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All Friday night the lake punishes the beach just yards from our heads. Several times it floods my dreams, and I gasp awake, breaking the dark surface of sleep to gulp the cool night air. The glow of a distant town paints the sky orange back south along the coast, back towards civilization and safety. Though we can’t see it, we know the automated beacon of Gull Rock Lighthouse winks mischievously in the distance, daring us to come closer.
By Saturday morning the lake has calmed enough for us to paddle, but it’s still a bumpy ride. During the two-hour trip to Keweenaw Point we cut across the mouths of the cobble-strewn Big Bay and sandy Keystone Bay, staying well offshore to save time, but feeling unsettled and exposed on the open water.
By midday, though, the tumult of the lake increases—and that’s when Kristen gives me the look that says the crossing is off. We soon tuck into a protected, unnamed cove near Keweenaw Point. The sound of rabid waves is replaced by the droning of nectar-drunk honeybees bumbling among the beach pea blossoms. Kristen reads and sunbathes as I pace the beaches, hurling rocks at the still raging lake. There are no footprints on this beach. Not even animal tracks. This is true solitude, and I should be happy, but it’s not enough.
From here, the islands seem just off shore. Gull Rock Lighthouse rises above the lake like an exclamation point from the past that cries, “There are people here! We are clinging to a land where trees can’t grow!”
The half-acre conglomerate bump of Gull Rock has been home to a lighthouse since 1867. Gull Rock and its sister light on Manitou Island, constructed first in 1849, still mark the point in the shipping lane where freighters turn the corner around the jutting Keweenaw between Duluth and Sault Ste. Marie. Lighthouses like these are America’s ancient ruins, our mist-shrouded crumbling castles that housed not royalty, but servants all but forgotten. The first foreman hired to build Gull Rock light died while working in these brutally open Lake Superior waters. On a spring day in 1882 the keeper of the Manitou Light capsized his sailboat 500 feet from the island’s safety. Signaling desperately for help to his two inept assistants who watched from shore, he drifted to an icy death. His boat was found three months later, 50 miles away. His body was never found.
Ships—at least a half dozen of them since the end of the 19th century—have met their own fate on these islands’ treacherous shoals. The legendary storm of November 1913 forced a 450-foot freighter aground, entrapping 24 people and one dog for over three days in the ship’s ice-sheathed hold before all were rescued. The same shoals ensnared the Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite in December of 1989. The ship was a total loss.
I want to stand on that naked slab of stone that is Gull Rock, where someone once sent a flame into the night to keep chaotic waves and hidden shoals from goring the lake’s early schooners. Perched only a few feet above lake level, the Gull Island lighthouse has had to endure the pounding of waves and the crush of winter ice jams like few other beacons its size. Recently a group called the Gull Island Lightkeepers formed to help restore the light, but I want to see the building as is, a decaying testament to time and natural forces. But instead, Kristen and I are forced, like hundreds of ship captains before us, to take refuge while the lake howls.
We spend Saturday night here, hoping to cross in the morning. All night Gull Rock taunts us every five seconds with a white flash. On Sunday the lake still refuses to rest, and by Monday our long weekend has eroded. We have run out of days and now have just enough time to paddle the entire distance back to Bete Grise. The ghosts of ships and men will have to wait for calmer days.