by Catherine Young
I look around, seeing nothing but wet, gray air. The island is socked in good. I lift the radio from the holster on my belt and hesitate only a moment before pushing the button.
"303 to Base."
"Base to 303," the voice on the radio answers.
"Um, could I have a radio check?"
"You sound fine."
I detect a smile in the dispatcher's voice, fourteen cold water miles away. Probably someone is in the headquarters office with her, snickering.
"Thanks. 303." I sigh and put the radio back on my belt. They know I'm not checking the park radio I wear on my backside. I am reaching for the sound of a human voice. My radio has been silent for hours, and not even my AM/FM receiver in my residence can provide me with a connection to the world beyond where I stand. On Raspberry Island, forty miles away from the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, I might catch a whisper of a station, and then lose it as it fades into static.
This is going to be a long, silent day on the island.
Raspberry Island is only one of twenty-two islands in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It's 1982, I'm twenty-four years old, freshly out of college and I've been hired as a seasonal Interpretive Technician. I am proud to wear the brown arrowhead patch on my left shoulder; proud to wear my gold medal badge and my engraved nameplate on my shirt pockets. Even though I have never visited a national park, I have wanted this since I was eight years old; have envisioned wearing the green and gray uniform, leading visitors out on trails, inspiring them with tales of Yosemite, or the Great Smoky Mountains – any of those national treasures visited with a few clicks of a Viewmaster. Only a decade after the Women's Liberation Movement, I want to wear the hat and boots and want to prove that women, too, can do this. And this particular woman is petite and inspired. Instead of possessing law enforcement gear to protect a national treasure I carry a powerful voice ready to inspire with stories of place.
But enveloped in fog, alone on Raspberry Island, I have no one to tell it to on this particular day.
In this new park, the programming schedule for tourists to the Apostle Islands is on trial. Visitors are scarce on cold, wet summer days. Island sitting can be lonesome, especially for those of us in the Park Service hired to talk. But it is lonesome in Bayfield, too, the Lakeshore's headquarters. There I am plunked down into a community trying to reinvent itself from a Great Lakes fishing port town into a tourist destination. Restaurants are just beginning to serve visitors from outside the area. People in faraway Midwestern cities are eyeing investment property. Local people might or might not acknowledge an NPS employee in uniform on the street because the government condemnation of private island properties is recent. And with each Saturday and Sunday as workdays and staggered days off, park work schedules don't allow us to get together with townspeople, or even our coworkers, however friendly.
At the beginning of the summer we seasonals toured all around the islands on a fast park boat, noting docks, sandspits, wilderness camping sites, and lighthouses. Of the five lighthouses in the Apostle archipelago, the Raspberry Island light captured my heart:
a four-square white-clapboard, red-roofed Midwestern duplex, complete with a central wooden tower. It waits on a forested island, looking like a magical farmhouse set down. The effort of crossing the water to get there makes it feel so remote, yet deeply familiar – somewhat like Dorothy's experience landing in Oz.
Raspberry Island. So far north in the Midwest and so cold that lilacs bloom there on the Fourth of July −and so far from its glory days as a home to Keeper, Assistant Keeper, and their families. At Raspberry Island the light is no longer burning. The tower has been empty for many years. The site appears as a light-filled, yet melancholy place. Some sadness hangs there as the lighthouse waits to be restored to its former beauty, as it waits for the garden to flourish, and for visitors with children to run and play once more on the lawn. It is in the process of a makeover: newly painted white siding, windows edged in black and newly redone red tarpaper roof. Each half of the duplex is an inviting home with front entrance, screened in porch, parlor, kitchen, backdoor − but the whole building is empty of furnishings. The the Assistant Keeper's quarters and the Keeper's quarters still mirror each other in lovely symmetry on either side of the light tower. The newly restored garden piques the imagination. And I wonder, What would it be like to live here? What are the stories of the ghosts of this place?
