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My Encounters as a Michigan Lighthouse Keeper-Pt 3

by Colleen Kilpatrick

In Part 3 of a three-part series, guest writer, Colleen Kilpatrick. shares some of her experiences as a volunteer lighthouse keeper at Little Sable Lighthouse in Mears, Michigan. 

Before volunteering at the lighthouse, I had the mistaken notion that people with a fear of heights avoided high places. Not true. It seems that roughly 15-20 percent of the people who climbed to the top of the lighthouse had a fear of heights. How do I know? Because, they announced it as soon as they arrived at the top and one glance at their face, it was obvious they were telling the truth.

Then, with eyes wide and legs shaking, they would challenge themselves to step out onto the catwalk 100 feet above the beach. It was frightening for many, but for one woman, the experience was simply terrifying.
It was Sunday morning, our final day as lighthouse keepers. My fellow volunteer and I were savoring the view from the top of the lighthouse in a rare moment without visitors.  Because of the open nature of the circular staircase we always knew when visitors were approaching our perch. We could hear them talking or stopping to catch their breath or pausing to take in the views. On this morning, what we heard from the approaching visitors was different, a male voice saying, “You can do it. Hold on. Just a few more steps.”
Not sure what would see when these visitors emerged through the last trap door, we waited expectantly. She came through first, a middle-aged woman with tears streaming down her face, her male partner supporting and encouraging her from behind. Realizing she had reached the top of the lighthouse she began crying full-out. My partner and I both jumped up and asked if she was ok. Her husband answered for her. She was terrified of heights. Not just afraid, terrified.
We offered her a seat. She declined. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t look out the open door to the catwalk. She didn’t dare look at the view. She was completely immobilized by terror.
The other volunteer and I each took one of her hands - her cold, wet, shaking, clutching hands. Her husband explained that she had recently decided she wanted to overcome her fear of heights and the place she wanted to face her fear was this lighthouse. So they planned a week long vacation in the area with a two-part mission: to provide her the right environment to overcome her fear of heights and to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
Through tears streaming down her face she said quietly but resolutely, “It’s time. I want to do this. I want to go out on that catwalk. I want to overcome my fear.”
Her fear was intense, but her courage was greater.
While her husband videotaped this impromptu intervention, we supported her arms, spoke words of encouragement, reminded her to breathe. She wouldn’t face out. Couldn’t take in the view. Didn’t want to be reminded that she was 100 feet above the ground. But she was determined to go out on the catwalk. So slowly, arduously the three of us walked backwards over the threshold and onto that open, circular walkway way above the beach. And there we stood. Still facing in. Her, with knees buckling and eyes squeezed shut. Us, holding her up, not sure what to do next.
Through quivering voice she asked if we would guide her one step to the left of the door, then release her hands. She desperately wanted to stand on her own up there. We did as she requested, but had to pry her fingers from our hands to do so. Clinging to the exterior wall of the lighthouse she stood on shaky legs for a minute, maybe two. And then, through her tears, she smiled. She was pleased with her accomplishment. Then quietly she said, “Okay. This is enough for today. Tomorrow I will come back and do it again.”
We were drawn to the lighthouse by our own sense of adventure. What we were given was an opportunity to share our time and energy to help preserve an important part of Michigan’s maritime history. What we received in return was a treasure: the opportunity to have one-of-a-kind encounters with a variety of people and become part of their life story while they became part of ours.
If the idea of being a volunteer lighthouse keeper speaks to you, check out


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 3 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 or Part 2
Photo Credits: Colleen Kilpatrick--used with permission 

User Comments (1)

Colleen, I enjoyed the story about your experience and your great photos. Were there sleeping quarters there too or did you sleep elsewhere? And what year was the lighthouse decommissioned? Thanks, Anita Mitzel

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