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Citizen Dave: Two weeks on Sand Island in the Apostles
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The lighthouses are part of the ongoing effort of the Park Service to use artifacts to tell the story of the Apostles.
Credit:Dave Cieslewicz

I just got back from two weeks volunteering for the National Park Service as a lighthouse keeper in the Apostle Islands. Well, actually, "lighthouse keeper" is a romantic way to describe it. What I did was give tours of the 1881 lighthouse on Sand Island and then made sure there was enough toilet paper in the privies.

These days, the light is solar powered and completely automated. It doesn't need me or anybody else. But there was a time when lighthouse keeping was a lot of work, conducted in the Apostles during the Lake Superior shipping season, which runs from May until early December. The light had to be lit and then kept lit through the night and extinguished at sunrise. The lens, an elaborate affair of magnifiers and chambers, had to be cleaned of soot from the kerosene flame. Moreover, the wick needed to be trimmed to get a clear flame and the kerosene had to be refueled (the Sand Island light could burn 600 gallons in a single season) -- all of which needed to be completed by 10 a.m. After that, the house itself and its gardens needed tending.

Of the twenty-two islands in the archipelago, there are six with lighthouses. But the one on Sand is, in my view, the prettiest. Built in the Gothic style from island brownstone, the tower is forty-four feet above the point it is built upon, and that point itself rises a good twenty feet above the lake's surface. It's a good spot for a lighthouse.

I often asked the boaters who came for a tour if they really needed the light anymore and I always got the same answer, which went something like, "Yes! Well, no not really. We have GPS now, but the light is comforting. It's tangible."

They were saying that modern technology is accurate and allegedly foolproof, but all the same a light in the dark is something very real, something you can count on.

One young couple sailed to the island from Duluth. They told me how they got a late start and passed the light at three in the morning. They described how welcome it was to see it. It was as if someone had left the porch light on for them.

The lighthouses are part of the ongoing effort of the Park Service to use artifacts to tell the story of the Apostles. Few people realize that the park (the only national park in Wisconsin) came into being relatively late, in 1970. In 2004, most of the islands (though not Sand due to its extensive farming history) were designated the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, which means they'll be allowed to "rewild" as nature wills.

This is a good thing, but you can't erase the human history of the place. The giant brownstone quarries on some of the islands can't be ignored and the second growth forest is different from the original. And, of course, lighthouses didn't exist before settlement. The islands can never be exactly as they were before human interventions, so to leave those stories out and to pretend that the "wilderness" is untouched wouldn't be an honest tale.

So, it would be a shame to let the lighthouses go, even if they are largely unnecessary for navigation. They perform a different and equally important function today. They tell a compelling human story about how the islands were used in the commerce that shaped their history and physical reality.

I served as a "lighthouse keeper" last summer as well, so I knew the routine. On my last day on the island, I cut and trimmed the grass and swept both the house and 45 stairs of twisting wrought iron that leads up to the light. That's required of volunteers before they leave. But then I put some wildflowers in an old vase I found and placed it in the middle of a checkered blue and white tablecloth in the summer kitchen. Not required, just a nice touch, I thought.

I closed her up for the evening and locked the door behind me. As I started the two-mile walk back to my ranger cabin, I took one more look at "my" lighthouse. I had left it as good as I had found it, maybe just a little better. An infinitesimally small contribution, but one worth making.

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