Lakeshore Logbook – Robin Maercklein

Robin Maercklein

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 eleventh 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.

Robin Maercklein worked as a seasonal Park Ranger (also known as Naturalist) from 1980 to 1983. He spent two summers on Stockton Island, 1980-1981, followed by two summers on Raspberry Island at the lighthouse.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have even once held their dream job, let alone four of them. Yet, I have been that lucky. The first of these was as a seasonal Park Ranger (aka Naturalist) at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. I spent two summers on Stockton Island, 1980-1981, followed by two summers on Raspberry Island at the lighthouse.

I jumped at the chance to:

A) live and work in a diverse natural forested island in Lake Superior;
B) reside in an old cabin with no electricity or telephone (yes, that is a plus!), and;
C) get a raise! Did I mention it was Lake Superior? I had been working at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, one of the other Great Lakes when I got a job offer from Chief Naturalist Phil Hastings. Three weeks later I arrived in Bayfield Wisconsin and found out that;
D) the park superintendent did not allow beards, only mustaches. I was appalled. This was the North Woods where loggers and hunters and outdoor enthusiasts rule. In winter, every male had a beard whether or not they could grow one. Regardless, off went the beard.

At Stockton, I greeted visitors and made multiple presentations each week, hikes and campfire talks, the latter often accompanied by singing and playing one or more instruments; guitar, baritone ukulele, flutophone, and harmonica.

My first astronomy campfire talk was scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Unfortunately at the end of June the sun did not set untile after 9:00 p.m. It did not get dark enough to see stars until well after my bed time. I shelved that presentation for six weeks.

Campfire talk on Stockton Island
Campfire talk on Stockton Island

The numerous hikes exploring the ecology of forests, bogs, and dune ecology, sharing the geological story of the islands and identifying plants and animals encountered on our walks. I was especially interested in birds and knew several individual birds so well, I could stop at the bog/tombolo overlook on our way from the dock to Julian Bay, and imitate in detail two bird calls the group would hear seconds later.

Overlook on the Julian Bay trail on Stockton Island

The bird life was diverse and plentiful and I made daily notes of the avifauna, incorporating them into a guide to the birds of Apostle Islands that I produced while working at the park Visitor Center during the winter of 1981-1982. 

During that first summer, I rebelled. I could not have a beard, but I could have a mustache. I stopped trimming it and let it grow. And grow it did. Soon it covered my mouth and friends suggested mustache wax.

It was about that time a film crew from PM Magazine, a national television news feature program with local affiliates, arrived to do a story about sailing in the Apostle Islands. When the film crew asked if there was any other story they could work on, my supervisor Phil Hastings suggested that they film me, “the man who talks to birds.” It was my day off and my family was visiting but I could not turn it down. I quickly donned my uniform and was transported to Stockton Island. Once there I realized I had an incomplete uniform – I had forgotten my name tag. I borrowed a name tag from a coworker, Connie Frostman, and pinned it on. Fortunately, they never, in the nine hours of filming, got close enough to read the name!

When I finally saw the segment on TV, I had my 11 minutes of fame as “The Man Who Talks to Birds,” the name given to the piece. My nieces and nephews particularly liked the part where I captured a garter snake which subsequently defecated on my hands. I mumbled something about the smell and when asked to repeat myself, I looked at the camera and said, “It went to the bathroom on me and it can’t be washed off. It will stink for days.” It was while watching this film I noticed how grotesque my mustache appeared. I quickly went back to trimming it.

In 1981-1983 at Apostle Islands, Park Rangers like myself were given additional designations to our job titles, probably to show the diversity of our knowledge and experiences being offered. I held different titles each year focusing on my specialties. That first year my new title included ‘ornithologist’. However, when the Regional Office got wind of this, they balked because my seasonal job application did not list any education or experience with birds. It turns out I was a shoo-in once I rewrote my application to include my birding obsession and achievements.

