Lakeshore Logbook – Jim Stowell

Jim Stowell and a photo of Raspberry Island Keeper Lee Benton

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 31st 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.

Jimm Stowell worked as Raspberry Island Ranger Interpreter from 2003 through 2016.

What is the coolest thing you did in APIS as a part of your job? 
Well, it wasn’t cleaning the three outhouses. So, I guess the coolest thing was having fun with the visitors and still helping them learn about the lighthouse and feel something for the people who worked and lived there.  

Or maybe when the Secretary of the Interior came to the island and the two of us ended up in the garden eating raw green beans. Then he said everyone should eat a green bean and everyone in his entourage promptly ate a raw green bean.  

Jim Stowell and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar

What is the most fun experience you had in the park? 
I had a great time standing at the top of the lighthouse talking with the visitors in September. Those times were not like ‘tours’ they were conversations. We talked about everything and anything and often ended up laughing a lot. One couple bought a new croquet set and gave it to the park. I had so much fun with the visitors especially the visitors that came back again and again.

Jim greets a group of cruise boat visitors on the Raspberry Island Light Station grounds

I had fun with (co-worker) Audrey (Wilck). When we moved into quarters in the renovated lighthouse the two of had many laughs. Fred (Schlichting) and I also had a great time. What a pleasure it was to work with him. We are still friends to this day. And big Mike the ex- Coast Guard guy. Man, the two of us laughed. I enjoyed the guides with the kayak tours.  One of them became a real friend. We would see each other across the lighthouse yard and yell, “Que pasa, primo” and give each a big abrazo.  

Please share a memorable thing I saw in the park? 
The first is not pleasant but I have never forgotten it. A dead eagle on the East Bay beach.  

14 seasons of sunsets. The sun setting as the full moon is rising.  

Sunset at Raspberry Island

When the tall ships were on their way to Duluth they stopped at Raspberry. I saw one of the ships anchored in the East Bay. Not another boat there. Just that tall ship and the beach and trees. It looked like the Hispaniola anchored on Treasure Island. I love that book so this was like seeing a scene from one of favorite books come to life.   

The Pride of Baltimore anchored in the Apostle Islands

What is the most amazing thing you saw in the park? 
That might be the guy who swam from the mainland to Sand Island, then from Sand Island to York Island the then from York to Raspberry Island where I met him and his support team. He was a small Latino looking gentleman. He did not look like he was exhausted. He didn’t look like someone who could have died several times this day. He looked happy and relaxed. He was relaxed because he was almost finished. He was going to swim from RA to Oak Island. I was amazed. 

The flock of geese who landed in the yard by the exhibits and stayed for two days. The visitors walked around them but the geese did not fly away. It was amazing to watch the visitors and geese work with each other. On the third day an eagle flew over and shortly after that the geese flew away.  

Or maybe the blind lady and her guide dog who climbed up the steps to join me at the top of the tower of the older lighthouse on Michigan Island. 

And, of course, sunset and full moon rise. I mean, over the years the number of sunsets across 35 miles of open Lake Superior has cumulative impact. The forest on the island is truly amazing. Except for the Amazon rainforest the forest on RA is the thickest forest I have ever been in. I loved it.  

Please share an accomplishment from your tenure at APIS that gives you pride?  
I lasted 14 seasons. I not only survived I learned to thrive out on the island and inside the National Park system. I have a lifelong, well established record of having trouble with systems. One example, my time in The United States Air Force. I was busted in rank so often I was said to have zippers on my stripes.  I had lots of help lasting 14 seasons. Primarily my supervisor. He was very patient and understanding. And patient. My two Raspberry Island partners, Audrey and Fred. Couldn’t have done it without them.  

Rangers Audrey Wilck and Jim Stowell at Raspberry Island

I am proud of the working relationships I had. Living and working on an island in a lighthouse is not easy. One bathroom, one stove and icebox. Morning and night differences. Audrey and I were two very, very, different people but we made it work. We became trusted working friends.  We spent hours in the park library researching and creating our programs.  Fred and I worked so well together and we were good for each other. I wrote a list of all the people I lived with in the lighthouse in the lighthouse logbook including work crews. My memory is that the list was over 20 people.  

