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St. Helena Island Service Excursion

“It’s medicine.” Said the white haired, swarthy first mate as he handed over an unmarked spray bottle.  This same bottle he had been visiting since we had started our little performance.

“It helps with the singing.”

He let a full laugh boom as Chuck tried out the “medicine” and shuddered.

“It’s Yukon Jack.” The older gentleman says in a low voice. “Don’t tell.”

The captain looks up from his fiddle and scolds the old man in a private tone, continuing the medicine charade as a joke in front of the boats’ crew; “No medicine until the next port.”.

We woke to a thunderstorm ripping through camp at 3 A.M. The wind pushed the waves up and forced them into the straits. White caps showed in the lightning flashes and the surf crashed hard and steady onto the shallow rocky shore. Upon inspection, the boats were tethered fast. Everything was looking fine at Gros Cap. Ready for an early launch.

Blue rolled out of his jeep while the coffee was percolating. Camp started to move at daybreak. Gear was stacked at the water. Boats were loaded with people and provisions. With the same spirit as the natives and voyageurs before us, we set out across the straits to the island of St. Helena. The waves were up, but the wind was starting to subside. Out of the grey sky and bow spray, the St. Helena Light towered over the short scrub at the South East end of the island. We quartered into the waves, and soon the boathouse and dock were visible. Fist sized limestone showed through the clear, cool water. It covered the bottom in white and black contrast where the stone caught light and hid by shadow. The depth was difficult to judge, and rocks dangerous to a propeller. A sheltered bar and a fair harbor awaited us at the lighthouse landing.

A quick survey showed a handful of light keepers watching the show from the boathouse. One keeper, a short, fit, dark featured and very energetic woman came out onto the dock to greet us. She kindly introduced herself as Michelle, and wasted no time warning us of the poison ivy epidemic on the island coupled with high water and hordes of mosquitoes. She directed us to a stand of short cedars to the northwest of the light.  Michelle graciously offered to give us the full tour of St. Helena Light as soon as we could get camp set.

Walking the trail from the light toward camp was a view south toward the Straits. The rumble of massive diesel engines could almost constantly be heard as Lakers cruised docilely through the same shipping channel that proved so treacherous in years past. Ahead was the black wall of low cedar trees, trunks packed tightly together, branches reaching for every inch of sunlight available. Entering the grove gave the same sensation as stepping inside a building. The black wall turned immediately into a dark canopy, filtering the sunlight, suspended over an area flat and devoid of underbrush. Soft brown cedar drops covered the forest floor. Gear was heaped in every corner as tents and hammocks went up and a small village was formed.

I had my first interview with Michelle at this time. She approached, asking me when we would be ready for a tour.

“What can you tell me about the trails here? Do they follow the lines on this old map here?” I said holding up a clipboard with a poor excuse for a map.

“They do go that way, only… The trail to the North is absolutely covered in poison ivy, and there’s water up to here!” She said holding her hands near the top of her chest.

“These trails go through a fantastic wildflower field. Make sure to stay away from wild parsnip though. And this trail here…” Pointing at the map. “This trail takes you to a bench on the south shore. It’s a beautiful spot, and someone mentioned that there’s a survey marker nearby the bench.”

As I’m furiously scribbling notes, trying to keep up she says; “I’ll ring the bell around 1030 and you guys can come up to the Light and have our tour.”. She walked quickly out of the grove and back across the field toward the Light.

Immediately I wondered what we had gotten into. Fields of flowers and poison plants, neck deep muddy water, thick cedar swamp. I stood, pondering the situation for a moment before resuming camp chores. It will probably be alright…

We assembled outside of the summer kitchen, the entrance to the light keepers’ house. The exterior of the house itself looked to be in great shape for a building subject to the four winds of Lake Michigan. The light tower was another story. Once painted thickly white, it was beginning to show red brick underneath. The iron work on the gallery still covered heavily in red and black paint. The metal and masonry work of the tower itself obviously created by skilled hands long ago. She spoke easily of many years watching over the dangerous straits, and now patiently awaiting repair.