 In later years I would be titled ‘botanist’ and finally, ‘historian’. The latter reflected my move to Raspberry Island where I gave tours of the lighthouse and grounds. I lived in the ‘barn’ which had been modified into quarters for Rangers.

The “barn” formerly used as a ranger residence at Raspberry Island Light

When I arrived I knew little nor cared about lighthouse history. However, living at a light station, I was inspired by my surroundings and quickly learned what I could. I visited Minnesota’s Split Rock Lighthouse to which the keeper at Raspberry Island transferred in the mid-1920’s, the era the park strived to re-create at Raspberry. My visit to  Split Rock also led to a discovery. On top a rubbish pile back in the woods, obviously used for years by lighthouse keepers at Raspberry were two hollow steel columns about a foot in diameter and 12 feet long.

The epiphany was that these were the columns through which weights dropped, running the clockwork that kept the light turning. I received permission to save them from further degradation and stored them in the rafters of the fog signal building. I always hoped they would be reinstalled even if neither the light nor its clockwork were in place.  This eventually happened as part of a lighthouse restoration project in 2007.

 During my second winter season, 1982-1983, again working half time at the park’s headquarters in Bayfield, I designed and illustrated an exhibit for the Raspberry Island Lighthouse. It consisted of 11 feet of a multi-paneled timeline describing the history of lighthouses, lighting technology, and the lighthouses of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Part of the Lighthouse exhibit on Raspberry Island

During my off time I manufactured a copy of a light keeper’s uniform and hung it in a closet in the Keeper’s quarters during my final summer season.

The following summer, 1983, I assembled the exhibit and installed it in the keeper’s quarters. I also produced a life sized drawing of the original light/lens which was no longer on site.  This last item completed the exhibit. I was amazed to see the full exhibit still on display when I visited Raspberry Island nearly 15 years later.

That final summer season I became increasingly discouraged by the park’s administration and the rebel in me began to reappear. Despite my last day of the work week ending at 5:00 p.m., I was not allowed off the island until the following afternoon. Work on the island never really ended. I was expected to greet every visitor and give tours of the lighthouse on demand. All summer I kept a detailed hourly chart of how many visitors arrived and visited the lighthouse.

Visitors tour the Raspberry Island Lighthouse

I graphed the results by month, day, and hour. I was determined to show the extra work required beyond the eight hours for which I was paid, but in the end, my superiors were thrilled with my scientific data collection: They used the information the following year to set a schedule of hourly tours. After-hours tours would no longer be available.

Meanwhile, I surreptitiously fought against the ban on beards. With a schedule that put me on the island for ten day periods, I was able to grow a beard starting three weeks before my final day working at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In mid October I returned to mainland with over a half inch of growth of hair on my face. It was obviously grown on purpose. I arrived at the Visitor Center for my checkout only to find it was packed with people. A member of Congress, whether Senator or  Representative, I don’t remember, was at headquarters that day and after introductions, he shook my hand and thanked me for my work. As I had just two hours left in my employment, I suddenly became very self-conscious of my protest beard. My friend, Chief Ranger Bill Ferraro appeared beside me and mentioned the growth on my face followed by, “I could fire you, you know.”

“I don’t care. Go ahead,” was all I said.

Looking straight in my eyes he replied, “Don’t burn your bridges, Robin.”

I did not respond, looking down at the floor instead. I was not sure I ever wanted to work for the National Park Service again. Though 37 years have passed, Bill and I have remained good friends. And apparently, I did not burn my bridges. I returned to the National Park Service in 1990 as a permanent employee at St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. It turned out to be my fourth and final dream job and I retired in 2012 with over 20 years of working for the National Park Service.

Oh, and my beard? It has not been shaved since late September 1983. 

Raspberry Island quarters, September 1983. The beard begins.

We would like to thank Robin for his entry in the Lakeshore Logbook. We look forward to sharing more Logbook entries with you in the coming weeks. You can find the whole series here.

You may also like…