Fred Schlichting and Jim Stowell at Raspberry Island Light

I’m proud of the programs I put together. The Bop to the Top. The Stop and Ask Questions and the tour I gave most of the time, The Full Enchilada. In truth this tour had many versions which I could use depending on time and space and weather and the tour group.  

I didn’t create my programs alone. Audrey and I working together and talking about the lighthouse’s history was a huge help. I received very helpful feedback from my supervisor. I worked hard to learn the facts and I had great fun doing that.  

Jim Stowell with a tour group in the kitchen of the keeper’s quarters

I am happy and proud that my programs connected with the visitors. In the 1970’s and 1980’s I spent time backpacking in Sequoia National Park in California. That is where I fell in love with nature. The time in the wilderness of that park changed my life. My time in those mountains gave me so much so when I was on Raspberry and I could see my program was working I knew the visitors were learning and, most importantly, feeling that ‘emotional connection to the resource,’ I felt like I was giving something back.  

And, people came to the island to hear me sing, ‘The Lighthouse Keepers Blues.’    

Jim Stowell in his lighthouse keeper uniform on the steps leading to Raspberry Island Light

What story from your time in the park do you share most frequently?  
When talking with my friends I don’t tell any single story. The story depends on the time and place in our conversations. I tell short conversational stories. Stories about my times on park boats. You know, jumping off a boat onto a wet dock or jumping off a wet dock onto the deck of a moving boat where if I miss, 

 I go into the lake and there is no one help me. The time the fog was so thick nobody on board could see more than a few feet. The time the waves were so big it was just plain scary.  Crazy visitors’ stories, rude visitors’ stories, great visitors’ stories and crazy Park Service stories. Stories about the people I work with. These are always good stories, with one exception.  

Professionally, the story I have told the most is called, ‘The Miracles of Wow.’  

Jim Stowell swearing in a new junior ranger

If you could return to just one place where would you go? Why? 
Raspberry Island. The trail from the lighthouse to the East Bay beach. I felt as if the trees on that trail were long-time friends. Every spring when I would arrive on the island for the first time I just had to go see how all my friends were. Had I lost any friends over the winter?  I wrote in a poem that when I die I will see my wife’s face, my two brother’s faces, a young eagle’s first flight and this trail. 

Jim walking the beach at the Raspberry Island sandspit

A few thoughts: 
Fred, Audrey and I often talked about how much we enjoyed working together and how much fun and how easy it was living in the lighthouse together. But we all agreed what we really like is being on the island alone. I loved running the show by myself. Not ever having to explain why I did something. Why I made the choice I did. For many people this kind of freedom at work is a dream job. That’s certainly true of me. 

I loved those rare days when I was alone on the island. I loved storm days. On those days when I was alone I would sit and watch and listen to the lake and the sky. I loved the forest of RA. Most days when I was off-duty I went into the woods. I spent many happy hours struggling through those woods. Sitting with my back against a fallen tree and drinking a cup of coffee. Listening and watching and sometimes writing. The solitude on Raspberry Island was a blessing.  

One of the many, many reasons I love the lake is because the lake is wildest wilderness in the park. Years ago I was walking in Tongass National Forest in Alaska and it was beautiful. Quiet and peaceful and seemingly safe. But just because I couldn’t see a grizzly bear didn’t mean there wasn’t one waiting for me around the next bend in the trail. The lake is like that. It can appear so safe. You look out and see sailboats and small motorboats and kayakers cruising along. But, the grizzly bear in the lake is always out there.  

One of the things I miss the most is riding park boats on the lake. I never tired of watching it and listening to it and feeling it. Sometimes on storm days I would walk down to the old wooden dock and lay on the boards so I could see the lake from the lake’s point of view. I could feel the lake through that dock. There were many blessings for me working on Raspberry Island for the National Park but the greatest blessing was the lake. 

Jim is still a professional actor and playwright living in Redwing, Minnesota. 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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