Beaver Archipelago, Pt. 4: "The Lightkeeper Wonders"

May 2013.

RETURN to part 3

Day 2.
I awoke much later than planned, with the sun already above the horizon. It was after 8am and I lazily rolled out of the top rack to see that my food had happily not been devoured by vermin, and the weather was glorious, though still chilly. My provisions for this five-day excursion included a 24oz. wheel of sourdough bread, two bags of trail mix, three apples and three pears. I quickly kindled some twigs to make a cup of coffee, and sat proudly and contentedly on the porch sipping it while looking out to the bay where the sun was rising over Beaver Island.

I still had a few hours to investigate the area before Captain Bonadeo would arrive to pick me up. I retraced many of my steps in the House of David Village, finding one or two more structures I had missed yesterday. Another shot of the lumbermill smokestack:

Actually my main objective was to locate Lake Maria which had totally evaded me yesterday. The reason this bugged me is that I wanted to make sure I was in the right area to find the main bulk of the village, which sat right next to its shores. There had once been a trail around the lake but it is completely gone, replaced by a densely forested tangle that I had to fight through to eventually glimpse Maria's placid waters.

When I finally burst from the verge of the woods the same two bald eagles I had disturbed yesterday again greeted me when I entered their silent sanctuary:

After a few minutes I then bounced back out into the treeline again in search of ruins.

I found but one more dilapidated house before noticing the Liberty pulling slowly into the harbor at a few minutes after 10am.

Fred and Captain Bonadeo made land and helped me aboard with my pack.

We carefully tied up and transferred into the Liberty again, started the engines and were off to the second leg of my journey. We were scheduled to spend a few hours on Squaw Island, some eight or nine miles to the northeast, before continuing on to Garden Island where I would spend the next two days. The enigmatic humped silhouette of High Island receded into the distance above our wake, and the lake's blue haze began to mask it once again, casting it in that almost illusory appearance of maritime mirage.

Trout Island appears to the right in that photo (MAP).

My guides shared the leftovers of their venison barbeque dinner from last night as we bobbed to our destination, cheerily discussing island stuff. One thing that came up was the old airfield that had been on High Island near the first farm field--I had not found it. Granted all that remained was a clearing and a metal ring on an old knotty pine pole that once held the windsock, but I had been on the lookout for it. Jon explained that I had been very close. He also went on to say that all of the old air strips on these islands that were once maintained by the DNR had recently been rendered unusable. They did this on purpose by ploughing large ruts across them to prevent unauthorized people from landing there, for whatever reason. All three of us cursed the idiocy of this typically nitwitted governmental decision. So now pilots in distress must be forced to crash-land, or drop it in the drink? What happens when it's one of their own DNR planes that develops engine trouble in a storm?

Jon also mentioned that he was in fact a Detroiter, originally, having grown up at Evergreen & 7 Mile. Crazy--I would never have pegged this guy as being from around the way, but sure enough he spent the first half of his life there (granted it was a different city back then). He had scored a great-paying white collar job for an auto manufacturer at a young age and had been told that if he stuck with it, he was "set for life."  But around the time he turned 25 he decided he needed more than that out of life, and gathered up his wife and all the money he had earned so far, bought a boat and took up residence on Beaver Island, hoping to be able to cut it in the hard life of an islander. That was in May of 1978, exactly 35 years ago. Back then no one wanted to live way the hell out here, so island real estate was still dirt-cheap he said.

Jon found it easier to make a life on the island than he expected, and soon found himself at the helm of a rather lucrative construction business building cottages for the rich executive types he used to work for. He never looked back. In fact he has not been back to Detroit (or even really been back to the mainland much) since he left in 1978. He asked me what it was like back there these days, since he had been hearing so much talk of it in the media. "Is it really as bad as they're saying?"

Wow…this guy really didn't know, did he? He had managed to deftly sidestep the entire downfall of Detroit…he was completely insulated. Amazing. On the other hand, I had been born at the exact same time that he left, and ironically have only witnessed Detroit's demise in my lifetime. I took a deep breath and sighed before attempting to fill him in on the past three and a half decades of modern history as he sat and listened intently, a distant fascination on his face, though he seemed barely able to comprehend. It was like I was talking to someone who had just stepped out of a time machine wearing bellbottoms and a disco medallion, trying to explain to them how the vibrant, crowded neighborhoods of 1978 were gone and replaced by empty prairies full of wrack and ruin. He was the ultimate example of white flight. Incredible.

