A Week in the Life of a Lighthouse Keeper: The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Adventure

by | Jul 15, 2023 | Michigan, Travel

“Breaker, breaker, we have a situation here,” came the voice over the walkie-talkie. It was our third day as lighthouse keepers at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, and we were facing another crisis: the top step on the admissions office porch had broken. Who knew lighthouse keeping involved so much DIY? But let’s backtrack to how we ended up in this situation.


Grand Traverse Lighthouse Keeper Program 

Months ago, the idea of volunteering as lighthouse keepers started to brew. Chuck and I met a volunteer lighthouse keeper while visiting the famous Soo Locks. The volunteer keeper mentioned several lighthouses where we could volunteer. We floated this idea to my sister Dianne and her husband, Greg. “Yes, they were game.” 

Dianne found The Grand Traverse Lighthouse program and got us the gig. We were thrilled about the opportunity to stay at the lighthouse in Michigan’s Leelanau State Park. And be lighthouse keepers for a week. 


The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Adventure

Our adventure began on a sunny Thursday. We arrived at the lighthouse, received our daily checklist, name badges, and uniforms, and settled into the former assistant keeper’s quarters.

The quarters were cozy and comfortable, with a fully-equipped modern kitchen, a living room area, two bedrooms, and one and a half baths. Each bedroom contained two twin beds, accommodating up to four adults at a time.


The twin beds were surprisingly comfortable. A little odd not sleeping in the same bed as Chuck. There is no A/C, so it got a little warm, but I got a 91 on the sleep app. It must be all the fresh air through the open window.  

The First Full Day: A Comedy of Errors

Our first full day as lighthouse keepers was a whirlwind of excitement, nerves, and a surprising amount of DIY. We kicked off the day with a stroll down to the water, where we witnessed a mama duck channeling her inner action hero, chasing away a seagull with a suspiciously hungry look in its eyes. 


Stef, the Museum’s Director, promised us an orientation at 9. We had questions. Oh boy, did we have questions. And not just your standard, “Where’s the bathroom?” kind of questions. 

Keeper Questions 

We had queries that would make a seasoned handyman scratch his head:

  1. Can we fix the hose spigot? It’s spraying more water than a fire hydrant hit by a car. Stef’s answer – Yes, please!
  2. Can we wage chemical warfare on the weeds with Round-up? Stef’s answer, No. Apparently, the weeds have diplomatic immunity.
  3. Any chance we can go medieval on the grass with the weed whip? Stef’s answer, Yes, please. I guess the grass had it coming.
  4. How do we turn off the basement lights without shutting off the dehumidifiers? It was a mystery. Stef’s answer that was on my list for you to fix. 
  5. Can we do some caulking of the bilco doors into the basement? Stef pointed to her list, which was lying on the table, also on the list. 
  6. Those ants in the brick pavers are a problem; we’ve got a few ideas about how to get rid of them. Stef’s answer, leave the ants alone. I guess the ants are unionized. 
  7. What’s in the safe? Thinking to myself, “Is it treasure? It’s a treasure, isn’t it?” Stef’s answer, I don’t know. I can’t find the key. I laughed to myself; so it’s definitely treasure.
  8. What if the phone rings? Do we let it go to voicemail? Stef’s answer, please answer it. So much for screening calls, I thought. 
  9. What about those walkie-talkies? Do we get to use them? Stef smiled and said yes, you can use them! Little did she know how much fun we’d have with them. 
  10. Where is the dehumidifier in the Fog Signal Building? Is it hiding? Stef said Aiden (the intern working in the Fog Signal building) will show you. He works from 10 am – 5 pm Sat-Wed.

Stef handed us our Lighthouse Bible, a tome filled with instructions, diagrams, and the secrets of the universe. Or at least the secrets of running the Admissions Office cash machine. With our orientation completed, Stef headed out. We were now the keepers of the flame.


Crisis Averted 

The first visitor through the door asked for a stamp on their lighthouse passport. Panic ensued. Stamps! What stamps??? This isn’t in the lighthouse bible! Thankfully Stef wasn’t far. She told us that visitors can get their lighthouse stamps at the gift shop.  

Then, the key to the venting door in the lighthouse tower went AWOL. Stef had only been gone for 10 minutes, and we were already facing our second crisis. We dialed Stef’s number, conveniently plastered everywhere, and she returned with the key. Crisis averted. Door opened. 


Just when we thought we could catch our breath, a horde of visitors descended on the admissions office. Brenda grabbed the walkie-talkie, “Breaker, Breaker; we have a problem in the admission office.” Dianne responded with a quick, “Roger that.”  Together, they seamlessly collected cash and had the horde happily exploring the museum.

And so, our first full day as lighthouse keepers was filled with excitement, a little bit of panic, and a whole lot of laughter. Who knew lighthouse keeping could be such an adventure?

