Written by Walter T. Ham IV
The Coast Guard and its predecessor services have played an instrumental role in the Arctic region since 1867 when the Revenue Cutter Lincoln first visited Alaska.
Built in 1902 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which became part of the Coast Guard in 1939, the Five Finger Islands Light once guided prospectors into southeast Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush and still welcomes mariners, tourists and scientists today.
In addition to guiding mariners, the lighthouse serves as a weather outpost for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Data Buoy Center and a marine safety sight for the Alaska Marine Exchange.
It was one of the first two light stations built in Alaska and was rebuilt in 1935 with an art deco design common among Alaska lighthouses.
Automated in 1984, the 68-foot-tall lighthouse towers over a group of five rocky islands that appear during low tide and look like a hand reaching into the Frederick Sound.
The light shines over the waters of southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, an area covered by the 17th Coast Guard District. The Juneau, Alaska-based Coast Guard command ensures the safety, security and stewardship of the waterways around Alaska.
In 2004, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark and the light station property was transferred to the non-profit Juneau Lighthouse Association, but the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) in Sitka, Alaska, still maintains the light.
“Located in the spectacularly scenic confluence waters of Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage, Five Finger Lighthouse was one of the two original lighthouses built in State of Alaska,” said Paul Sharpe, the Juneau Lighthouse Association Keeper. “It was the last lighthouse in Alaska to be manned full time by the United States Coast Guard.”
Sharpe first visited the lighthouse in the 1980s as a part of a crew shooting an ABC Sports television documentary about humpback whales. He lives in the lighthouse from late May through early September.
Whale researchers also use the unique location to conduct acoustic and behavior studies on humpback whales.
“This lighthouse is centered in an area of extreme biological productivity, supporting one of the largest summer feeding aggregations of humpback whales in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Sharpe. “Nearly 400 whales were actively feeding in western Frederick Sound last summer on a single day in mid-July.”
On a calm day when the humpback whales start breaching, it can sound like cannon fire in the distance.
A native of Cashmere, Washington, Sharpe said the lighthouse is a popular destination for cruise ships and recreational boaters. Approximately 325 tourists visited the island last summer.
Sharpe said the weather often changes rapidly in the turbulent waters around the Five Finger Islands.
“Being in a lighthouse offers the opportunity to see weather approaching as it creates the beautiful and sometimes ominous tapestry of black clouds and churning waters,” said Sharpe. “The most severe storms come during the winter months when the lighthouse is uninhabited. We are only aware of their force when we see the damage they have wrought when we return to the island in the spring.”
Petty 1st Class Matthew Dill, the operations petty officer for ANT Sitka, said the team is airlifted to the island quarterly to check the solar panels, batteries, lamp changers, emergency lights and daylight controls. The team occasionally spends the night at the remote lighthouse while the batteries are charging.
Dill said the lighthouse guides commercial and recreational vessels through the waters around southeast Alaska.
“In our area of operations, the fishing industry is vital for many peoples’ way of life and they depend on these aids to navigate safely,” said Dill. “The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system operates right through the middle of the area as well, as we have seen them passing by the lighthouses many times.”
In addition to buoys, beacons, sound signals, ranges and electronic aids, the light is among the 48,000 federal Aids to Navigation maintained by the Coast Guard that assist mariners determine their position, chart a safe course and steer clear of hazards.
ATON, like the Five Finger Islands Light, safely guide mariners around America’s last frontier. In addition to the light, Dill said the ANT maintains 107 other navigational aids from Skagway, Alaska, to the Canadian border.
Dill enjoys serving at the ANT and helping guide mariners safely through Alaska’s unpredictable waters.
“The best thing about working at the ATON team is that you get to do something different every day,” said Dill. “Sometimes you are out in the boat and sometimes you are getting to fly in a helicopter over the mountains and waterways of southeast Alaska.”