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As the Beacon Turns

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Sep 10, 2008

The walk to the historic lighthouse at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge takes me about three minutes from the parking lot.  I call out hello to Christa the park ranger at the fee booth (a mere $5 per person or free with a National Parks pass) as I go by. I note the burrows on the hillside where the wedge-tail shearwater chicks are starting to hatch at the back of three-foot tunnels.  I skirt a cliff that freefalls down to a cove where Hawaiian monk seals sometimes bask on smooth volcanic rock, and I follow the sidewalk on a narrow strip of land to the northernmost point in the main Hawaiian Islands.  As I top a slight hill, a panoramic view of the blue Pacific Ocean and a coastline of serpentine cliffs opens before me, just as if someone drew back a pair of heavy theater curtains.

Here, in 1913, the Kilauea Point Lighthouse was lit for the first time, providing a beacon to passing ships as far as 21 miles out to sea.  The $15,000 French-made lens weighed over four tons and rotated on a bed of mercury, flashing its signature double flash every 10 seconds.  After three hours and forty minutes, lighthouse keepers wound the pulley-and-cable mechanism by hand to keep the lens turning, operating just like grandfather clocks.

In 1930, electricity and a light bulb replaced the kerosene-like lamp.

In 1939, an electric motor replaced the lighthouse keeper’s task of winding.

In 1976, a much smaller, and less beatific, rotating beam eliminated the need for the clamshell lens and its five-story stone housing.

In 1979, the Kilauea Point Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the 31-acre site is part of a 203-acre wildlife refuge.  On this peninsula that juts out to sea on Kauai’s north shore, thousands of seabirds mate, nest, and raise their young.

This is where I spend many Friday afternoons.  I serve as a docent, sharing what I know about the passing whales (in season), sea turtles, seals and, of course, the historic lighthouse.  But the real attraction is the birds.  I am continually astounded by how much happens—and changes—from week to week.

Over a three-day period in November, Laysan albatross arrive from afar.  The mass arrival looks like an air-raid squadron returning to base.

Red-tailed tropicbirds return in February, within a day or two of Valentine’s Day.  It seems so fitting to me that these birds with red beaks and red ribbon tails would arrive on the day our society associates with love—and red.

Wedge-tailed shearwater make their entrance in March, winging it all the way from Central America.

Like so many of us—I first visited Hawaii on my honeymoon 20 years ago—these marine birds come to the Hawaiian Islands for one thing:  Romance.  That may be anthropomorphizing a bit, but these birds do fly thousands of miles—again, like us—to find a mate and, simply put, breed.

After living here almost nine years now, I think of Hawaii as a connecting place.  The hub of a wheel, if you will.  Look at a map of the world, and you will find Hawaii smack in the middle of the Pacific.  Spokes reach out to the United States, Mexico and Canada in one direction; the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and Samoa in another direction; New Zealand, Fiji and Australia in another; and the Marshall Islands, Phillipines and Japan in yet another direction.

Of course, that’s the reason for the Kilauea Point Light Station.  It serves as a waypoint or landmark for ships, connecting Asia and America.  As a refuge, the peninsula serves as a connecting—er, mating—place for birds.

For me, the Kilauea Lighthouse is a visual reminder of the connections we have with people.

Several weeks ago, chatting with two visiting couples about the height of the lighthouse (52 feet), one of the men compared it to the height of a silo.

Hearing a familiar word, I asked, “Where are you from?”

“Missouri,” he said

I smiled, taking a step closer.  “Where in Missouri?” I asked.

“Outside Kansas City,” he said.

“Where outside Kansas City?” I asked.  Now, he was feeling something coming, like a punch line to a joke.

“Sedalia, Missouri,” he said.

“Do you know my friend Diann Gordon?” I asked.

From a bench behind him, his wife looked up.  “I do,” she said.  “I used to work with her at the bank.”

On Kauai, I have found the pop culture concept of “six degrees of separation,” whereby anyone in the world can be connected to any other person through a chain of no more than five acquaintances, is reduced to a mere two degrees.  I used to live in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, where I befriended Diann Gordon who lived a couple hours away in Sedalia.  Connections.

With over 500,000 visitors a year, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visited sites on Kauai.  I think it is also one of the most spectacular—the views, the birds, the people.  That’s why I volunteer here.  If, by chance, you visit on a Friday afternoon, be sure to find me and say something like, “Diann says hi” or “Diann sent me,” and I guarantee I’ll smile as bright as the Fresnel lens that once sent a beam as far as 21 miles out to sea.

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