Digest>Archives> March 1996

The Lighthouse People


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The Lighthouse People

They've trudged down many a trail, high winds blowing, slogged through sand carrying camera bags in hundred degree temperatures, with bugs biting, Nikons slung around their necks. They've waded knee deep on a trail flooded with water from the Hudson River. They've gone out on the water in sports boats, crabber's boats, lobstermen's boats, rowboats. They don't know how many ferries that they have taken. They lost count long ago. They've flown in twin engine planes, single engine, and seaplanes. They've climbed over boulders, hung from tree branches over a cliff and rolled in a mud puddle under a fence.

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The Shanklins agree that the most fun seaplane ...

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The Lighthouse People

Why? To photograph a lighthouse.

On their wedding trip almost nine years ago, Bob & Sandra Shanklin traveled to New England, and among other things, photographed a few lighthouses. The first one was picturesque Portland Head Lighthouse. It was love at first sight. They started searching for more lighthouses that very day. At an age when most people are thinking of retiring, the Shanklins started a whole new and exciting project.

Bob contends that lighthouses are a virus with no known cure, and at that very first lighthouse, the bug bit both of them. Since then the couple have traveled over all the coasts of the United States looking for lighthouses.

The Shanklins call themselves "the Lighthouse People", and they feel they have earned the title. Five years ago the Associated Press did a story on them. The story was printed in newspapers all over the United States. At that time they had photographed around 200 lighthouses and so, had only a good start on their project.

Whenever they were in an area, looking for a lighthouse or trying to find transportation to a lighthouse, someone would come up and say, "Aren't you the Lighthouse People?"

The Lighthouse People are photographers Bob and Sandra Shanklin. After that first trip to New England, it became a goal, a cause, an obsession to photograph all the lighthouses in the U.S.

In their calculations, there are about 670 lighthouse in the U.S., some of them major, some minor. They have photographed them all, except nine in Hawaii and thirteen in Alaska and wonder if they will ever get to those places.

The Shanklins have had wonderful adventures on their quest. According to Sandra, "They almost always are in beautiful places, and there's always good seafood near a lighthouse."

Some lighthouses are like their first lighthouse, Portland Head Light, easy to reach. You can drive right up and view or touch them. Many others take a special effort just to view, like their last one, Ship Shoal, Louisiana. Ship Shoal is over 10 miles off the Louisiana Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico. The Shanklins had to charter a seaplane to take them there and to the six lighthouses at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The plane ride to Ship Shoal was the most miserable plane ride Sandra had ever taken. Louisiana had a cold front come through, with record cold temperatures for December. The plane was not heated. The pilot said his planes almost never need heat. The sun was shining but the wind was blowing, the flight was rough. Sandra got airsick and stayed airsick for the whole three hour flight. She was barely able to lift her camera to take the shots. She had so looked forward to seeing the last one, Ship Shoal. She was able only to shoot two shots. After that she was too sick to take more photos, or even to care.

The Shanklins agree that the most fun seaplane ride they took in search of a lighthouse was from Key West out to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. The plane skimmed over the water most of the way. They could see fish, turtles and shipwrecks in the clear waters around the Keys. After the couple photographed the lighthouse on the Fort, the Coast Guard transported them in an inflatable boat to Loggerhead Key, where another lighthouse stands. A large, old, grizzled Labrador Retriever named Wally greeted them. He had been brought to Loggerhead as a pup, and had lived there all his life. The coastguardsmen and the local fishermen called Loggerhead Key, "Wally World."

Their most adventurous trip was to the lighthouse on the Farallon Islands, 20 miles off the coast of California. First of all, they were told they would never set foot on the Farallons, only botanists, biologists, and the Coastie's who maintained the light were allowed there. Sandra says telling her they can't go to a lighthouse is like waving a red flag at her. She kept making phone calls and writing letters, until, a year later, the couple was allowed to go out with the Farallon Patrol, volunteers who take supplies to the scientists.

The lighthouse is on the highest peak of the Island which is basically a mountain sticking up out of the Pacific. There is no place to dock. Bob, especially, wondered how their party would get ashore.

First of all, everyone was transferred from the trawler they took from Sausalito, to a nine foot Boston Whaler. Just three people at a time would fit in the Whaler. With the boats pitching in the ocean, going from the trawler to the Whaler was not an easy task. Then, to the Shanklin's surprise, as they got near the cliff, a ring buoy called a Billy Pugh was lowered down to them, and just a few at a time, the group had to put their gear on the netting of the ring buoy and jump onto it, timing the jump as the boat raised on an ocean swell and came up to the Billy Pugh. The ring buoy or Billy Pugh was raised up by the crew of scientists ashore and swung with a derrick to the top of the cliff, where a botanist was waiting to escort the party. The scientist told the party precisely where to place each footstep so as not to crush a rare plant or the nest of a burrowing bird. It was an exacting climb up the path to the lighthouse at the top. Adding to the adventure, everything was covered with bird guano, including the path and the metal handrail beside it.

Getting back off the Island was even tougher, as a storm was moving in, the Pacific swells higher, the wind blowing the ring buoy back and forth over the little Whaler that was riding up and down the twelve foot waves. They made it, but both felt it was one of the most difficult things they had ever done. Sandra says they are glad they did it, but not sure they'd want to do it again.