Early in the summer season when there was no ranger stationed on Raspberry Island, I was assigned to mainland duty. I accompanied visitors several times a week, riding the concessionaire's boat to Raspberry and back for what was billed as a daytrip on a rehabilitated diesel passenger boat brought from Florida. The Sea Queen took an hour and a half each way, chugging and churning so slowly the NPS employees dubbed her "Speed Queen" after the heavy duty automatic washing machine from our childhoods. While crossing the waters on the cruise service boat, the captain and I took turns narrating history. As we pass between wooded islands – Basswood, Hermit, Oak, the captain narrated the more bawdy tales from characters and ships in the past century. Mine were more to the point of what the Park Service really wanted visitors to know so they could help protect this place. And then against the blue-green of a distant island, the Raspberry lighthouse would appear, its shape so distinctive, pleasing and symmetrical, like a great white bird with its wings spread wide. I go out to ride along the rails, happily sniffing the wind, letting myself get soaked by spray as the boat slapped at three-foot waves, or I would search for the lighthouse in fog, wondering if this time we'd be able to land.
At some point in the summer there was a change in personnel, and Raspberry needed a ranger. I jumped at the chance to leave the mainland behind. The islands − that's what this national gem was all about.
I arrive on Raspberry via the fast park boat carrying only food, water, and clothing. It's five days on the island, two days off – if the boats can make it. If not, it might be ten days on, four days off.
I am the sole person living on a very small island that holds a very large and vacant historical building. The Assistant Keeper's quarters are used for maintenance storage, and the Keeper's side holds only a few photo exhibits in an upstairs bedroom. Not a single curtain hangs in any of the many windows. My residence sits in back of the newly restored garden − mostly tiny greens struggling against red sandy clay. Visitors laugh to find out that the small two-windowed building that had once been the cow stable for lighthouse families is now a ranger residence, and that the only other functional building on the property is the outhouse. When asked about my little home I quickly deflect questions. Here I am; a female ranger alone on an island with miles of cold, deep, waters between my station and headquarters in town. I have no weapon except for a useless can of mace in my closet-sized bedroom and my ability to talk my way around potential trouble − which I do, frequently. Like the time four men on a sailing boat, beers in hand, encouraged me to take a ride with them after duty hours. They came back several times that day. "Oh, I don't get off duty," I assured them as my heart pounded. I breathed deeply to maintain my cool. "Never," I smiled, as I let my eyes drift away.
This far north light lingers into the summer night awhile. I stay outdoors as long as I can until I have to give in. The actual Raspberry "light" sits on a pole at the edge of the lawn. Its plastic Fresnel lens is about the size and shape of a flowerpot and flashes every two seconds. The remainder of the island and the surrounding waters of Lake Superior reflect complete darkness. Back against the woods, in my little residence, the only light is a Coleman lantern that hisses and sputters above the table in the tiny kitchen, making the room less friendly than the silent darkness of the little building. If the Coleman lantern sputters and stops, there is no light, and I dwell in darkness for a night or two until my shift on the island is done. I cook on a gas stove that barely boils water for warm meals. There is no other heat. The air is cold and wet. At bedtime I wear layers upon layers of wool clothing, including hat and socks, and climb deep into my sleeping bag. All night, waves slap against the island's banks. I fall asleep to my own heartbeat, drowned out by the voice of my ever-present companion, Gitchegumi, Lake Superior.
In daytime on the island, I move as if enchanted. I am alone with my own voice. I can sing and shout − and only the trees hear me. The waters ignore me. I am under their spell. Sailors through time immemorial heard Sirens. Lake Superior too, sings and speaks. There are voices I hear once I let go. I breathe: push, pull. And the Lake breathes: Whufomph…shushhh, Whufomph…shushhh, Step, swing your leg. Step, swing your leg. In between breaths, in between steps, between waves, there is this moment of suspension, so fleeting, like the dream voices you hear when you are drifting off to sleep. Whufompf…shushhh, Whufompf…shushhh, No place on the island is completely free of these sounds.
There is the Swedish word for island, so basic it consists of only one letter: ö.
