If you were to take 100 lighthouse aficionados and ask them what their biggest lighthouse fantasy would be, more than 90% of them probably would say, “To be a lighthouse keeper.” Indeed, the narratives about the lifestyles of the keepers are what first attracted many to the pursuit of lighthousing in the first place.
Today, we have developed a certain romanticized vision of the lives of lightkeepers, especially those who served on isolated offshore lights. We admire their dedication to their duty, their steadfast determination to protect human life and their self-reliant spirit, all of which allowed them to fulfill this most difficult of callings. Sadly, the days of the lightkeepers are gone, and we are left with only colorful stories and faded photographs to remind us of what once was.
So, when I heard that the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society (DRLPS) was accepting applications for people to serve as guest keepers/docents on the historic and newly renovated 1931 DeTour Reef Lighthouse (or DRL as it is sometimes referred to), I jumped at the chance. Imagine it, three days and two nights in a working lighthouse, standing in the footsteps of the keepers of years past.
Of course if I wanted to serve as a keeper, I knew I had to learn the history of the light, and quite a history it is. Built in 1931 to replace the DeTour Point Light Station, the DRL was built on a 20-foot high, 60x60-foot square, concrete crib in 24 feet of water. The lighthouse building is made entirely out of steel, and stands 83 feet from the ventilator ball to the water. The tower and lantern from the 1861 DeTour Point Lighthouse, which was a skeletal steel tower identical to that at Whitefish Point, MI, was used on the new light, in order to cut costs. The light was first lit in November of 1931 and served as a guide to mariners for decades.
Fast forward to 1998. Having been automated in 1974, the DRL is in bad shape. Eager to restore the light to its original glory, the DRLPS was formed and planned the seemingly impossible: a complete restoration within six years, taking the light back to its original 1931 condition, right down to the paint scheme. A truly miraculous transformation, with no detail overlooked.
Now it’s the summer of 2005, and the Society is ready to bring visitors to the light for the first time. The volunteer keepers are brought in to assist with the tours, the cleaning & maintenance on the light, and whatever is necessary to make the tours run smoothly.
And so on July 22nd, after weeks and months of dreaming about my upcoming job as a lighthouse keeper, I arrived at DeTour village, ready to step into the role that most lighthouse lovers dream about their whole lives.
After a short ferry ride to Drummond Island, I met with my fellow keepers, Ren and Gail Farley and Judy Dolney. We spent some time getting to know each other as well as our hosts, Dave Bardsley and Chuck Feltner of the DRLPS. We were all itching to get out to the lighthouse, so we took a boat and headed out to our new duty station.
I’d seen DeTour Light once before, but seeing it this time, knowing that I was going to be actually taking charge of it, was an amazing feeling. All of us keepers expressed the same feelings of awe and anticipation as we tied up to the crib and prepared to make our ascent up the narrow iron ladder to the main deck.
What greeted us at the main deck was unforgettable: The smell. Even though the previous group of keepers had cleaned the light the previous week, the deck was covered with bird waste, and the
smell almost knocked us over. Cleaning the deck quickly became number 1 in our list of things to do.
After about 20 minutes of hauling all of our supplies up from the boat on a rope, we started settling into our new home. Dave Bardsley gave us the nickel tour, showed us how to operate everything and shoved off, leaving us four alone in the lighthouse. Watching that boat leave was an amazing feeling, and the reality started to set in – I was a lightkeeper.
But no time for dreamy-eyed reflection in our situation; there was work to be done. Like the keepers of old, it was up to us to do it.
So we set off to our tasks, sweeping the
dead bugs off the floors in all the rooms
inside and scrubbing the deck clean. Most
of Friday afternoon was filled with work,
but once dinner time came, we took a
Conversation around the dinner table consisted mostly of questions like, “Are we really here, is this really happening?” and the oft-repeated statement, “We’re the luckiest people on earth right now.” No one disagreed with that statement.
After dinner, we retreated to the place where we would be expected to go – the observation gallery below the lantern. All four of us sat out in the open air, watching the boats cruise by, listening to the birds and just feeling like the luckiest people on earth. Watching the sunset from the gallery that night will remain in my mind as one of the most extraordinary moments of my life.
