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ROALPS is partnered with the National Park Service (NPS). ROALPS is funded by volunteer donations and grants. It is off to a strong start, thanks to excellent planning by the founding members David and Heather Gerth, a husband and wife team.
Since it's sort of a trip report, but sorta not, I'll write it out like one for standardization sake.
Friday, 30 Jun 17: I worked a full day at work, then my wife and I hit the road immediately when I was done. We ended up staying the night at the Grand Portage Casino ($114 after tax) so we could sleep in some and get up and get right to the boat. I hadn't been to the casino in two years, so it was nice to see the renovations that have taken place. The rooms are updated as well.
Saturday, 1 Jul 17: We got up and got to the Voyageur II. We ran into David--the ROALPS founder--in the parking lot. It was the busiest I have ever seen it at the dock. This is probably because this is the latest I've ever gone out to Isle Royale (I usually go late May). There were a few scout groups waiting for the Seahunter and VII. I believe the VII got packed to capacity. We were relegated to having to sit on the engine compartments, but we made the best of it by taking an hour-long nap, which pretty much put us into Washington Harbor by the time we woke up. Laying on the corrugated steel containers for the engine compartments made me miss the ratty old carpeting on them, though. The sailing was pretty smooth, however, so it wasn't the worst VII nap ever.
The fog was thick when we docked at Windigo. We got our Leave No Trace briefing, then our gear. David hooked us up with the rest of the volunteer group for the week...three other ladies of varying backgrounds. Since we were the first group, we had the most gear to haul out, including a donated Sears aluminum canoe. We hauled everything except the canoe over to the NPS fuel dock and started to load up our vessel for the next week. The NPS is a great partner for the ROA light house restoration project...one of the many things they help the project out with is loaning a boat to the volunteer group. The craft was the Osprey, a single-engine, outboard aluminum craft. We loaded gear and prepared to depart.
Meanwhile, myself and one of the other volunteers began paddling the donated canoe the 3-4 miles to Barnum Island, where our base camp would be for the week. Over the course of the week, we'd prepare the historic Francis Andrews cabin for seven total weeks of volunteers to live in while working on the light house. The canoe we were paddling over would offer volunteers a leisure-time activity. In fourteen trips to Isle Royale, this was my first time paddling here. The other volunteer that was with me to paddle the canoe over was a staunch paddler and birder, so I knew I was in good hands. The problem was the fog was thick...less than a quarter-mile visibility. We felt confident that we knew Washington Harbor well enough, and with the aide of a map, that we could negotiate the fog and paddle to Barnum.
We were wrong.
We got lost in the fog just before Grace Island. We couldn't make out anything within a quarter mile from us, so everything looked like open lake. In addition, the wind picked up and blew directly at us. This made paddling difficult. When we rounded the last point before making the blind crossing to where we though Grace Island was, we saw a dingy on the main island's shore. We paddled up to it and found a friendly couple from Canada who used their GPS to site us a line to paddle towards the Grace Harbor dock. We then picked our way along the south shore of Grace Island until we saw Booth Island, then repeated that process until we arrived at Barnum Island. We were at our home for the next week.
Our base camp cabin was the Francis Andrews cabin. You can read more about this historic cabin here (and the other buildings left on Barnum Island); I'll spare you the details for now. As the first week of volunteers, we were to open, clean, and paint the cabin, as well as load supplies and setup furniture (both at the cabin and the lighthouse). To our surprise, the cabin got painted earlier in the summer by the NPS...a welcomed surprise.
We set off on loading up supplies into the cabin, setting up furniture, setting up the kitchen & stocking shelves, and starting the process of cleaning the cabin. We did this until the kitchen was ready for use and cooked a late meal. We then played a board game and called it a night, with hopes of reaching the Rock of Ages lighthouse the next day to bring out the supplies for the next few months, and for a brief tour.
Sunday, 2 Jul 17: Every morning for the ROALPS crew starts the same: wake up at 7am and listen in on the MAFOR (Marine Forecast) that the NPS broadcasts. This tells the boat captain(s) if they can make the four-mile ride out to the reef the Rock of Ages sits on. This morning started out with an unfavorable wave height and direction, so the team leaders decided to hold out until early afternoon. At that time, they'd reassess the situation by listening to the marine radio for the weather broadcast. The forecast called for about a four-hour window that the wave height and direction would allow us to get out.
We had a delicious breakfast of pancakes and set about some chores around the cabin: fixing and cleaning windows. We also packed a lunch for five of the seven people; this would be the most we could get out in one boat ride. When the weather report indicated the waves were ideal, five of us set off for the lighthouse. I was one of the lucky ones to go.
