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Love Burns Brightly at Lighthouse : Coast Guard Wife Says Isolation Strengthens Marriage

Charles Hillinger's America

December 27, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

DUNGENESS SPIT, Wash. — "Our friends can't believe we're stuck out here all alone at the end of this spit for nearly a year. They've been betting all along on whether our marriage will last," said Heather Hettman, 22. A big grin creased her face.

The tall, willowy wife of Coast Guard seaman Dan Hettman, 23, insisted her 2 1/2-year marriage has been strengthened by her isolated existence. Her 6-foot-2, 200-pound husband--she calls him her "handsome hulk"--agreed, adding:

"People tell us normally in a situation like this you would expect to find an older couple. But we love it. Every day is an adventure."

For 11 months, the young couple have been the only residents of this six-mile-long, 30-to-100-foot-wide, narrow neck of sand that barely sticks out of the water.

Dungeness Spit hangs out from the Washington Coast marking the eastern reach of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca where it meets Puget Sound, 26 miles due south of Victoria, B.C. It is said to be the longest spit in America.

Anything but New

Hettman is keeper of the New Dungeness Lighthouse, which is anything but new, having been erected in 1857 as the first lighthouse in Washington. It is called "New" because the old Dungeness Light is in Kent County, England, near Dover, on the English Channel.

Only two days a week are they able to leave their 1904, two-story Coast Guard home, which is next to the lighthouse at the end of the spit. They can only leave and return in their four-wheel-drive vehicle when the tide is low, usually after dark, driving along the hard sand at the edge of the spit.

"We can't drive on top of the spit because the way is blocked by driftwood jumbled together in many places," Hettman explained.

The light station is fully automated as are all the Coast Guard lighthouse installations on the West Coast, but Hettman has plenty of work to keep him busy.

He begins his day by raising the American flag. Then he climbs the 74 steps on the winding staircase that leads to the 180,000-candlepower light to make sure there are no problems. If there are, he fixes them. Once a week he cleans the lens on the light.

He files weather reports with the National Weather Service in Seattle at least three times every 24 hours. He maintains the fog horn and radio beacon. He has an ongoing paint job, the Lighthouse and home inside and out, the fence around the station. He mows a huge lawn.

"We get visitors. Not many in winter. You're the first person we have seen in two weeks. We haven't left the Lighthouse in two weeks because of storms," Hettman said.

"But in spring, summer and fall, often as many as 30 or 40 people will hike the six miles from the mainland to the Lighthouse on a nice day. The public is not permitted to drive vehicles on the spit."

Heather and Dan give tours of the Coast Guard station to those who hike out and provide information about the flora and fauna of the spit as well as a history of the spit and the Lighthouse. Heather is keeping a journal. She has already filled three books. "It's certainly not dullsville," the young Coast Guard wife said.

Frank Sinder, 78, of nearby Port Angeles, 12 miles from the beginning of the spit, is the champion Dungeness Spit walker. He has made the 12-mile, round-trip hike 202 times.

"The spit is never the same two days in a row. Wind, currents and storms constantly change the contour of the spit. It's a fascinating long narrow piece of land left in its natural state, jutting out into the water. I never tire of walking back and forth on it," Sinder said.

Although the spit is a six-mile pile of sand, it is covered with wild grass and flowers and is home for thousands of birds and many animals, including weasels, skunks and deer. Dungeness Spit is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

It isn't unusual for deer to walk the length of the spit from the Mainland, munching on eelgrass and drinking fresh water from the pond near the lighthouse.

Hettman said the hikers come in all ages. "One 90-year-old man hiked out. He climbed to the top of the Lighthouse and he talked my ear off," the enthusiastic young keeper said.

He told how repeat hikers are disappointed that the original register is no longer at the lighthouse.

Never Stays Alone

"The first entries in it date back to 1898. But the original register was getting pretty brittle and a new register replaced it in September 1986. The old register is in the Coast Guard Museum at Port Angeles now," Hettman explained.

"People are forever asking: 'Where's the old register?' They say things like: 'My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents signed that book, and I want my name in it too.' "

Heather Hettman said she never stays alone on the spit.

"When Dan leaves I go with him. It would be too scary for me to be alone out here, especially at night," she said.

"This is a noisy place. Screeching bald eagles wake us up in the middle of the night. When the fog horn blasts there's no sleeping. It goes off every 30 seconds on a foggy night and bellows for five seconds each time.

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