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Beacons Beckon

On a Md. Lighthouse Tour, You Can See The State in a Flash

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By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007; Page C02

Seventeen years living in Maryland, and I'd never seen Point Lookout. I love the Eastern Shore, but the communities along the Upper Chesapeake? New to me.

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And during umpteen visits to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, I've always stopped to watch those crazy dragon-bowed paddleboats (too much work to actually get into one). But I'd never once noticed that ship with the beacon on it a hundred yards away.

Take part in the Maryland Lighthouse Challenge -- I'd never heard of it either, until two friends asked me to join them last month -- and you can't avoid them. Over a 36-hour period, I put more than 500 miles on my Honda, toured nine lighthouses and one lightship, ate three pounds of junk food and discovered parts of my home state I never knew existed.

Maryland is home to about two dozen lighthouses, all clinging to the edges of the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Five years ago, the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society launched the Challenge, which incorporates the 10 sites I visited. According to event chairwoman Karen Rosage, it's the only time all are open to the public simultaneously, so it's a great way to get your Fresnel lens fix. (Next year's will be Sept. 20-21, but if you're jonesing for a Lighthouse Challenge thisveryminute , New Jersey -- which came up with the concept -- holds its version this weekend; see "On the Light Side" at right for details.)

The basic idea: Participants download a map or grab a Challenge brochure and drive to each lighthouse. That's drive, not race. No registration is required; just show up and start ogling. Climb the innards if it's allowed, admire the view and hit the gift shop, then receive a commemorative doodad. Last month's trinket was a magnet bearing the image of each lighthouse; if you completed the circuit, you got an additional magnet exclaiming, "I've seen the lights!" The first year, 507 enthusiasts checked in at all the landmarks; this year, 459 accomplished the feat.

So who does this, anyhow?

"Some people are just fascinated by the architectural design; others just see them from a photo standpoint," said Rosage, noting that this year's Challengers came from 25 states and the District. "Some like the history, that they saved lives, and others are fascinated by the lighthouse keepers themselves."

And some, like me, just like the idea of a challenge. It wasn't quite a double-dog dare, but zipping around collecting the souvenir magnets took a lot more time than expected.

We began the adventure at the Hooper Strait Lighthouse in St. Michaels before looping northward to beacons at Elk Neck State Park and Havre de Grace, wearily ending the day at a Baltimore brew pub after touring the lightship Chesapeake moments before it closed. Then, on Day 2, we foolishly slept in before driving south to Fort Washington National Park, whose lighthouse is open only for the Challenge. After a long haul to the towers at Piney Point and Point Lookout, we nabbed our final magnets with minutes to spare at Solomons Island, touring the lovely Drum Point light and nearby Cove Point.

But now I need to do it again. Every bit of it, a sort of Maryland 102. The Challenge was great fun, for sure, but I missed too much.

I need to go back and tour that maritime museum in Havre de Grace, check out the cute towns we sped through such as Chesapeake City and Elkton, spend a night (or two, or three) in St. Mary's County and explore places without a view of the bay. And I want to see the lighthouses again, this time framed by wintry skies and leafless trees. I have a feeling I'll be wheeling through Maryland again during next September's Challenge, but why wait till then?

I may have seen the lights, but I've also seen the light.


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