Light on Patos Island

Zipping through Active Cove, a cozy anchorage, in our neighbor’s 16-foot Safeboat gave me a glimpse of Patos Island. And a desire to return someday soon to one of the most scenic islands in the San Juan Islands.

Sandstone walls ring the small bay and a sandy beach lies at its head where a trail head invites exploration. At the island’s western tip on Alden Point stands Patmos Island lighthouse, made famous by a book written in 1951 by Helene Glidden called The Light on the Island. One of thirteen children, she chronicles her childhood, blending fact and fiction, while her father served as lighthouse keeper from 1905-1913. Together with an assistant keeper, her father rescued the crew of a shipwrecked tugboat with its tow, a large barge, drifting nearby and ready to meet the same fate.

In 1893, the U.S. Lighthouse Board erected a red light on a post accompanied by a third-class Daboll trumpet fog signal and five years later enclosed it in a small red and white one-story building. But complaints that the light was invisible to ships led to the construction of a 38-foot tower, encircled with a balcony, in 1908. Eventually, the oil-burning wicks were replaced with a flashing light and a fourth-order Fresnel lens, turned by a combination of weights and chains similar to a large clock. A new fog signal was added at the same time.

The lighthouse was automated in 1974 and it is now a lone sentry. The handsome two-story keeper’s house and other outbuildings no longer exist. Since the photo below was taken, the lighthouse has been restored by the nonprofit organization, Keepers of Patos Light. The charter schooner, Zodiak, out of Bellingham, WA, is in the background.

Designated a Washington State marine park, Patos Island feels remote because anchorage is limited to approximately a half-dozen boats and their crew. A portion of the island is a Federal Wilderness Area, so public access is restricted to 110 of its 208 acres where visitors can camp, fish for halibut and salmon in the surrounding waters, and explore tide pools.

Patos in Spanish means “ducks” and a variety of seabirds breed here, including ducks and puffins, but especially seagulls.

When I think of Patos Island’s lighthouse keepers, men and women who stood watch to keep others safe, I imagine they possessed great skill, courage, and determination. With little warning, they might be asked to rescue a ships’ crew in distress at the peril of their own lives. Serving others is a high calling.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. 
(Matthew 5:16, NKJV)

Thanks for reading!


Deb Garland


Patos Island at the North Edge of the San Juan Islands

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2 Responses to Light on Patos Island

  1. John Haslam says:

    I enjoy reading your content again and again. I live nearby on the shores of beautiful Birch Bay and enjoy a view of many of the islands you chronicle in addition to sometimes passing by on my small boat. Thank you for providing this fun, fact-filled account of the San Juans. It is by far the most useful resource I have found for learning more about these islands.

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