Be a Mission Point Lighthouse Keeper For a Week

Each summer, volunteer lighthouse keepers spend a week taking care of the Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Peninsula. Kathy Belden shares her love for the Northern Michigan lighthouse and her expereinces as a keeper in this Traverse Magazine feature.


There’s something enormously satisfying about checking off an item on a bucket list. Being a volunteer lighthouse keeper at the Mission Point Lighthouse had been on that list for me, and when I became an empty-nester—suddenly the dream became a reality. The week-long lighthouse gig was a perfect chance to spend a little more time in a place that I love, and immerse myself in a bit of Michigan’s remarkable maritime history.

Michigan has 129 lighthouses—more than any other state in the nation; however, there are only about a dozen volunteer keeper programs in Michigan. Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to help ships with safe passage up and down both arms of Grand Traverse Bay and the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Visiting the lighthouse over the years, I was intrigued by its charm and spectacular views of Grand Traverse Bay. I love the Grand Traverse region. I’ve been coming Up North since I was a kid—my mom’s cottage on Torch Lake has been my own true north. Whenever I make the 450-mile northward trek from my home in Canton, Ohio, I can almost feel the car driving itself to get here.

The pull is just that strong. The keeper program requires two people during the busy summer months. I enlisted Jan Biliti, of Brighton, Michigan. Jan is a fellow Torch Laker, and she loves being Up North as much as I do. She also happens to be my cousin.

Many times during my stay, I thought about all the hardships that must have existed for the early keepers of days gone by. While we weren’t hauling whale oil up the steps, being a volunteer keeper is still work. During the busy summer months, the main duties are running the gift shop—about an 8-by-10 room—to sell lighthouse swag as well as to collect the admission charge to tour the lighthouse. No retail experience is necessary—it’s really quite easy!

Yes, the days were long. We met interesting people. We enjoyed the stunning scenery and azure waters from morning until night. The early morning serenity and the legendary Up North sunsets were indeed priceless. In true keeper fashion, I kept a daily log of our activities.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Tuesday, July 21
Heading north on M37, I leave Traverse City in the rear-view mirror and make the 18 mile drive up Old Mission Peninsula—that picturesque piece of land that splits Grand Traverse Bay into two arms. I pass vineyards and cherry orchards dotted with roadside stands. I feel my excitement growing and wonder what the week has in store for us. It’s a picture-perfect day.

We arrive at the lighthouse and are greeted by David Foulkrod, the manager of the lighthouse. He suggests we unload our groceries and toss our luggage into the bedroom before we hit the ground running. David gives us a quick tour of the property and hands me a set of keys. “Don’t lose them,” he admonishes; and since they’re on a lanyard I pretty much wear them all week.

I can’t take my eyes off the Caribbean blues of the lake or the charming little lighthouse, with the American flag gently flapping in the breeze. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” David says, reading my mind. “It’s your home for the week—enjoy it.”

We get an orientation to the gift shop by one of the local volunteers, Ellen Kerr. Ellen is a great ambassador for the lighthouse; she chats up every visitor who walks in. She sets the tone for the week with her enthusiasm and friendly demeanor.

By dinnertime, we are exhausted, but happy. Jan and I eat dinner at the picnic table situated in front of the lighthouse. The lighthouse has modern creature comforts: a kitchen, a flat screen TV and Wi-Fi. I wonder out loud why there is even a TV.

There’s a beautiful field-stone fireplace in the living room. A stunningly worn, wide-planked pine floor that looks like it’s original to the house runs throughout the lighthouse. It’s like living with a precious antique.

There is no AC in the lighthouse—David jokes that it has “1870 air conditioning”—referring to the year the lighthouse was built. The windows provide great cross ventilation and with the breezes off Grand Traverse Bay, it’s comfortable. We spend the rest of the evening on the beach, and we’re rewarded with a gorgeous sunset. We sleep like logs with the cool north air coming in the windows.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Wednesday, July 22
I’m up at 6:30 a.m. and have coffee on the front porch before starting the day’s chores. The lake is like glass. The solitude is temporarily interrupted by hundreds of seagulls having a noisy meeting on a little island of trees in the water, just offshore. They dispurse after a few minutes.

I put up the flag, and inspect the beach for trash. Thankfully, there is little.

Jan tackles sweeping inside the lighthouse—we’ve nicknamed it “The Sand Management Program.” It’s hard to appreciate just how much sand gets tracked into the lighthouse. It’s a constant battle. The 37 steps up to the top of the lighthouse need to be swept daily, as well as the entire house, the outside boardwalk and the steps that lead to the beach. Jan says she can’t imagine doing this job in a long dress, as keeper Sarah Lane must have done in the early 1900s.