Seas were much calmer today in the passage, and we made good time. I could already tell today would be warmer. We passed a long sand spit extending out from Whiskey Island's tail, with waves breaking over it just off our port side:

There were a lot of hazards in these treacherous waters, and Captain Bonadeo kept the charts close at hand. In fact they were more often than not, in his hand. Even though he has been doing this for 35 years, one has to be on the ball. Especially with these drastically lower lake levels…where once something may have in the past been "doable," "a little touchy," or "almost too close for comfort," it was now serious business. The tolerances on your margins for error tighten up considerably.

Here we are, just off Whiskey Island, with Squaw Island coming up in the distance (MAP):

During my time in Jon's capable hands this week, I heard the warning buzzer on the depth gauge go off a couple times, and it was rare that I could not see the bottom unless we were in true deepwater. Depths in the archipelago range from an average of seven feet to 100 feet. We had problems approaching Squaw Island, which Jon predicted beforehand. Again, he had not been here since last season, but typically the bottom in the lee of Squaw is rock, and it's hard to get an anchor to set properly because it will want to skip around across the sheer surface.

As stated earlier, Fred was a total landlubber and by this point Jon had me take over his duties. The plan was to drop both anchors, let out more than the usual amount of line, pull them hard to test them, and hope they held. After 15 minutes we still could not get one to set. I had to raise them again, and have him circle back around with me hanging over the pulpit staring into the water to visually look for a rock big enough to put the anchors on. We didn't really find one, but eventually got them to set satisfactorily enough to where the Liberty would stay put at least long enough for us to putz around the island for a couple hours without finding it aground when we came back.

We had more trouble when we tried landing in our motorboat.

Where once he usually had no trouble beaching it right up on shore, we got stuck on the rocks continuously, having to use the oars to shove ourselves the last several yards toward the shore. With all three of us and my heavy pack, we were just pushing too much draft to make it all the way, so the 200lb Fred volunteered to take his shoes off and pull us in. Jon shook his head disdainfully at the changes in routine brought on by the unusual water levels.

After a brief sit on the pebble beach we cracked up into the cedar thicket in the direction of the lighthouse, whose lantern room had only momentarily been barely visible amongst the trees at a distance during our approach to the island.

Jon knew the way, though no specific trail really existed. This island is small enough and so seldom trafficked that no trail had developed, nor had one necessarily needed to. At a mere 75 acres, this island is a flyspeck, though it is wall-to-wall evergreens so unless you're up in the lighthouse tower, you can't really tell.

Also, the bugs were epic. Of biblical plague proportions. This was the stuff of early-1800s travelogue accounts of pioneers who forged into the untamed Great Lakes region when it was mostly swamp, bewailing the clouds of insects and other pests that made life on the frontier unbearable. I finally knew what they were talking about. But luckily these were just midges, not mosquitoes or black flies, as we were still a bit early in bug season. These guys while slightly bigger than mosquitoes did not come after us or want to bite…but they were in such sheer numbers that it was impossible not to have them getting up in every facial orifice at all times. We were literally in a dense cloud of swarming bugs, which made a collective siren-like hum from their wings. We forged ahead to the lighthouse.

…the graininess you see in the areas of sky in these photos is not due to digital noise; each of those millions of dark tiny pixels is a midge (click to enlarge photo).

Happily, Squaw Island Light is not one of those cookie-cutter design ones, and has a bit of its own architectural uniqueness. Here, you can see the midges in much better focus:

This architectural uniqueness was one of the things that made me want to come check it out. For a long time it sat abandoned to the elements, but Jon told me it and the whole island had been bought up by the current owner for a mere $250k several years ago, and that he had unsuccessfully tried to convince his dad at the time that it was a worthy investment. Stabilization work had been done, and it was currently for sale again at around two million if I'm not mistaken. Whether it will sell for that or not remains to be seen.

Jon knew the guy to some extent, and has an agreement to come check on the place whenever he is here to make sure it is not vandalized, and to take people such as myself up inside for a look.

The island got its name because according to Anishinaabe folklore it had powers to ensure fertility in women. Squaw Island was first considered for a lighthouse in 1880, but it wasn't until 1887 that the Lighthouse Board decided it was time, noting,
The passage to the westward of Beaver Island is being generally used by steam-barges from Chicago and Milwaukee and other ports on the lakes, during fall and spring, when the northwest winds prevail. It would be used at all times but for the shoals and dangers on the north shore of Lake Michigan. An appropriation has already been made for a light at Pointe Seul Choix, and with another at Squaw Island the passage can be made at all times with greater safety.
Unfortunately Congress didn't come through with the money until 1891, and the station did not go in service until the end of the 1892 season. The cornerstone here faintly reads "1892":

The fourth-order Fresnel lens revolved to produce a red flash every fifteen seconds, and the steam whistle operated with five-second blasts followed by alternating intervals of 20 and 40 seconds of silence. The lens's rotation was powered by a dropping weight that had to be wound up every three hours and 40 minutes.

