On a sultry morning, Dave McNally exits Smith Point Marina and aims his 24-foot Carolina skiff toward 1 o'clock. There, his destination, a faint, gray shadow, protrudes above the Chesapeake Bay horizon.
Within minutes, the shadow resolves into the Smith Point lighthouse, a formidable octagonal structure with the haunting allure of a Victorian pile. This is McNally's weekend retreat.
For the Minnesota resident who has spent his life exploring the Mississippi by boat, the notion of "going to the Territory" has an entirely different meaning than it did for fellow river rat Huck Finn. As far as McNally is concerned, the wilderness is not Oklahoma, but a 110-year-old, working lighthouse built to mark the shoals off Smith Point in the Chesapeake Bay.
A builder and lumber yard owner who lives in Winona, Minn., McNally, 56, is a laconic guy who justifies his purchase with a matter-of-fact shrug. "I like unique properties," says McNally, who sports a bristle-brush, gray mustache, gold spectacles and a ratty T-shirt.
He's not alone, as a penchant for "extreme homes" ripples around the globe.
HGTV even produces a television show, World's Most Extreme Homes, devoted to those who have found unusual - and sometimes adventurous - spaces to nest.
Whether it's a seaside fort, a flour mill or an opera house, people are making their homes in extraordinary places that appeal not just for their location but for their stories.
In 2005, McNally was trawling eBay for available lighthouses and found one. But it wasn't "the one." Emboldened by that discovery, though, McNally Googled "lighthouses for sale," and up popped four offshore specimens put on the block by the General Services Administration.
He was drawn to the 52-foot-tall Smith Point beacon, often referred to as a "coffee pot" lighthouse because of its lopsided shape. Situated in Virginia waters close to the mouth of the Potomac River, the Smith Point lighthouse boasted a submarine power cable to Virginia's Northern Neck, a definite plus.
That October, McNally dueled with two others for the Smith Point lighthouse. Over several days, online bidding for the brick structure leapfrogged in $5,000 increments. Finally, the virtual hammer came down. For $170,000, McNally was the proud owner of a fixer-upper, with a 360-degree waterfront view and circular deck ideal for watching meteor showers and approaching storms. It also came with a powerful porch light, visible on clear, dark nights from as far as 22 nautical miles.
"I hope to spend one-third of my life out here in a couple of years," McNally says. Not that he's planning to retire. His cell phone works out here as well as anywhere else.
"I rode with [McNally] and his wife originally to show them the light they'd won," says Rich Condit, a Coast Guard lieutenant commander who supervised lighthouse operations in the lower Chesapeake when the online auctions took place. "You could see it in his eyes," Condit says. "It was very much [like a] kid getting his first bicycle."
McNally's skiff slows as it approaches the lighthouse. The cast-iron caisson supporting the light was forged in Baltimore and towed to the Smith Point shoal. There, the caisson was sunk into the sandy bottom, filled with concrete and further anchored by 150 tons of riprap stone.
From the catwalk 20 feet above, McNally's friend, Keith Dauschmidt, lowers a plastic garbage pail fastened to a rope. "That's our elevator," McNally says. He fills the pail with provisions: a case of Budweiser, two bags of ice, fresh water and macaroni salad from the Food Lion.
Tonight McNally and Dauschmidt, 48, will prepare chicken and shrimp on the gas grill resting on the catwalk. Last night, they grilled steak.
Usually McNally, the father of three, has a long list of chores to accomplish on visits to the light. This weekend, his main goal is to rig the watchhouse rooftop with fishing line. The tactic, used in McNally's continuing "war with the seagulls," keeps the gulls from munching freshly caught fish on the light and soiling it with droppings. Besides keeping the light tidier, McNally's gull deterrence strategy assures a more sanitary system for harvesting rain water, which runs from the roof to a basement cistern and circulates from there through a purifier.
As he restores the lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, McNally works from original blueprints that he found at the National Archives in Philadelphia. "Some masterful person in the 1800s drew these up," he says.
McNally and his fellow lighthouse owners aren't required to make changes to their properties. But if they do, they must comply with strict historic preservation guidelines. After four attempts, McNally finally found hurricane-proof, tempered-glass windows that met the approval of Virginia preservationists.