Walkie-Talkie Handles 


One of the unexpected highlights of our week was the walkie-talkie banter. We adopted the handles: Papa Bear, Little Bear, Mama Bear, and Goldilocks. We thought we were pretty clever, drawing inspiration from the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story. After all, we were in Northern Michigan, where a bear is the only thing more common than a pine tree. 

Our walkie-talkie repartee quickly evolved into a full-blown radio drama, complete with plot twists, cliffhangers, and a captive audience. The lighthouse staff got so caught up in our antics that they started tuning in for their daily dose of bear-themed entertainment.

One day, Mary, one of the gift shop keepers, decided to join the fun. Over the walkie-talkie, she announced, “Need a bear in the gift shop.” It was like a bat signal for our bear crew.

“Roger, that,” Little Bear responded, his voice crackling with excitement, “I’m on it.” He dashed off, presumably imagining himself as a superhero responding to a distress call.

It turns out the distress call was about some fallen shelves in the gift shop. Not exactly a job for Superman, but Little Bear took it in stride. 

And so, our radio drama continued, each day bringing a new episode of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears Lighthouse Adventure.”

Meet the cast of characters. 

Papa Bear 


When asked what surprised Papa Bear about his lighthouse keeper experience, he growled, “The constant need to sweep the spider webs off everything. And don’t get me started on the bird poop. That Robin….”



Papa Bear would occasionally disappear during our stay. If we couldn’t find him, he was usually hibernating in the den (also known as the apartment living room).

When asked what he enjoyed about the experience, he was quick to answer, “Building the Admissions Office step.” But I think Papa Bear’s real love was riding the Cub Cadet. He’d ride that thing like a cowboy at a rodeo, an intense look in his eyes and a trail of freshly cut grass in his wake.


We always knew when he was back on site. There’d be a crackle over the walkie-talkie and those immortal words: “The eagle has landed.” 

Mama Bear 


Mama Bear had a knack for nurturing, and the herb garden at the lighthouse became her pet project. It wasn’t on Stef’s project list, but Mama Bear, with her green thumbs twitching, asked, “Would it be alright if I tidied it up a bit?” 


She spent her days pulling, digging, and chatting with curious visitors. “Did you build the garden?” one asked, to which she’d laughed and replied, “No! It was built 100 years ago.” She later said, “Do I look 100 years old?” 

The herb garden after Mama Bear had worked her magic on it. 


One day, the walkie-talkie snapped to life with Goldilocks’s voice. “Breaker, Breaker,” she said, “We’ve got a line of people in the tower. Need help ASAP.” Without missing a beat, Mama Bear responded, “Roger that! I’m on it.” 

When she wasn’t tending to the herb garden or managing the tower traffic, Mama Bear could be found in the Gift Shop. She’d help Mary and Shelly fold t-shirts or restock the sodas, always with a smile on her face. 

But when asked about her most memorable moment, she didn’t mention the garden, relieving Goldilocks from the Admissions desk, or the Gift Shop. Instead, Mama Bear answered, “Definitely the 89-year-old visitor who climbed the tower.” It was these interactions, these shared moments of connection, that transformed the lighthouse from a volunteer gig into a unique experience.

Little Bear 


“Breaker, Breaker, has anyone seen Little Bear?” The walkie-talkie chirped like a bird in search of its flock. “I’m in the bat cave,” came Little Bear’s cryptic reply. Having conquered the rest of Stef’s list like a seasoned lighthouse keeper, Little Bear was now wrestling with the final challenge: taming the tornado of tools in the basement workshop.

Much like Papa Bear, Little Bear found a strange joy in fixing the step on the Admissions Office porch. It was a rite of passage, the first time Little Bear “ripped” a board. Papa Bear, the seasoned carpenter, watched over Little Bear like a hawk, knowing carpentry wasn’t exactly Little Bear’s forte.

But when it came to weed whipping, Little Bear was a force to be reckoned with. He attacked those lighthouse weeds like a Jedi knight in a lightsaber duel, leaving no weed standing.

One thing that caught Little Bear off guard was the visitors who hung around the lighthouse for hours. They ate picnics at the tables or on blankets. Some were combing the beach for rocks, while others came searching for a spot to watch the sunset. It was a constant reminder that the lighthouse was more than just a building; it was a community hub, a place of shared experiences and lasting memories.



In a twist on the classic tale, our Goldilocks was invited to the Lighthouse and put in charge of museum admissions. She quickly mastered the art of operating the cash machine, guiding visitors on their self-guided tours, and delivering safety briefings for the lighthouse tower climb with the ease of a seasoned tour guide.


However, Goldilocks wasn’t pleased with the internet connection. She grumbled about it like her namesake grumbled about the three bears’ porridge. But, just as the original Goldilocks found a bowl of porridge that was just right, our Goldilocks eventually made peace with the sliver of internet that was available when the haze cleared or the wind blew in the right direction. Ever the bearer of good news, Stef assured her that salvation was on the horizon with the expected arrival of high-speed fiber in 2024.

