Keeping the light on at Five Finger Island

 

November 9, 2023

Olivia Rose / Petersburg Pilot

The Five Finger Lighthouse station stands on the north end of the southernmost island of The Five Fingers, a group of islands located about 37 miles northwest of Petersburg. It is a historical site that dates back to 1902 and presently serves as a beacon for tourism and science.

From atop the helicopter pad at Five Finger Lighthouse station, visitors experience a nearly unobstructed 360-degree vista of Alaska's Inside Passage. The air is rich with the scent of saltwater, the calls of the island's abundant birdlife, and echoes of humpback whales breathing and breaching in Stephens Passage throughout the summer feeding season.

A narrow path leads between the station's 120-year-old boat house and carpenter shop and gently traverses the less-than-three-acre island's green space.

Five Finger Island, the southernmost of a group of islands called The Five Fingers, is located about 37 miles northwest of Petersburg in Stephens Passage near Frederick Sound.

The island hosts a unique habitat featuring exceptional plant life, including mosses and flowers rarely seen on the mainland. The lighthouse and guided tours provide rare access to this distinctive ecosystem, offering visitors a glimpse into a world they would not find anywhere else. The absence of mammals on the island and the natural canopy of trees have shaped Five Finger Island's distinctive plant diversity.

The ecosystem is a nesting site for numerous bird species, including a multigenerational bald eagle nest.

Weather conditions permitting, solar panels provide power for the station.

The lighthouse keeper's quarters feature bunk beds that accommodated year-round U.S. Lighthouse Service keepers and later U.S. Coast Guard crews from 1902 until 1984. The names of the station's last 365-day Coast Guard crew are still painted in the "rock room" area that once served as the lighthouse's root cellar.

Three flights of cement stairs and a curving brass ladder ascend to the tower's summit where the Five Finger Light resides in the center of the glassy cupola.

Everything, except the navigational light itself, on Five Finger Island is meticulously maintained by a team of volunteers and members of the Five Finger Lighthouse Society (FFLS) - a Petersburg-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the site.

Once a vital maritime guide for navigating the treacherous waters over a century ago, the importance of the Five Finger Lighthouse (FFLH) has changed with the advent of modern navigational tools. However, its historical value and natural beauty have opened doors to different uses.

The FFLH accommodates a 24/7 weather station from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Marine Exchange AIS system for real-time ship tracking. Art groups have found inspiration on the island and it has become a base for whale researchers.

But the most prominent role the lighthouse serves is as a destination for tourists to explore both the island's rich history and the wildlife that calls it home - following generations of preservation, protection, and stewardship.

"A big part of being the keeper here is providing people who want to visit a positive experience," Paul Sharpe told the Pilot back in August, taking in the view from the helipad. He was nearing the end of his turn as lighthouse keeper, a volunteer role that maintains the FFLH and makes it possible for guests to visit.

Access to the land is difficult. There is no overnight moorage, and the weather must be calm to reach it by boat or plane, which protects the site but complicates visitation and restoration efforts when boating materials back and forth to Petersburg.

Sustaining this remarkable piece of wild Alaska hinges on the financial support of visitors, volunteers, donors, and grants.

Tourism has emerged as essential for the lighthouse's restoration and maintenance. Donation fees from lighthouse tours, limited overnight stays, and the gift shop are contributions that support the ongoing upkeep for this historic site.

Strong support from the Petersburg community and years of volunteer work have significantly restored this historical treasure, enhancing the visitor experience and continuing to kindle public interest in the Five Finger Lighthouse.

Petersburg resident and FFLS board member Jeff Erickson is the honorable "boat guy." Over the years, he has shuttled supplies between the island and Petersburg, dropping off lighthouse keepers for their extended volunteer stints.

Erickson told the Pilot he always wondered what it was like to experience an extended stay there.

In September, Erickson was finally the person dropped off at the Five Finger Lighthouse, where he stayed for ten days with an old friend who moved out of town.

