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Saving Cape Decision: The quest to rescue an iconic Alaska lighthouse

  • Author: Amanda Compton
  • Updated: September 26, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2016

The Cape Decision Lighthouse sits on the southernmost point of Kuiu Island. Congress funded the lighthouse in 1929, and construction was completed in 1932. (Ariel Rolfe)

KUIU ISLAND — The Cape Decision Lighthouse is like a challenging female romantic interest. Alluring and statuesque, but difficult to access, even with the right key. That's something nearly two dozen Alaskans found out in July.

Watch that first step

The skipper cussed on the ship's stern. With each uprising ocean swell, the vessel smashed into the cliffside below the condemned pier of the lighthouse.

It was the first day of an annual two-week work party at the Cape Decision Lighthouse on southern Kuiu Island, just inland of Baranof Island and west of Prince of Wales. The event is hosted by the nonprofit Cape Decision Lighthouse Society, which chartered the boat from Wrangell to transport the 10 volunteers and gear. The passengers watched anxiously, unclear if they would be able to disembark.

Tangles of kelp had caused the ship's engine to shut down. A few men braced on the bow, swinging an anchor toward a barnacle-encrusted ladder, bolted into the rocks, hoping to snag a rung. They missed again and again. Full gas cans, chainsaws and flats of canned corned beef were shoved off the stern and into the boat's interior to access the clogged engine. Rain slopped down.

The boat was full of panic and micromanaging as the passengers struggled to be useful. Anticipation soared. Should the agitated skipper remove the pulverized kelp and should the anchor catch, this would be the best-case scenario.

Usually vessels shuttling people and supplies to this lighthouse — one of the 16 originally built Alaska — head to more protective landings up to 5 miles north. But then, thousands of pounds of food and equipment have to be hand-carried; the process often takes the first few days of the summer trip.

But the anchor stuck; the boat pulled close to the cliffside. With each upswell, a few loads of cargo were heaved hand to hand along a string of a few people, stationed at intervals along the ladder to the rocks above. One of these people was Andrew Washburn, treasurer and self-named "treasure" of the society's board. He's a historian at heart, but also a comic, and for maximum-thrust strength, he performed alarming cartoonish grunts, high-volume bird-rankling shrieks.

With its engine cleared of kelp, the boat returned to Wrangell.

The next three hours were spent shuttling cargo 400 yards to the lighthouse on a route dominated by slick rocks, too sharp for solid footing. People fell, tore pants, slogged through the knee-deep mud beyond the rocks, across a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pad. Yet the group maintained high spirits, humbled at their home for the next week.

Humpback whale activity abounds off the coast of Kuiu Island where the Cape Decision Lighthouse is located. (Andrew Washburn)

Last lighthouse built in Alaska

Since the early 1930s, the Cape Decision Lighthouse has owned the cliffs of the southernmost point of Kuiu Island. It was named by Capt. George Vancouver in 1793. The area was a critical passage to calmer waters of the Inside Passage. Vessel size increased in the cape's vicinity through the 1800s and early 1900s, along with exploration and commercial fishing traffic. That meant more shipwrecks, including the infamous Star of Bengal disaster when a nearly 1,700-ton vessel full of canned salmon, machinery and 137 passengers, most of whom were Chinese cannery workers, hit the rocks and broke into three pieces. All but 25 died at sea in the 1908 wreck, the third most fatal marine disaster in Alaska history.

Congress funded the Cape Decision Lighthouse in 1929 and construction was completed in 1932, the last lighthouse built on Alaska's coastline. In addition to the light tower, the facility included living quarters, a galley, a pier to a boathouse and a water-collection system made from creosote and metal-wrapped redwood pipes. It was manned year round by four or five Coast Guard watchmen until 1974.

Ethan Pettigrew grew up in the nearby town of Wrangell, where his mother, an Unangax Native from Atka Island on the Aleutian chain, was placed in an internment camp during World War II. Pettigrew spent his summers with his dad, fishing the waters around nearby Coronation Island, just south of Kuiu, through the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Cape Decision Lighthouse sits on the southernmost point of Kuiu Island. (Joe Wilson)

"I love Cape Decision," Pettigrew said. "Every time we'd go by, I'd sit on the deck and watch, thinking I'd love to be one of the watchmen. It's so isolated and beautiful. It's also kind of scary, because Coronation (5.5 miles from Kuiu) is where the Kooshdakhaa live. Land otter man. He's a demon, steals your soul. He's supposed to reside on the Coronation Island."

