My Life as a Lighthouse Keeper

Today is day three of my five-day stint as a  volunteer lighthouse keeper at Crisp Point Lighthouse in Michigan. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably imagining that being a lighthouse keeper is amazing. In some ways, it really is.

But in other ways, it’s been a really, really long three days.

Here’s what the job entails.

Suppose someone called you and said, “Want to be a lighthouse keeper? Just drive a thousand miles or so to the Upper Peninsula in June. Bring your camper because there’s nowhere here to sleep. Oh, and bring water and some kind of power source because we don’t have that either.

“Now, getting here is a challenge. You’ll drive down an 18-mile logging road filled with ditches and ruts while pulling your cute little camper.

“Once you’re here, you’re going to run the gift shop from 10 to 6, clean the bathrooms, and make sure the lighthouse tower is clean and safe. Oh, pay? No, but that’s a cute question. This is a volunteer opportunity. Don’t forget to buy a sweatshirt before you get here so everyone will know you’re a keeper.”

Know what you’d do? You’d hear “lighthouse keeper” and then “blah, blah, blah.” It’s kind of the brilliance of this whole thing.

Then you would submit your application, figure out the water and power stuff, and head north. You’d probably never stop to think, “Wait, 10 to 6? I have to be in the gift shop that whole time?” Or “What’s the weather like in the UP in early June?”

Things I did right.

Let’s start with what I did right, just because my ego could use a little boost right about now:

1. I invited Alex Kohout (of fly fishing fame) and Tanner Cawthon to go with me. That was pure genius. They are upbeat when I’m not, they make incredible meals, and they’re simply the kind of folks you want to be around because they make you better.

Tanner locking up the tower for the night

2. I brought a handheld bug zapper. More on this later.

3. I threw a down comforter into the camper at the last second. And at some point in the past I stashed gloves in the car.

4. I’m trying hard to think of a fourth thing. Nothing.

Then there are the things I did wrong.

This is going to be a long list.

1.  I volunteered us for five days. Three would have been plenty.

2. I chose to do this the first week of June which, as it turns out, is when flies and tiny mosquitoes take over the UP. Imagine stepping out of your car or camper and suddenly having at least six mosquitoes on your face and – no exaggeration – another couple hundred swirling around you. It’s like living in a plague. We have swatted hundreds of the little assholes and yet more manage to appear in our campers overnight. I’m currently sitting in my T@g on the carcasses of dozens of dead mosquitoes because I’ve given up. Clearing them out requires having the door open for a few seconds and that’s not an option.

3. My kitchen is outside. So, thanks to the flying death squad, it’s useless. Thank God for Milk Duds and Alex’s Airstream.

4. I failed to consider the fact that running a gift shop for eight hours a day means being in the gift shop for eight hours a day. Yeah, I know.  It’s obvious now but not when you’re thinking, “They’re going to trust me with a lighthouse?! This is great!”

5. I failed to consider who usually does this sort of thing. We’ve decided it’s usually manned by retirees who also serve on their HOA boards. That’s probably all I need to say there other than to point out that we aren’t those people.

6. Maybe doing this right after a bad bout with Covid wasn’t my best move. I’m still exhausted and I cough constantly. I sound like I’ve smoked for decades.

How we managed.

So all that whining aside, we’re a pretty resilient, resourceful group. We’ve learned how to manage a gift shop, we’ve been shocked by how many people drive 18 miles on bad roads to get here (150 our first day), and we’ve waged war on the flies and mosquitoes. We can’t be outside for more than a few seconds so when rain was forecast today, we set up a table in the bug-free gift shop and played cards all day. It was the best day so far.

They mastered Peanuts way too quickly.

We’ve eaten like royalty thanks to Alex’s expertise at grilling filets and smoking ribs. We’ve also inhaled a few bugs.

Some of these pancakes were later stolen by the lighthouse boss.

We’ve explored the area and walked the beach in the evenings. Mostly we’ve watched the clock, waiting for 6 pm when we’re on vacation again.

The rewards.

And for all of that, we get total peace and solitude in the evenings. We get this to ourselves.

And this:

We get to walk an empty beach filled with beautiful stones. We get to watch sunsets others can only dream of. We get to pretend that we’re really guarding the ships though in truth I only saw one and it was miles away.

Lake Superior from the top of the tower

But most of all, we got to be freakin’ lighthouse keepers! Despite the challenges, that made it worth it all!


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