He said he had waited for this trip for a long time.

"Getting dropped off was really fun to have that unknown, you know, excitement..." Erickson told the Pilot the day after he returned to Petersburg. "How am I going to feel when I leave?"

During that time, he enjoyed an epic storm with 40 knot winds for days.

"The stormy weather ... that was probably the funnest part."

The wind blowing through the trees, the roaring waves crashing onto the island's rocky shore, Erickson was hoping for a storm, and said the experience "was really super fantastic."

Otherwise, he spent time completing indoor maintenance projects like installing a long anticipated boiler heating system.

The original Five Finger Island Lighthouse Station, completed in 1902, is credited as Alaska's first lighthouse. But when its crew accidentally set the structure on fire while attempting to thaw its frozen pipes during a terrible storm in 1933, the original lighthouse burned to the ground.

A fireproof lighthouse made of reinforced concrete was constructed in its place by 1935 and the same structure still stands today, alongside the two original out buildings that survived the disaster.

This September storm was weathered by a structurally sound station and the brand new boiler room located beneath the lighthouse keeper's quarters kept the place "cozy and dry."

"My buddy thought, with the heat turned on, it's brought the soul back into the building," Erickson told the Pilot.

"I've been working a lot out there for over the five years plus that I've been involved, and it finally came to fruition that it's livable enough to be very comfortable," he said. "I guess it's a goal to make it open to more people to do that ... but it's like ... you're on Mother Nature's schedule."

Overall, Erickson winterized the site and shut it down for the winter, as usual.

"It was just so much fun," Erickson said enthusiastically. "We just hated to leave ... it was everything that I was hoping for."

He made plans for one last visit for the year in October using his fishing boat to haul away debris accumulated from the summer's cleanup projects.

When he did return, however, there was an unfortunate surprise.

In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed control of all lighthouses in the United States. Four-person USCG crews were stationed at the FFLH until its light was automated in 1984, marking the end of year-round manned lighthouses in Alaska.

The Juneau Lighthouse Association formed in 1997 to assist the USCG with maintaining the lighthouse and the island that houses it. Several years later, the USCG released responsibility for everything but the light itself and transferred ownership and care of the site to the association. The property was deeded to the nonprofit and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Today, responsibility for Five Finger Lighthouse belongs to the Petersburg-based Five Finger Lighthouse Society - which formed in 2019 to carry on the duties of the Juneau organization after it dissolved.

The Coast Guard continues to maintain ownership and care of the navigational light.

Everything else on the grounds is taken care of by Five Finger Lighthouse Society.

"It's out here in the elements, so there's always a process of maintaining it and improving it. When I first came here, it was in pretty bad shape," said Sharpe.

"There were barrels half-full of old fuel, rusty barrels and old trailers and parts, it was a mess," said Sharpe. "We didn't really get rid of junk until Petersburg people got involved ... "

Sharpe, who was JLA President back then, emphasized that Erickson was the first Petersburg-based person to express an interest in improving the FFLH site and played a pivotal role in bringing enthusiasm and local involvement to the preservation efforts.

"I think since people in Petersburg took an interest and took control, a lot of positive things have happened ... a lot of energy and time spent out here under the guidance of people in Juneau, then some of those people started to die off and kind of get burned out, and so we really needed fresh blood and energy," said Sharpe. "And it started with Jeff, and this sort of renewed vigor to come out here and to make a difference. And then Pat and John [Gans]... have done remarkable work and worked their tails off."

From meeting insurance safety standards, to volunteers repainting the lighthouse exterior, to clearing abandoned or aged material from the grounds, a tremendous amount of time and effort transformed the site over the years.

"But there's always stuff that can be done," said Sharpe. "I mean, another year or two, it's gonna have to get painted again, you know?"

October 10 was a beautiful day in Southeast, and an opportunity for Erickson to return to Five Finger Island.

