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Lighthouse Kid: Patos Island in the 1950’s

By Dawn Alexander with Linda Hudson

Patos Island Lighthouse and Schooner ZodiacWhen my cell phone rang in July of 2008 while I was working in my home office, I was suddenly reconnected with an island. The island was called Patos and this phone call would change my life in a most profound way. You see, when I was a small child I lived on Patos Island with my dad, who was a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper, my mother and my new baby brother. The call came from a friend who told me that he had found out about a new non-profit group, Keepers of the Patos Light, which had recently formed with the goal of preserving both the lighthouse and Patos Island. Memories came flooding back of idyllic childhood years spent on Patos Island, which is located in the far north of the San Juan Islands, off the northwest coast of Washington State.

The last time I visited Patos Island was 26 years earlier with my first husband. We were on our honeymoon and camped on Patos Island while touring the San Juan Islands in a small Boston Whaler. The old lighthouse was in shambles and needed a fresh coat of paint, with her windows all boarded up. The Tri-plex, which was newly built in the ’50s to house the Coast Guard families, was falling apart; the obscured glass block entry broken and vandalized, trees and blackberries encroaching on the place. It was a sad moment for me to see it like this.

Patos Island Lighthouse

My dad, Dale Nelson, was stationed on Patos Island in the mid 1950’s when he was in his early twenties. He fell in love with its remoteness and unbelievable beauty. Before I was born, my dad sent several letters to my mom, Darlene, describing Patos Island to her. On December 5, 1954 he wrote “this is really the place, it is not at all what I expected, it’s better then Dungeness…you’ll have to see it for your self to understand what I mean.” Their plan was to have Mom move to the island with him eventually. On December 24, 1954 he answered some of mom’s questions about the Island after just finding out she was pregnant with me. He wrote “The Island is big it takes about 4 hours to walk around it. It’s mostly woods that have never been touched, it is really beautiful. There is a little island right next to ours, its called Little Patos, between is a cove where we tie our boat up. There are two other couples living here, they both have little kids about 18 to 20 months old, they are all very nice.” He continued to let her know about the living situation, but I am sure he convinced her it was all good.

I was born in August, 1955, and moved to Patos Island with my mom, though I do not remember that stay. My dad was stationed at other lighthouses after that. He then re-enlisted and requested to go back to Patos Island and this time is what I have always called “the best childhood” in the world.

Patos Island Lighthouse

Patos Island has been in my heart forever, and thought of fondly throughout my life. My dad loved to take pictures and we always had slide shows of Patos while growing up which has helped keep the memories alive.

Patos Island is very remote and the only access is by boat. We would maybe have maybe 2 – 3 visitors in the summer back in the 50’s, and whenever we did I was always there with my dad to greet and welcome them to the island, even though at the time I wasn’t even 5 years old.

One time there was a husband and wife who visited with their Boxer dog, named Boy. They were the nicest people and I immediately fell in love with their dog. I couldn’t find my dad, so I greeted them at the dock. They asked if they could see the lighthouse. “Sure,” I said, so I led them through the woods on the wooden boardwalk, then down the long sidewalk to the lighthouse. Still no sign of my dad, so I took them inside the lighthouse and up the tower to the big brass light on top. I showed them the radio controls and 3 large generators located inside the building. Then suddenly, my dad was there. What in the world was I doing? I was in big trouble. I had never seen my dad so mad at me in my life, but looking back I know he was embarrassed. Being Coast Guard man in charge of the station, not being available when guests arrived and finding his young daughter giving a tour of a government facility, oh my! A couple of months later I received a card with a Poodle dog on it from this nice couple and their dog Boy, thanking me for their delightful tour of Patos Island and how it was the highlight of their vacation.

Dawn and Deery

Life on Patos Island through the eyes of a child was magical. I would explore and find all kinds of treasures, starfish, hermit crabs, mussels, drift wood in funny shapes, special rocks that you could see through called Agates. We had our dog Scamp who was always with me and I had Crowey, a black crow that would always show up for his daily bread. I would call him and there he would be. I also had a pet deer. It was a fawn; my dad said it swam across the channel to visit us on Patos. I would feed and water the deer, he would nuzzle my neck. Deery started to get really big and he grew antlers. Then one day he was gone. My dad told me he swam to another island to find a mate. Looking back today – I wonder.