We loaded up the NPS's Osprey and headed out. The waves were choppy but under two feet, so the ride wasn't smooth. Slowly the Rock of Ages lighthouse--which I had looked at longingly 28 times while going to and fro Isle Royale--slowly grew in size on the horizon. Eventually, we were bumping towards the dock. That's when some bad news crept in: the dock was about three feet shorter than it was last year. Indeed, as we approached, a three-foot section broke of the dock and fell into the lake. This barely left enough dock for us to land the Osprey on, and the choppy waves and wind was not conducive to landing on what was essentially a new dock.
The dock was now only as long as the Osprey was. Due to the short length of the dock--and the lack of cleets or tie-out points--wave conditions of the lake would now almost entirely dictate whether or not a trip to the lighthouse would be possible. Additionally, large chunks of rebar from the collapsed dock threatened to punch holes in the boat if the captain wasn't careful. However, David was a skilled captain, and landed the Osprey perfectly on the funky dock. We found some tie-out points and went ashore. I would later learn that the ice of Lake Superior has slowly been taking its toll on the wooden dock cribbing; two years prior, another three-foot section had come off the dock (you can see the two sections in the picture above). But, I had finally arrived: the Rock of Ages lighthouse.
We got a brief tour of the lighthouse from David and his wife, then went up to the catwalk to fly the American flag; a tradition the ROALPS started to let the Voyageur II and Seahunter know that they were there working away. We had lunch, then unloaded supplies. The lake began to get restless a bit, and the waves started rolling and increasing in size. The captain made the call to finish unloading supplies and make our way back to Barnum.
The ride back to the cabin on Barnum was a bit more interesting as the waves pushed the boat about. We got back without incident, cleaned up, and started a fabulous dinner. We spent the rest of the night going for a brief paddle and reading, then it was lights out.
Monday, 3 Jul 17: We woke and checked the MAFOR; it called for a calm lake and calm winds. We formulated a plan to take two crews out and the remainder of the supplies. We had a short breakfast, then loaded up the Osprey with the first crew. We were treated to a completely calm Lake Superior. In the clear waters, the reef reaching out into the lake was clearly visible on both sides of the lighthouse. It was so clear, David said, that for the first time he could see parts of the lighthouse off the reef--window frames, twisted steel, and much more. We docked easily at the short dock and set about our tasks: the first among them, removing rebar from the deteriorating dock to make the enhanced landing safer. Next, we set to disposing of rubble from Coast Guard construction projects inside the lighthouse (an "automation shed" had been built on one of the higher floors to house the equipment that automated the lighthouse up until 1979. We had to chop this material up into smaller bits to be able to haul back on the Osprey. Another crew started chipping the old paint and plaster from the keeper's quarters floor, which would be the first floor restored in the light. A final crew unloaded the rest of the supplies and furniture.
We got a lot of work put in this day due to the calm Lake. We were also treated the all the beautiful colors the lake offers. After a full day's labor, we made our way back to Barnum to clean up and have dinner. After another fantastic meal, we sat out on the lake-facing coast of Barnum Island and watched a spectacular sunset.
Tuesday, 4 Jul 17: Happy Fourth of July from Isle Royale. This morning's MAFOR called for calmer waters in the AM that would grow stronger throughout the day. We had a quick breakfast, then loaded up a single crew and made our way out the light house. The rest of the crew would stay behind and continue cleaning and setting up the cabin.
We got out to the lighthouse and continued the tasks we started the day before. After a while, the wind started picking up--just as the marine forecast had called for--so we wrapped our tasks up after a few hard hours and made our way back to the cabin on Barnum. When we arrived, some of the other families who were granted permission by the NPS to use the cabins were there. We were approached by one family and offered to come over and enjoy a meal made from a 26 lbs lake trout they had caught earlier that day. We cleaned up, baked some brownies to share, and made our way to Washington Island for an utterly fantastic meal of rice, potatoes, and lake trout (prepared three different ways!). The family let us explore some of Washington Island after dinner, then we spent the rest of the night chatting away about the incredible history of the cabins on Barnum and Washington Islands...and on Isle Royale as a whole. We spent most of the night chatting, until the sky was almost too dark to boat back to Barnum. We turned in for the night with fully bellies and full heads of stories of the Isle Royale past.
Wednesday, 5 Jul 17: We woke up and checked the marine forecast...it called for heavy winds and large waves, making a landing at Rock of Ages out of the question. We relegated ourselves to taking about chores on the cabin and the grounds. This was originally the plan for our crew on the first week of the year's restoration: any work at the lighthouse was a bonus, as we were only to prepare the cabin and stage equipment and supplies at the lighthouse. The fact that we got two days of labor into the lighthouse was a bonus. Additionally, the cabin was already painted...a task that surely would of taken a few days. So we spent the day working on repairing cabin windows and roofs, deep-cleaning the cabin, and cleaning up the dock and grounds around the Francis Andrews cabin. We were operating incredibly well as a team: we were so efficient, that we could peel off a few people to head over and help some of the other families on the islands clear brush and some trails. When the sun started to dim, we cleaned up and had another great meal (notice a trend here?). My wife and I then spent some time exploring Barnum Island. We poked around some of the other cabins and the Johns Hotel.