Sometimes on a perfectly blue-sky-windy day I feel I am a captain on a ship some people call an island, sailing deep waters to some sunny place. The lighthouse tower is prow. But in fog, I am a sailor lost at sea. I can find neither my way, nor my memory. In fog, nothing exists beyond my hand.
For me, receiving visitors is a way of rising to the surface out of the deep waters I live in. Four times per week, depending on the waves, the boat is due. Leaving Bayfield mid-morning it (hopefully) arrives at noon. The arrival of the Sea Queen is a thrill I never tire of. When visitors land on the island, it is as if color comes back into the world, light infuses the island tower.
I watch for the boat from the top of the stairs at the lawn's edge. Just as the Queen is paralleling the dock and the first mate begins to toss the lines, I descend. It is a perfect moment. I greet the visitors, and together we get ready to embark on a journey through time. We climb the steep stairs to the lawn, get oriented, and then head inside the lighthouse.
Visitors follow me up wooden stairs through an empty bedroom, and then to the central hallway. We climb a ladder, leaving behind the solid living quarters nestled below. Keening wind surrounds the tower as visitors squeeze in around the iron pedestal which once held the magnificent lens. The brass mechanism and the glass beehive of prisms are gone, moved to a museum at another location. The Fresnel lens that once magnified a tiny flame and sent its power out to save ships, exists only in my story and pencil drawing as visitors stand around the empty pedestal. All I have is my voice as I draw a beacon of light reaching back through time to hilltops with bonfires, to ships crossing waters through the ages to where we stand. The beacon shines out from Raspberry to the Anishinabe people describe the islands' creation from earth held in the paw of a muskrat; to French voyageurs who traded with Anishinabe people for furs and adapted to their ways with birchbark. My voice shines out to tell how once claimed by farmers and entrepreneurs, the islands were logged, fished, and quarried for the brownstone that built magnificent buildings in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis; how Great Lakes sloops and ships sought shelter amid the island waters, and how as a result, lighthouses guided the way through. With my voice I fill this empty lighthouse, give it life, repopulate it with the Keeper and his assistant, working through the night to keep the flame burning and the clockwork flash mechanism wound and running from lake-thaw in spring until freeze-up in November. I bring in the wives, children, and cow arriving in early summer. Croquet games and picnics. Storms, unpredictable and frightening. Sadness of family departures in fall. Cold and darkness growing, ice coating, and the Keeper's light extinguished for a season, and, later, forever.
From the lighthouse observation deck, the great waters spread out before us. We turn to look out from the tower above the trees. On a sunny day, the world is a deep silvered blue, wrinkled by the hatch marks of waves. I open the half-door to the catwalk, bend down and head outside. Visitors follow. This high up with nothing to block wind or the view, the open metal railing always elicits an audible gasp. I could tell them that in the daytime, alone up here, I can see the infrequent grain and ore boats pass through in the distance, that a churning boat is beautiful, sliding across the watery horizon: long rust-red, black and cream-colored against the silvered waters. I could tell them that over to the right, to the west, each evening, if the sky is clear, I see the lights of Silver Bay and Two Harbors, Minnesota. I could try to tell them about the sumac-flamed sunsets which sometimes fill the sky and set fire to the water − but that is mine alone to view.
On days when visitors have a little time, we walk the trail downhill to the sandspit, the place where visitors meet the Lake, stand at the water's edge and look out to the surrounding wild islands. Because the superintendent wants employees to avoid scratching the paint on park boats, we rangers wear smooth-soled hiking boots, treacherous for hiking. As I lead visitors, I slide down the steep trail as gracefully as I can manage.
If I have made my connection just right with the visitors, they will look quietly out over the big water and try to imagine what living on an island is like for all who have come here. And then, if I have my timing just right, the visitors and I will return to the dock before the captain starts wailing on the horn.
There are many days when the tourist boat can’t dock. Conditions are too dangerous. The captain, a skilled former Coast Guard employee, calls out on a loudspeaker as he tries to see if he can come close enough without the waves slamming the boat into the side of the dock. When he shrugs, I wave hello/goodbye to the rocking boat and the disheartened visitors, and make my way back up the stairs to the lawn. It's another day of just me and the Lake.
