Lighthouse keepers keep lighthouse lore aflame

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Waves crashing on the rocks sprayed the catwalk atop the Lake Michigan lighthouse where Susan Griffin stood watching.
The Niles resident said she’d always wanted to stay at a lighthouse, so volunteering as a lighthouse keeper helped make her dream come true.
“It’s primitive, but it’s not. We have indoor plumbing and we have heat,” Griffin said. “You’re just out the modern conveniences we’re so used to — cell phones don’t work unless you’re at the top of the tower.”

Big Sable Point Lighthouse and keepers quarters. Photo: Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association

Lighthouse keepers experience poor cell phone reception but the do have a television with “sporadic channels,” Griffin said.
She’s a volunteer for the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, which maintains three lighthouses: Big Sable Point and the Ludington North Breakwater Light in Ludington and Little Sable Point in Shelby.
Whether it’s washing windows, cleaning bathrooms or other chores, Griffin said keepers chip in and do their part. Even when they’re scheduled to volunteer at different times and aren’t together, some travel to the lighthouse to visit friends who are on duty.
“We’re just one big happy family,” Griffin said.
To keep the lighthouses in shape and run the gift shops, George Nowsch, operations manager for the Ludington-based association, said it takes 287 volunteers for the resident keeper program and about 60 day keepers.
Resident keepers stay in the upstairs part of Big Sable Point.
Day keepers typically cover the duties of other keepers and help at Little Sable Point and Ludington North Breakwater Light while staying at an off-site home.
Executive Director Cindy Beth Davis-Dykema said the group looks for volunteers who are “dedicated, responsible, fun-loving and lighthouse-loving.
“These volunteers are the spokespeople for the association, so we always appreciate when they bring good energy to the table and have a strong passion to share the fascinating history of Michigan’s lighthouse past with visitors from across the world,” Davis-Dykema said.
Volunteers must belong to the association and be at least 21 years old.
Keepers at Big Sable Point work two-week shifts, while Little Sable Point and Ludington North Breakwater Light keepers work one-week shifts.
In addition to maintaining the grounds, volunteers assist visitors on tours.
Nowsch said, “The main responsibility of keepers is to educate the public and promote lighthouses, answer questions about the history – and ideally make the light come alive.”
Although this will be Griffin’s fifth year as a keeper, she said there’s always something new to experience.
“I really would love for everyone to have an opportunity to experience the fun and the joy,” Griffin said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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