Life takes you to unexpected places through unexpected means.
Angel and I met Ken Campbell through Boldly Went in 2017, and he's told multiple stories at our events in Tacoma. We got together with him over beers a few months ago to talk about putting together a fundraiser for his water plastics nonprofit, The Ikkatsu Project, and he mentioned that their biggest project for the year was a beach clean up and water sampling trip to the Cape Decision Lighthouse in remote Alaska.
The scene went something like this:
Ken: "Yep, that's where most of the money will go. We're getting together a group of volunteers and trying to help cover their costs. There are still a few spots. We want to make it cheap. Hey! You two should go!"
Angel and I: Look at each other, take a swig of beer, and simultaneously say "We're in!"
A few months later, we found ourselves as far from civilization as we've ever been, flying via pond hopper from Ketchikan to the tiny village of Wrangell, AK, then getting on a chartered jet boat 75 miles into the wild to the lighthouse, on the Southwestern tip of Kuiu Island. The lighthouse is a tiny outpost of human industry on an island mostly inhabited by bears, wolves, deer and slugs, all of which is part of Tongass National Forest. It's the largest National Forest in the country at 17 million acres, which for perspective is about three times as large as Vermont.
We didn't know this until we got there, but the lighthouse story itself is pretty crazy. it's been there since 1932 and it's still one of Southeast Alaska's most important. Cruise ships and fishing boats roll by regularly headed through the Inside Passage. Since 1997 it's been maintained by volunteers through a nonprofit called the Point Decision Lighthouse Society.
If you're asking yourself why an important piece of public infrastructure is maintained by a private group of volunteers, apparently this is a pretty common setup. In the 1970s, when technology began to allow for the remote operation of lighthouse beacons, it became unnecessary to station permanent staff to keep the lights in operation, and many of the physical structures were placed on offer as "government surplus" to nonprofits that would commit to maintain them. After several decades of nominal maintenance by a nearby historical society, in 1997, The Cape Decision Lighthouse Society was formed to "purchase" the structure for $1 and took on the responsibility to maintain it. (A longer account of the story was written by The Anchorage Daily News in 2016, and it's a great article.)
Aside from making sure that the light keeps working, the Society can do pretty much whatever it wants with the structure. While just keeping up with basic maintenance is a herculean effort for a volunteer organization with a tiny budget, Chris Brooks, who's been a part of the project from the beginning, told us that their bigger vision is to make the lighthouse available for education, environmental research, recreation, history, community, and art. Chris lives near Ken in Tacoma, and that's how Ikkatsu ended up bringing groups to the lighthouse. For the last several years, they've been doing organized beach cleanup for a few weeks a summer, gathering data about both visible plastics and microplastics in the water around the property.
People who come to Cape Decision from year to year get the place in their blood. A big part of that is the environment itself. This is remote, wild Alaska. Whales are visible feeding out the front door, all day, every day. Kuiu Island houses one of the densest populations of Black Bear anywhere in the world, and is part of North America's largest intact temperate rainforest. It's old growth and rugged coast and otters and sea lions surfing. Visiting there gives you a chance to hike or paddle through real wilderness, yards from humpbacks. It's not an easy experience to replicate or encapsulate in words.
Another part of the magic is the nature of the project itself. Imagine buying a 1930s industrial operation, with big machinery and systems, and crumbling infrastructure, 75 usually rough sea miles from anywhere, and trying to keep it running with a group of buddies. The task is daunting, but also intoxicating for a certain type of personality. It's adventure industry for intrepid outdoorists who love hard work and engineering challenges - the kind of thing Patagonia Workwear should scramble to work into their branding. I've personally never been in an environment quite like it.
Our experience incorporated a lot of what the Lighthouse has to offer. During our week there, we spent a few days paddling with humpbacks and sea otters. We spent a few days cleaning up trash - collecting and weighing it for data. We smashed rock to improve trail, organized and cleaned the lighthouse, relaxed and read some books. watched whales spout while drinking beer on the lighthouse lawn. We ate good food with good people, tramped through the woods, did some tidepooling, slept in a tent, and created some art. The experience was a unique combination a retreat and a work camp and an adventure outing.
The primary purpose of our own trip was focused on plastics cleanup and research, and that part of the experience is something I'll remember. There's something shocking about being in such a remote area, digging into the dirt, and finding masses of styrofoam. 75 miles from anything resembling civilization, we picked up more than 200 pounds of plastics, mostly in small bits, and most of the beaches we cleaned had already been picked over either this year or last. It was the hands on experience of a problem that I knew about intellectually, but hadn't fully internalized.
Being there, you can't help but see the difficulty of the task. This is a giant piece of public infrastructure that was built with government funding in mind, rather than non-profit donations. A fire in 1989 destroyed a large part of the pier, leaving thousands of pounds of wood and steel hanging precariously, fifty feet in the air, in need of removal. Imagine trying to figure out how to solve that problem, on a remote island, with no money and a couple of your friends, and you get a sense of what the society is up against. In an aging historical structure, solving those types of problems will be the ongoing challenge.
But at the same time, work is getting done, and the mission is developing in intriguing ways. The week that I'm writing, a group of local kids are camping out at the lighthouse to work on trails to local beaches, Ikkatsu has a deepening relationship with the place through year to year studies of trash accumulation and water quality, and there are an ever growing body of volunteers who feel connected to the place and the project. A film is being made about the project for the festival circuit, and educators, environmentalists, scientists, photographers, engineers, and recreationalists were part of our group. The Cape Decision story is filtering out from the literal wilderness into the wider world in a variety of ways.
The project is remarkable. The lighthouse needs a lot of things - finances, PR, press, volunteer support, word of mouth, connections to people who might be interested. But the volunteer experience was a real work camp for adventurers, and there's a sense that the overall project is for the public good. It was an experience that was different than any other we've had, and we feel lucky to have been a part.
To donate, learn more, become a member, or contact the Society about involvement, go to their website on https://www.capedecisionlight.org/.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.