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Five Fingers Reach Into Enduring Frontier
by Walter Ham, U.S. Coast Guard HQ - August 26, 2016

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The Five Finger Islands Light shines over the waters of an enduring American frontier in Alaska.

The light that guided prospectors into southeast Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush welcomes mariners, tourists and scientists today.

The U.S. 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.

September 3, 2012 - The 68-foot-tall Five Finger Islands Light, built in 1902, towers over a group of five rocky islands that appear during low tide and look like a hand reaching into Alaska's Frederick Sound. (Photo provided through Wikipedia)
September 3, 2012 - The 68-foot-tall Five Finger Islands Light, built in 1902, towers over a group of five rocky islands that appear during low tide and look like a hand reaching into Alaska's Frederick Sound. (Photo provided through Wikipedia)

The U.S. Lighthouse Service, which became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939, built the original Five Finger Islands Light in 1902. 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.

The Five Finger Islands Light is one of nine lighthouses with an elevator named after it in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. 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.

In 2004, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark and the light station property was transferred to the non-profit Juneau Lighthouse Association. The light is maintained by the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation team (ANT) in Sitka, Alaska.

In addition to hosting the lighthouse, the Five Finger Islands 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.

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.

“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 one 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 J. Dill, the operations petty officer for the Aids to Navigation (ATON) team that maintains the light, 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 people's 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.”

The light is among the 48,000 Federal Aids to Navigation maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, including buoys, beacons, sound signals, ranges and electronic aids that enable mariners to determine their position, chart a safe course and steer clear of hazards.

Aids to Navigation, like the Five Finger Islands Light, safely guide mariners around the 49th state. In addition to the light, Dill said the Sitka ANT maintains 107 other navigational aids from Skagway, Alaska, to the Canadian border, including buoys, shore aids, ranges and other lighthouses.

Dill said he enjoys serving in the Coast Guard ATON team and helping to safely guide mariners 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.”

By Walter Ham, U.S. Coast Guard HQ
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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