Reporting from Alaska!

Since Phase 1 of my internship is complete, I thought it’d be a good time to start posting on the CGP Class of 2011 Internship Blog!

I spent two weeks at the Cape Decision Lighthouse in southeast Alaska.  The Cape Decision Lighthouse was built as a Coast Guard station between 1929 and 1933.  It was an active station until 1974, when the light was automated and a Coast Guard station until the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society (CDLS) purchased it in 1997.  It’s still functioning today and is designated on the National Register of Historic Sites and as a 501c3.

The Cape Decision Lighthouse is on Kuiu Island and part of the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska

My main task there was to develop an interpretative plan for the lighthouse.  I spent a lot of time just exploring, talking to the other volunteers, reading old log books, examining the structure, analyzing old floor plans, and gaining a sense of familiarity with the site.  (Unfortunately the government burned the pre-1974 log books, essentially destroying the historic record, and the remaining ones mostly discuss frequent problems with maintaining the Onan generator.  One entry told a story of a black bear who kept visiting the lighthouse, and the Coast Guard members stationed there finally scared him away by feeding him a peanut butter sandwich filled with jalapeno peppers!)

Cape Decision Lighthouse

After reading through other interpretative reports, collaborating with another CDLS volunteer, and talking to other CGP students, I came up with an outline for my own that essentially focuses on the conflicts with interpreting the site.  It’s a multi-purpose, multi-use historic site, functional lighthouse, storage space, living space for volunteers, weather station, education center, natural wildlife preserve, and rainforest in an area that’s about as remote as you can get.  Access is difficult, to say the least.  My report will discuss both the interpretative possibilities of individual spaces within the lighthouse, such as an exhibit panel on the light itself, and the broader themes of maritime history, lighthouse history, preservation, conservation, technology, and changing uses of the space.  I also have an appendix filled with information about the original and changed features of the lighthouse and the surrounding land.

Cape Decision Lighthouse aerial view, from

When not researching my report, I helped the other volunteers attempt to recreate the historic Port MacArthur Trail.  The trail was established in the 1930s with the construction of the lighthouse but abandoned by 1955, and we had two maps showing different routes for the trail.  We needed to rebuild it so a group of future volunteers could land in Port MacArthur to the northeast and hike the trail to access the lighthouse.  The Cape Decision Reserve is directly south of the Tongass National Forest, which is a rainforest including old growth vegetation, so the old trail was extremely grown over and impossible to recreate.  The high parts of the Reserve are muskeg (Alaskan bog) and so hold water and regrow quickly.  Attempt 1 took 7 hours, Attempt 2 was 8 hours, and I declined to participate in Attempt 3, which took 11 hours but finally successful.

I also helped with other volunteer projects throughout the lighthouse.  We scraped, sanded, scrubbed, and repainted the entire galley and vestibule, a huge undertaking for five volunteers in less than two weeks.  There was mold on the ceiling (surprisingly enough, lighthouses are always damp, ha!) covering layers and layers of old lead paint.  My last day there we started on one of the bedrooms and enjoyed our last meal in the new galley with heat from the new woodstove!

The galley prior to rehabilitation. Note the mold (particularly the dark patches on the ceiling), the turquoise of the far wall in the former Radio Room, the flaking paint, and the Xtratuf boots!

Rehabilitated vestibule and California Cooler. The cooler was a ventilation system commonly used to cool and protect food that began in California Arts and Crafts Bungalows of the early 1900s. Note the bright yellow paint on the walls, the red paint highlighting the fire extinguisher, and the gray trim and circle around the latch on the cooler. Both the red and gray paint features are found throughout the lighthouse.

Living in southeast Alaska is amazing!  I’ve seen humpbacked whales, grey whales, sea lions, otters, bald eagles, wolf tracks, bear tracks, and more kinds of fish than I ever knew existed!  As I type this, I can see snow-capped mountains through the window.  Next stop: back to Port Alexander, the “true Alaskan frontier,” to work at their historical society for the next seven weeks.

Ling cod!

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2 Responses to Reporting from Alaska!

  1. Gretchen Sorin says:

    Now that’s a big fish!

  2. Johanna says:

    I hope you ate that ling cod! They’re delicious. Also, you may have come across the artist Ray Troll or his work… Check this out.

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