Group restoring neglected lighthouse

  • Sun Apr 1st, 2012 9:40pm
  • News

By Shannon Haugland Sitka Daily Sentinel

SITKA, Alaska — Shortly after Karen Lucas submitted a proposal in 1997 to take over the Cape Decision Lighthouse and the surrounding land, she lay in bed asking herself, “What have you done?”

“Just realizing, oh my gosh, we’re going to have a lighthouse!” said Kari Fish, a co-founder of the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society.

But after overcoming a strong urge to give it back, Lucas said another thought came into her head that calmed her down, “Just go one step at a time, don’t worry about it.”

And that’s what they’ve done, by raising money slowly and steadily, and conducting annual work parties to get the historic lighthouse back into shape after more than 20 years of neglect.

The Cape Decision Lighthouse Society will hold its main fundraiser Saturday at ANB Hall. The event will feature a pig roast, dance — the Herring Hop — and dessert auction, with music provided by Slack Tide.

The event will raise money for ongoing remodeling and repair projects that are conducted during the summer by about 15 volunteers from Sitka and Tacoma.

This year’s project will be rehabilitating a bathroom, including installing a clawfoot tub and tiling. Lucas said furniture also is needed. Another project is planned for a beach cleanup from Cape Decision to Howard Cove, and Cape Decision to Port McArthur.

“We’ve been working steadily since 1997 to make it ready for the public to visit,” Lucas said. “We’re pretty much ready other than the furniture. The biggest hurdle is getting the word out.”

The lighthouse has electricity available 24 hours a day thanks to a wind generator and solar panels, a kitchen, hot water, bathroom and pool table, and enough space to accommodate eight to 10 people overnight.

The lighthouse is on the end of Kuiu Island, 82 miles south of Sitka by air, and even farther away by boat. Even so, supporters hope that the dramatic panoramic view of the ocean and surrounding islands will be enough to draw visitors.

“When you get out there you know it’s worth it,” Fish said. “This is something that should be accessible to everyone. It’s spectacular. … It’s a different world out there.”

Fish and Lucas have been friends from the days they fished out of Port Alexander, the village nearest to the lighthouse. The idea for taking over the lighthouse came from Lucas, who saw the notice in the Sentinel asking for proposals for “surplussing” the property, and talked to Fish about it. The lighthouse was one of a number in Alaska that were put up for adoption by non-profit preservation organizations after the U.S. Coast Guard fund installed automatic equipment to operate the light, and eliminated the need for an on-site crew.

“That was our old stomping grounds,” Lucas said of Port Alexander.

The conveyance of the lighthouse included the 214-acre “lighthouse reserve.” The lighthouse society has plans to develop some of the property near the lighthouse for camping. Other plans call for demolishing some structures that are beyond rehabilitation, such as the obsolete pier.

One long-term plan calls for building a concrete causeway with a tramway for small boats, similar to the one that used to be there.

The square lighthouse, dating from the early 1930s, has an art deco design like other Alaska lighthouses built in that period. The structure is 75 feet high, and its highest point is 96 feet above the ocean.

Access to the lighthouse on its rocky point is not easy, and getting there takes some work. The easiest route from Sitka is by taking the mail plane to Port Alexander and a boat across Chatham Strait to Cape Decision.

Another option is to take a private floatplane to Port McArthur, a sheltered cove on the inside of Kuiu Island, and hike the 4.5-mile trail to the lighthouse. The lighthouse society requests a $100 per night donation for up to 10 people.

The lighthouse has been unmanned since 1974 when a reliable diesel electric system replaced the lightkeeper. The navigational light is powered by a solar array and battery bank.