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Pasco Tribune

A lighthouse in paradise

Steve Kornacki The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:42 AM

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ANCLOTE KEY -

The Anclote Key lighthouse often is admired by boaters passing the barrier island located off the coasts of Holiday and Tarpon Springs.

The restored beacon's burnt orange, skeletal steel tower strikes a brilliant pose amid the palms and pines. A black lantern room housing the Fresnel lens that sends out its light rests atop it.

The public has just two or three days each year to climb the 127-step winding metal staircase for the breathtaking view from the top, and the next opportunity is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 15. Boaters can anchor off the coast and come ashore for a tour or take one of several ferry or charter services available from New Port Richey and Tarpon Springs.

Chris Berner, the resident state park ranger and island caretaker, said the Friends of Anclote Key support group will coordinate trips to the top for small groups that day. He said 50 to 150 generally turn out for the open houses. The support group also will have various items for sale, including commemorative bricks placed near the lighthouse.

"I have to do everything that needs being done out here," Berner said. "I'm the lighthouse keeper, doing any repairs needed. And I'm in charge of visitor services, too. But it's a great job."

Berner, 67, lives alone on the island and is its jack of all trades. He was born on Clearwater Beach to parents who ran a small motel and knows a thing or two about life on a barrier island.

It is an isolated existence, but Berner has learned to cope well after nearly six years as the second resident ranger on the island since the lighthouse was restored in 2003 and a stilt house built next to it.

While sitting in a chair in the lighthouse lantern room, Berner smiled and surveyed the Gulf of Mexico surf, a pine forest and thick mangroves brimming with fish, fowl and other wildlife.

"I'm living on a tropical island," he said. "Where else could I do that without being a multimillionaire? I live on a tropical island close to home and get paid for it."

Life is good.

The lighthouse is the focal point of his paradise. It was built in 1887 and President Grover Cleveland declared the island a lighthouse reservation. It was crucial to ships traveling to Tampa Bay, and a keeper lived on the island until lighthouses became less critical to successful navigation with the advent of advanced technologies.

It was abandoned in the years after World War II and deactivated in 1985.

And it would've become so much rubble had it not been for the drive of the Friends of Anclote Key group and Toby Brewer, then the park ranger at nearby Honeymoon Island. More than $1 million was raised to restore it after it was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1999.

The light was re-lit on Sept. 13, 2003 with countless pleasure crafts bobbing in the nearby waters for the ceremony.

"It's holding up real good," Berner said. "But the paint is oxidizing, and there is talk of having to repaint it now."

Prior to restoration by International Chimney Corp. of Williamsville, N.Y., the structure was close to caving in because of severe rust and general disrepair. What had fallen apart was replaced with fabricated metal; what remained sound was sandblasted and repainted.

The brick oil house, once used to store oil for the original lighting, also was restored. Berner unlocked it to reveal a mini museum to the lighthouse. Photos, drawings and blueprints of it adorn the walls.

The lighthouse is the island's iconic figure, but Berner's house also is interesting. It has been powered by 60 solar panels, 175 watts each, since 2009. Two diesel generators provide backup. Saltwater is pumped from the state docks a half mile from the house and turned into drinking water with reverse osmosis and desalination.

Berner has Internet access with an air card, and also has a satellite dish. He has air conditioning and a full kitchen in the two-bedroom, one-bath house on stilts.

Nestled in a living room corner is a Wilson volleyball with a red hand print that replicates the prop the Tom Hanks character socialized with in "Castaway."

"I did the hand print on the ball with red paint for a shipwreck scene at a Halloween event at Honeymoon Island," Berner said. "Do I feel like Tom Hanks in that movie? Yeah, I feel like that at times.

"I'm the Lone Ranger out here. I am alone, and sometimes it can get pretty lonely. You can't really have a life on the mainland if you live here. You can't really invite anybody to come over.

"But I do have a residence in Spring Hill that I go to sometimes."

He smiled before mimicking Hanks when his volleyball floated away at sea in the movie. "Wilson! Wilson!" Berner shouted, then laughed.

Hey, life is good on Anclote Key. Lonely, for sure, but definitely good.

Anclote Key Preserve State Park

Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset daily

Lighthouse open house: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 15

Primitive camping: Reservations available by calling (727) 638-4447 or by visiting www.anclotecso.com. Hunting, dogs, alcoholic beverages and fireworks are not allowed.

Ferry and charter options: Sun Line Cruises, Tarpon Springs, $22 adults, $12 children, (727) 944-4468; Spongeorama Cruise Line, Tarpon Springs, (727) 943-2164; Windsong Sailing, New Port Richey, (727) 859-0213; Island Paradise Charters, New Port Richey, (877) 774-0589

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