When asked about her favorite moment, Goldilocks didn’t hesitate. Her golden moment was telling military personnel – both active and veterans – that they could enter for free. Sometimes, they’d share a bit about their service, branch, or military years. These moments were more than just feel-good; they were heartwarming reminders of what made the lighthouse more than a building.

Mission Impossible

Goldilocks found herself handing the last scavenger hunt sheet to a little boy with puppy-dog eyes. His siblings were already armed with their own sheets, clipboards, and pencils, ready to embark on their lighthouse adventure. She couldn’t deny him the last one, but she had a nagging feeling that this would come back to haunt her.

And, as if on cue, the very next visitor was the creator of the scavenger hunt himself, a former intern now visiting with his own family. The irony was not lost on Goldilocks. Luckily, he was game for a little improvisation, creating a makeshift scavenger hunt for his kids on the fly. “Can you find the toothbrushes? Here’s a clue: check the corner. And the toaster? It has four sides and might be on the stove.”


Suddenly, the walkie-talkie buzzed with urgency. “Mission Impossible! We need a used scavenger hunt sheet for replication purposes.”

“Roger that,” Mama and Papa Bear responded, “We’re going dumpster diving.” 

The dumpster diving didn’t yield a sheet, but we found an unused one in the back of the Lighthouse Keeper’s bible. With the scavenger hunt sheets replenished, harmony was restored in the lighthouse. Goldilocks breathed a sigh of relief, ready for the next unexpected twist in her lighthouse adventure.

The Tornado Scare

We found it peculiar when the Park Rangers tailgated us to the lighthouse after we returned from a dinner in town. We offered them a friendly wave, curiosity piqued. Little did we know, we were about to find out the reason for their unexpected escort.

The night was dark, and rain was pouring down by the time we settled in the lighthouse. Suddenly, a knocking on the door was as ominous as a drumbeat in a suspense thriller. Mama Bear, ever the brave one, answered the door. The scene was so dramatic it could have been ripped straight from the 2019 movie “The Lighthouse” starring Willem Dafoe. I half expected to see a spectral seagull in the stormy sky.

“We are using the lighthouse basement as a tornado shelter if the need arises,” the Ranger announced, his voice serious. 

“Whoa! Wait! Have you seen the basement?” Mama Bear asked, her voice filled with surprise. Like many basements, this one was full of boxes, scrap lumber, more boxes, old furniture, tools for every trade, and a washing machine and dryer. 

“Yes, mama, we have,” he replied, his tone leaving no room for argument. 

“So you know there isn’t a lot of room,” Mama Bear pointed out, trying to inject some reason into the conversation. 

The Ranger’s response was as dramatic as the storm outside, “It’s better than people dying.” 

With that, we shut the door, turned off the lights, and went to bed, all hoping we wouldn’t be entertaining a horde of soaked campers from the State Park. Thankfully, the storm passed without any need to shelter anyone in the cramped basement. 

The Day-Off Adventure

Our day off arrived like a surprise gift, and we were ready to unwrap it. We started by stretching our legs by hiking to the Manitou Overlook on the Cathead Bay Trails


Papa Bear and Little Bear had been conspiring to stop at the Woolsey Memorial Airport since we arrived. They kept going on about how this place would make for a grand AirBnB. Mama Bear and Goldilocks didn’t see the allure. “Coming in hot,” we yelled from the back as Papa Bear slid to a stop. 


Next on our agenda was a quest for herbs for Mama Bear’s garden. We made a beeline for Bells of Christmas Farm Market, where we hit the jackpot with strawberries and tomatoes. But herbs? Not a sprig in sight.

Undeterred, we continued our herb hunt down the scenic M-22, eventually landing in Fishtown. We refueled with chowder at The Cove, politely declining the famous Bloody Mary garnished with a smoked chub. But we couldn’t resist the smoked whitefish from Carlson’s. It was practically calling our names.


Our herb quest led us to Omena Cut Flowers, where the friendly staff pointed us toward Plant Masters of Suttons Bay. Success at last! With our herb mission accomplished, we made a final pit stop at Tom’s in Northport for some bacon. Those fresh tomatoes we snagged earlier were practically begging to be turned into BLTs.


The Takeaway

Our week as lighthouse keepers was a unique and unforgettable experience. We learned a lot, met some interesting people, and got to live out our lighthouse dreams. The walkie-talkie banter added a layer of fun and camaraderie to our duties. The fantastic staff at the lighthouse made us feel like family.


Thankfully there are many volunteer keeper programs in Michigan. Each one offers its own unique flavor. 

We highly recommend the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Keeper program if you ever want to stay in a lighthouse. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that you won’t want to miss! And remember, if a mama duck can chase away a seagull, you can handle a week as a lighthouse keeper! 



There are more pictures in our Grand Traverse Lighthouse Adventure. After you take a look, let us know what you think.

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