The scoop about Coop: 10 questions with retiring Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Archeologist Dave Cooper

Dave Cooper, lying on grass, looking up, reflects on his career - Neil Howk photo

April 28, 2023

We join the National Park Service in celebrating the retirement of David J. Cooper, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Archeologist and Cultural Resource Manager. Superintendent Lynne Dominy recently praised Cooper’s award-winning efforts. “Dave has spent his lifetime protecting the historical and cultural resources on and around Lake Superior.” she said. “From portages to fish camps to lighthouses and shipwrecks, Dave carefully documented and communicated the human interactions and influences on the islands, shorelines, and lake beds of Lake Superior.”

In the photo above, Dave enjoys a brief respite on the lawn of the Outer Island light station. As “Coop” begins his next chapter, he sat down with Friends board member and former colleague Neil Howk for 10 questions.

Q: How did you first experience the Apostle Islands?

A: I was with the State of Wisconsin at the time, and we were doing a shipwreck survey of all Wisconsin waters. I came up in 1989 to meet with Dave Snyder and Ellen Mauer, and went out and did my first dive on the Lucerne, and that was the beginning of a multi-year shipwreck project in the Apostles through the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW Sea Grant Institute. That’s where I first met you (Neil), Julie (Van Stappen), Larry Johnson, Jerry Banta… the whole gang.

Dave Cooper

Dave Cooper, Archaeologist – NPS photo

Q: When did you start working at the national lakeshore?

A: I was in and out of Bayfield and the Apostles working with the state throughout the 90s. I ended up transferring to the park service in 1998. It was not until 2010 that I found my way back here in my current capacity. That year I started in the Cultural Resource Manager position that I am in now, having transferred down from Grand Portage National Monument.

Q: What is your official title?

A: It went through some different names. My PD (position description) says I’m an Archeologist, so I go by Archeologist, but because I have to deal with more than just archeology, depending on the situation, they call me the Cultural Resource Manager or Cultural Resource Specialist…which is an odd name because you have to be a generalist, not a specialist. I usually go by Archeologist.


Q: What are some of the various tasks you’ve performed in the park?

A: So, as Cultural Resource Manager, I’m involved in a lot of different aspects of facilities management, but also help with interpretation in terms of providing research and subject matter expertise in area history and archeology. I work quite a bit with maintenance with facilities on projects. Actually the first big project that brought me down here was that multi-million dollar lighthouse rehabilitation project. So, I was the park liaison for that project, which kind of goes quite a bit beyond what a cultural resource manager would be doing. I’ve also, along the way, worked on the park search-and-rescue team, I’ve worked on the park wildland fire crew, and also work as a boat instructor for the park. I’m involved in a fair amount of outreach, you know, giving talks and programs, helping with documentaries and that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of variety to the job, and it’s been one of the best parts of the job…all the different things we get to do here.

Q: What is the most challenging project that you’ve tackled?

A: Definitely the lighthouse project. That went on…when I got here it was still in the planning stage in 2010. It actually didn’t hit the field until 2012. We were still dealing with the final, what they call “punch list” basically resolving all the remaining work and contract issues as late as 2016. That went on for a long time. There were some long days with that. We would have to be up at literally 5 am planning out the day. There would be an inspector with me and often a number of contracting people; foreman, project managers, safety officers; and there would be inspections at each island.

We usually had at least three islands going simultaneously. The project included (light stations on) Long, Michigan, Sand, Devils and Outer. Usually at least three of those were ongoing simultaneously. We would have to get inspection documents downloaded from Denver at 6 am, print them out, get down to the boat by 7 or 8 am, and there may be a concrete pour at 9 am that needed to be inspected, and maybe an engineering task going on at Devils that needed to be inspected at 1 pm, and something else later in the day.

This went on at least five days a week, sometimes seven days a week. We worked through the government shutdown during that time. Sometimes you weren’t be done until 9 pm because all that information had to be brought back, this is before we really had cell phones, all that information had to be brought back, signatures put on documents, and all sent back to Denver to the contracting officer. It was more like a contracting officer’s representative job.

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: Definitely being on the water. I got into archeology and marine archeology because of my love of the lakes and being outdoors and being on the water. So that was a real attraction of the job. When I got here my supervisor made clear that they really needed someone out in the field. There were a lot of cultural resource issues that required hands-on attention, so that’s all they needed to tell me…is emphasize the field work. Of course, the lighthouse project was a big part of that. As I said every day was some new challenge and a lot of moving around through the islands. So, I’ve had a few bad days on the water…we all have…days when you come in and just want to get a line on the dock, but generally I’m as happy as I can be when I’m out on the lake.

Dave Cooper observes work on a dock - Jeff Rennicke photo
Dave Cooper manages NPS boat as passengers board - Neil Howk photo

Being on the water is one of Coop’s favorite things
(Click to enlarge)

Q: What is the most dangerous project you’ve taken on in the park?

A: Hard to say. We’ve had a bunch of search and rescues that were in challenging conditions. Those probably had the greatest amount of risk. Although really, we were out helping people who were themselves in danger, or beyond danger…were in really bad situations. Those were some of the hairier moments. Although, really some days even just normal operations and running into bad weather…we’ve had some hairy situations just trying to get back in from the islands or trying to get people off an island. Something like that, but generally I’ve been (knocks on wood) pretty fortunate.

Q: What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen in the islands?

A: Oh boy…well definitely the ice caves are hard to beat. Of course there’s any number of exquisite moments that we all have with some beautiful location, fall colors, a really cool gathering of people (thinking of the tribal fire ceremony on Stockton), some unusual natural history observation…. It’s hard to really narrow it down, I guess I’ve got so many beautiful and memorable images of the place it would be hard to narrow it down.

Visitors at the mainland ice caves

Q: What will you miss most about doing this job?

A: I hope that I will still continue on as a volunteer and continue with some of the field work and the boat work. So hopefully the part that I would miss, I will still be able to partake in a little bit. But really, definitely, the people. The people have made this place…the staff, the community, our partners…and even though I’ll still be a volunteer it won’t be quite the same. Even though I won’t be as busy and stressed out, that also means I won’t be seeing people as much. I’m going to miss people. There are some real lifelong friendships here…a number of us have been through a lot together and you really bond that way.

Q: I was going to ask if you plan to stay involved in the park, but I think you’ve already answered that.

A: I’ve already got the paperwork signed. I am trying to stick to a “boats-yes, computers-no rule.” In general, I’d like to continue my involvement with field operations, boat instructing, maybe some of the landscape maintenance, definitely the archeological field work…. Basically helping the park however I can to keep moving things forward.

Friends and colleagues gather to congratulate Coop on his retirement
Coop Retirement event from above - Jeff Rennicke photo
Raising a glass to Coop - Jeff Rennicke photo
Coop Retirement event from above - Jeff Rennicke photo

(Click to enlarge) – Jeff Rennicke photos

Want to know more?

Watch Dave Cooper’s Presentation, “50 years of Cultural Resource Research. in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore” on our website.

And from 2014, watch this Wisconsin Public Television video about Dave’s work as a Marine Archaeologist.

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