Me and the Lake. The Lake and I. I empty and let the voices of the Lake fill me. As waves crash and recede, I feel the push-pull of this beautiful place: a charming home a world apart from mainland. I wonder about the Keepers and their families. Surely it felt lonely for them at times though they had a house full of objects and daily tasks of living to do. Their life here revolved around a clockwork mechanism and a milk cow. My life here is adrift. My only mooring is to hold their stories frozen in time, animating them when visitors arrive. Without a lamp to light, a wick to trim, I find my own way to my work and a rhythm.
Each morning I prepare a warm breakfast and put on my uniform. Just before 8 A.M. I raise the American flag up the pole, and run to the top of the dock stairs to check wind speed, temperature, and water conditions. By 8:10, Morning Roundup begins. Sanity requires ritual, and the Park Service has lots of people to keep from cracking.
"Base to 303," the dispatcher calls, and I report weather conditions and my work from the day before. Gosh, what did I do all day?
"Cleaned windows." (No soap, but lots of water in Lake Superior, of course, hauled up the seventy-six steps from the dock to the lawn, across the lawn to the lighthouse, up to the second floor and up the ladder to the tower. Removed hundreds of flies stockpiled against the uncurtained wooden windowsills since last fall.)
"Weeded garden." (Knelt on the hard, red soil, coaxing tiny radishes and cabbages to grow on this island for the first time in perhaps fifty years. Not really much surviving this cold summer. Hauled water up the seventy-six steps from the dock to the garden. Impossible work without compost or manure. We need a cow.)
"Greeted visitors (not very many) and led them up to the tower. Gave a nature walk to the sandspit." (Raced them through the lighthouse and the woods because the concessionaire's boat arrived late and had to return on time.)
What I don't say: Picked lilacs in July, setting them in a canning jar on my tiny table. They scent the room, giving me a second or third chance at spring. Picked a few of the abundant orange jewelweed flowers, seeking colors to contrast against the green and blue of island and water, the rust red soil. Now I understand the choice of red and white for lighthouse colors. As much as making the lighthouse visible to ships in times before radar, they give a splash of color against the boreal blue, green and gray.
Bathed at the sandspit by putting on my fuchsia swimsuit and rolling around quickly in the frigid water. Three jumps done, sat on the sand. Shivered, grinned, and dried off. I am an Amazon, a Lake Superior power bather who immerses herself in waters whose summer temperature at the sandspit hovers around 50° Fahrenheit. I bathe by running into one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet. My method is to run in, scream, and run out. Over time the body adjusts to it. Week by week I progress from a single dash, to multiple dashes into the water. I begin to stand in the frigid water up to my ankles. Dip my whole head in. Then sit down on the sand and enjoy the waves washing over me. And finally, I can sit in the water as if I’m in a bathtub. Visitors discover me, amazed. I feel the kind of power that comes from being in one wild place, every moment of every day.
Had a visit from a ranger on her day off. We had made a pact to visit each other's island lighthouse stations if we could get catch a park boat in the right timing. After convincing ourselves that walking the perimeter of my island is a good idea and a major contribution to our jobs, the two of us grab sandwiches and take off. It's only two miles around, right? And there's no way to get lost on a tiny island when all you have to do is keep the Lake at your right shoulder. But after two hours we wonder if we'll ever find our way back to the lighthouse. We continue bushwhacking, fighting waist-high yew, until four hours from when we left the lighthouse, we arrive back at the lawn. We are scratched, hot, and thirsty. We sit on the top of the dock stairs and look out over the expanse of water. We say nothing. After a while we look at each other and laugh. Later we will boast.
Heard voices in the water − the kind of singing that you only hear when the slapping of water becomes part of your blood.
Watched a black bear swim by.
Climbed the tower as I do each evening to bring closure to the day and watched the swallows. Tree swallows murmur from their nests below the roofline of the brick fog signal building. In earlier times, when ships possessed no radar to navigate among the sheltered waters of the islands, a huge bank of glass batteries filled the fog signal building to power the horn. Except for the swallows’ calls, the lighthouse grounds are empty of all sounds but water and wind. Their murmurs comfort me.