Waking up Saturday morning, I had a momentary chill as I was afraid I was waking up from a dream, that I wasn’t really in the second level of an offshore lighthouse, but was back home. But of course it wasn’t a dream, and I was able to start the day with a smile. That smile didn’t last for long though, because right after breakfast, we went outside and continued the previous night’s work of cleansing the deck of the bird leavings.
After two hours of scrubbing and power washing, (making for a grand total of about six hours spent on this one task), we were able to call it complete, and all we could smell was fresh lake air. Nothing left to do now but wait for the first group of visitors to come out here to our lighthouse. Yes, OUR lighthouse! It didn’t take us long to think of it in those terms.
As the visitors came aboard one by one, we saw on their faces a reflection of our own sense of awe at this beautiful lighthouse. This special place was having an effect on everyone, a feeling that did not depart as long as they were aboard.
The tours went as planned, with visitors seeing every nook and cranny of the lighthouse, from the basement water & electrical systems to the lantern and the magnificent view of Lake Huron and the St. Mary’s River. Facts were recited, stories were told and questions were asked. And of course, many, many photos were taken.
As the visitors got onto the boat to go back to the mainland, it was clear that most wanted to stay behind, and all of them told us how lucky we keepers were to be spending the night out in the lighthouse.
The rest of Saturday was spent much the same way, with occasional breaks for us to photograph passing ships or just sit back and take in the beauty of our surroundings and our good fortune. The evening clouds that rolled in stole our hopes for another beautiful sunset, but not our contentment as we again sat on the gallery deck and just took it all in.
Now I’m not one for ghost stories and such, but we did have an interesting occurrence during the night on Saturday. A very loud metal-on-metal banging noise that wasn’t quite identifiable suddenly awakened all of us. Many theories were proposed over breakfast Sunday, from a bird flying into the wall of the building to a gust of wind blowing the tower stairway hatch cover open enough for it to slam shut. But we can’t say for sure that it wasn’t a ghost . . . . .
Sunday was a good day just because we didn’t have to go out and clean the deck again. A little touch-up here and that was all we needed, and we were ready for our visitors again. But this day, there was a touch of melancholy because we knew that we’d spent our last night in the lighthouse and we’d be leaving in a few hours. Perhaps the foggy, cloudy weather had something to do with it too.
One nice bonus we got, of all things, was lunch. As the captain of the boat waited for one of the tours to conclude, he got bored and grabbed a fishing rod. Rather unexpectedly, he landed a small king salmon, which he promptly filleted and sent up to us in the light – from the lake to the lunch table in less than 90 minutes, and man, was it delicious!!
Then came the inevitable. The last tour was winding down and it was time to leave our new home. We packed up our trash and supplies and lowered them down to the boat one at a time, each bag bringing us closer to leaving our lighthouse for good. Despite dragging our feet, we finally got everything loaded. The tour finished up as planned, and it was time to go. As our final duty assignment on the DRL, we walked the outer perimeter and locked up all of the steel shutters, closing the lighthouse off in its protective shell. Locking the front door to the light was tough for me, as if I was abandoning my new friend, but I could not be more confident in the stewardship the light will receive at the hands of the DRLPS. As we motored away from the light back towards DeTour village, I was able to reflect on the last three days, and felt how lucky I truly was to have been a part of this great program.
When I signed up for the keeper program, I was expecting a unique experience that would be a good chance to take some good photographs and have fun out in a lighthouse. What I got was so much more. People often talk about having a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, but I can now say that I absolutely had one. As long as I live, I’ll never forget my three days in DeTour Reef Light, and the people I shared that time with. Judy, Ren and Gail were great companions and wonderful keepers, and of course Dave, Chuck, Jeri, Clif and the rest of the folks with DRLPS are pure inspiration for lighthouse preservationists everywhere.
I have hundreds of photos from this weekend – of freighters, blue skies, seagulls, and of course the lighthouse inside and out – but the memories that keep replaying in my mind are more vivid than any photo could be, and those are what will stay with me forever.
For anyone who has a chance to become a volunteer keeper, I urge you to take the opportunity. And if you would have the occasion to serve on DeTour Reef Light, please take care of her for me. I’ll be back someday.
This story appeared in the
October 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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