Michelle invited us into the summer kitchen. Walking through a wooden screen door, we stepped into a room that was neither first floor, nor basement. The accoutrements of modern culinary preparation decking the walls. Propane range, refrigerator, everything except the kitchen sink. There was a hand pump outside for that. This is where the Keepers prepared their meals. Michelle explained that the summer kitchen was built to keep the heat from the old wood burning cook stove, out of the house.

We followed her up a short flight of steps, into the actual keepers’ house. This room set the tone for the rest of the home. Simple Victorian elegance, defined by craftsmanship and care in every detail.  Small rooms furnished in the style of the era that the house was in full use. There was a polished wooden floor, doorways that led to other small rooms, well fitted crown molding, and tin ceiling tiles with an intricate design. Michelle explained how the keepers’ house had been nearly completely destroyed.

“You could stand in the basement and see the sky!”

In 1986 volunteers began restoring the buildings on the lighthouse grounds. They raised money, provided skilled labor, and are still working to this day to complete and maintain the lighthouse grounds.

Their craftsmanship showed as some of the group filtered up the stairs to the second level. A strong, ornate bannister held your hand as each step upward took you back in time. At the top of the stairs there are doorways that lead into bedrooms full of history. Although this is where the current light keepers stay, it has the feeling of a museum. Oddly detached from the current reality, you gaze on the same sights and walk in the same steps as the keepers over a hundred years before. The clothing, furniture, and other artefacts can’t quite portray the thoughts and feelings of the people who were here so long ago and it makes for a heavy feeling of deep reflection.

Downstairs, the sound of a pipe organ cuts into the reverence of the moment. Playing a ditty on the old organ in the parlor, Chuck cut some of the serious heavy history feeling, and made everyone smile.

In the light tower, you find a cast iron staircase leading to the lantern room. These staircases are fascinating. The steps seem skinny near the center post, and not very wide near the walls. Very steep, and quick to wind around. It’s very easy to get lost in the intricate design that the iron was cast into. Staring at your feet, you start to realize that you can see straight down through the steps. Down onto the floor, onto the people moving below you.

Entering the lantern room, you immediately see the updated LED light, powered by solar energy and batteries. This is the light that the U.S. Coast Guard maintains. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It’s easy to picture the large, multi-faceted lens that must have occupied this place in 1873. A true piece of art, blown from molten glass by a master, for the specific purpose of shedding lifesaving light. Unhindered wind from Lake Michigan buffets the panes of glass as they rattle in their settings around the gallery. While it was calm on the ground, it’s breezy 60 feet up.

Looking out and east, you spot the Bridge. It can be no more than 5 or 6 miles distant. You can see the upright posts, the heavy cables, and the cars moving as the sun reflects off of them. It seems a very long gap to span with a bridge.

Downstairs in the kitchen there’s an engaging conversation happening. Fortune Bay’s Hemingway meets a gentleman named Mikel Classen and asks him about the material he’s reading on the kitchen table. Mikel explains that he’s here on St. Helena to review primary source material about the island. He’s reading from a folder nearing two inches thick, it contains historical photographs, newspaper articles, and book excerpts concerning St. Helena and its past. Mikel was quick to the history of northern Michigan. Hemingway inquired and was almost immediately satisfied. In this conversation, I was but an interested bystander, absorbing what I could and being thoroughly entertained by the rest.

“I would love to have seen Michigan before the natural resources were destroyed by logging and industry.” Hemingway stated after a conversation about logging on Lake Superior.

“Have you heard of the McCormick Wilderness?” Asked Mikel. “That area is still untouched in places, owned by the McCormick’s since it was owned by men. You see, they couldn’t get into the Huron Mountain Club, so they made their own way. There used to be giant cabins out there. The families would come up in big caravans, just like you’d expect from an old African safari, or an old expedition. People, porters, supplies, furniture, everything that was needed for an extended stay. All walked or horse backed into these palatial cabins.”

