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Citizen Dave: I am an island
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The best part was the quiet.
Credit:Dave Cieslewicz

They say no man is an island, but I've found that you can get pretty close.

A week ago, I got back home from two weeks as a volunteer lighthouse keeper on Sand Island, pretty much the western most of the twenty one islands in Lake Superior that form the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Lighthouse keeper is a romantic-sounding occupation. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to report that the lighthouses today are solar powered and completely automated. I gave tours and made sure there was enough toilet paper in the latrines.

But that shouldn't detract from how wonderful those two weeks were. It was fun to give the tours -- what can I say? I'm a recovering politician, and I still like to have an audience. As for keeping the outhouses stocked with life's necessities, is there a more fundamentally important humanitarian mission anywhere? I think not.

There are six lights in the Apostles. And one of the interesting things about Sand is that the lighthouse is actually two miles from where the volunteer stays at the island's East Bay ranger station. So, every morning I had a two-mile commute to work through overgrown fields and orchards, second growth forest and even a patch of virgin timber.

I like to collect data. So, I can report that in my 14 days on the island, I walked 68 miles, gave 64 tours to 236 visitors, and, since the winding lighthouse tower staircase has 44 steps, I walked a total of 2,816 steps to the top of the lighthouse and another 2,816 down. (It would have been a real problem if the number coming down was less than the number going up).

I gave tours to a family from Copenhagen, a physics professor from Germany (who asked me questions about the light that I couldn't answer), a woman from Australia, a couple from England and a man from near Montova, Italy (a sister city to Madison). But most of my visitors were from the Twin Cities area and many were from Chicago. Only a few Madisonians showed up, and most of them didn't recognize me from my old job. (The few that did wanted to make sure that I had stocked the latrines.)

I ate well. You have to take two weeks worth of food, so Dianne sent along chocolate chip cookies, two kinds of biscotti, banana bread and her home made granola. I also took along some of those freeze dried camping meals, which aren't half bad and I can report that the Campbell's ham and potato chowder is really pretty good. Also, the guys who were there before me left me some fresh lake trout, which was excellent.

And I didn't neglect cocktail hour. Two fingers of Glenfiddich 12 got me through with a bonus double on my final evening. I also brought Potter's crackers, Hook's sharp cheddar, and venison sausage from Bavarian Sausage Haus.

But the best part was the quiet. No TV, radio or Internet, and my phone worked only from the top of the lighthouse and only when the wind was right. I read books. I did a little writing. I watched sailboats pass gently by, and saw bald eagles fishing off the point in front of the lighthouse. I played against myself in solitary croquet matches on the lighthouse lawn and won (and lost) every time. Most evenings I built a campfire and every night I fell asleep to the sound of waves gently washing up on the shore of the sandy beach fifty yards from my ranger station.

I like most people well enough, but it's wonderful to go for hours and hours without having to make conversation. I like having an audience now and then, but I really like being alone.

For those of you who might be interested in this kind of thing, keep in mind that you don't get paid, you have to bring all your own food, and you have to sign up for a minimum of two weeks. And you do work every one of the days you're on the island. Also, there are black flies now and then. The most important thing to keep in mind: I have seniority, so you won't get my lighthouse when I want it.

With those caveats in mind you can check here to learn how to become a volunteer. And if you just love these islands, you can also become a Friend of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Among other worthy projects, they pay for the toilet paper.

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