Dawn and Coast Guard

Occasionally, the 55 foot Coast Guard Cutter would arrive to take us to the mainland, to visit our relatives. One time my mom had sewn a sailor’s outfit for me, in blue and white, with anchor buttons, and a matching hat. I was very excited. Every time I came aboard the Coast Guard cutter one of the Coast Guard men would always lead me down to the galley and given an ice cream bar from the freezer. As I bit into the ice cream I lost my tooth that was loose. At once all of the Coast Guard men reached into their pockets and pulled out all of their change and gave it to me, while mentioning something about the Tooth Fairy. Boy was I happy.

The Coast Guard men were always doing something nice for me. On Patos they built me a swing from a huge Madrona tree, a teeter-tooter, and a sandbox, which I thought was silly, who needs a sandbox on an island? I loved my swing and would stand on the wooden slat to see how high I could go. I had the most incredible view in the world.

Dawn and Swing On Patos we were often visited by huge pod of Orca whales that would swim across the channel, this was quite frequent back then. We would watch them through my dad’s binoculars and see their backs rising out of the water as water and air would “whoosh” out of their blowholes. My dad called them “Killer Whales” which frightened me, as I was always afraid they would get real close to the island and hurt us.

Now, so many years later, from an unexpected phone call, I realized there was an organization taking care of this beautiful island. I immediately contacted KOPL’s president, Linda Hudson. She told me that not only had Keepers of the Patos Light formed with the goal of restoring the lighthouse and protecting the island there was to be a Birthday Bash held in August to celebrate the Lighthouse’s 100 anniversary and to show off the complete renovation that had taken place earlier in the summer. Talk about timing.

As the charter boat approached Patos on August 24th 2008, in the worst weather of the summer, for the Lighthouse’s 100th birthday party, I was filled with mixed emotions. I was sad because my parents were not here to share this with my husband and me, and excited for what the future would bring for this tiny island that I knew so long ago. The Patos Lighthouse looked so lonely on the tip of Alden Point; there were no officer’s quarters, no water tower nor flagpole… nothing except the beautiful lighthouse.

On the island

Word had gotten out that I had lived on Patos as a young girl and everyone was so interested in my story. I was amazed. The boat landed on the beach in Active Cove and we were greeted by Nick Teague, who is the BLM Manager in the San Juan Islands He had a ton of questions for me. As we were walking down the long sidewalk to the lighthouse, I mentioned that as a girl I would fly on my roller skates up and down this path. My mom had planted Sweet Alyssum along the edge and to this day when I smell that flower I am immediately taken back to Patos. Nick told me that the tiny white flower still blooms there every spring, and that we certainly need to re-visit at that time. That made me smile.

The lighthouse looked good as she did in the 1950s, and I was honored to speak to everyone that had an interest and helped restore the lighthouse. I spoke briefly about my childhood here, but most of all about the magic of the place. Just like my dad wrote, “You’ll have to see it for your self to understand what I mean.” I look forward to spending more time on the island and I am now very excited to be on the Board of Directors for Keepers of the Patos Light.

Let’s hear it for another 100 years for the Patos Island Lighthouse!

Dawn Alexander

Editing by Linda Lee Hudson

Keepers of the Patos Light
Email: patoslightkeepers@hotmail.com
www.patoslightkeepers.org



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  1. 61 Comment(s)

  2. By David on Apr 3, 2009 | Reply

    What a fabulous story. I really enjoyed reading Dawn’s memories of living at Patos Lighthouse and of the island. Reading this reminded me of my early life at a Maine island lighthouse living with my grandparents. And I know how she felt when she returned to Patos with the dwelling, her family home no longer standing. My lighthouse home is also gone with only foundation stone remaining. Her island is still there with its trees, its shoreline and the same ocean air. Her lighthouse still stands as does mine, standing as a centerpiece for cherished childhood memories of living there when the station was alive. And now from the concern and the efforts of her group, the Keeper’s of Patos Light, the lighthouse and the island are beginning a new life that will provide Dawn and others with new treasured memories.

