Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Lighthouse

Many years ago I experienced an adventure I would never trade for anything.  I spent four years in a very distinguished service:  The United States Coast Guard.  Most of that time was spent at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station in Winchester Bay, Oregon.  One of the many responsibilities we had was caring for the Umpqua River Lighthouse.  The following is a recent story I wrote for
Sherri Elliot,,  for their 2010 symposium celebration.

(Photo's courtesy Sherri Elliot -


There was a quiet symmetry and slow rhythm to the nightly dance of light that played out high on the bluff that over looked the Umpqua River bar. Listen closely and a subtle but distinct growl seemed to reverberate from within the hollow confines of the old lighthouse. I never really knew why…maybe it was vibrations from the motor and drive shaft that supplied motion to the brass gears of the prism dome that rotated high above…maybe it was simply how the wind wrapped itself around the breadth of its tower creating a resonance of sorts that caused the hollow shell to vibrate. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the rumble seemed to keep time with the slow rotation of the one red and two white beams of focused light as they cut through the mist during their orbit around the compound.

I was much younger then…I guess it’s been the better part of 37 years ago now. I was 21 at the time, coming from the heart of Oklahoma the closest I’d ever been to a real lighthouse were pictures in a book. Maybe that was why I was so captivated by it. Even so, it doesn’t matter where you come from…there is something magical and endearing about a lighthouse.

The good Lord knew what he was doing back then by placing me in Winchester Bay, even though I did not fully comprehend the significance of it at the time. As a result, the few short years I spent on the Oregon coast as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Station, Umpqua River became the defining years of my young adult life…and my time in and around the Umpqua River Lighthouse became one of those iconic experiences that still affect who I am today.

That old structure became a safe haven of sorts offering a brief respite from the everyday grind we endured as crewmembers of the Coast Guard Station. That grind was characterized by hours and hours of cleaning, painting, and scrubbing, broken by an occasional stint on bar patrol riding the waves on the now retired CG44303 and 331 surfboats and even less often actually performing some kind of search and rescue operation. Oh…we were busy enough with the bar patrols and SAR operations especially during the summer months…but when we were not involved in one of those adventures…well, we scrubbed and painted just about everything that could be scrubbed and painted…multiple times…and then we did it again.

When the chance to break away from that routine became available, I was quick to latch onto it and Friday clean up chores at the lighthouse offered one of the best opportunities. I actually looked forward to that time and tried to keep that fact a secret as I jealously wanted to share very little of it with my fellow crewmates.

While there, I would often read some of the old entries in the lighthouse log books…mostly ordinary things like ‘swept the floor and stairs…oiled the gears’…things like that…making numerous mostly routine entries myself. I’ve often wondered what ever happened to those old log books.

Sometimes, I would hurry through my clean up chores so I could spend time simply looking out to sea from the heights of its tall structure. On clear days you could see about as far as your imagination would allow you to go. On those cold, dark, and damp days, I’d simply watch the light cut through the mist as that great lens would rotate slowly behind me slicing the damp air with its red and white beams. There was a peaceful atmosphere that permeated those heights, an atmosphere that is best experienced up close, as words can do little to describe the actual feeling. Needless to say, over time I began to believe that old lighthouse was a friend of mine…someone who didn’t care if I had messed up that week…always welcoming…always warm and refreshing…always providing something new to experience. I really looked forward to those few random opportunities to visit that place.

Often, when I had some free time, I would drive up the hill at night and park beneath the lighthouse to watch its choreographed performance. I found it rather calming. Dusk was the best time as the mist would gather and the beams would begin to glow. It was almost like the old lighthouse was using those beams of light to point toward something…as though it was trying to speak to anyone who wanted to listen…

”Come and see…” it would say...”Let me tell you of the adventures I have seen.”

Many times I have wondered what stories it could tell if indeed it could speak to us. One thing for sure is that it helped inspire a young man to dream of grand adventures.