The lighthouse, albeit more of a temptress than a demon, stole the heart of Karen Lucas, too. Full-time watchmen became obsolete after an automated light system was installed in the mid-1970s. The Coast Guard asked nonprofit preservation organizations to provide stewardship over the facility and 214-acre preserve. In 1979, the Port Alexander Historical Society, founded by Lucas, officially claimed ownership of the lighthouse.

The structure was in disrepair after sitting vacant and unmaintained for more than 25 years. Lucas worked furiously, writing grants and raising money for restoration efforts.

"It occurred to me a bake sale was not going to fund the historic preservation of the site," she said.

Instead, she decided a "multigenerational" effort centered around a nonprofit was needed, so Lucas started the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society.

The McIntosh Foundation stepped up with up to $15,000 in annual supporting grants and provided additional fundraisers. Assistance also came from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Ocean Foundation and the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. Some of those funds will be used to rebuild that damaged pier.

The work was started in 1997 and was executed incrementally, mostly during annual summer work parties.

Cape Decision volunteer Carolyn Pritchett paints window trim with Coronation Island in the distance. (Ariel Rolfe)

Changing of the guard

Lucas resigned from the board last year to refocus her efforts on the Port Alexander Historical Society museum, her first baby. With the exception of two members, including the president, Chris Brooks, the board completely turned over with her departure.

The night before the boat trip out to this year's work party, Brooks sat in a Wrangell bar. His first trip to the Cape Decision lighthouse was in 1997, as a group leader with Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, or SAGA. He joined the board the following year. Also in the bar was Andrew "Treasure" Washburn, who works for the Alaska State Museum. He first visited the lighthouse in 2005 and joined the board last year.

"I'm the crank technocrat that comes in to take over and formalize (stuff) from the charismatic leader," Washburn said.

They were joined by Scott Higgins of Tacoma, a visitor to the lighthouse for a decade but new to the board this year, and Higgins' wife Rhonda, on her second visit. Between games of shuffleboard and punching at a modern jukebox they discussed the goals and purpose of the lighthouse, and whether those should evolve.

Cape Decision Lighthouse Society board member Andrew Washburn works on a maintenance project at this year’s work party. Coronation Island and the Spanish Islands are in the distance. (Amanda Compton)

"Part of the founding ideas was to involve people from small local communities," Brooks explained. "They were depressed from the fishing industry; the heyday was over."

He said Lucas was on point in her belief that getting people to care about preserving the facility is its best insurance.

"We have to have a mission and objectives that speak to a larger volume and breadth of people," Washburn said. "Kayak trips, artist retreats, a remote research station, educational programs from grade schools to wolf research … There are wolves out (the) wazoo there."

Over the course of the first week of the work party, some viable options for increased exposure and possible commercial endeavors were proposed. Cruise ships large and small pass the lighthouse with passengers every day, passengers that might pay for a tour, an overnight stay, guided nature walks in forests that host abundant black bear populations, wolves and deer. The lighthouse could be one of several stops on a historical and cultural tour around the region. But it might be a tough sell if it includes schlepping gear over cliffs.

"I was talking to a person who operates 12-person luxury cruises," Washburn said. "He loved everything about it but the lack of a dock. That soured the idea."

While a dock is beyond the reach of the budget, less expensive measures could improve access. There's a large fire-damaged pier that extends from the lighthouse. Once rebuilt, a hoist could be installed to lift cargo from a boat below. But it's a classic horse-and-cart conundrum. If the organization wants to host visitors and activities, they first need to improve the logistics of arrival. But the revenue from visitors would help fund the construction of a better landing. Brooks said if he had $100,000 he would spend three-quarters of it on the horse: infrastructure projects, like accessibility, the water system and trail work; and the remainder on getting the word out that they are open for business.

The group agreed that economic opportunities would blossom if they could share the lighthouse with more people.

"Cape Decision is remote but it's also right here," said Washburn, pointing to his heart. "It's the connection I'm making with people there. I want to keep that connection kindled the rest of the year. That, to me, is how you expand."

The Cape Decision Lighthouse was the first place Washburn ever visited in Alaska.

"A day and a half after leaving Seattle I was dropped off at the lighthouse forever — (at least) it felt like forever was possible."