The park superintendent is concerned about bird droppings on the sidewalk along the historical building. Part of my job is to knock down the muddy shelf nests. I cannot do it. I want the swallows to remain in their wild exhilaration. They remind me of drunken sailors. Hey Mate! they call, Come on along! I smile at them as I watch them sail the sky, around the house and back to the fog signal building. They are my companions in sun and wind, cooing kindness over the endless wind's song. Knock down their nests? No way. Although I do sometimes clean the sidewalk, I especially make no mention of swallows at Morning Roundup.
Went to sleep in a tiny building next to an empty and dark island lighthouse. Waves of Superior's cold waters slap against Raspberry's banks. There's no place to go away from the Lake's voice except at night in sleep − but even then it infuses my dreams. Waves wash through me. I am an island. The Lake will do with me as it will.
I am Keeper of the Light at Raspberry Island, a steward. I am on watch over the dreams of the lightkeepers and their families who have hoped that their hard work and their stories would be kept alive. I have come to revive the vision of a lighthouse, a shining tower on an island. I hold a thread of light reaching back to all who have lived here, welcoming new visitors, sailors, and the sea kayakers who will come later. Only in summer the spirit of the lighthouse rises and blooms. It comes to fullness, and fades as the last Cruise Service boat departs with its visitors in September. Until it is time for me to return to mainland, I am a lightkeeper, a timekeeper, a heartkeeper of the pulse of this place.
At the dock in Bayfield, Wisconsin, you can stand and watch people get on and off boats: sailboats, Cruise Service boats, and the gray-painted Park Service boats with the familiar brown arrowhead. Rangers in gray and green, wearing work uniform baseball caps, dock and unload quietly. If you watch carefully you can tell which rangers are coming off an extended stay on the islands, not only by the duffel, box, or cooler being removed from the boat, but by the demeanor of the person in uniform. Those finishing a week or two on an island − especially a solitary island post − seem a bit quieter and more withdrawn than when they departed from town.Their sight passes over all the people on the dock as they make their landing.
By the time I reach the mainland I am soundless. I can smile at acquaintances in town, but they know I've been on an island. I belong to an island. When I step off the boat at the city dock, I land disoriented among houses, cars, and streets of the hilly town. I tote my pack, walk five blocks up the steep hill to my rented flat, climb the steep stairs. At the top, I drop my pack, strip down, and get into a tub of hot water where I have no thoughts. After a while I turn on the radio and listen to voices − over wires.
Two decades later I wear no uniform, but I am still a ranger on the inside, posing as a tourist on an Apostle Islands Cruise Service boat. The new boat is sleek and twice as fast as the tub I rode, bringing more visitors to the islands each week than we saw in a month. While other visitors sit inside and listen to narration of island history, I step out into the wind, walk along the outside railing, and settle at the ship's prow like a masthead, to catch the scent of the cold water. I watch and wait as we pass Basswood, Hermit, Oak, blue-green humps of islands, and feel again the thrill of the horizontal image of red and white above rust-red banks in the distance, growing larger by the minute. We ease against the dock, and as the first mate throws the lines, the ranger who has been waiting for us on the lawn, descends. As my foot touches the dock, I feel a surge of electric joy. I do not huddle with the other visitors to hear the ranger's welcome. Instead, I politely smile and slip quietly behind the group, then run up the stairs to see if my island home, my Raspberry Island lighthouse, is really still there.
Catherine Young lives in Wisconsin's Driftless Area, a bioregional island of unglaciated land right in the middle of the United States. After having worked as a naturalist, teacher, farmer, and mother, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Catherine's essays, poetry, and children's fiction have been published in Imagination & Place: Cartography, Hippocampus, About Place, Midwest Review, and Cricket, among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for her landscape memoir of coal country. Audio recordings of her published writings can be found at https://wdrt.org/catherine-young/.
Header photograph supplied by NPS Photo; image showing cross stitch and the author's National Ranger hat taken by Celeste Thalhammer.