The lighthouse has several rooms with informative exhibits—it’s a self-guided tour—but we pass along the historical tidbits to visitors. People enjoy the 5th order Fresnel lens on display. In 1933, the light was replaced with an automated offshore light. An offshore buoy is the current navigational aid, and we make sure we point it out to visitors.

After a long day, we treat ourselves to dinner at the Peninsula Grill (about 7 miles south on M37). I order the Parmesan-crusted whitefish; Jan opts for the flatbread pizza. We wash it down with a Bell’s beer. Delicious.

We get back just after sunset; the sky is a delicious shade of orange. It’s so dark at night, we go nowhere on the property without flashlights.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Thursday, July 23
I wake up before 7a.m. to Asian tourists taking photos. Everybody who comes in the shop is happy—they’re on vacation!

But “teachable moments” abound. People have geography questions that we are happy to answer, and we use the wall map to point things out. I love geography. When they ask me where I’m from, they give me puzzled looks. “Ohio?” they ask. “You can take the girl out of Michigan, but not the Michigan out of the girl,” I reply.

Explaining our special location on the planet is fun—the lighthouse is on the 45th Parallel—that’s halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. (The actual imaginary line is a few hundred yards offshore in Grand Traverse Bay, and there is a large sign behind the lighthouse explaining this.)

Kids are fascinated by the bowl of Petoskey stones we have on the counter. One little girl refers to them as Petoskey “scones.” She’s excited when we tell her she can head down to the lake and find one for free. I want to abandon my post to wander into the lake to help her find one. Looking for Petoskey stones is a cherished, Up North tradition, I tell her.

Some visitors express interest in the keeper program. If they seem really interested, we invite to them back to our quarters for a tour. David tells us later that is how the keeper program gets most of its keepers.

“We’re ambassadors for future keepers,” Jan says. I’m pretty confident we’ve been able to recruit a few, and I’m so happy she’s on this adventure with me. She welcomes every visitor with such warmth and makes the whole experience just that much more fun.

The sky tonight is incredibly starry and awe-inspiring.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Friday, July 24
We find ourselves sleeping a bit later as we ease into the routine. It’s my turn to check the portapots, so I decide to get that unpleasant chore out of the way. While Jan sweeps, I leisurely water all the flowerpots on the property. They look cheerful against the white clapboard of the lighthouse.

Visitors today include folks from Alaska, Hawaii, Japan and Korea. When we ask faraway visitors why they’re visiting the area: the answer is almost always the same—“family.” I smile to myself knowing the magic that the Grand Traverse Region has in drawing families together.

And, they are all in awe of Michigan’s beauty. A visitor from New Jersey remarks that he “had no idea how beautiful Michigan is.”

Late afternoon brings members of our family to the lighthouse. Keepers are allowed to have company in the evening—it’s encouraged—and our little group enjoys having the lighthouse to themselves after the crowds leave; however no overnight guests are permitted.

My 16-year-old niece Leah immerses herself in the displays in the lighthouse, and then heads outside with her camera. Jan’s husband John Biliti comes bearing ribs and pizza from the Peninsula Grill, which we eagerly consume at the picnic table. Like us, our guests are entranced with the view.

After dinner, we take some family photos on the front porch of the lighthouse. It’s still pretty hot, so we wade into the lake, and add to the rock stackings that visitors have assembled out in the water. We decide that it’s probably bad karma to trash a rock stacking, but adding to them is OK.

Standing on the beach at sunset, my brother Rob Kerr from Howell (no relation to Ellen!) remarks that the view in front of us is the same magnificent view as the early Michiganders. He’s right: nothing has changed.

About 10:20 p.m. I’m out on the front porch, when I see and hear fireworks to the northeast. These are the fireworks from the Venetian Festival in Charlevoix—I take a wild guess and figure that it’s about 25 miles as the crow flies.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Saturday, July 25
After coffee and between morning chores, I grab my Nikon and carefully venture into the lake and snap some great shots of the aforementioned rock stackings from yesterday. With the lighthouse in the background and the early morning light, it’s a stunning shot. I stay in the water a few extra minutes and enjoy the refreshing temperature. It’s going to get even warmer today.

A glitch with the credit card machine keeps things interesting, and we share some good laughs with visitors when we have to kick it old school and hand-write some credit card charges.

Later, a visitor excitedly calls my attention to a small wedding taking place on the grounds of the lighthouse. (You can’t schedule weddings at the lighthouse—you just show up and get married.)

