By Rachel Thomson
When most people visit the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, it’s usually for a short time. Perhaps an hour or less to climb to the top, take some pictures and absorb some local maritime history.
But not for people like Angie Fuller. Since October of last year, the 59-year-old has “lived” at the lighthouse. She volunteers as tour guide and caretaker for the lighthouse in exchange for space for her RV, which is parked nearby.
Fuller is one of hundreds of Americans who travel around the country each year through “Worker Camper” service programs offered through various companies such as KOA and Happy Vagabonds. The companies list volunteer positions at various historical sites and state and national parks. People with RVs can camp at the sites for extended periods of time in exchange for their service. According to Rex Martin, past Executive Director for the Westport Maritime Museum, says officials at both the museum and lighthouse have been using Worker Camper volunteers for the last eight years, with about four to six participants per year.
In addition to the lighthouse, Fuller has also been a “worker camper” at Lake Sylvia and Schafer State Park.
“It’s sort of a gypsy kind of lifestyle,” Fuller says. “But I like adventure and seeing what’s out there.”
Fuller has always loved the outdoors. She recalls fond memories of growing up in the ruggedness of Alaska, with mountains and glaciers abound. She grew up in a mining town and always went exploring by the railroad tracks and bridges to and from school. And she says the urge to travel has always been a part of her since.
How She Landed at the Lighthouse
Fuller has been a Worker Camper since 2011. Prior to this, she lived in Omak with her husband and worked for a food distribution company. In 2005, her husband had an accident that left him with a disability, which made it difficult for her to work full-time. So she and her husband decided to sell their home and travel the country in an RV.
While she was adjusting to living life in an RV, she discovered the Worker Camper program on the internet and started applying to serve at different sites.
She said she had always been interested visiting the Washington coast, so she decided to apply for the position at the lighthouse. She says she became enamored with the beauty of the structure and landscape immediately.
“I fell in love with the building and the light,” she says. “Most people have no idea about the romance about it.”
But the job isn’t for the novice traveler or those who don’t enjoy physical activity. The positions take a lot of commitment.
Fuller works 30 hours a week at the lighthouse. During the busy summer tourist season, she says sometimes she can get over 100 visitors a day. She says one day she went up and down the stairs—all 135 cast-iron steps– eight times. In addition to giving tours, she sweeps the floors, wipes the glass windows and takes turns staffing the gift shop with other volunteers.
“I’ve lost two pants sizes since I’ve been here,” she jokes.
Besides the physical demands, the position requires a substantial amount of research and the ability to learn quickly. When Fuller was training for the position, she was given a script of several pages with facts about the light house and its history. She spent a lot of time looking through library books and reference materials from the museum. She said the goal is to expose guests to the beauty of the lighthouse and providing information that is historically accurate.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Fuller says. “But I like to read and I grew up in Alaska and never watched a lot of TV. Learning about the sea interests me.”
One of the best parts about the lighthouse, she says, is being able to share its majestic appeal with others. She remembers a couple who took a tour of the lighthouse one evening after hours. The man had brought his girlfriend to the top to see the sunset over the ocean on her birthday.
“It was a beautiful surprise,” Fuller says.
On any given tour, she happily rattles off facts she’s learned about the lighthouse’s history. She often points to the rippled, prisms of its still-functional Fresnel lens, which was manufactured in Paris and brought to the lighthouse for installation in 1897. She tells tales of how some of the first light keepers used to haul kerosene up the stairs; how steam set off the fog horn before modern technological advances and how the beacon is still used for navigation. She also tells guests about how years of erosion have impacted the coastal landscape around the lighthouse. It used to be located about 300 feet from the water’s edge, compared to the 3,000 feet from the high tide mark where it sits now.
“You learn to appreciate the lighthouse,” Fuller said. “You develop a caring about it.”
About the Lighthouse
- At 107 feet tall, the Grays Harbor Lighthouse is the tallest in the state of Washington.
- The lighthouse is more than a century old. Its construction began in 1897.
- There are 135 steps leading up to the lantern room, at the very top of the lighthouse. The staircase is original and cast iron.
- Officials of the Westport South Beach Historical Society are hoping to raise funds for a lighthouse restoration project. Check out the video here.
Address: 1020 Ocean Ave. Westport
- From April 1 – Sept. 30, lighthouse visiting hours are from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. five days a week. It is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
- From Oct. 1 – Nov. 30, hours are from noon to 4:00 p.m. It is closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and on Thanksgiving. It’s closed in December and January. It may also close due to adverse weather and availability.
Cost: $5 per person. A $1 discount is given with proof of visit to the Westport Maritime Museum.
Phone: Westport Maritime Museum at (360) 268-0078