Digest>Archives> June 2009

Whale Of A Prize

How a $4.00 Raffle Ticket Became A Week’s Vacation

By Susan Wider


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Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, California.
Photo by: Susan Wider

August 2005

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Close up view showing the jewel of the lighthouse ...
Photo by: Susan Wider

It’s my 75-year-old mother-in-law’s second visit from Scotland. We’ve already walked her all over the Las Vegas strip, had her on a salt bed 279 feet below sea level at Death Valley in 110 degree heat, whisked her through the Napa Valley, let her out of the car to see bears in Sequoia National Park where she promptly trotted off to get closer, and today we’re treating her to the winding drive down California Highway One. I’ve just settled in to absorb the ocean views when my husband Bill makes a right-hand turn and we’re off-schedule, only ten minutes into our morning drive. "I saw a sign for a lighthouse," he says.

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Students on a school outing visit California’s ...
Photo by: Susan Wider

We leave our car at the Point Cabrillo Light Station parking area and walk down Lighthouse Road. Downhill. This had better be worth it because I’m already imagining the long uphill trek on the return.

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The Whale Puzzle that the children who visit ...
Photo by: Susan Wider

We’re halfway there and I still haven’t seen a lighthouse, but I see the ocean and what looks like a construction area. Then I notice spectacular flowers in stately clumps. They have large pink blossoms on tall stems. Are there such things as wild amaryllis? I’m enchanted, and so distracted by the flowers that there’s suddenly a lighthouse ahead of me. It looks like a one-room schoolhouse with a big lantern on top. It has a sloping red roof with dormers, and white siding with café au lait trim on the windows and doors.

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The former keeper’s house at California’s Point ...
Photo by: Susan Wider

We spend a couple of hours doing everything you’re supposed to do. Visit the shop, look at the exhibits, walk to the edge of the cliffs, leave something in the donation jar, read about the plans to renovate all three lightkeepers’ residences. One will house the current lightkeeper, one will become an inn, and the third will be a museum. Ambitious plans, and as I sign the list to receive future mailings about the inn, I wonder if this can all really happen. I’ve spent many years as a fund raiser and my skeptical antenna go up.

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Photo by: Susan Wider

June 2007

How sweet. We received a postcard depicting a whale puzzle that’s imprinted A Whale of a Thank You From the Students at Point Cabrillo. The words "thakn you" and a child’s name are handwritten on the back in three wavy lines. We are being thanked for purchasing tickets in the annual Whale Festival Raffle that supports Point Cabrillo’s education programs. I vaguely remember doing this. We have been sending small donations ever since our visit. We liked the place. We liked their ambition. This little personalized postcard ups the warm fuzzies.

February 2008

Point Cabrillo is doing that raffle again. Their flyer tells me that $10.00 supports a visit for one student. Hard to argue with that. I decide to go all out and purchase the book of twelve tickets they sent for $50.00. I fill out six for me and six for Bill. Hey, maybe we’ll win a sweatshirt or a ball cap. I’m mostly just pleased that our ticket purchase helps five students take a school trip to the lighthouse.

April 2008

Go figure. No ball cap, no sweatshirt, no artist photo or whale-watching tour. Nope. Instead, we win the Grand Prize. Jim Kimbrell, Point Cabrillo’s lightkeeper and executive director called to tell me this. Our prize includes a two-night stay at the Lighthouse Inn (the restored 1909 Head Lightkeeper’s house) with gourmet breakfast, dinner for two at a local restaurant, passes for the nearby botanical gardens, and a private tour of the lighthouse. Roadtrip!

March 25, 2009

We decide to time our visit with California Gray Whale migration season. We drive from our home in Santa Fe with stops in Salt Lake, Reno, and Point Reyes National Seashore. Then it’s lighthouse arrival day and we twist our way up Highway One. This time, when Bill makes the turn for Point Cabrillo, I feel like crying, like it’s a homecoming. As Inn guests, we are allowed to drive down Lighthouse Road. I’m tense as I watch for my first glimpse of the lighthouse, and two things hit me: all traces of construction work are gone, and the lighthouse is even more beautiful than I remembered.

We park near a cluster of remarkable restorations that include the keepers’ houses, outbuildings, the oil house, even the blacksmith shop. The walkways, vegetable and flower gardens, birdfeeders, benches, and fences are invitingly integrated. We go inside the Inn and find a detailed restoration that can only be a labor of love. We meet Jim, the lightkeeper, innkeeper, and executive director of the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association. He’s tidying up the watch porch and turns us over to Marsha, one of several part-time staffers, as he sprints back to a board meeting. She gives us a tour and we head upstairs to our Lighthouse Room. Did the brochure describe blackout shades?

The room is beautiful. Coastal art hangs on the walls and the décor has a tasteful vintage look, but not overdone. Bill notices that even the shower tile and bathroom wall tiles are perfectly aligned. We look out our three windows at the headlands, the ocean, and the lighthouse. Any whales out there waiting for us? But first, showers (we’re fresh from two nights of tent camping at Point Reyes after all) and cocktail hour.