"I just felt a need to go out and we were gonna check on how we did for winterizing the place ... but..." he reflected.

Upon reaching the island they discovered that during the two weeks since he had last been there, a dozen spruce trees had been cut down and left along the trail.

The mysterious incident sparked a law enforcement investigation as the FFLS attempted to find out who was responsible for the tree cutting and why.

Thomas Cumps, President of the Five Fingers Lighthouse Society Board of Directors, outlined the situation after finally finding answers.

"Apparently a boat operator had called the USCG and complained that the light was obstructed. A Coast Guard crew was dispatched to the island and twelve spruce trees were cut, in our opinion at random," he stated in a message to the Pilot on Oct. 27. "USCG stated afterwards to a FFL board member that they had outdated contact information and explained they tried to contact the wrong person without luck (but went ahead with the cutting anyway)."

The USCG attempted to contact Edd McIntosh and Jennifer Klein formerly of JLA, who had died years earlier.

Notably, the USCG has successfully contacted the FFLS in the past with other requests like tree cutting to improve helicopter safety, and the two parties have cooperated when action was necessitated.

Without contacting FFLS, the USCG assessed the situation and reportedly approved the clearing of every tree on the island in order to improve the arc of visibility for the light.

The USCG is responsible to maintain the light and its visibility; they are authorized towards this end.

FFLS told the Pilot that none of the twelve cut trees had obstructed light visibility, and the USCG had plans to potentially return to finish the job.

The lighthouse society contends that if tree coverage is further reduced for 360-degree visibility, the ability to showcase the remarkable island ecology, which is an integral part of the station's attractiveness to visitors, would be significantly compromised.

"The ecosystem of the island, with the eagles and their multi-generational nest, with several species of orchids growing along the trail and with many native plants and lichens, are part of the appeal to our members, our visitors, our donors, and enthusiasts," Cumps wrote in an initial letter to a USCG representative. "Without the public interest and support, as well as our immeasurable hours of dedication and free labor and drive, there would not be a structure sound enough to carry that light ... A barren island with a concrete building would ruin our mission, the ecosystem and make it unattractive."

After finding the felled trees, the board began communication with the USCG after a preliminary series of attempts. On Oct. 20, the FFLS board and USCG representatives discussed the incident over a video conference meeting.

Ultimately, Cumps said the USCG and FFLS are working out strategies to rectify the situation and move forward in a positive direction together.

"We received confirmation that they will put a pause on further cutting of any trees for now," he stated. "Any more cutting would disturb the habitat and ecosystem that has developed over the decennia at Five Finger Island. We are engaged in the initial stages of discussing the facts with them and are working on a way forward."

Cumps told the Pilot that the USCG gave them verbal assurance that they have halted the tree cutting, though noted there was no timeline established. "But we're hopeful ... We know nothing's going to happen unless we get notified. And then we can hopefully be part of the conversation there as well. If really, that is what it comes down to," he said.

Olivia Rose / Petersburg Pilot

In the glassy cupola, lighthouse keeper Paul Sharpe covers the light sensor to demonstrate the bulb's automated beacon when it becomes dark outside.

"So right now we're working with them," Erickson told the Pilot Oct. 27. "The trees have been cut, but we've got a solution that we think everybody's going to be happy with. It's going to take a little bit of time, but the Coast Guard is assuring us that they're not going to cut any more trees, unless they absolutely have to and ... they're gonna let us know that, if that's what they're going to do."

"We're just taking it one step at a time right now ... All options are on the table, and they're receptive of, you know, finding a solution that will work for both of us," Cumps told the Pilot.

He said the process is in the early stages and all positive.

"The Coast Guard was very thankful that we've been taking such good care of the lighthouse for them ... it's part of their history, and we're ... doing our due diligence to keep the lighthouse up and we're also incorporating the whole island into it," Erickson said. "They get it now... "

 

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