The sophisticated security system in use here involves a small iron hook attached to the door, which latches into another metal eyelet in the door frame. Jon looked relieved when I acknowledged that I was done taking my exterior photos, and we could proceed inside to escape the bugs.

Jon went right for the log book to record our visit and check to see who had been here last. I began to wander into the cool, dark shadowy interior of the boarded-up house. Not much serious work had been done yet, but then again, it was in pretty good shape to start with.

The stairs were awful nice.

During the thirty-seven years Squaw Island Lighthouse was in service, it only had two keepers, William Shields and Owen C. McCauley. On December 14th, 1900, Shields, his wife Mary, and Mary’s niece Lucy along with assistant keepers Owen McCauley, Lucien Morden and their dog packed up their 22-foot sailboat to head back to Beaver Island for the winter. 

During the trip back to Beaver a sudden squall kicked up and capsized their boat, sending all six occupants into the drink. Unable to right the boat by themselves, they were forced to lash themselves to the overturned hull and hope for rescue, all except for Morden that is, who refused to do so.

The dog, and both women had expired by nightfall, and a few hours later, Morden too succumbed to exposure and slipped into the lake. By morning the boat had drifted into the shipping lane, and the steamer Manhattan spotted it and came to Shields and MacCauley's rescue. They, and the two ice-covered women were hauled aboard and taken to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Upstairs, a couple mostly-bare bedrooms lay cloaked in darkness, but for some creepy light filtering through the bare lath slats in the ceiling:

MacCauley was treated and returned to duty on Squaw Island by the next season, but Shields wasn't as lucky. Frostbite claimed his right leg, which had to be amputated. He fulfilled the rest of his career to the Lighthouse Service at the Charlevoix depot, while MacCauley stayed on post here at Squaw until this lighthouse was superseded in 1928 by the new Lansing Shoal Light, and deactivated.

A sort of balcony or atrium:

I somehow stumbled my way directly to the base of the tower.

When my two comrades caught up to me, we went straight to the top. A view from a staircase window in the tower:

The view was something else. Even with googolplexes of these f@#$%n bugs up in our grilles this was worth the price of admission and then some. We could see the entire circumference of the island from the lantern room here with no trouble.

Garden Island seen to the left, and Beaver Island to the right. MAP.

The assistant keeper's house was the one with scaffolding. There was also a chapel built here by the keepers at one time, but after the station was abandoned it was looted of its fixtures, which included stained glass.

As you can see, the catwalk railings were coated in midges too:

The dauntless mariner himself:

To the southwest, Whiskey Island was in our immediate view, with High Island behind it, and smaller Trout Island off to the right:

In an even more zoomed view, you can barely make out the silhouette of Gull Island to the right of Trout Island:

To the north, the coastline of Michigan's Upper Peninsula was visible:

Off in the distance stood the hazy shape of Lansing Shoal Light, which is still active and serves the purpose that Squaw Island Light used to, once upon a time, in a more romantic era:

Crazy that we could so easily descry the entire surface of this miniscule island from up here.

If not for the bugs we could have stayed up here much longer.

Finally, in the interest of time, we came back downstairs to the kitchen.

Fred spent some more time perusing old entries in the log book to see who had come here from where, while Jon read over his shoulder making wisecracks at his expense.

I also checked out the basement cursorily while they were reading, but there was nothing of note.

It was now time to venture over toward the old fog signal building, most of which Jon noted was in excellent condition for having never been repointed in its entire life.

I offered my usual theory that the thinner mortar joints used between bricks back then was the cause, and Jon, being a contractor himself immediately verified this, saying that the fatter mortar joints of our modern times are indeed more prone to decay, and are the product of builders trying to save a course or two of bricks by making the mortar joints wider.

Inside, the old boiler had long been scrapped out and melted down into a battleship or something back in WWII. Two lone pieces of Gilded Age mechanism remained--he explained they were part of a timing system that dictated the intervals of when the fog signal would sound.

CLICK for part 5

Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, by Larry & Patricia Wright, p. 335

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