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Take a Tour of Coastal Lighthouses

07/22/2015 03:51PM ● By Jordan Venema

Follow the Light

August 2015
By Jordan Venema

The unknown works upon our imagination in strange ways. Our subconscious once filled the blank spaces of our maps with the images of our worst fears and hidden longings, of terrible beasts and cities of made of gold. Long ago we shed light on the darkest places and plumbed the deepest depths, but we found no El Dorados, no Leviathans. We’ve since filled those blank spaces with the neat lines of geography, but we are still pushed and pulled by the dark of night and the depth of the ocean – they are still home to our hidden terrors and hopes.

For all our technological advancements, these elements still remain powerful symbols, mysteries ever hanging on the horizon. Who hasn’t watched the sun dip beneath the perceivable western edge of the ocean without mixed feelings? We may sometimes like to dip our toes in the water or walk a stretch in the dark, but we never delve far into either without a lifesaver or a lantern.

Nowhere do these symbols of depth and dark play upon our emotions more powerfully than along the California coastline – especially along its rugged northern coast, where rocks and redwoods race toward ocean’s crashing waves. For centuries, these competing forces have collided, creating perilous promontories and deadly cliffs: deathtraps by night, but in the light of day their danger is belied by the beauty of sweeping coastlines and beguilingly calm waters.

In these places, too often and too late, ships have been lulled by false calm or poor vision. During dark nights, while pinching the surface of unfathomable depths, ships have found hidden rocks, which punctured hulls and took lives.

So from wood and concrete, we’ve built relatively fragile structures, mere dining table candles to stand sentry and signpost between the known and unknown. Like fortresses, lighthouses dot the border between land and sea, day and night. They cling to cliffs, marking the farthest visible extent of our continent, the very tips of our grasp upon land – like the fingernails of our civilization’s reach.

Predictable even in the most unpredictable environments, lighthouses represent calm amidst storm, safety in perilous places. The only way to fully appreciate their significance, perhaps, is from the deck of a windblown ship striving for shore. But those lanterns, whether seen from sea or sand, from danger or safety, seem to flash indifferently. Like metronomes, they beat regularly
regardless of history’s tune.

Though every lighthouse shares a general shape and symbolizes something similar to each sailor, they also possess their own personalities. Their beams don’t just illuminate the ebb and flow of the tides, but also the course and rhythm of their local histories.

The Northern California lighthouses illuminate the histories of the state’s three northernmost counties. In Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties, nine lighthouses were built roughly between 1850 and 1910. Some were built to protect ships that sailed the opium route between China and San Francisco; others were built to protect the ships that harbored close to the lumber mills throughout the coastal redwoods.

By following a dot-to-dot course from Crescent City to Point Arena, visitors can experience the different visual and historical perspectives provided by these coastal lanterns. As northern and southern bookends, St. George Reef and Point Arena lighthouses couldn’t offer starker contrasts. St. George Reef is an inhospitable five-story concrete tower that rises from the water like a submarine periscope, sitting atop a wave-washed rock six miles from shore. About 250 miles to the south, Point Arena Lighthouse shines from the relatively peaceful flat of a grass-covered bluff. Whereas St. George has been closed and abandoned since 1975, Point Arena is still active, and allows guests to rent the keeper’s quarters and assistants’ cottages.

Long before electricity, lighthouse keepers lived onsite, earning the nickname “wickies” for their continual trimming of lantern wicks. But with automated systems, and the aid of a Fresnel lens, a two-inch 200-watt bulb can project 14 miles out to sea. Lighthouse maintenance has become minimal, and “keepers” usually live offsite.

But not California’s northernmost active lighthouse – Battery Point has been a continuous live-in lighthouse since it was first built in 1856. The cape cod style lighthouse, essentially a livable home with a short lantern peaking from its roof, sits atop a small isthmus in the Crescent City harbor. Otherwise accessible by a sand bar, the isthmus becomes an island twice a day during high tide.

Volunteers, however, still live in Battery Point – for month-long periods – and provide tours of the living quarters. For the history alone, the tour is worth the $3 donation, but the view from the lantern is priceless: northward, the view of rocks jutting from the ocean, wrapped in fog, and the southward sweep of forested hills.

Farther south into Humboldt County is California’s very own “blank space on the map,” a secluded swath of coast as beautiful as it is isolated. The Lost Coast is home to California’s most westward curves and most untouched beaches. At its northern end, just south of Petrolia, at least eight ships sank between 1899 and 1907, the last of which claimed 87 lives.

In response to these wrecks, the Punta Gorda lighthouse was built. Known as the “Alcatraz of lighthouses,” Punta Gorda was considered an exile for lighthouse keepers, who lived self-sufficiently under the most extreme and unpredictable weather conditions. Unlike most lanterns built high atop bluffs and cliffs, this squat concrete structure rests at the foot of a sloping hill, as though bunkering against the elements. The rusted boilers of the St. Paul lie buried in the sand, around which sea lions regularly bark and play.

Deactivated since 1951, Punta Gorda is now a landmark for hikers along the Lost Coast Trail, within the Kings Range National Conservation Area, accessible only by a four-mile hike from the Matolle trailhead.

Farther south in Mendocino County is Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, as far different from Battery Point as from Punta Gorda. Walking along the bluff toward the point on which it rests, Point Cabrillo emerges from the fog like a white-steeple church, with a lantern for a cross. Punta Gorda is secluded by a four-mile hike, and Battery Point secluded by the rising tides, but Point Cabrillo seems secluded only by wide-open space. About 100 feet above the surf with nothing but gray, blue horizon to the west, Point Cabrillo paints a solitary figure, peaceful and quiet.

Here, like Point Arena, the keeper’s quarters and assistants’ cottages are available to rent, only 100 yards from the lantern. A row of Cypress trees serves as both windbreaker and screen from the light, but it’s almost not wanted. Walking along the bluff at night, the periodic beam illuminates the fog, revealing its layers and depth. In 10-second intervals, the light would flare and shine upon a grazing deer, casting its shadow against the fog. In the dark the waves sounded both deceptively far and dangerously near.

The lighthouse is also open to visitors who would walk the halfmile from the parking lot, and while the lantern isn’t regularly available for tours, the building doubles as a museum that is open from sunrise to sunset.

There are more lighthouses to be found throughout Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties – Battery Point, Punta Gorda and Point Cabrillo simply highlight the diversity of their design and the personalities of their unique landscape. But there is something symbolically unifying about these structures, how they rise above the ocean, as though to defy its depths, and how their lights pierce the night, as though to offer a destination in the dark.

But the ocean doesn’t need a lighthouse to illuminate its beauties and dangers, or a view from its lantern to suggest its immeasurable breadth. Similarly, we don’t need a symbolic or historic understanding of a lighthouse to appreciate its beauty and elegance, how it stands atop a cliff, lonely but secure over the expanse of water. These things aren’t necessary, but like the far reach of these lanterns, they shed a special light on our experience of the coast, offering a unique perspective and opportunity to see things that we otherwise might have missed.