A Tawas Point Lighthouse Caretaker Illuminates the Experience

A LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S JOURNAL: Temporary caretakers of a Great Lakes beacon have a towering experience 70 feet above Lake Huron
Photographs by Colby Chilcote

When my wife, Colby, and I arrived for our “vacation” at Tawas Point Lighthouse, we did what any kids would do — climbed to the top of the 70-foot tower and stood in awe at the panorama of Lake Huron, the shallow waters of Tawas Bay, and the shifting sands of Tawas Point.

From the cupola, we surveyed the grounds where we would mark our third wedding anniversary with a week of nature hikes, lighthouse tours, and quiet living in the knotty-pine quarters. Like those who came before us since 1876, we were to be keepers of this Great Lakes castle.

Back on the ground, I hurried to explore Tawas Bay and the remains of a shipping dock. Seagulls called warnings, yet I paid no attention until coming face to face with a mother goose and her nest of eggs. She stood, hissed, and chased me back to shore, where I had to admit to Colby that I’d just been bullied by a bird. I was humbled, but glad to get to work in the safe confines of the lighthouse.

As volunteer keepers, we were required to guide tours of the lighthouse and museum. With 41-plus tours that week, we had it down to a science. She greeted visitors and walked them through the historically accurate keeper’s house, showing off the mustache cup with its protective sipping bar to keep facial hair tidy, the mariner’s compass, and the telephones once used to signal the assistant keeper stationed at the foghorn.

I did the legwork — a lot of legwork — walking visitors up the 85 steps, and describing how keepers past carried pitchers of lard oil every four hours to refill the lamp. At the top, I pointed out the centerpiece, a 4-by-2 foot, 450-pound jewel of a lens — a 4th Order Fresnel — made in Paris in 1880, still working and visible from 16 miles offshore. I also noted several shipwrecks offshore.

Tawas Point attracts lighthouse enthusiasts, trivia buffs, and families. I studied my lighthouse facts before the trip, but found I related most to a 3-year-old who exclaimed at the top: “We’re as high as the sky now!” The observation was as true and simple as life in a lighthouse. Keepers have no time to indulge in overanalyzing the world. If you’re not working or sleeping, you’re climbing the tower or venturing outside to hike the trails and play in the water.

On day four, I waded into Lake Huron to tour the wreckage of the May Queen, a 108-foot, two-mast schooner that crashed in a snowstorm in 1859, back when the point’s first lighthouse — Ottawa — was still operating. The wreck was no fault of the keeper. Snow had blocked the lens and the ship sprang a leak on its own. A century and a half of shifting sand has exposed a 90-foot portion of the ship’s starboard side, and the chilly, fresh water has left it well preserved, like waterlogged railroad ties held together by rusted spikes. I couldn’t help but imagine myself as Jacques Cousteau — turtleneck, red cap, and all. I tried to signal my “discovery” to my wife on shore, but she was lost to her own youthfulness, collecting driftwood and stones.

Underwater photograph by Peggy Allen

The lighthouse and point were consistently busy with visitors, and the foot traffic made it difficult to identify with the isolation real lighthouse keepers must have experienced. Temporary keepers are, in many ways, the center of attention, and at the same time the most detached individuals in the park. You promise your time to visitors, yet have complete freedom to hike the point, to discover deer trails, to watch over 300 bird species, to explore the shallow waters and shipwrecks, and to create your own life as a modern lighthouse keeper.

Even modern keepers ease into the traditional, slower pace, where minor details become grand events. Each evening, my wife and I watched the mother goose pick and peck at a patch of grass in the yard while her gander floated in the bay, keeping watch over the nest and the point. On our last day, after searching for a fox’s den, we climbed to the top of the tower to watch one final sunset over Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

I can’t say how many times I climbed the tower that week, but my favorite tour remains clear. A father from Bay City who carried an infant and coaxed two more nervous sons up the tower’s grated steps, all but forcing them, despite their fear of heights, to know the lighthouse and to understand their Great Lakes. The boys were too young for the experience to sink in as a perfectly rendered memory, but they surely came away with a sense of Michigan and of their dad, who walked them carefully back down.

A one-week stay at Tawas Point Lighthouse costs $250, which includes lodging in the loft apartment, and access to late-night and early-morning treks to the top. For more information on the 2012 season, contact Peggy Allen with the MDNR; 989-362-5658, michigan.gov/tawaslighthouse.

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