Lakeshore Logbook – Matt Welter

Matt Welter

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 28th 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.

Matt Welter was the park ranger/interpreter at Raspberry Island from 1990 to 1998.

What is the coolest thing you did in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (APIS) as part of your job?
Helping establish the living history program at Raspberry Island Light. When I started the job, the lighthouse had no furnishings, no costume, no props, nothing but the lighthouse building. I told my supervisor that if they could give me a makeshift costume, I could do living history tours. I noticed in the lighthouse keeper logbooks that they were always painting and varnishing the lighthouse so I started my tours by saying that we were painting and varnishing and had moved all of the furniture out of the building. From there I filled the lighthouse with stories.

Matt as Toots Winfield being photographed with some young island visitors

My prior job at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley gave me a lot of experience on what I needed to do. I learned the history of the lighthouse, selected a year and a person to portray. I chose Herbert “Toots” Winfield and the year 1923. The next 6 summers I got to live in 1923. I learned everything I could about the year as well as the years leading up to it and the years after it. I had to know the name of the president, what people thought of motorcars, and the lightkeeper’s duties and responsibilities. I had to erase things from my dialogue such as chocolate chip cookies (invented in 1925) and the planet Pluto (discovered in 1930).

The next year the park got me wool serge light keeper uniform (very hot, but waterproof), props, books and signs. I baked pies and bread in my quarters and brought them into the lighthouse to fill the rooms with smells. I hung laundry on the line, washed it with a washboard, and washed the windows in the tower with vinegar. I played croquette with visitors and gave them tours. Visitors even began to donate items like a coffee grinder and a new croquette set. 

Matt baking bread at the Raspberry Island quarters

One of the funniest additions to the tour was the “Amberola.” The park had the original Edison Amberola and blue cylinder records that went with it. I had a pocket-sized tape recorder and spent a day recording a cassette tape full of songs from the records. I kept this in my back pocket. Because of the length of the keeper’s jacket, the cassette player was completely hidden from view. When giving a tour I would hit play and pause on the recorder as we entered the living room. I had my hand on the pause button as I described things that went in the living room, pointing to where they went with the skeleton key. When I described the Amberola, I went through the motions as if I were operating it and when I started cranking the invisible handle, I started the tape recorder. I kept cranking the pretend handle as the music played. People would nod, smile, and listen to the music. Then the light went on in the visitors’ noggins.  They realized that there was no actual Amberola there. Some would realize where the music was coming from. Some wouldn’t. Every once in a while at the end of the tour I heard somebody say, “Wasn’t it funny how the music was coming out of his butt?!” 

The Edison Amberola

What is the most fun experience you had in the park? 
Apostle Islands School was always fun. I loved doing activities with the kids, especially Bat and Moth, and Island Tag. I loved mentoring the Northland Students who were cutting their teeth on camp experiences. I loved telling stories around the campfire and taking kids on night hikes.

Matt Welter with Apostle Islands School students at Sand Island

We introduced each new school group to the differences of island living. One example was that on the first night before they went to bed we would ask them for candy, food and perfume to put up in the bear bag so that bears wouldn’t come to camp during the night. The first night usually had almost nothing in the bear bag, with all the kids saying they didn’t have any goods. The next morning we would find fresh signs that a bear had visited the camp. One time a tent of kids arose to find a large bear scat in front of the entrance to their tent. The next night the bear bag was always full.

I enjoyed seeing how kids’ perspective would change. Often when they arrived they were loud, talking about what they missed and afraid of what was on the island. By the time they left they wanted to stay, were quiet and contemplative, and were still trying to show me things they had found. Over the years, I remember several children originally being afraid of spiders coming up to me by the second day with spiders in their hands. My favorite was a girl who found a fishing spider that was as large as the palm of her hand. After I told her that these spiders can walk on water and eat fish, she asked what she should do with the spider. I said, “Let’s take her over to the frog pond and let her go.” The frog pond was sunlit and she lowered her hand even with the pond. The spider ran from her hand straight across the pond, leaving a wake of sunlit ripples. It was magical.

I also remember the frog pond being so loud with spring peepers that you couldn’t hear the people talking next to you. I taught students to cup their hands around their ears to make deer ears and if you did this near the frog pond when the peepers were chorusing, you would actually start to feel dizzy. 

I also enjoyed showing kids the woodcock doing their calls and their sky dance. One night, I and two Northland students got so close to a woodcock that not only could we see it, but we could also hear a short “whoop” that it would make before giving its classic “MEEP” call. 

Please share a memorable experience you had in the park.  
I enjoyed what Raspberry Island taught me. I learned how to identify mushrooms on the island and saw more diversity in mushrooms in its old growth forest than I have ever found in any other place.

Mushrooms on Raspberry Island

I learned how to use and how to trust a compass on the island. I remember picking a point on the island and navigating to it through the yew-filled forest, never seeing a landmark or vista and still coming out on the other side of the island, exactly where I had planned to go.

Canada yew along the Raspberry Island sandspit trail

I learned about wind on the island. I learned how it would affect the number of people visiting the island and where they would most likely show up. I learned that the wind would affect the currents in the channel and after a good rain, if the wind was right, I could see a stream of leaves and red clay between Raspberry Island and York Island. I learned that the wind affected the growth of the island’s trees – trees near the edge of the island that were battered by gales were thin and narrow, while trees in the center of the island were large and stout.

Matt studying Raspberry Island’s natural history.