Last summer the Shanklins flew into Boston to finish photographing the lighthouses of Maine. After going with the Coast Guard to photograph Isles of Shoals, Whaleback, Ram Island Ledge and HalfWay Rock, they headed to Owl's Head, Maine and the airport there, where pilot Mike Ball took them on a 5 hour flight to photograph all the offshore lighthouses they hadn't shot before. Steadily heading north, they photographed many island lighthouses, . The further north the plane flew, the foggier it got. As the plane circled over the Little River Lighthouse at Cutler Maine, the lighthouse was barely visible, making photography difficult. From there, the plane headed out into the Atlantic to the farthest offshore lighthouse in that area, Machias Seal Island. The fog thickened and the Shanklins despaired of photographing that lighthouse. They wondered if they would have to return to Maine sometime again, just to photograph Machias Seal. The fog was below them in hills and valleys, like a mountain range. Just as they arrived at the place the lighthouse should be, the fog opened and there stood the red and white lighthouse below them, bright and clear.

This serendipity happens to them very often. Bob says it means they are doing what they were meant to do.

When photographing the lighthouses of Rhode Island, they took the walk-on ferry to Prudence Island to shoot the Sandy Point Light. The day was gray and drizzly when they started out, and the weather worsened as the ferry crossed the water. It started to rain, the wind blew. They began to dread the two mile hike to the lighthouse. During the ferry ride, the Shanklins struck up a conversation with a lady who lived right across the road from the lighthouse. She offered them a ride to save the two mile hike.

As they started taking photos, the black clouds opened up, a ray of sunshine broke through to illuminate the lighthouse, and then closed up after they took their shots. Afterwards the lady's daughter came and got them for homemade cookies, coffee and a ride back to the ferry landing. The ferry wasn't due for several hours. The place to wait was on the porch of a little store, without much shelter from the wind and rain. The ferry captain, worrying about them, located a truck load of gravel that had to be ferried to the Island so he could make an extra trip to come back and get them.

Over and over, difficult circumstances and rewarding photographs went hand in hand. Two years ago, the Shanklins went to Michigan to finish photographing the offshore and difficult to reach lighthouses of Lake Michigan. The plane flew out of Cheboygan, out over Lake Michigan and as far as Green Bay. The weather was terrible, the flight rough and they encountered rain, sleet, and snow. True to Bob's belief, every time they approached a lighthouse, the sun came out and they got their shots. The pilot said that the six hour flight over Lake Michigan was the roughest flight he had ever taken.

But difficulties can take many forms‹for example, a boatload of sick 9 year olds. The couple had flown into Los Angeles to photograph the lighthouse on Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands. Arrangements were made before they left their Florida home, to go out with a cruise line called the Island Packers, who had a contract with the National Park Service. The Island Packers offered the only transportation to the Channel Islands. When the Shanklins arrived at the pier at the appointed time they discovered the trip had been canceled and no more were scheduled in the next few days. The Shanklins were very upset but after Sandra explained their situation and begged a bit, they were allowed to go the next day with a boatload of 100 fourth graders. The children ate their lunches on the way over, and most of them got seasick before they got to Anacapa.

The boat Captain let the Shanklins off first, to climb the stairs to the top of the cliff, so they could go take their photos without 100 fourth graders in every shot. The trip back was rough, the kids rowdy, feeling better now. The teachers were worn out, and so let the kids run wild. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Another lighthouse in California that is nearly impossible to see is Point Conception. It is on the grounds of a large ranch with very heavy security. Normally no one is allowed to view it, except people that have jobs or business on the ranch, and the Coast Guard who still maintain the light on that dangerous coast. With months of phone calls and letters, Sandra had persuaded the Coast Guard to take them in. For some reason, the Coast Guard didn't show up. Luckily, a sympathetic security guard took pity on them, taking them to the lighthouse after his day's work was finished.

The Shanklins like to say that they go out and take photos of lighthouses until their money runs out, come home and work until enough money has accrued to go out and take photos again. They sell their photos at art shows in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama Gulf Coast and by mail order. Sandra says they barely survive, but have more fun than anyone she knows. Bob says every trip to a lighthouse is an adventure.

Now that they've photographed all the lighthouses in the continental U.S., the Shanklins admit they're not going to stop.

"We can always go back for a better photo," comments Sandra. "On our trips, we are at the mercy of the weather and through no fault of our own, often are not able to get that beautiful photo we hoped for." They also wish very much for a chance to visit the lighthouses of Alaska and Hawaii, but for them, it isn't financially feasible at this time. The lighthouses of both those States are far between and in places difficult to reach. Bob and Sandra are not sure they will ever attain the goal of photographing those lighthouses.

The Shanklins are working on two regional lighthouse books they hope will be out in the next year or so, "Lighthouses of New Jersey and Delaware" and "Lighthouses of New York and Vermont."

They have self-published a booklet called "Bob & Sandra Shanklin's List of All Existing U.S. Lighthouses."

It is simply a booklet listing by state, all of the U.S. lighthouses, with maps showing approximate locations, and a sketch of one lighthouse from each state. To their knowledge, there is no other listing as complete.

The booklet can be ordered by sending $6.95 plus $3.00 for shipping and handling, for a total of $9.95, sent to Bob & Sandra Shanklin, 517 Thornhill Rd. Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547. Inquiries about photos are invited. Phone 904-862-4069.

This story appeared in the March 1996 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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