You know the cliché, right?
The awkward first-date ice-breaker. The lame party-game question.
“If you’re ever stranded on a deserted island, what (food/drink/celebrity/book/movie/etc) would you want with you?”
While that’s a hypothetical for just about everyone, Desiree Heveroh has been living it.
In fact, she volunteered for it.
Heveroh is the Light Station Keeper at East Brother Light Station, on the small island of East Brother in San Pablo Bay, accessible only by boat from Point San Pablo Harbor in Richmond, California.
Built in 1873, the lighthouse is owned by the US Coast Guard, but maintained and cared for by the East Brother Light Station nonprofit (of which Heveroh is an eight-year Board Member), created in late 1970s by a group of volunteers when the remaining buildings were threatened with demolition. The group secured historic status for the buildings and has since been running the island as a rustic Bed & Breakfast .
Then came the pandemic, and the inn had to close to guests. Eventually, the Keepers (screened by the nonprofit, typically for two-year terms) left the island.
But a presence was still needed to maintain the buildings and discourage vandalism and looting, and Heveroh saw her opportunity.
“I’ve always known I was going to live here. Not wished that I was going live here … KNOWN I was going to live here.” When the Keepers left, she realized “OH, okay, THIS is how. “
Although she was ready for the challenge, there was much to learn. John Barnett, who served as a Keeper for a still-record 7.5 years, recommended Captain Jarrod Ward, an accomplished boat Captain. Ward and Heveroh began their unique volunteer partnership on July 1, 2020.
“I couldn’t drive the boat or do a lot of the mechanical things yet. Captain Jarrod spent the first several months teaching me all of the things I needed to know.” The Light Station’s Facebook page salutes Ward’s service and credits him for teaching Heveroh “everything she knows today about surviving on this Island with & without power. His contributions are immeasurable & none of this would be possible without him.”
The training has indeed come in handy.
“Oh, the upkeep is never-ending,” says Heveroh. “There’s never been a time when everything was good and we didn’t need to fix something. The salt air just erodes — if it’s made out of metal, it’ll rust away. If it’s made out of wood, it turns to dust. The handrail up the gangway and the fence around the whole island both need to be replaced, the piles that hold the landing dock are hollow.
“Maintaining this magic is a never-ending financial obligation. We were going to focus our efforts on getting those things repaired when the cable gave out. So it really set us back.”
The cable Heveroh’s referring to isn’t for television, as there’s no TV or Wifi on the island (did I mention it was rustic?). It’s the literal cable the runs along the bay floor that provides the island’s electricity.
On April 1st (no fooling), it failed.
Which left Heveroh and Ward literally stranded on the island.
As I mentioned, the only way to get to and from the island is by boat. The boat requires a hoist to raise it up from and lower it into the water.
No power, no hoist. No hoist, no transportation.
Captain Ward, confident in Heveroh’s training and abilities to maintain the lighthouse on her own, moved off the island to continue working his day job. He did check in weekly and caught rides from the kind folks at the Harbor to deliver anything she needed.
The island does have a small additional source of power — a 1930’s-era generator, which Heveroh ran a couple of hours a day to keep her refrigerated and frozen food from spoiling, and to charge the backup batteries that power the actual lighthouse light, which continues to operate as an operational Aid to Navigation (the lights were upgraded to LED in 2012).
When the generator’s starter recently failed, she required the services of machinist Steve Phillips who specializes in antiques to make the replacement parts, who then video-coached her to make the repairs herself.
She used a small wood-burning stove in her tiny quarters for heat, burning eucalyptus bark and other branches she gathers from around the island.
The power cable failed once before, from a lightning strike in the early 1990s. While the Coast Guard replaced it then, this time they have other plans. Since their only responsibility is to ensure the actual light in the tower works, they plan on powering it with a small solar array, which is much less expensive than replacing the cable.
This will, however, leave the remaining buildings in complete darkness. The nonprofit will need to come up with the funds itself, which seems like a very tall order. A new cable plus installation could run as high as $1 million.
Help a Brother Out
But just like 40+ years ago when the historic Light Station buildings were threatened, the community is rallying. The nonprofit has started a Gofundme campaign, which so far has raised more than 50% of their goal.
The Light Station’s plight has especially resonated with its namesake, East Brother Beer Company.
“We named ourselves after the island,” says brewery Co-Founder Rob Lightner. “There’s so many events and fundraisers and initiatives and causes out there, you can’t do everything. You have to allocate your time and prioritize. Of course, with this one, it was like, ‘Yeah, we HAVE to do this.’”
East Brother (the brewery) is donating 20% of the sales of select beers to the cause. The decision which beers to use was really a no-brainer, says Lightner. “You know — freighter, bay, water, lighthouse. Let’s just use the Freighter Series.”
Aside from the name, a number of other elements came together to make the choice an easy one.
COVID made determining the brewery’s “packaging mix” a constant moving target. “How much do we put in cans, how much in kegs, how much does the taproom get, how much goes out into distribution?” says Lightner.