I spent many hours on watch at the old lookout tower that at the time was situated just on the north end of the parking area in front of the lighthouse. During the long night watches, I can still vividly remember observing the magical light show as the red and white beams cut through the mist…and yes that growl…that constant, low volume rumble that seemed to groan from within was always there…a kind of song that was part of the symphony of light, sound, and the aroma of the pine scented mist that played out every night on that hill. It is a good thing that our minds capture such things for they become so much more than reflections of times past...they become reflections of who we are…Even so, I choose to save the best of those memories for myself.

From time to time we would be asked to provide tours of the lighthouse. As I was one of the few people at the station who could type at the time, I was often assigned office duty filling out daily reports and such and standing the comm-watch so when someone came in and asked for a tour, more often than not I would take them myself…not all the time mind you, others performed that roll as well…but I didn’t mind doing it when I could. Usually those tours involved an older retired couple on vacation or maybe some middle aged couple…rarely anyone close to our own age, except on rare occasions. One day a car pulled up next to our main building down in the harbor and a middle-aged couple stepped out. Many of my crewmates for some reason didn’t like giving tours and they tended to scatter rather quickly…and prematurely as it turned out on that occasion. Right behind the man and his wife their two daughters stepped out…and I must admit, they were both rather stunning. That was the best lighthouse tour I ever had the good fortune to perform…much to the jealous chagrin of several fellow crewmates.

There probably isn’t a day that goes by that the experiences that came into my life back then are not in someway reflected in who I am today. I learned a great deal about life during those few short years and the old lighthouse was an important part of it. I venture to wonder what life would be like now had I not been exposed to those days. It is good for the soul to do such things…remember dormant adventures by removing rustic memories from the old “trunk of recollections” and bringing them into the light again.

Should we ever lose all or part of the old lighthouse I suppose all those memories would still be there…but it would never be the same. Twenty-five or thirty years from now we may find ourselves asking why such a thing was ever allowed to happen.

The old lighthouse has always functioned admirably with a sense of grace, strength and purpose, but what seems most important today is simply its aesthetic beauty. The lighthouse may have over time lost its ability to serve the same purpose for which it was originally intended. I suppose it really doesn’t need to. In reality, it actually serves a more important purpose now…and that is to remind us of who we are.

It’s one of a kind Fresnel prism lens that has served so well for so many years, can still serve a common good by helping us to remember the significance of the lives that have revolved around it. It serves as an anchor in time, a point from where we can not only look back and revisit from where we have come, but look forward to where we want to go. Its beams hold within their glow the stories of times past, gliding on the currents of life that still reach across time…offering a safe haven where future stories may be archived.

Like lighthouses of olden days whose beams served as a beacon of warning, those beams can also serve as a warning to current and future generations…a warning about not letting go of old values, about not throwing away the things that cannot be replaced…about seeking wisdom before we act…about clinging to the things we hold dear and remembering that the most important safe havens are often found in the heart. It is good to know that the old lighthouse is still there, still reminding us of whom we are and encouraging us to build new memories on the way to the future.

My life would not be the same without the connection it has to that old lighthouse for through the years I’ve come to understand more clearly a few things I wished I would have understood more closely back then. Even today, in the half-light of a misty morning far removed by time and place… I can still hear the rumble of that old lighthouse as it speaks to me across the vacuum of years gone by.

I am forever thankful for having known you…my old friend…grateful for the memories…strengthened because you were a part of my life, and for a brief moment in time you provided an uncertain, searching young man a point of reference from the past…so he could face the future with confidence and purpose. It’s comforting to know that you still hold a part of my history cast onto your beams of light as dreams of grand adventures…dreams that still echo across time.

Keith R. Bridgman

USCG Station Umpqua River
1973 - 1975

1 comment:

Sherri said...

Keith, I cry every time I read your beautiful essay. It's such an eloquent tribute to our historic light, and testament to how character is defined in unfathomable ways. We are so honored to know you as one of Umpqua River Light's "keepers", and thank you for your love and support of our Sea Sentinel. Best wishes dear friend!