Lighthouse Kid: Patos Island in the 1950’s
When 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.
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, its 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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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!
Editing by Linda Lee Hudson
Keepers of the Patos Light