“Actually that’s Fortune Bay’s area of operations this year. There were a few folks up there a week or two ago. They’re looking for a good adventure.” Explained Jim.

“You will find it there.” Said Mikel.

He went on to explain that there were paths cut through the property. They were groomed and had to fit a tandem bicycle and a lady’s parasol. The McCormick tract is the largest untouched area open to the public in Michigan. Although many of these trails were overgrown, a few could still be found and followed. Mikel offered to share a copy of an original map of the McCormick tract with Hemingway. One that was created by the McCormick’s and showed all of the original trails.

He went further into the past of St. Helena. Pulling from his notes and the back of his mind, he said;

“There used to be a pretty large fishing village on this island, about 200 people. The guy who was the major landowner, the influence so to say, would import whoever he needed to the island. Need a cooper? Bring one in. There are reports of vessels packed between here and Gros Cap, 50 at a time, always coming and going.”

“Up to Beaver Island, King Strand had been sending out raiding parties up and down the coasts. He would actually blacken the sails of his ships and wait for the fishermen to go out. Then he would swoop in and take everything that wasn’t nailed down. And you know how he justified it? He was at war with the United States!”

“So after Strand was assassinated, the Mormons on Beaver kept up the raiding and so on. They became a real nuisance. So this guy here on St. Helena organizes a mob and they sail over to Beaver Island and run the Mormons out. They scattered all over from there.”

We left Mikel and the lighthouse and split into three groups to explore the trails on St. Helena. With the reports from Michelle and our previous research, one group was to take the southwest shoreline trail and locate the bench and USGS bench mark, another group was to tackle the wet filth and poison ivy to the north, and the final group was to look into the heron rookery.

The groups jumped off in early afternoon. A few hours later the north trail ran out. We were pretty far from the old village site, and wading through knee deep poison ivy. After some exploration, Pathfinder located a space suit with a Russian star and monkey remains near the remnants of an old cabin. We were certain that the poor monkey had been dropped here by aliens and had died of poison ivy. We decided though, after some critical thinking, that it was just a sandblasting helmet that somehow ended up out in the forest, and could offer no other explanations.

Without a trail, and still plenty of daylight to burn, we headed for the shoreline. Following the shore proved to be not less challenging than searching for a non-existent trail through poison ivy. We ended up walking through the lake for a significant portion of the hike.

At the northern end of the island, the group split. I went to rendezvous with the rookery team. Upon approaching the area we had targeted as the rookery, we came across a blow down. Nearly every single tree that had stood in a five acre area had been knocked down. Blue found a bird carcass near the edge of the blowdown. The trees all seemed to be tall ash, birch, or poplar and were situated on a ridge overlooking the lake. With the data we had collected, and the map of the island with GPS waypoints of the old rookery listed on it, I felt that we had made a terrible discovery.

The trail that followed the southwestern edge of the island proved to be fair and easy. Walking through cedar groves and limestone beaches, each clearing was filled with dainty wild flowers and mosses.

After our mapping was complete, we headed down to the boat house and dock. The water was calm, the sun hot, and the lake warm. We were lounging in the late afternoon atmosphere. Before long, we got a call from Dinty, he’s made it to the Gros Cap camp. Pathfinder fires up the zodiac, He and hot pockets head back to the mainland. A short while later, Pathfinder comes back with an empty boat. Immediately he explains that he couldn’t stand the reunion between the new couple and left them to their own devices as they decided to kayak to St Helena.

As Barb and Rich come into sight around the island someone says; “We should have a wedding.”.

“I’m ordained by the Universal Life Church.” Replies Chapstick immediately.