The lighthouse was originally built to provide light, but navigational aids don't need a house anymore. Lights operate with solar energy and the Coast Guard can complete maintenance trips in a few hours when necessary, with use of the facility's helicopter pad. The lighthouse now serves a different purpose, one the new board is trying to define.

A volunteer works on rigging on the rain deck of the Cape Decision Lighthouse in August of 2016. (Joe Wilson)

"We're there to help people come see the facility … to see and enjoy what's there and the history," Higgins said. "To go out there and be in that building and try and imagine what it was like to construct that in 1932 blows your mind. Just trying to do something now with all the technology we have is hard. Those people built America."

"Well, they also had the full might of the government behind them," Washburn pointed out.

"And they had 400 percent of our budget," Brooks added.

Lighthouse living

The Cape Decision Lighthouse leaves some visitors with awe. Kuiu Island tapers sharply to its southernmost point, so ocean nearly surrounds the structure. Whale activity is so high visitors stopped pointing after the first day. One woman counted a single whale breaching 57 times as it traveled down the island's east coast, around the island tip and back up the west side. She quit counting to head in for lunch. With mild bushwhacking through huckleberries and over rich mushroom-foraging terrain, visitors can walk to secluded coves.

The main floor of the building has four dorm-style bedrooms, a bathroom with a sometimes-functioning toilet and shower, a comfortable kitchen with a six-burner propane stove, a living and dining area with a barrel-shaped wood stove and a huge shop.

Volunteers take a cookie break in the galley during the 2016 Cape Decision Lighthouse work party on Kuiu Island.(Amanda Compton)

Below the main floor is an old coal-storage room, which now houses a pool table and darts, a paint room (there is always something to paint), tent room, saw shop and the water collection cistern.

A claw-footed cast-iron bathtub sits below a large solar panel array on a patch of lawn on the south side of the building. There, bathers can watch sunsets, baby whales and sea lions, or wave to passing cruise ships. Up from the main floor is the narrowing neck of the cupola, with landings large enough to offer more sleeping space. A series of steep staircases terminate in the polygonal crown, the beating pulse of spinning incandescent light.

The inevitable camaraderie that develops through sheer hard work permeates the atmosphere. On the first day of the work party, Washburn nailed up a large whiteboard to a wall in the living area. Tasks like "scrape windows" and "rebuild trail" were labeled priorities. "Clean compost toilet" and "mouse turd detail" went under a "not so fun tasks" heading.

"Drink coffee and supervise from table" was a rotating chore.

There were no rules, just goals. Like to pick up large rocks? Build the trail. Maybe you prefer to solder the hot water piping or run a chainsaw through battered driftwood.

Volunteers arriving at this summer’s Cape Decision Lighthouse work party heft gear and supplies from a boat to the cliff side below the lighthouse on southern Kuiu Island. (Amanda Compton)

No one fought. No egos competed. No one shunned an opportunity to learn something new. It was a self-selecting group of people who make physical work fun.

"All this work, for this one common goal to keep the lighthouse hospitable and functioning, it's meditative to be that focused on something without a million distractions," said Ariel Rolfe, a new board member. "Everyone's on the same page."

Rolfe joined the lighthouse board after volunteering last summer, and persuaded her mother Barbara Rolfe, a retired Juneau accountant, and aunt Dianne Wilson, an emergency room nurse from Oregon, to join her this summer.

"You have to depend on yourself and other people to provide for your everyday needs," Wilson said.

"We've turned something that seems impossible into something that is possible because of the enthusiasm and dedication of the people that come out here," Brooks said.

"We came very close to meeting all of the unrealistic goals we had for this week," said Washburn.

Brooks, Washburn, Scott and Rhonda Higgins remained at the lighthouse for a second week, when the rest of the group swapped out with some fresh blood. The whiteboard assisted in the transition but the task lists are unlikely to be finished soon.

"Lighthouse work will never end," Brooks stated. "It was built to have five full-time people there maintaining it. At some point we'll have to say 'we're there.' And I think we're there."

For more information on the Cape Decision Lighthouse, including how to volunteer or become a member, visit capedecisionlight.org.

Amanda Compton is a freelance writer based in Juneau.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided the wrong weight of the Star of Bengal vessel that sank in the Inside Passage. It weighed about 1,700 tons, according to Wikimedia Commons.  

Volunteer Dianne Wilson paints window trim outside the Cape Decision Lighthouse during the annual work party. (Ariel Rolfe)

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