Long story short, they wound up with excess Freighter Series kegs in inventory. “Usually we churn through those and sell out, but with the pandemic that didn’t happen.”
Which wound up being a blessing.
“If it’s a fragile IPA or a beer that doesn’t last long, you’re kinda out of luck. The good thing with the Freighter Series beers, like the Russian Imperial Stout and the Belgian Tripel, they get better with age and have a longer shelf-life. They’re big, they’re bold, people are willing to pay more. So that’s great. We’ll generate a little revenue to donate and act as a bullhorn or megaphone to get the word out.”
But you’ll need to travel to Richmond to chip in, as the fundraiser is limited to taproom-only draft sales. Putting any extra in cans for distribution just wasn’t in the cards.
“We’re just so busy simply fulfilling orders right now. Designing [more] labels, getting [more] cans, we just don’t have the bandwidth honestly. We even talked about brewing a special beer, but we went from decent volume before the pandemic to all of a sudden hitting capacity.”
The uptick in demand for canned beer indeed caught the brewery by surprise.
Lightner recalls a recent conversation with Head Brewer Paul Liszewski, who said, “‘I think we have to go contract somewhere, we need to find a brewery, we’re out of fermentation space.’ We had to go out and get another tank just to keep up with demand!
“So we immediately put out a note on [a local] forum, ‘Does anybody have fermentors?’ We found a 100-barrel fermentor, which will take us from 600- to 700-barrel capacity. Depending on your lager/ale mix, you can brew anywhere from 8000 to 12,000 barrels in a year.”
So Bay Area folks, if you want to literally help someone stranded (although Heveroh would be the first to say it’s never felt like that) on an island and enjoy some top-notch beers in the process, head to Richmond and catch a Freighter. The fundraiser continues as long as the kegs do.
Other Richmond businesses are chipping in, as well. The Factory Bar, Catahoula Coffee Company, and Tacos El Tucan, which have formed a coalition called The San Pablo Avenue Business District, are selling themed merch, coffee, and cocktails, with all profits going to the Lighthouse.
At one point during my Light Station tour, Heveroh is showing me the kitchen. “It’s a pretty good size, got some good appliances, and they all require lots of power, which we don’t ha…”
As if on cue, the refrigerator springs to life.
“Did the power just go on?”
“I heard something running!” I reply.
“Maybe it’s working!,” she says, excitedly.
She runs outside and shouts to Kristen Gates, Light Station Board Treasurer who was with us on that day helping out an electrician at the island’s power terminal, “The refrigerator went on!”
Gates replies, “We have power! We did it!”
Gates had been working on for weeks to repair the cable, assembling a very capable crew including an electrician, boat captain with his Tug, and her exceedingly capable brother Brian Gates.
They pulled up enough cable to expose the damaged portion, remove it, and splice in a new section. But power still wasn’t flowing. Apparently, on that day, while I was there, they made the connection.
Heveroh, apologizing several times for being distracted, continued with the tour.
“I can’t believe we have power, it’s been two months! I get to take a shower today, I’m so excited!”
Although power has been temporarily reestablished, Heveroh knows it isn’t a permanent fix. She likens her situation to being upgraded from the ICU to a regular hospital bed. While the patient is stable, she still needs monitoring.
Since the nonprofit always encourages donations anyway due to the considerable expense of maintaining and repairing a nearly 150-year-old inn in the middle of the bay, Heveroh is hopeful they can take advantage of the newfound awareness and momentum they’ve created.
“The splice won’t hold forever and then we will be in exactly the same spot,” she says. “We still need to replace the cable with a brand new one that still carries a hefty price tag, but this will give us enough time to raise those funds.”
To those who have already donated, Heveroh says “We’ve got power, but we still have these other things going on. Thank you so much for showing up. If you want to contribute to [our other repair projects], great, thank you!”
With power hopefully restored and vaccination rates increasing, East Brother Light Station is targeting September to reopen for guests, which will help tremendously with the funding they need for the replacement cable.
Heveroh knows at that point it will be time for her move on, as a minimum of two Keepers are needed to maintain the buildings and host guests.
“This job is incredibly demanding. There’s a lot of work on non-guest days — they have to haul all the laundry, get it done, fuel the boat, shop for the next week’s worth of guests. There’s no down time.” Guest stays are Thursdays-Sundays, so the Keepers “miss all of their families’ special occasions, which usually take place on weekends. You’re signing your life away to the island.”
Although the bond she’s formed with her temporary home is obvious (she repeatedly calls her time there “magical” and refers to the lighthouse as “she”), Heveroh is okay with moving on.
“I expected three months when I moved in. So every day after that has been bonus. She needs to touch more lives. No one else, in her 148-year history, has had a situation here like I’ve had, with her. So we had our special time that was just for us. And I’m grateful for it.”
As to the next chapter?
“I’m actually going to do a little tour of West Coast lighthouses that have accommodations.”
When I mention that sounds like great material for a book, she smiles knowingly.
“I’ve already thought of the title — ‘Isle Be Our Brother’s Keeper.’”