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My Encounters as a Michigan Lighthouse Keeper-Pt 1

by Colleen Kilpatrick

The first file in my file cabinet is labeled, “Fun Things to Do”. It’s not in alphabetical order as are all the other files in the cabinet. It’s front and center because the dreams and future experiences it holds are far too important to be placed in the back of the drawer.

It was there I found an article I had saved about a volunteer lighthouse keeper. Turns out my beau had saved a similar article. Together we decided 2014 was the year.
A number of independent non-profit associations in Michigan (and beyond) offer lighthouse keeper programs, but we looked no further than the organization mentioned in one of the articles: Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association. SPLKA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote 4 lighthouses on the west coast of Michigan.
In our research we learned that lighthouses were once essential for navigation on the Great Lakes, but the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) rendered them unnecessary. Consequently the Coast Guard began decommissioning them causing many to fall into a state of disrepair. Today, without the people who tend them and the people who visit them, lighthouses that are no longer in service would be erased from our Michigan landscape by sand and wind and vandals. In order to keep this important piece of our Michigan history alive and well, the organizations that operate lighthouses need volunteers. Lots of them. Consequently, becoming a volunteer lighthouse keeper is relatively easy. Turning our dream into reality involved 5 simple steps: join SPLKA, complete application, get interviewed, attend training and show up. We rounded out our preparation for volunteer duty by reading a booklet covering the history of the lighthouse to which we had been assigned.
On that first day of duty at Little Sable Lighthouse in Mears, Michigan, all of our preparation was put to good use. We greeted visitors, collected entry fees, shared the history of the lighthouse, answered lots of questions and kept the lighthouse clean. But, it never occurred to me until that first day that a lighthouse would be great place for mining stories - crazy good, slice-of-life stories - the kind that inspire greatness, make you wonder, touch your heart. By day, I captured those stories with my camera. In the evening, after the lighthouse had been cleaned and secured for the night, I captured them with my pen. Here are a few of the gems I mined.
Hippie Days

He was one of the more interesting characters to visit the lighthouse that day. His long, wavy gray hair and tie-dyed shirt caught my attention. He and his companions looked as if they had just stepped off the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine, circa 1967. While his companions took in the view on the west side of the catwalk, he approached me on the east side and asked a few questions. In turn, I asked what brought him and his friends to the lighthouse that day. Turns out they were on their own version of a magical mystery tour. An annual thing they had made it. Thirty or so of them traveling together in a caravan of restored Volkswagon micro buses equipped with all the groovy things we associate with the '60s. This year, Michigan. This day, the lighthouse. A fun and colorful group they were. 


Boys Weekend

I could hear them coming up the spiral staircase long before they reached my post at the top of Lighthouse. They were boisterous, full of energy, having fun.

The five of them hung out together on the catwalk for a long time, their razzing and laughter a constant while they took it all in. Four of them liked the height; all of them liked the views.

I asked if they would like me to take their photograph. As the camera captured the moment, I learned they were brothers, co-workers, friends enjoying a guys weekend of 4-wheeling and fun. They pointed out their 4-wheel drive pick-up truck in the distant parking lot 100 feet below. The one with the orange flags on tall poles attached to the front bumper.
When it was time for them to leave, I asked if they could do me a favor.
“See that 'I Love MI' sign in the sand below?", I asked, pointing to the beach. “Some kids made it earlier in the day and I really like it, but I can hardly see it from up here. Could you guys make the letters thicker so I could get a photo of it?"
An odd request, for sure, but they agreed.
And, bless their hearts, they did it. And others came to help them. And a line of children lay in the sand watching them.
When they had finished, I took a photo of the new and improved sign in the sand. And another of them reaching up looking triumphant. And another of them walking back to their 4-wheel drive pick-up truck with the orange flags on tall poles.

When she’s not playing the role of consultant/speaker/blogger, Colleen Kilpatrick is enjoying one of her many and varied interests, all the while collecting stories that remind us of our shared humanity and inspire us to live with gusto. A resident of Livonia then, and Milford now, Colleen confesses to leaving the state for 10 years to travel the world and experience life in a handful of other more southerly states. But, in time, the lure of the Great Lakes State pulled her back. 

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Read Part 2 and Part 3

Photo Credits: Colleen Kilpatrick--used with permission

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