Digest>Archives> October 2002

Erosion Control Project Ensures Raspberry Island’s Survival

By Jim Merkel


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With a grin on her face and pulled-back red hair on her head, Sarah May diligently helped her parents harvest cucumbers and peas from a garden in the shadow of a lighthouse.

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The day Sarah set about that task, she and her parents were volunteer keepers of the gardens at the Raspberry Island Light Station, one of six such stations in Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

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Not far away, workmen on a barge filled with boulders were doing their part to ensure that 9-year-old volunteers like Sarah will be able to keep and enjoy the lighthouse for decades to come. Their task was to stop the erosion that has brought the light station’s building dangerously close to the water’s edge. That erosion has landed the Raspberry Island station on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday list of most endangered lighthouses.

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Called “The Showcase of the Apostles,” the lighthouse at Raspberry Island is the only light station of the island group accessible by regular summertime cruises from the mainland. Maintained by keepers’ families from 1863 to 1947, the station is known both for its beauty and it history.

Passing mariners first saw the light from the station’s 5th-order Fresnel lens in the same month that Union and Confederate soldiers first bloodied themselves at Gettysburg. Today, the fog whistle building is about 30 feet from the bank. The main building is about 60 feet from the bank. It’s not known how far the buildings were from the edge when the first keepers came. But Bob Mackreth, historian for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, said, “Certainly it was substantially further from the edge as late as the 1940s.”

Several years ago, the lighthouse and fog whistle building moved closer to the edge when a 15-foot chunk suddenly dropped away. For years, while photographers in boats headed for the island aimed their cameras at the red-and-white lighthouse, the bottom of their photos revealed a dirt gash, where erosion was eating away at the island.

If nothing is done, Mackreth said, the buildings could be gone in as few as 10 years. “The fog signal is the closest to the edge, so that would be the first one we’d lose. The lighthouse would eventually follow,” he said.

But the treasure is too precious to the National Park Service. It hopes to save the historic lighthouse, one of six in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, with a $1 million shoring-up project started this summer.

In August, cranes dropped boulders weighing 400 pounds to half a ton in the water in front of the lighthouse, creating a rock breakwater of sorts, called a revetment wall, at the bottom of a new slope. At the same time, the contractor, Marine Tech of Duluth, Minn., was extending the shoreline and constructing a new slope in front of the light, which will gently descend to the revetment. A 12-foot-deep trench was being installed at the top of the bluff, to reduce erosion from the top. Trees and bushes were being planted on top of the new slope, with an intricate root system designed to further cut the forces eating away at the island.

“A combination of the drain and the extension of the shore and the construction of this more steady slope will hopefully stabilize everything and address the water issues that we’ve been having here,” said Jason Ginder, a park ranger on the island.

“We felt that the erosion of the slope was becoming critical,” said Tami DeGrosky, facility manager for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. “We believe that this is the best fix. In the past, all we’ve done is concentrate on the toe of the slope.”

“What we found is it’s not really the wave erosion that’s causing the slumping, but surface water flowing through the ground and saturating the slope face,” DeGrosky said. Intercepting the water before it goes down the hill will prevent this.

DeGrosky would like to say the National Park Service would never have to worry about erosion at Raspberry again, once the project is done at the end of October. But the same storms and ice that have sunk many a freighter on Superior could conspire to move the half-ton boulders away, and undo the project to save the Raspberry Island Light.

Meanwhile, plans are underway for the next major erosion control project around lighthouses in the Apostle Islands. On Outer Island, the bank is within 50 feet of the lighthouse. While the danger is not as imminent as at Raspberry, it also could be lost if something isn’t done soon. Like Raspberry, it’s earned a place on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday list.

An erosion control project similar to the one at Raspberry, is set for 2008. However, U.S. Rep. David R. Obey, who represents the area, would like to see the date moved up.

If the Outer Island project isn’t done before 2008, some temporary repairs will have to be done there. There has been considerable undermining of the tram rail and stairs leading from the dock to the top of a steep hill. During the winter of 2000-2001, there was significant erosion at Outer. A major project to correct that erosion was done in 2001.

Mackreth emphasizes that the time estimates for Raspberry and Outer Island only represent engineers’ best predictions. A large storm or sudden bluff collapse could hasten the process. “Then again, if lake levels drop and we have a stretch of quiet weather years, the process could be slowed,” he said.

While erosion poses a threat to the lighthouses on Raspberry and Outer islands, the other four light stations in the Apostles are in no imminent danger, DeGrosky said.

All the buildings of the Apostle are structurally sound. However, there is not money available to make needed repairs, DeGrosky said. “Mostly, what we find is rot in the woodwork,” she said.

Money is being sought to restore the Raspberry Island buildings themselves. Repairs to just the keepers’ quarters and tower would cost more than $500,000, DeGrosky said.

While restoration work continues, volunteer work goes on to maintain the vegetable and flower gardens in the National Lakeshore.

On a Tuesday in the middle of August, Ted and Cindy May brought their daughter, Sarah, to the island to tend the plants around the lighthouse. All summer, volunteers from the area come out to work in the gardens.

“When we heard about it, we thought it would be interesting to be able to volunteer one day for the summer, to go out and help take care of the gardens,” said Cindy, a part-time faculty member at a local college. The Mays are members of a 4-H Club that provides volunteer gardeners. The vegetables the 4-H members harvested are donated to the tribal elder program at the nearby Red Cliff Indian Reservation.

“We like to volunteer to do different things, so the idea of gardening of course is appealing, and also being able to get out on to the different islands and help out in some way,” Cindy said.

Ted, a faculty member for the same local college where his wife works, said it’s great to get out on an island. “I love gardening, too and I like plants and it’s been a place I’ve wanted to come to for quite a while. We just moved here a year ago and have been looking forward to exploring each of the islands and this is one I haven’t been on yet.”

Sarah enjoyed harvesting the plants.

“You get to pick zucchini and cucumbers and everything and it’s really fun and I really like it,” said Sarah, who came dressed in a turquoise sweat suit and purple tennis shoes.

“The volunteers really make the landscape look the way that it used to here on the island,” Ginder said. “It’s really important for us in doing our programs and talking about the history of the island to have everything appear as it did historically. They’ve really helped us out throughout the past few years in this project to recreate the gardens and the flower beds and that type of thing here on the island. We spend most of our day working with visitors and we don’t have much time in our schedule to work with the gardens. So it’s a big help to have them out here.”

But volunteers at a lighthouse do more than help out, as Cindy can attest.

For most of the day the Mays visited Raspberry Island, Cindy said, “the island was abuzz with noise,” either from park workers cutting grass or the construction crew working on the erosion project.

But at noon, the noise stopped.

“Only then could I begin to imagine what the peace of the island was really like,” Cindy said “We toured the lighthouse and went up into the light tower. It was a relaxing day for me. Not quite like being ‘stranded on an island’ — more like finding a piece of home on a small piece of land surrounded by a powerful lake.”

This story appeared in the October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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