As part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, we are collecting and sharing the stories of people connected to the islands, whether they are park guests, former residents or former park employees.
This is the eighth in our series called “Lakeshore Logbook,” a collection of memories provided by former National Park Service employees.
Living and working in the park on a day to day basis, they’ve experienced a lot to be sure. We hope you enjoy their perspectives.
Jeff Rennicke worked as an interpretive ranger in 2004 and as a volunteer lighthouse keeper.
He played an important role in establishing how the park works to provide safe and fun experiences for paddlers. Almost two decades later, he has a new role in supporting the park and we’re glad he’s with us.
What is the coolest thing you did in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (APIS) as part of your job?
I was fortunate to be in a position to help the park grow its commitment to a safe, memorable experience for visitors exploring the sea caves by kayak. I had been a river guide and kayaker out West and a sea kayaker here in the islands so along with several other rangers that season we took on the task of creating plans for an NPS presence out at Meyers Beach and at the sea caves themselves.
At that time the road into Meyers Beach was a classic washboard dirt road and the steps were barely passable at times. There were few if any signs and no NPS buildings or presence often at that location.
To me, the caves are a true jewel of the park — the music of the waves, the cool shadows, the green-lit mosses, the shafts of sunlit, and the open blue horizons of Lake Superior make the Mawikwe Caves one of the gems of the national park system in my opinion.
To be on the team that helped in just the very first stages of helping visitors to experience the caves safely was an honor.
Please share a memorable experience you had in the park.
The lighthouses of the park are beacons of history but my family and I had an experience that gave us a better sense of the lives of the keepers and their families. We had just welcomed our second daughter Hannah in May and then were asked to do a stint as the interpretive keepers out at Sand Island Light late in the summer as a replacement for the volunteer that had to leave early that season.
We worried a bit as young parents about bringing our almost newborn out there with her 3 year-old sister but decided it would be an adventure. It was. Hannah took to lighthouse life as if she were born to it – the lullabye of the waves shushing her to sleep, the soft breezes.
Her sister would fly kites off the point while Hannah took naps in the dresser drawer (there was no crib available) and the days became idyllic. I know we read much about lighthouse life battling the storms and the isolation but this experience was a reminder to me and my family that there must have been moments of great joy and beauty mixed in the days of a keeper’s family as well.
The NPS awarded Hannah a special one-of-a-kind certificate at the end of our stay there dubbing her “The Littlest Lighthouse Keeper.”
What is the most amazing thing you saw in the park?
Aurora Borealis over Honeymoon Rock off the north end of Basswood Island. As a photographer, I had long dreamed of a night photograph of the stars over Honeymoon Rock but was given the opportunity to capture not only stars but a display of aurora over that iconic spot, a photograph that hung in the Smithsonian American Museum of Natural History as part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act.
Please share an accomplishment from your tenure at APIS that gives you pride.
The biggest moments for me as a ranger were the small moments. I loved to see the eyes of a visitor light up as they breathlessly regaled me with the story of what they saw out at the sea caves as we stood together on Meyers Beach watching sunset and unpacking their kayaks. It was an honor to be a part of the bigger picture of being in the long-term NPS plan to make the experience safer but for me it was the smaller moments of joy that give me the most pride.
What story from your time at APIS do you share most frequently?
When I was on patrol out at the caves in my kayak, it was a long paddle to either end to get out of the craft to eat lunch of solid ground but if you knew the caves well and water conditions were right, there are a few places you can safely get out. One of those was just through one of the biggest, most popular archways on the cave paddle. I used to get out there and surprise the tourists as I sat on solid ground like a gnome in a cave having my lunch.
What, if any, ’something’ from your time at APIS was an impetus for your chosen career or life path?
I’ve always been a storytelling, a writer, and photographer but this season with the NPS showed me what a true treasure our parks are and how people, many people, long for a connection – a true, heartfelt experience – connecting safely with a place like the Apostle Islands. Today, as the Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands, I think back to those moments when I saw people fall in love with this place and the beginnings of a lifelong connection. I want Friends of the Apostle Islands to be a way for people to continue to feel connected to these islands and a pathway for giving back to the place that touched their heart.
If you could return to just one place in APIS, where would you go? Why?
I would return to those idyllic August days at the Sand Island Lighthouse with kites flying on the breeze, waves lapping, and “the Littlest Light Keeper” asleep in her dresser drawer.
We would like to thank Jeff for his entry in the Lakeshore Logbook. Now that you know about Jeff’s enduring love of the islands, you’ll understand some of the reasons he is now the first Executive Director and wife Jill is Co-executive Director. We look forward to sharing more Logbook entries with you in the coming weeks. You can find the whole series here.