Each year I studied different things about the island. One year it was the bats, the next the wildflowers. One year I was studying sap from the trees: hemlock didn’t have any, balsam fir made bumps that could be pushed and would squirt out sap, cedar made hard, dry tears. I sometimes thought, “Why am I studying sap?” At one point I was on a hike through the brush and had taken a break, resting my hand on a tree. When I pulled my hand away I saw my hand was sticky with sap and smelled of cedar. I thought, “Wait a minute, cedar doesn’t ooze sticky sap.” I looked to where my hand had been and there was a bear claw mark. 

What is the most amazing thing you saw in the park?
Foxfire. I had heard about this glowing fungus, but never thought I would see it. I decided to take a night walk on the Raspberry Island East side trail. I soon found out that it was impossible without a light source. The dense canopy of the old growth forest was so impenetrable that even on a moonlit night it was as dark as a cave. I brought an electric Coleman lantern with me. It was August and as I started down the last leg of the trail towards the sandspit I saw a light ahead of me on the ground in a hollowed out low stump. It was the foxfire. It glowed eerily in a bowl shape about a foot wide. I knelt before it in awe. After five minutes I thought to myself, “I should probably turn the lantern off and really enjoy this light.” I looked over to the lantern and began to reach for the off switch when I realized it was already in the off position. I could see the lantern’s buttons by the light of the foxfire, it was that bright.   

Matt examining a large yellow birch on Raspberry Island

Please share an accomplishment from your tenure at APIS that gives you pride. 
I was proud of a lot of the things I came up with for tours of the lighthouse. I enjoyed bringing the people that lived there to life. I enjoyed coming up with new tours every few months so that neither I nor the visitors that returned two or three times a summer got bored. I was proud to see people get so excited that they would return with props and donations for the lighthouse (one couple even donated a brand new croquette set.) I enjoyed making people laugh and sometimes cry. I enjoyed giving tours in Spanish to foreign exchange students. I loved handing the tour over to people who had actually lived, worked and sometimes even grew up in lighthouse. They were living treasures. 

“Matt as Toots Winfield greeting visitors on the lighthouse steps

I was especially proud of an activity I came up with for visitors waiting to get into the tower. It was called, “Todays Gone By.” I went through the Raspberry Lighthouse Keepers’ logbooks and selected noteworthy passages from different years for each day from May to September. Some were mundane. Some were humorous. A few were exciting. Each day I would change them. The visitors loved reading them and getting a look into the daily life of different keepers. It also helped add interesting stories to the tours. 

What story from your time at APIS do you share most frequently?
When my wife and I stayed at Devils Island lighthouse we learned the true reason why it’s called Devils Island.

We were dropped off with a couple other people to help with a breeding bird survey the next morning. With the exception of a bunch of broken flyswatters, the lighthouse was charming. Once settled in, we picked blueberries and enjoyed the view of Lake Superior. We watched a rainstorm come in. It wasn’t much rain so we just lied amongst the blueberries and felt the sea caves booming beneath us. 

The rain did bring something else, though – flies, biting flies. More flies than I had ever seen. They were swarming around us and landing on any light colored clothes we had. All of us there felt it simultaneously and began running around the yard to get them off of us before heading into the house. But each time one of us stopped all of the flies would land all over our clothes. At one point my wife and I decided to run around the house in opposite directions. As I passed my wife it was like being in a Yogi Bear cartoon. She would run past and a cloud of flies was following her. I looked over my shoulder and saw a cloud of flies chasing me. And when she stopped to open the back door of the lighthouse the cloud of flies following her landed all over her pants. They were khaki but with the flies they were completely black. At one point I let them gather on my pants and they began to ball up. I knocked the ball of flies off and it remained in tack. I kicked it with my foot and it rolled in the grass and more flies began to join it.

We eventually got in and began swatting the flies that had followed us. It was a lot of work. Along the way we realized the reason why there were so many broken flyswatters and the true reason this place was called Devil’s Island.

If you could return to just one place in APIS, where would you go? Why?
I would like to return to the area behind the dunes on Julian Bay because I often saw burrowing wolf spiders there. These spiders dig a hole in the ground that they line with silk. They wait for insects to go walking by, grab them and drag them back down into their hole. They sun their egg sacs on the top of the hole and drop them inside when someone gets too close. They make extra passages in their hole. 

Burrowing wolf spider 

They are like solitary bees in that when you find one of their holes, you can look around the hole and find several other holes (I like to think of them as neighborhoods). 

The burrowing wolf spider’s whole life revolves around her hole. 

One time sitting on my knees next to a burrowing wolf spider neighborhood, sitting so still that many of them came to the surface. I was also putting up with flies biting me. At one point a fly landed on my leg and one of the spiders ran from her hole to my leg and caught it. Out of curiosity I covered her hole with my finger. She immediately dropped the fly and sat there like she was stunned. After a couple of minutes she still sat there. I tried pushing her towards her hole. Nothing. I set her next to her hole. No response. I waited 10 minutes and she did not move. It was like she was in shock that her hole had momentarily disappeared.

If I could choose two places, I would go to the west side of Raspberry Island where there was a yellow birch tree that was so big around that six people forming a circle with their arms could not encircle it. It had a burl on it that was a least 3.5 feet in diameter. I wonder if it is still there. If not, I would like to see how it fell apart. I think of fallen trees as 3-D jigsaw puzzles and this would be a big one.

Matt currently serves as a naturalist at nature centers near Green Bay. We want to thankhim for his entry into our 50th Anniversary Lakeshore Logbook. We look forward to sharing more Logbook entries with you in the coming weeks. You can find the whole series here.

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