We meet a couple that was married here and they return every year for an anniversary visit. They are sipping their wine in the watch porch rockers. The little porch, with nearly two hundred panes of glass, is also outfitted with birding and lighthouse books, even binoculars. The parlor and dining room have that same vintage décor and more coastal art. We nibble and chat and suddenly Jim bounds in. I was never this energetic after a board meeting.

It’s still light, so we walk down to the lighthouse and start taking photos when Bill spots his first puff from a whale. We see at least a dozen more blows, and backs, and we even glimpse a fluke each.

March 26, 2009

Who wouldn’t sleep well here, with the sound of the sea and the slivers of light sweeping by every ten seconds, just catching the sides of those blackout shades?

We grab big mugs of coffee in the dining room at 7:30 and walk to the lighthouse where we find picnic tables snuggling the east wall, out of the wind. We sip our coffee and take in the cormorant, the Canada geese, the sun finally slipping through the clouds, and more poufs from whales - better than fireworks. Several dozen whales later, it’s time for breakfast. No kidding about the gourmet aspect. Fruit and yogurt, scones, smoothies, French toast, sausage, sorbet. And another visit from Jim. He gives new meaning to charismatic leadership, no wonder this entire operation feels so vibrant.

We take in more whales after breakfast and hike some trails on the property’s 270-acre nature preserve. Then we drive up the coast for fish and chips, followed by our afternoon at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, the West Coast’s only coastal botanical gardens. Their specialty is rhododendrons, and we see many in full bloom, along with wild Pacific iris, succulents, heather, and more daffodil variations than I could have ever invented. I even see my first chestnut-backed chickadee. A new bird for my life list, and whales, all in the same day.

At today’s cocktail hour we move up in the ranks, since the other couple left, and we bag the rockers on the watch porch for a long chat with Jim. He tells us about the big storm of 1960 when a wave broke over the top of the light. And he talks with such enthusiasm about every aspect of his job. Their volunteers number in the hundreds, their board is active and involved, their education programs are thriving, and they have built a strong sense of community here.

After a whale-free viewing period, we’re off to the Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg for dinner. The fund raiser in me marvels at the generosity of these local businesses that contribute raffle prizes. We have a wonderful dinner, beautiful salads, excellent fish, and a variety of vegetables. And the dessert we’ve always wished we could find after a big meal, a chocolate sampler of four mini desserts. Perfect. Now if they would just sell that chocolate shortbread online…

Today was already full of highlights, but there’s one more. Bill takes a flashlight and leads us down to the lighthouse. We experience the thrill of standing in the dark at the base of the tower as the light sails over us. We watch all four beams winging around and I feel like they’re cleansing me with every pass. I hate going to bed. As we walk back to the Inn, each sweep of the beam pulses our tall shadows ahead of us.

March 27, 2009

I’m awake around 5:00 am. I take my notebook and creep down to the watch porch. The beam keeps looping around and I see a tiny light bobbing near the base of the lighthouse, a jogger with a flashlight on his morning run. I want to live here and do that every morning, too. And volunteer for the school visits, and help out in the shop. I’ll even weed the gardens.

No whales with this morning’s coffee, but another wonderful breakfast. Jim strides in for a goodbye, straight from a meeting with a board member. I’m sad as we load the car, but we still have our lighthouse tour with Dan. There can be no better definition of a volunteer. He does the books for the gift shop, takes promo photos of the whole complex, and gives detailed, heartfelt tours. And during the tour, I have to multitask. I want to pay attention to Dan, but I can hardly keep my eyes off the class of children here on a field trip. They assemble a huge whale puzzle. They whale watch with raw enthusiasm. They learn about marine science and tide pool identification in the blacksmith shop turned aquarium. This is how learning should be.

After the tour, we do have to leave. We take one more walk to the cliffs for one last whale, but none obliges. We drive back up Lighthouse Road and I try to memorize the details of how it all looks and feels.

Note to self. Buy more raffle tickets next year.

Susan Wider is a writer and violinist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She likes to write stories for children, and magazine articles for adults. You will find her at SusanWider@msn.com

The Point Cabrillo Whale Festival Raffle Model

Purpose: Supports 70 % of annual education program’s $10,000 budget

Mailing list size: 1200 (includes donors, volunteers, inn guests)

Solicitation package: Letter from Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association president with prize list on the back, reply coupon, reply envelope

Ticket pricing: $10 each - 10 for $50 - 25 for $100

Number of children supported annually: 800 (grades 1-6)

Educational focus: topics vary by grade in coordination with local schools and range from tide pool identification to grey whale migration to restoration/environmental impact

100th Anniversary 2009 prize packages:

Grand Prize (1 awarded)

3-night stay for two at Lighthouse Inn, incl. breakfast; private lighthouse tour; dinner at Mendo Bistro, 2 tickets for Mendocino Theatre Company; 2 passes for Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

First Prize (1 awarded)

2-night stay at Lighthouse Inn incl. breakfast; private lighthouse tour; whale watching trip with lunch at Chapter and Moon Restaurant

Second Prize (2 awarded)

2-night stay at Lighthouse Inn incl. breakfast; private lighthouse tour

Third Prize (3 awarded)

1-night stay at Lighthouse Inn incl. breakfast; private lighthouse tour

This story appeared in the June 2009 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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