay on Race Rock Lighthouse last August as part of the National Geographic Channel’s reality series “The Watch.”
“I tripped in the dark and hit my head on a radiator,” said Kuhn, who is one of four subjects in the show, which follows people who are living solitary lives. “I apologized. But they loved it.”
“The Watch” debuted April 9 and airs at 10 p.m. on Thursdays. The four-part series includes a rancher in Montana, a caretaker at an abandoned amusement park in West Virginia, a man who watches over a deserted mining town in Oklahoma, and Kuhn, who spent the month of August living in the lighthouse at the western edge of Fishers Island Sound.
The Custom House Maritime Museum in New London, which owns the 1871 lighthouse, agreed to let National Geographic film Kuhn in the unmanned granite building.
Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the museum, said last summer National Geographic approached her looking for permission to use Race Rock. She tried to steer them toward Ledge Light at the mouth of the Thames River, because landing a boat at Race Rock, which has been automated since the 1970s, is difficult. Tamulevich has only been to Race Rock with the Coast Guard.
The television crew wasn’t concerned.
“They just said, ‘We’re National Geographic,’” Tamulevich said.
The museum acquired the lighthouse in 2013 but has no funds to renovate it. Upon acquisition, the lighthouse had broken windows, peeling lead paint and was filled with pigeon droppings.
“It was a very bad scene in there,” she said.
But NatGeo sent Kuhn to school to become certified in lead paint remediation, and during her month on the rock she scraped and painted.
“What we got out of the deal ... was the whole place cleaned, windows replaced, painting begun,’’ Tamulevich said. “Behind the wall boards she (Kuhn) found two fireplaces. It’s unbelievably cool.”
During her stay on the lighthouse, which has no plumbing and no electricity, Kuhn also fixed windows, hung doors and built a hatchway. In the first episode and in promos for the show, Kuhn is seen climbing ladders, looking out windows at the boats going by, preparing for a storm and talking to her camera, which she calls Wilbur. There’s a lot to come on the series, but she said she can’t talk about any of it until the shows air.
“I call it the Race Rock Health and Fitness Center,” Kuhn said, because she lost 10 pounds during her stay. “I told Susan, it’s my rock now.”
During a recent interview at her home in North Stonington, where she lives in a 27-foot Winnebago, Kuhn recited a resume that included living on a sailboat and being the captain of a charter boat that provided tours from the Caribbean to New England; maintaining a dozen vacation villas in St. John; buying a cargo ship where she transported pallets of goods around the Caribbean; skippering the Quinnipiak, which was docked in New Haven; and taking care of apartment complexes in Englewood, Fla. She is also a nurse, graduating in 1976 in the last class of Joseph Lawrence School of Nursing in New London.
She and her daughter, Davi Kuhn, own and operate Ms. Maintenance, a home and boat repair business.
“It was like camping out,” she said of her adventure. She caught rain water in barrels to wash her clothes and cooked on an outdoor grill.
For two nights shortly after she first arrived, she said she heard sounds in the attic.
Kuhn, who is originally from Long Meadow, Mass., and spent summers as a child at Groton Long Point, looked at Race Rock from land and from boats her whole life. She returned to the area three years ago.
“I sailed by there many times,” she said.
Kuhn said National Geographic called her about participating in the show after she was recommended by fellow businesswoman Denise Mitchell-Dignan of Woodja furniture restoration and repair of Mystic.
Kuhn, who wrote a series of short stories called “A Housewife Goes to Sea” about her time in the Caribbean, thought the exposure might help her get the stories published. And she wanted to help out the museum. She plans to talk to groups about her stay on the lighthouse and raise awareness and funds for repairs.
“I loved the whole adventure of it,” she added.
Although she was unaware a “voice-over” was going to be used in the show explaining her every move, she said she is proud of what she accomplished.
“I did feel my age there,” she said, “but at almost 70, I can do anything.”
Tamulevich said she hopes the show will spotlight the lighthouse and her organization’s efforts to restore it and open it to visitors.
“It's a phenomenal way to jump-start our effort to preserve that lighthouse,” she said. “I think Brooks was admirable out there. She’s very good. She’s smart and she’s extremely capable.
“We got a lot out of it,’’ she added. “The net gain is huge for us.”
Thanks to Kuhn’s cleaning and restoration, the Maritime Society has identified specific projects to continue the restoration. It has applied to the U.S. Lighthouse Foundation for a grant to get masonry repaired in basement, she said.
“It’s a fantastic lighthouse; it’s thrilling we will be able to get people out there,” Tamulevich said.
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