Within 5 minutes the plans were laid out. The altar would be of kayak paddles, the officiant would be Chapstick, and the ring would be a life preserver with 100 feet of rope attached. There were flowers picked for a bouquet, and the sweetest little flower girl was selected to shower the aisle with daisy petals. As soon as they landed, we had them up and getting ready. Ladies in had the bouquet ready for Hotpockets. Men stood Dinty up at the altar. Chuck skips down the aisle, absorbed in his first assignment as a flower girl. Barb was ushered down the aisle by a father half her age; she was beaming in her kayak skirt-wedding dress.

Reverend Chapstick explained that there would be no vows, and asked each party

“Do you?”

And they did. So a moment later, Rich a little confused by the life preserver/ring,  places it over Barb’s arm. Chuck pipes up;

“What are you doing?! That doesn’t go there!”

So, with the preserver around Barb’s neck, Rev. Chapstick tells the couple;

“By the power vested in me by half a bottle of scotch and… Chuck, I now pronounce you man and wife!”

The two were officially, unofficially married. Chuck threw rocks in lieu of rice, and the happy couple walked through the gauntlet of kayak paddles, the bride nearly strangled by the ring, and the 100’ of untended rope dragging behind.  Although not a first wedding on St. Helena, it was the first for Fortune Bay.

At dusk we heard the fort guns at Mackinac. Later that night, the sun down and out of sight, horizon glowing dimly to the west, and dark in the east, we were treated to a fireworks show from Mackinaw City. Strangely separated by distance, playing tricks on the senses, the bombs would burst into showers of sparks on the horizon, but no sound made it to our ears.

Camp was alive early the next morning. A thick fog had settled on the island. One could scarcely see more than a hundred yards in any direction. Everything was dead calm. Fog horns sounded in the distance. Again the thrum of big diesel engines, eerie under the cloak of fog.

With breakfast under our belts, we were able to begin the main task; completing a flora survey of the Island’s coastline. After clearing up issues with the technology necessary for this task, we set out in five groups. Four groups would each be responsible for a quadrant of the island’s coast. The fifth group would be Doc Piton’s aerial reconnaissance of the heron rookery.

After six hours of stumbling through underbrush, wading through water, and tip toeing through poison ivy, the team had made nearly 200 observations of nearly 80 different species. Each team had a different set of obstacles to overcome, and each team added valuable data to the project.

Doc Piton fought with the fog to capture footage of the downed trees in the rookery with his drone. Unable to find a suitable launch area nearby the rookery on the island, he launched from the deck of Blue’s johnboat. After an extensive search, there was still no hard data on what damage the rookery really took. I was confident that the area under suspicion had been the rookery at one point, and it appeared that the herons had moved on.

Back at camp, things became very relaxed. Teams were washing off poison ivy oil in the lake. Some were lounging at the dock, some were napping in camp. We had completed our assignments and were free to enjoy what the island had to offer.

Down by the dock, I hear Pathfinder over the radio.

“Look at that schooner! That must be the school ship the keepers were talking about.”

Around the east end of the island a two masted schooner, in the style of the old fishing boats, beat out of the fog. It was underway with its own engines, robbing some of the grandeur. The ship slipped away to the west. A moment later, it came back east, gliding close to the fog bank, tacking toward the moorings offshore of St. Helena. A few light keepers came down and explained that the ship was the Inland Seas. She was carrying a crew of young ladies out on an educational cruise, and they would be stopping by the island for supper and a tour of the light. The keepers took their zodiacs out to the Inland Seas and began ferrying passengers to the island.

About time the light keepers left the dock, Dinty walks up and explains that he decided to leave his phone in a poison ivy patch near the old village. Hotpockets had a screenshot and a special app to locate the phone. A search party was drummed up and we took off from the dock a few minutes later, on Thor the Fortune Bay zodiac.

The phone was supposedly at the site of the old village. We all knew that the only thing the old village was useful for now is its prosperous poison ivy crop. We approached shore in the zodiac, but only Barb and Rich jumped out. The plants had turned the hardest hearts away from the search. As Dinty and Hotpockets walked over the hill, we waved goodbye from the safety of the boat. We heard shouts that could have only been joy or poison ivy distress. Still, no one dared to go ashore. Shortly, they returned with the phone.

