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Succumbing to the romance of the shoreline beacons--some with bed and breakfast

May 25, 1997|GEOFFREY O'GARA | O'Gara, a freelance writer based in Lander, Wyo., is working on a guidebook to the Great Lakes region

BIG BAY, Mich. — I was running late, driving through the woody darkness toward Lake Superior, when I stopped to call ahead and warn my hosts. I made my apologies to the answering machine, and then signed off, saying, "Don't wait up--just leave the light on."

When Linda Gamble checked her messages, she probably didn't laugh. No doubt she'd heard the joke ad nauseam. She is keeper of the Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast.

My daughter and I had been looking at colleges in the Great Lakes region last summer, and when she headed home I decided to wander along the American shore of Lake Superior in search of old lighthouses. My route began on the lake's western shore, in Minnesota, and went east through Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, ending at Whitefish Point, where Lake Superior narrows and drains into St. Marys River. Then I backtracked to Big Bay, the Michigan town where I would cap the journey with a night in a lighthouse-turned-B&B.

You can cover a good selection of Great Lakes lighthouses in a week of relaxed driving if you leave out more distantly located beacons, such as the ones on Isle Royale or the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. I extended my own tour with some offshore adventures at Wisconsin's Apostle Islands and Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. But in between, I moved at a fairly good clip, using F. Ross Holland's "Great American Lighthouses" as a guide to the best and the brightest.

In summer, Lake Superior is a great beauty, a seductive pool as blue as a robin's egg. On a warm day, the breeze barely puffs a sail, and boats drift languidly. But the serenity can disappear quickly in violent winter storms and blinding fogs, with dire consequences for the sailors who carry iron ore, grain and passengers across it. Many great ships have gone down, from the days of sailing ships to the wreck of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.

Thus there are lighthouses along the shores, atop the reefs, at the mouths of safe harbors. There are far fewer than there were a century ago, when there were more than 300, and these days some are more important to tourists than to mariners.

Now the remaining working lighthouses on the Great Lakes are automated, and many others have been shut down by the U.S. Coast Guard to cut costs. Yet lighthouses retain their allure.

For me, there is something siren-like about them. They're a reminder of boyhood sailing along the coast of California; I would listen to the moan of the foghorns and watch the swiveling yellow eyes of lighthouse beacons.


Different time, different place. Thirty years later I began my lighthouse tour at the helm of a coupe, not a sloop. A half-day drive from Minneapolis brings you to the southern snout of Lake Superior at Duluth. Split Rock Lighthouse is another hour north on a scenic shoreline drive. It stands on a 124-foot cliff jutting out into the water. I climbed the twisty stairs to the top of the brick tower, learned about the life of a 19th century keeper in the visitors center and hiked down a trail to the boathouse on the shoreline below.

A century ago, materials for Split Rock were brought by boat and lifted up the cliff by derrick. For months, the keepers would see no one but an assistant or family members. But there was good hunting and fishing, a well-stocked library provided by the Lighthouse Service and time to contemplate the magnificent lake, described by one writer as "the coldest blue eyes in creation."

When a highway was built along the west shore of Lake Superior in the 1940s, a steady stream of visitors put an end to that lonely life. Split Rock was decommissioned in 1969, but tourists keep coming.

No two lighthouses are alike: There are those shaped like squat chess pieces, such as Split Rock; smooth conical towers like the Au Sable near Grand Marais, Mich., and the spidery, skeletal configuration of Whitefish Point, a thin pillar supported by a lattice of steel braces near Lake Superior's eastern outlet.

You can approach some by land, as most people do, but in other cases, water is the only way. You need a powerboat, sea kayak or sailboat to get around Wisconsin's Apostle Islands (there are ferries and rentals), where you can find all types of lighthouses, from a 100-foot skeletal light on Michigan Island to an abandoned, ramshackle wooden tower on Raspberry Island.

If you are seaworthy to sail the deeper waters of the lake, you can visit Stannard Rock, 30 miles offshore on a dangerous shallow reef that stood in the path of big boats heading for Sault Ste. Marie. Built in 1880 by ferrying enormous chunks of limestone from the shore, Stannard sticks out of the water like a missile silo. Its solitude wore out a lot of lightkeepers before it was automated in 1962.

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