Thursday, 6 Jul 17: The MAFOR called for weather that was just at the cusp of being bad. We decided to assemble a crew to see if we could get out to the lighthouse to continue some of the work and keep us ahead of schedule for the year. We got around Barnum Island and started to hit open water when the lake decided that it didn't want us to make the trip to the light. We turned around, dejected: there would be no time spent at the Rock of Ages today. That didn't stop some of the crew from finishing up projects on the cabin. We also helped move lumber for one of the families' dock repair project: the NPS had stopped by with an LCM loaded with supplies for not only the Rock of Ages, but for a dock restoration nearby. Since it was obviously easier for the LCM to make one stop and dump the supplies, everything was in one location, so we spent a few hours ferrying the lumber over to its destination.
Friday, 7 Jul 17: Our last full day on Isle Royale. We all hoped that the lake would be kind and let us get out to the Rock of Ages lighthouse, but it would not grant us our wish. We would be "stuck" on the "mainland" for our last day. After some conversation with Heather and David, we learned that getting out to the lighthouse only a few times a week was pretty common, especially now that the dock had deteriorated further. At one point last year, they had only got out to the lighthouse ONCE in a week; but yet another time, they were able to get out 10 days in a row. Needless to say, they were welcoming the 11th day when the weather prevented them from getting back out.
With all the projects done around the cabin, we took about the tasks that would need to be repeated off and on over the next six weeks: cleaning the boat, repairing boat lines, and servicing equipment at the cabin. This kept us busy, but our work day ended in a short time. So we enjoyed the splendors of Isle Royale until dinner. After we ate, we boated over to Washington Island where we hiked up the cliff band where the old radio tower is as a group and watched a magnificent sunset.
Saturday, 8 Jul 17: We woke up at 7am and started packing our bags. We'd divide into two crews and head back to Windigo to greet the Voyageur II and the Sea Hunter. Each of these boats carried some of the next week's volunteers. We packed a lunch for them and ourselves, then went in groups to Windigo. The winds were strong on the lake; we could feel it even in the harbor.
We met the new group of volunteers and chatted for a while. Then we all had some time to waste in Windigo, so my wife and I finally hiked the 1.2 mile nature trail there (after 14 years of never doing it). We then attended David and Heather's presentation to the visitors at the Visitor Center. After that, we ate lunch and bid farewell to the new crew. We boarded the completely-full Sea Hunter, but not before Capt Don gave us a smile and said, "put your rain gear on," and soon we were under way on a choppy and windy Lake Superior.
We were greeted by four-foot waves on our ride back to Grand Portage. There were a few people feeding the fish on the boat. We had to sit outside on the Sea Hunter because the inside cabin was full. We got pretty wet, but the Sea Hunter's autopilot plowed us through the waves and we got back to Grand Portage in the quick time that the Sea Hunter is known for.
Once ashore, we bid our sad goodbyes to the rest of the work crew...we had made friends and shared an experience that relatively few other people ever will. We made sure we exchanged contact info, and all vowed that we would be back to continue the restoration work on the Rock of Ages.
That's the end of the trip report. Here's a few more thoughts on the Rock of Ages, the preservation work ongoing there, and some logistics for anyone interested in getting involved:
- The Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society (ROALPS) has a clear and well-laid out plan to restore the Rock of Ages lighthouse.
They are a non-profit, all-volunteer organization worth the support. If you are interested in a unique experience, and to be part of something historic, I highly recommend volunteering for the summer 2018 projects. The dates for 2018 are not yet available; we're told they'll be posted later this year. However, you can read up on being a volunteer here.
- I took some 360-degree pictures of the inside of the lighthouse. They are a little chopped up, unfortunately, but you can see the current state of the lighthouse. Works in most browsers as a virtual-reality tour, but also works if you have a VR headset, such as a Google Cardboard or Daydream headset.
- Outside looking at dock, lighthouse, and reef VR (my personal favorite)
- East end of reef, looking west at lighthouse
- Keeper Quarters, fourth floor (the current floor undergoing restoration in 2017)
- Watch room, 6th floor
- Lens room (great view)
- Engine room, first floor
- Other rooms, floors unknown currently
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About your initial canoe shuttle, one more example (even if small) to never leave home without your safety gear (including a compass).
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I'm sure they'd like it moved up the priority list, but that decision is outside of the group's decision-making cycle. From my understanding, the NPS is a large component of when a new dock will get built, and then there's the question of funding...
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