  3. By Sue Clark on Apr 4, 2009 | Reply

    Hi David,

    And reading your comment, I’m reminded that it would be great if you’d share some of your memories. We’re none of us getting any younger, we need to preserve them. I’d love to have an article from you.

    Please consider it. :)

  4. By David on Apr 6, 2009 | Reply

    Something like this?
    Lighthouse Digest August 2000
    White Head Light Station Childhood Memories
    www.lighthousedepot.com/lite_digest.asp?action=get_article&sk=0818

  5. By Sue Clark on Apr 9, 2009 | Reply

    Yep, something like that. Great story. Anyone reading the comments please check it out.

    I had to change the link, though. For some reason it led to a missing page. This one should work (after I found it finally). Lighthouse Digest is not easy to navigate sometimes. :)

  6. By David on Apr 9, 2009 | Reply

    The boathouse winch in the photo is now on display (or was the last time I was there) at the Lighthouse Museum in Rockland.

  7. By Sue Clark on Apr 10, 2009 | Reply

    I haven’t been recently, so couldn’t tell if it is or not. I’ll look for it next time I go. I need to get my Fresnel fix soon. It’s been a long winter.

  8. By Nancy Bennett on Jul 13, 2010 | Reply

    Hello Dawn;
    How very wonderful that you have been re-connected with your island! I used to sail the San Juans in the mid-fifties on a 60 foot Alden staysail schooner. Her captain was Rad Pratsch - our wonderful friend. Was the picture above taken in the 50’s where you see a schooner lying off shore at the light house? Could that be Rad’s WHITE CLOUD II, the schooner I sailed on? Would love to hear from you. I can fill you in on the WHITE CLOUD’s history between then and now. I have just re-connedted with her, after 50+ years of being ashore. We are going to sail the San Juans this September. Hope you get this message!! Nancy Bennett

  9. By mike bender on Aug 26, 2010 | Reply

    Nancy Bennett

    my father was the owner of the white cloud
    that was sold to the mitchells

    love to read more of her

    what great memories

    thanks

    mike

  10. By Dawn Alexander on Sep 13, 2010 | Reply

    Hello Nancy,
    Thank you for your post. I hope you receive this reply soon enough. The picture of the lighthouse with the schooner in the backround is the schooner Zodiac taken in 2008 prior to the lighthouse’s re-construction that year. You will be suprised when you visit the island as the lighthouse is as beautiful as she was in the 1950’s and the only structure standing now. I hope your trip is all you dreamed of. The San Juans are a very special place and I would love to hear your thoughts upon your return.

    Thank you,
    Dawn Alexander

  11. By Ed Wilson on Feb 24, 2012 | Reply

    I was in the Coast Guard and was stationed at
    Patos Is. from about 1948 thru 1951. I have many fond memories of my time there. I often think of returning for a visit, it was and I am sure it still is a magical place.

  12. By Linda Hudson President Keepers of the Patos Light on May 28, 2012 | Reply

    Ed, Can you please contact us? patoslightkeepers@hotmail.com

    We REALLY would like to talk to you about your memories of being stationed on Patos Island. Now that we are opening the lighthouse to the public, we are finding that visitors are hungry for stories of the past on Patos Island, esp where builings were (just foundations left today) and what they were used for. Do you have any pictures? Thanks, so much
    Linda

    PS We can get you out to visit Patos Island. Do you know of any other men who were out there while you were there?

  13. By Joni Dorethy Banta on Jun 4, 2013 | Reply

    I was also a child along with my younger brother Craig of a Coast Guard father Walter LaVerne Dorethy & mother Doris. I was born May 30th 1955, close to Dawns age. We lived on Patos Island 57-58, we left when my Mother was due with my younger sister. There was a newspaper article about my family, which we lost in a house fire 43 yrs ago, but my neice has been in touch with someone who is sending us a copy next time she goes to lighthouse. I have only 1 original picture that was in the paper. I was so young I only have a few memories of living there. Both my parents are still living and going to write down their stories and send. Not sure how to upload a photo to this site. I did put it on my face book page under Joni Banta. Im so thrilled to be in touch and reconnect to my past! Dawn I was also there at time of deer he was tame and followed everyone around, but when mating season came he became aggiatated and attacked a female swimmer. Im not sure what became of his demise. This is the bits of a story my parents shared.

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