As we cruised down the east side of the island, the Inland Seas came into view. With the crew ashore, Pathfinder decided we ought to take her for Fortune Bay. We edged closer and could see some movement on deck. Figuring it was good as anything to have a few prisoners, Chuck hailed the ship;

“Attention Ship Inland Seas! We have you surrounded! We will take beer or french fries for a ransom!”

The man on deck replies with a nervous laugh; “Yeah we like beer and french fries…”

Chuck murmurs to the group in the zodiac; “Man he’s good.”

“Are you the captain? We’re the Fortune Bay Expedition Team, helping out on the island?” Chuck shouts.

“Yeah, I’m Captain Ben. If you come back a little later I’d be happy to give you a tour of our ship.”

“Alright, we have another shot!” whispers Chuck to the zodiac crew.

We motored back to the lighthouse dock.

Back on shore, with all of our work done, an easy feeling fell over the group. There were games devised where Chuck and I were married, and Brian was the game show host. Someone invented a game that was half wheel of fortune and half hangman. All of the rules were made up; the points didn’t count and were also made up. There were ethically and morally challenging questions asked, and answers equal to the challenge. The contestants all felt cheated in some way, and the crowd loved the whole show. It was a perfect example of the shenanigans that the creative minds of Fortune Bay could put on at a moment’s notice. We ate our dinner and headed back down to the light.

At the light, the girls and crew from the Inland Seas were touring the grounds and eating their dinner. We milled around for a while, played some music, and enjoyed the surroundings. The girls were able to take advantage of the overabundance of garter snakes on the island. They came to the Fortune Bay group with a few snakes. Races were organized and the winner was able to have its picture taken with Chuck. It wasn’t long before Captain Ben offered to take us on a tour of the Inland Seas.

We loaded up into zodiacs and motored out. Pulling alongside the Inland Seas, Captain Ben helped us secure our lines. Then it was up the side on a rope ladder, and we were on deck. Cpt. Ben explained the mission of the ship and the Inland Seas Education Association. They were organized to educate and spread passion for the Great Lakes for people of all ages. They offer many educational cruises per year, and service up to 5000 students. These students would be completing scientific studies on plankton and fish with the onboard laboratory, all while learning how to sail and operate the 61 foot schooner.

Cpt. Ben started the tour at the helm of the ship. The Inland Seas sported a stern facing helm, in the fashion of the ships it was designed after. The ship’s wheel he explained, was perhaps one of the very last ever cast in the mold. This mold was the in use for over 100 years. He opened the hatch to his mid cabin quarters. They were tight. We were surprised to hear that he would practice his violin in this space when weather wouldn’t permit him to practice on deck. We then went below into the wheelhouse where the navigation instruments and engine controls are located. Further below, we entered the galley. It was spacious and ample for serving a class and crew numbering nearly 20 in all. Beside the galley is an area dedicated to scientific experiments and observations. Forward of the galley was the main salon where the students slept and stayed. This room was quite large, accented by warm well polished hardwoods, and a large table in the middle. There were bunks lining the hull. Sky lights let in plenty of light to see and make the area comfortable and homey. Back on deck, we wandered around looking at the woodwork and rigging. The sun was setting to the west behind St. Helena. The rigging on the bowspirit, the St. Helena Light in the foreground, and the setting sun behind made a perfect picture to end the tour.

Back on St. Helena, we found the Inland Seas’ first mate set up with a guitar and music stand. A swarthy, white haired man with a warm smile, and kind disposition, we struck up a conversation and mentioned that there were a few members of the Fortune Bay band, the Go Farthers present. Soon we were all gathered around the old sailor, in the shadow of the light tower, preparing to play. The Inland Seas’ crew and passengers crowded around, the Fortune Bay team pulled up their chairs, and the light keepers made themselves comfortable. Captain Ben pulled a fiddle out of a case, and we began to serenade the crowd. Both groups of musicians learning from each other, we played for hours. We engaged the audience; they delivered a stunning voice-over guitar solo of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It took a while to exhaust the entire crowd of verses to go with Drunken Sailor. All the while, the First Mate would be taking his “medicine” between songs.

