May 27, 2000


We often think of geography in cliches (of course cliches don't just spring up out of nowhere). One double-barreled example has many variations, at least in the northern hemisphere. The North - cold, bustling, Type A, energetic, industrial. The South - hot, languid, passionate, agricultural. Italy comes to mind, not to mention Europe itself. North America, with Canada contrasted to Mexico. And great distances need not be involved. With the ice of Lake Michigan broken up and our departure west from Mackinac, we head across the top of the lake. Most vessels get through the straits, then head directly for their destinations: Escanaba, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago, Traverse City. We'll get to those later. For now, we'll poke and snoop. The far-flung communities we passed on the Upper Peninsula's north shore will be heaved even farther apart along the south shore. We'll find a region of fishing camps, former lumber centers, and lighthouses. But mostly one of shoreline highways, sand dunes, and nature preserves. So it's time to abandon the large canvas for a while, and work on some miniatures. Relax and we'll nose our bow in toward some of the local points of interest.

About six miles west of the Mackinac Bridge we pass St. Helena Island. In the 19th Century it served as the last point of call for ships leaving the lake. Several hundred inhabitants of the fishing community on the island's north side built their own boats and salted their catch for shipment to New York City. The wood-burning lake vessels would often take on their last load of fuel here, before setting out on the water route to the east.

A large lighthouse was erected on the island's east shore in 1873, a proud structure unsurpassed by any on the lakes. A 71-foot conical tower rose above an attached one and-a-half story brick lightkeeper's cottage, the whole structure sitting on a limestone foundation. It had nearly half a century of glory, but when automation began taking over in the early 1920s, it was one of the first beneficiaries / victims. The humanless version was operated by an experimental method whereby metal rods expanding and contracting in the sun's heat would turn the electric lamp on and off. Neglect set in and vandals reigned for the next sixty years. A fire damaged the second floor of the cottage and holes appeared in the roof. Then in 1989 nearby residents joined forces with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, who had obtained a lease to the structure, to bring the site back to its former glory, turning it into an educational center. In the forefront of the effort marched two Michigan Boy Scout troops. In a series of 14 trips, armed with a low-tech construction fleet of wheelbarrows, the scouts cleared boulders and decades of debris, as well as close to 57 tons of limestone for landscaping. Not to overlook the most mundane detail, one scout won his eagle's badge by collecting donations of plaster and paint, and providing his own sweat equity, to restore the two hole privy. Provide your own "They also serve..." variation here.


OUTRO For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte