Digest>Archives> April 2005

Water for Cape Sarichef

By James W. Baker


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Chief Harry Strother amid driftwood on the beach ...

Most people never question where lighthouse crews got their water. In urban areas it presented no problem – they tapped into city water mains. On rocky shores far from civilization, or on islands, water may have been a precious commodity.

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The author takes a cool drink at the dam.

Some lighthouses collected rainwater from cement pads or runoff from buildings and stored it in cisterns. In many areas, streams or rivers provided water while in other places it was brought in by buoy tenders and pumped ashore. Some had their own wells.

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The author never figured how the 1904 Cape ...

When I think back a half century, I recall standing on a bluff overlooking the living quarters for the crew of the original 1904 Cape Sarichef Light on Alaska’s Unimak Island. The buildings lie tight against the base of a steep hill with a black sand beach extending out to the Bering Sea. A water tank stood on a shelf carved from the terrain above the station. A water tank yes, but where did they get the water?

During my tour at Cape Sarichef in 1954-55 we drew water from a dammed up spring seventy yards above the beach, two miles east of the station. Did the early lighthouse keepers use the same source? How did they get water to the station in 1904? Did they have a two-mile pipe? If so, what kind of pump did they use – gasoline, steam, or hand operated? Or did they have a concrete catch basin to funnel rainwater into the tanks? I’m curious but I’m sure I’ll never know.

Along with the new loran station and lighthouse built in 1950 atop the bluff above the original lighthouse, construction crews erected a large water tank. Every few weeks crewmembers pumped water from the spring to refill the 50,000-gallon reservoir.

On June 18, 1954 our commanding officer decided it was time to muck silt from behind the dam. We drained it first, then laid two-by-six wooden planks across the mud and began using a wheelbarrow to move the sodden earth. I stepped off the board once and sank below my ankle. Even no deeper than that, I had a hard time pulling loose, and a harder time retrieving my shoe. Very quickly our planks began sinking along with the wheelbarrow and our enthusiasm.

With no wind blowing into the ravine, the heat built until several of us removed our sweat-soaked shirts. (The high for the year was 54 degrees.) Eventually the drain clogged and water began rising so we gave up for the day. I never knew how Harry Strother, our chief engineer, cleared the mud from the sluice valve.

We needed water year around and winter presented another problem. One day Chief Strother cranked the pump at the dam to refill the water tank. He soon found in spite of the straining engine no water moved through the pipe. I’m sure we weren’t in dire need but I still worried “what if.” If it’s frozen, how long will it take to thaw? What if it’s broken deep underground?

Strother figured the line had frozen in a low spot where it couldn’t drain, so he called for a portable electric welder from the station. He directed us to the bottom of a ravine where he suspected the problem lay. We dragged the ground cable 50 feet up one slope, and the electrode wire 50 feet in the other direction and dug down to the pipe. The welder was usually cantankerous, so we attached the cables to the pipe and crossed our fingers. Between congealed oil in the crankcase and a cold battery, the starter barely turned the engine. On our second try a couple of cylinders began firing then the others cut in. In a few minutes water began flowing.

All the time we worked, Strother had a rifleman standing on the pickup watching for bears – in the midst of the winter – their hibernation season. (See “The Unimak Bear of Cape Sarichef,” Lighthouse Digest, October 2003) If we’d had polar bears, Strother wouldn’t have ventured out without a squad of riflemen – nor would I.

We were lucky to have an abundant supply of fresh water in such an isolated place. Now hot water for showers on cold, windswept days – that was another issue.

Near the end of my one-year tour I began packing my gear,

getting ready for the big day.

Finally on Tuesday, February 8, Don Nigh and I loaded our belongings in one of the station Weasels and headed for the airstrip at Sennett Point. We were going home! Fortunately for us, Emmett Thompson, our cook, sent several days worth of groceries with us. Thompson’s hunch turned out to be right – the Coast Guard flight from Kodiak was grounded due to bad weather.

Rather than fight our way 12 miles back across the snow-filled pass to Cape Sarichef, we opted to spend the night at Sennett Point, semi-confident we’d leave the next day. Little did we know our stay would stretch into three nights. Facilities at the airstrip included a galvanized tin building with no insulation, consisting of a small galley, a bunkroom and cubicle with a generator. We dragged a double – decker bunk into the galley near the cook stove – the only source of heat. Fortunately we had running water – a small stream thirty yards behind the building.

On our second morning I took our water pail to the creek and found a thick layer of ice. The stream flowed strongly beneath the frozen surface, but it took several tries to stomp an opening to fill my pail with beautiful clear water. When I returned to the building, I lifted the pail to a shelf above the stove and began removing my mittens. Nigh looked in the bucket and snarled up his lip. “What kind of crud have you got in there,” he asked.

I looked, and in amazement watched the water turn to slush, still rotating in the bucket, freezing before our eyes.

The next day we boarded a Coast Guard aircraft for the next leg of our journey back to the lower 48.

This story appeared in the April 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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