Lighting the Passage for 60 years

The official party and visitors attend the commissioning of the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry and its sister cutter, the Bayberry, in Olympia, Wash., June 28, 1954. The Elderberry and Bayberry are 65-foot inland buoy tenders built to maintain aids to navigation. U.S. Coast Guard archived photo.

The official party and visitors attend the commissioning of the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry and its sister cutter, the Bayberry, in Olympia, Wash., June 28, 1954. The Elderberry and Bayberry are 65-foot inland buoy tenders built to maintain aids to navigation. U.S. Coast Guard archived photo.

This post was originally featured at Coast Guard Alaska.

If 60 years of sea duty is a long time, then 60 years of performing aids to navigation maintenance in Southeast Alaska qualifies as an eternity. Imagine working with wind whipping down the straits and narrows, with snow blowing so thick that visibility is more about what you can feel than what you can see. Picture living with the trappings of civilization separated by bays and rivers and mountains and every other obstacle the Last Frontier can muster.

Tasked with a mission immeasurably crucial, if humbly unnoticed, to the people who live there, this is the life of the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry and its crew of eight.

The Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry crew performs maintenance on a buoy while underway in Blind Slough near Wrangell, Alaska, June 10, 2014. The Elderberry crew primarily services aids to navigation in the Wrangell Narrows, a busy waterway for maritime traffic in Southeast Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class James Coleman.

The Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry crew performs maintenance on a buoy while underway in Blind Slough near Wrangell, Alaska, June 10, 2014. The Elderberry crew primarily services aids to navigation in the Wrangell Narrows, a busy waterway for maritime traffic in Southeast Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class James Coleman.

The 65-foot inland buoy tender first made its way through the Inside Passage 60 years ago, and it’s been keeping an eye on those waters ever since. Through countless captains and crews, the little black-hulled cutter has held a steady job since 1954: ensuring that mariners in the Wrangell Narrows and Southeast Alaska have reliable aids to navigation.The Elderberry is homeported in Petersburg, Alaska, which is situated on the northern tip of Mitkof Island, one of the countless pieces of land making up the expansive Tongass National Forest. It’s a corner of the world where the beauty of the landscape is matched only by its ability to turn nasty and stay that way for days.

“It’s like working with a postcard background all day long,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Randall Burr, officer-in-charge of the Elderberry.

That postcard is more than a pretty face. It’s a marine highway. Ferries, shipping barges, fishing boats and small cruise ships travel up and down the Wrangell Narrows year-round. Mix together a tight waterway and unpredictable weather and there is potential for disaster. The Elderberry crew works to remedy that problem.

The Coast Guard cutters Elderberry and Bayberry set sail for the first time after being commissioned in Olympia, Wash., June 28, 1954. The two cutters are second oldest in the Coast Guard’s fleet. U.S. Coast Guard archived photo.

The Coast Guard cutters Elderberry and Bayberry set sail for the first time after being commissioned in Olympia, Wash., June 28, 1954. The two cutters are second oldest in the Coast Guard’s fleet. U.S. Coast Guard archived photo.

From Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island to Auke Bay in Juneau the Elderberry travels, maintaining more than 250 critical aids to navigation. This 175-mile stretch of water carries traffic that feeds people around the world, delivers supplies and residents to communities and supports an enormous tourism industry. Without the crew, this watery road wouldn’t have signs, lines or lights – for 60 years.The tight-knit, all-enlisted crew sails in the wake of Coast Guardsmen who watched half of the 20th century come and go alongside their faithful service. The rich history isn’t lost on 2014’s crew, even the new members.

“The Elderberry has been a part of the Petersburg community since it was commissioned on June 28th, 1954. They even named a local holiday in honor of it,” said Seaman Jesse Keiner, a member of the Elderberry’s deck department. “To know that so many great Coast Guardsmen have come before me, worked the same buoy deck and poured hard work and sweat into this boat is very fulfilling.”

Tags: , , ,