SITKA, Alaska — Fifteen years ago Burgess Bauder told Aleeta, his wife, that he wanted to spend $3,500 of their savings for a small, uninhabited island in Sitka Harbor about two miles from town.
"What are we going to do with an island?" was her reply. It had no running water, no electricity and no access, without even a pier or a float to tie up a skiff.
"Thirty-five hundred dollars was a lot of money then," said Aleeta Bauder, a high school health and physical education teacher and coach.
Since late 1985, when Burgess began to rent out the red-and-white lighthouse he built on that island, she has no regrets.
Bauder thoroughly enjoyed building what he calls Rockwell Lighthouse, a picturesque structure rising from the rocks that looks back on scenic Sitka, population 7,611. And they both say they enjoy renting it to visitors and residents who pay as much as $125 a night for modern accommodations on a private island.
Bauder, who describes himself as "the local dog-and-cat plumber," works about three hours a day as a veterinarian and the rest as a carpenter. He and Aleeta moved to Sitka, best known as Alaska's first capital when it was under Russian rule, because they wanted to raise their son in a small West Coast community. Now that young man helps ferry lighthouse renters and their supplies from the marina in town.
The lighthouse project was intended as fun, but the Coast Guard does use the light on top as a navigational aid to mark the middle channel into Sitka, Bauder said.
When the tide is out, Crescent Bay, where the island is, easily has two dozen islands and small volcanic protrusions, perhaps half of which are inhabited. But Bauder's is the only lighthouse, and it's the only island home for rent to travelers.
Guests sleep in a double bed and two bunks off winding stairs in the tower of the lighthouse, or on a hideaway couch in the living room. It has a phone, sauna, dishwasher, microwave, shower, washer and dryer, and the usual kitchen appliances, linens and housewares. Electric heat and lights come from a cable laid by the city.
Bauder picks up guests at the airport or ferry terminal, boats them over to the lighthouse pier and leaves them alone to climb the rocks, fish, read and relax.
It won't do for people who want a constantly active vacation, but it's quiet and perfect for harried folks who are serious about getting away from it all or spending time together as a family.
The view of Sitka with its marinas and National Historic Park and volcanic Mt. Edgecumbe alone commands a few days of drinking in.
Bauder has only two rules: "A skiff is provided for access, not for sightseeing. Yes, people do die sightseeing in southeast Alaska." The water in Crescent Bay, however, is almost never rough because it's protected by Japonski Island, where the airport is, and the little islands. If they're careful, renters should have no trouble motoring between the lighthouse and the marina.
The other rule is, "You don't turn on the faucet and leave it on." This is the only sentence all morning that the easygoing Bauder said very sternly, like a father to a child. Or like the guy who installed the entire water-filtration system himself. All water comes from the roof, where it goes into a tank and is filtered, and Bauder, frankly, doesn't want to lug jugs of extra water over because someone was wasteful.
Bauder already has lugged plenty of materials and supplies to his island. For the three years it took to build the lighthouse and the dock, "everything was taken over one piece at a time in the skiff," he said, including the couch, mattresses and major appliances. An architect made one drawing of the structure, then Bauder did the rest of the work.
Although a bit reluctant at first to rent out the result of his work to strangers, Bauder has been pleased with results so far. The word quickly spread among residents that the lighthouse was for rent, and sometimes commercial fishermen rent it for a rare weekend on shore with their wives.
No one has damaged the place, and everyone but a couple from New Jersey has shown up as they said they would. "I have not yet seen 'the ugly American,' " Bauder said. "The worst that's happened is they haven't watered the plants."
The Bauders charge $125 a day for one or two days, $100 a day for three days or longer, and they'll talk with potential renters about how many people can be comfortably accommodated. The fee includes pickup at the airport or ferry, a stop at a grocery store and use of the skiff.
Information: Box 277, Sitka, Alaska 99835; (907) 747-3056.