Digest>Archives> December 2000

Alaska’s Cape St. Elias Lighthouse

By O.W. Frost


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Alaska’s Cape St. Elias Lighthouse under ...

It’s secluded, historic, and placed in a wild, stunningly beautiful setting. Cape St. Elias Lighthouse is on uninhabited Kayak Island, 62 miles southeast of the nearest town, Cordova, Alaska. The island is 20 miles long and generally only 2 miles wide, but rainforest vegetation is so dense that hikers cannot cross it. The solitary island extends into the Gulf of Alaska, separated from the mainland by a channel 4 miles wide. At its southernmost seaward side is situated the lighthouse, automated since 1974.

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Cape St. Elias Lighthouse as it appears today.
Photo by: Toni Bocci

It is now a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1916, it sits on a steep slope adjacent to a two-story lightkeepers’ residence. Below it is a helicopter pad, boathouse, and research center. Today only the boathouse is habitable, with wood stove, water tank, propane oven, blankets, and bunks for as many as 10 paying visitors. It is maintained by the Cape St. Elias Lightkeepers’ Association, P.O. Box 1023, Cordova, Alaska 99574 (phone/fax 907-424-5182; Email: jbocci@alaskalighthouse.org).

Organized in 1997, the Association is dedicated to restoring and preserving the complex of buildings at Cape Elias. It has a 30-year lease with the U.S. Coast Guard. An individual membership in the Association is $35 the first year and $10 annually thereafter.

A few miles north of Cape Elias, small fixed-wing aircraft can land on the beach at low tide. A kayak or Zodiac can run ashore just east of the lighthouse. But any kind of transportation faces potential hazards, especially bad weather. The island has no harbor— only shoals, reefs, and strong sea currents.

It is also prone to earthquakes, having uplifted 10 feet in a single day during the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. Unfortunately one of four Coast Guard lightkeepers drowned in the tsunami that followed the quake.

Speaking of hazards, one should beware brown bears that freely roam island shores. Equally formidable are the Steller sea lions on reefs just a mile south of the lighthouse. These endangered mammals are as fierce as they look, and for their sake should not be approached any closer than 300 yards.

Only the adventurous and self-sufficient need apply to the Association for a stay at remote Cape Elias!

The island itself has a long history. Chugach Eskimos (who call themselves Alutiiq) had summer fish camps here from time immemorial. According to legend, their people are descended from a single couple who came to the island in a kayak from open sea. The fish camps were abandoned in the mid-19th century.

The first Europeans, on a Russian-sponsored expedition, first landed on the Northwest Coast of North America on Kayak Island, July 31, 1741. During 10 hours on this day Vitus Bering took on 35 barrels of fresh water while his naturalist, Georg Steller, noted about 150 plant species, of which he fully described 9 as “unknown or little known.” Among these were the salmonberry, devil’s club, and yellow skunk cabbage. Steller also saw there a jay later named for him.

Captain James Cook landed on the island 37 years later. He was looking for a sheltered bay in which to repair his ship. He found such a bay a few days later in Prince William Sound, farther to the west.

The last settlement was located on the north end of the island. It was abandoned in 1892 as a result of a smallpox epidemic. Its surviving Tlingit and Eyak Indian inhabitants moved to Yakutat, 115 miles to the east.

It’s no wonder that Bering, Cook, and Native Americans were drawn to the island from the sea. To the north from the Gulf of Alaska, Cape St. Elias is an unforgettable sight. A pyramid-shaped peak, 1,620 feet high, rises sharply behind the lighthouse. A half-mile spit to the south connects the peak and lighthouse to a picturesque pinnacle rock, 570 feet high, which Captain Cook compared to a “ruined castle.” In the background, on the continent, stands the perpetually snow-covered St. Elias Range. World-traveler and renowned anthropologist Frederica de Laguna, in her work, “Under Mount Saint Elias,” called this isolated coastal region the most beautiful in the world.

This story appeared in the December 2000 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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