“It helps with the singing.” He said. He passes the little bottle to Chuck and let a full laugh boom as he tried out the “medicine” and shuddered.

“It’s Yukon Jack.” The older gentleman says in a low voice. “Don’t tell.”

Captain Ben looks up from his fiddle and scolds the old man in a private tone, continuing the medicine charade as a joke in front of the audience; “No medicine until the next port.”.

Cpt. Ben then belted out the finest solo performance of Don Gato ever conceived. The group was all smiles. We played until darkness overtook and the hordes of mosquitos fell upon us and drove us away.

The following morning we awoke to another bank of thick fog. Everything was wet and cool as we broke camp and stacked gear at the dock. Diesel engines thrummed in the distance. All of the gear and people were ferried back to the mainland, and the small contingent of kayakers arrived out of the fog shortly afterward. Feelings of success and fatigue blessed the group as vehicles were packed and goodbyes were said. An adventure well concluded.

Sitting here in front of a bright computer screen, compiling data from the trip, counting species, loading GPX files to a map.  Writing a droll, scientific report on what we did, saw, and recorded on St. Helena. Scrolling through the documents that we based our search for the heron rookery on, I come across several positions marked by latitude and longitude. Attached to these points is a letter and number code. They represent nests, carcasses, or eggshells found during the 2011 census. These positions appear on the faded map where we believe our search to have taken place. Just out of curiosity, I plug one of the coordinates into the mapping software. The point falls a few hundred yards south of our area of operation. Pausing for a moment to size up the incongruence, I decide to check another point. It lands South and East. Dilemma washes me. I load up raw GPX files from our crew and check them against some more points. We barely scratched the surface, coming hardly close to the edge of the rookery. I pondered for a moment what this finding meant. We had wasted our precious time on the island, and the momentous effort that accompanied it. Not only that, we had collected false data, and I had already passed the hint that the rookery had been wiped out, to the Conservancy. But, on the other hand, I may have disproved our theory of the rookery being decimated. They may have a thriving community just over the ridge.

Was it the team? Was it the foliage? Was it the poor map? No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was my fault for not finding the information during research, my fault for not sending a team to the exact places where the rookery had been recorded. I failed to see the big picture, failed to double check the easy explanation and explore for the truth.

Shame took center stage as I searched for guidance on the next step. Easy would it have been to preach our data as fact. But, for the sake of honor and science, the accurate data must be provided, even if it uncovers failure. In the official report I explained; in the research and compilation subsequent to our project on St. Helena, I found that our previous assumption that the heron rookery had been wiped out, is potentially inaccurate. By cross referencing the data from the 2011 census to our data from July 2018, it appears that the heron rookery lies a few hundred meters south and east of our area of operation. We failed to reach the site of the 2011 heron rookery census. Instead, I had mistaken the blown down area as the rookery solely by how it was represented on the map.

I then offered up some advice based on what we saw and did during our search. Mentioning that the foliage is very thick in the tall trees, and that it would be best to conduct this search when the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves. Also, warning against poison ivy and wild parsnip. Offering coordinates from the 2011 census that would bring a team directly to the center of the rookery. This is what I can do in hindsight. There are no awards for trying. It is a lesson well learned and easy to share. Check, check, and recheck. Make sure your objectives are clear, and that your research and planning can easily support your actual work.

Overall the mission was a success; we completed two very important objectives, and laid the foundation to aid in accurate observations of the heron rookery in the future. The adventure remains the same in memory, the good times, bonds shared with team mates and strangers. A short, but pure source of true pleasure. Not romanticized by forgetting and removing hardships and failures, but by embracing the good with the poor and seeing the adventure for what it really is.