After we close up for the day, we make the 10-minute drive to Mission Table for dinner and revel in the air conditioning. The setting sun peeks through the trees; it’s lovely and relaxing. The restaurant has a California feel, with an emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients. We order some wine, and share the lamb small plate. Jan orders the rabbit salad, and I savor a delicately dressed beet salad. It proves to be one of the best things I’ve eaten all summer.

Afterward, we drive down the peninsula a bit more before cutting back over to the east side of Old Mission Peninsula. We stop at the Old Mission General Store. It’s kitschy, vintage and has beat-up wood floors. We order a couple of Michigan Pothole ice cream cones (I’m a fan of the chocolate chunks) and sit outside the store eating our cones, before heading back to the lighthouse.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Sunday, July 26
I’m up at 7a.m. to bake cherry-almond muffins for breakfast from cherries that I picked up at one of the roadside stands. I head outside to start sweeping the boardwalk, and a bicyclist stops by. When he tells me he just biked up from Traverse City, I offer him a couple of fresh muffins. He accepts.

Around 9 a.m. a couple of SUPers (stand-up paddleboarders) appear on the glassy lake, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a lovely start to the day.

During the afternoon, Jan disappears into the kitchen to assemble our dinner, while I stay in the gift shop. We’re entertaining again tonight—this time it’s Courtney Michalik—the Traverse City photographer who will be shooting this story for Traverse. We know Courtney will be here during the dinner hour and beyond to capture the changing light, and we want to show her some hospitality.

Chicken for Sunday dinner seems like the thing to do. Courtney arrives in the late afternoon and immediately gets to work. We break for dinner at the picnic table, and Courtney agrees the million-dollar view can’t be beat.

Early evening arrives and a guy wanders up the boardwalk and asks if we are the current keepers. He introduces himself as Dale DeVries from Muskegon. He did a volunteer stint at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington a few years ago. Of course, we share an instant bond! Dale’s an avid amateur photographer, and a nice guy, so we invite him to hang out with us on the beach for the evening. A picture he shoots that night ends up on the Pure Michigan Facebook page later that week.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Monday, July 27
Old Mission lighthouse keepers get one full day off a week. “We like for the keepers to have a day to explore the area,” David says. We do a few preliminary chores bright and early so that one of the local volunteers can open up for the day. Then … we’re off. It’s another hot and sunny day.

Jan and I love wine, but since we’ve visited the wineries on the peninsula before, we decide on a road trip. We head back into Traverse City, then swing up M22 to the Leelanau Peninsula, making leisurely stops in Suttons Bay and Leland. We continue up to Northport, home of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Jan says, “Wanna go see the lighthouse?”

“Of course…we’ve driven this far—we have to check it out!” I say. We compare notes with the keepers there, and enjoy seeing this dramatic lighthouse. We arrive back at “our” bucolic little lighthouse on Old Mission for one last sunset.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Tuesday, July 28
We spend our final morning doing the usual routine chores and opening the gift shop for the day. We finish packing and clean our quarters in preparation for the next pair of incoming keepers. It’s been a week of phenomenal weather, hard work, great times and good food!

The cousin bonding time ends and we say our goodbyes to each other and to David. We leave the lighthouse feeling happy, knowing someday, we’d return.

In a small way, we became part of that unique community of lighthouse keepers, and shared our love of the region with visitors that came through the lighthouse during our stay.

Copyrighted Courtney Michalik

Photo by Courtney Michalik

Daytrip Activities on Old Mission Peninsula

You’ll want to make that scenic drive up M37 worth your while, so plan to spend the day exploring. We suggest a few stops on your way either to or from the lighthouse. Pack swimsuits, comfortable shoes and your camera so you’ll be prepared for whatever strikes your fancy. The peninsula is dotted with farm markets, a few antique shops and good eats. Wine lovers will be thrilled to discover that there are nine wineries on this gorgeous peninsula. The wineries on the 45th parallel are beautifully situated for growing grapes. Check out wineriesofoldmission.com to plot your course.

Need lunch? Head to the Jolly Pumpkin (10 minutes south of the lighthouse), or grab deli sandwiches from the Bad Dog Deli for an impromptu picnic. The Boathouse, Mission Table, Jolly Pumpkin and the Peninsula Grille (all near Bowers Harbor) are bona fide dinner options.

Although we love the beach at Old Mission for its spectacular views, families might enjoy the quiet cove at Haserot Beach, in the village of Old Mission. It’s easy to launch a small boat, kayak or SUP, and the waters are calm. There’s also a children’s play area. If you need an ice cream stop after the beach, you’re in luck because the iconic Old Mission General Store is just minutes away. Ice cream cones are generous. The paraphernalia in here will fascinate young and old alike.

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This feature on the Mission Point Lighthouse keeper program was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

 

 

All photography by Courtney Michalik.


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