Pilot story and photos by Susan Schell
Stephanie Peterson got a very unusual gift for Christmas last year. When she opened a small package from her husband, it contained a laminated advertisement cut from the newspaper for a trip by helicopter to the St. George Reef Lighthouse.
She was ecstatic. The long-time lighthouse enthusiast from Sonoma had visited most of the old beacons up and down the California coast; a helicopter trip to the "Queen of the California Lighthouses" was a dream come true.
"I was very lucky to be a recipient of this gift," she said.
"It was certainly a surprise."
Peterson's husband doesn't like to fly, but waited patiently at the Del Norte County Airport while his wife took the tour.
Irene Holt of McKinleyville had the same idea for her spouse.
"I gave him the gift for Christmas," she said.
"He's a crab fisherman and he's been looking forward to this for a long time."
After they visit "the rock," tourists are obviously quite impressed. Wayne Bricco, who took the tour earlier this month, said the trip inspired him to want to become involved in the lighthouse restoration project.
"It was great," he said.
"I've lived in Crescent City and have been looking at the lighthouse from shore for 37 years. I was here when it was decommissioned, so I had a great interest in seeing it up close and personal."
The trip was also a memorable experience for Peterson. She called the trip "an adventure of a lifetime."
During the March tour, dozens of visitors were taxied out to the rugged reef that supports the towering beacon. As the whirring staccato beat of the chopper blades whipped in the background, they stepped out onto the platform and found themselves completely surrounded by the sea.
Volunteers from the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society led their awe-struck guests through the damp halls of history.
Each leg of the tour was narrated by a separate society member. Educator and naturalist Susan Barrett Davis addressed the group as they stood looking over the water with the salt air blowing through their hair. Davis gave a brief history of why the lighthouse was built in such a precarious location.
"They originally considered building the lighthouse on land, at the very tip of Point St. George," Davis said.
"The problem was, the reef extends so far out from the point."
The decision was made to build the structure on the outermost island of the reef, warning boats to maneuver around the lighthouse and steer clear of the shore.
The group was led downstairs, into the belly of the brick platform that supports the tower. Davis said the platform took ten years to build; the tower took one year.
Jim McLaughlin showed tourists the basement. It is here that the starkness of the structure is felt the most. There is nothing feminine about the basement. The floor is wet and the air is damp. Old, out-of-use generators smell of rust and the sea.
As the group ascends the narrow staircase up the tower, Nadine Nicholson takes over duty in the kitchen. She explains that the dishes in the cabinet were left by the Coast Guard when it was decommissioned in the 70s. She paints a vivid picture of men sitting around a table in the days when people actually lived on this lonely island with only each other for company.
Her tone of voice is not one of foreboding, but a wistful remembrance of days gone by that she herself would have loved to experience.
She has a captive audience; the tourists that fly out to St. George are not your ordinary looky-loos who just happened to turn off the highway for a visit. These people are serious lighthouse lovers, chiming in with their own renditions of lighthouse lore.
"Every time there's a storm I wish I was out here," Nicholson said.
"It's peaceful out here. You get sort of an I'm not part of the world' feeling."
Terry McNamara showed the group the sleeping quarters. McNamara is a long-time volunteer who opened the shutters on the lighthouse after they had been nailed shut for years. He accomplished this by rappelling down the granite walls on a rope.
"There's light in here now," he said.
"This place used to be as dark as a tomb. We want to restore at least one room to Coast Guard standards. We'll leave one room in the traditional' style, exposing the original brickwork underneath."
The topmost room underneath the lantern room was the "watch keeper's" room. Naturally, he slept in the room closest to the lantern room. The floor is so worn down, the wooden beams are exposed. McNamara said it was damaged by rain water.
"The water did not get through the walls, it came down from the lantern room when the windows were shot out."
The former lantern room windows were shot out by passing boaters. The rain poured in the windows, ran down the stairs and caused severe damage.
Guy Towers, president of the lighthouse preservation society, led the last leg of the tour up into the lantern room. This is where the jackets come off; the heat from the sun in the tiny dome is intense.
Guy sings the praises of Glenn Williamson, the man who donated the money and effort needed to replace the lantern room lens. He donated the lens in memory of his wife, Colleen, who loved lighthouses. A memorial plaque in her honor hangs directly beneath the lens.
"The preservation society always had a dream of replacing the lens, but we didn't know how we were going to do it," Towers said.
"Glenn sped up the light process by about five years funding-wise."
Tours will be offered to the lighthouse through this weekend in conjunction with the Aleutian Goose Festival in Crescent City.
The preservation society is also continuing its memorial light program on an ongoing basis. The light shining from the St. George lighthouse can be dedicated to a loved one on any night of the year.
For information on trips and/or lighthouse dedications, call (707) 464-8299.