This week Friends board member Neil Howk went to his office to let Ed Jakaitis educate us about how his life’s journey brought him to the Apostle Islands. And Neil says, “Yes, Ed Jakaitis sounds just like educate us.”
I grew up north of Chicago. I’m not from Chicago, but Lake County Illinois. I grew up in Grayslake, maybe about 15 or 20 minutes from the Wisconsin border.
Neil: Where did you go to college?
Ed: After high school I went to Northern Illinois University. I looked around the Midwest. I looked at larger schools like Purdue and the University of Illinois. I had an idea that I might be an engineer. Circumstances led to me starting off college at a community college, which I’m happy that I did because it gave me the chance to explore things a little more freely and with less pressure to follow a specific path. I had my first year to explore what I really wanted to do with my life. In doing that, I took an introduction to archeology course. I was fortunate enough to have a professor who was a Yale educated Archeologist who worked in Central America studying Maya archeology. So, in the summer of 2001 I went to Belize and did a field school there for about 6 weeks and I was hooked on archeology after that. I found a program in DeKalb, Illinois, not too far from my home, and started studying to be an Archeologist there.
Ed: No. There is kind of a roundabout way that I wound up with the park service. All through high school and college, spending time in the outdoors was what I did with my free time. I like to go hiking and camping and fishing. I love fly fishing. In my younger years I got to do that quite a bit. As a parent now I don’t get out as much as I used to. But this has always been a leading influence in my interests and lifestyle.
So, everything across northern Illinois. I was getting really well grounded in the history and the pre-contact history of the Midwest. I enjoyed the history of early settlement, learning about major events in northern Illinois like the Blackhawk war and those kind of flashpoints in history that defined how the future would look for that part of the country. Just seeing that impact of history and how it changed the way the landscape looked, changed the way that populations showed up in certain areas…all of that really intrigued me a lot and inspired me to keep pursuing my interests in history and archeology. But that love of the outdoors, that love of getting into nature, was always a backdrop to all of that.
So, as I got a little farther along in my career, I’d always thought about the possibility of working for the federal government, trying to work for a land management agency like the forest service, or who knows, maybe I’m lucky enough that the National Park Service might even give me a look. So, I started applying and in 2015 after many applications, I was given the opportunity to work at Zion National Park in Utah for a summer as an archeological field technician. I left a civil service fulltime job and took a chance on a seasonal job with the National Park Service. So things kind of took off from there. I was very fortunate; I had some good people that I worked with. People that helped me out with understanding what federal service is like and preparing me better as I got that first experience under my belt.
Ed: After the seasonal position at Zion, I got a term position at the Mojave National Preserve in southern California. At that point I had spent a summer working away from home, away from my wife. I had two kids already at that point, so I had a very wonderful and supportive spouse who was able to give me that shot for three months to work away from home. I never hesitate to mention how important my career and getting to do what I really wanted to do is very much the result of having a supportive spouse. When I was able to get the position at the Mojave National Preserve, my family was able to join me. We lived in the Henderson, Nevada area. I travelled over the border into California each day. It was a bit of a long commute, but an amazing experience getting to work out there in the desert. It’s a world that is completely different from my upbringing in the Midwest. I had seen it before, but never in such a close intimate experience as working there for almost a year and a half.
I then had a unique opportunity to develop professionally when I was offered a position with the state of Colorado. I went and worked for the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in Denver, Colorado. So, we moved there and had an opportunity to experience city life. Neither my wife nor I had ever lived in a large city like that. Denver was a great place, a very exciting place to live, especially around 2017. The city was really booming then. It was a very dynamic place to live and work for a little while.
After that I got an opportunity to have a higher-level position working as a cultural resource manager, which is what I do now. That first opportunity was with Mammoth Cave National Park. So, I worked there for a little over five years. It was just a great experience professionally. A great experience in terms of the chance to be in an environment I’d never worked in before. Working in the cave was kind of a dream scenario in terms of the archeology. The archeology of Mammoth Cave is world renowned thanks to researchers like Patty Jo Watson who did some foundational research in understanding the establishment of agriculture in North America. She did that work in the 1960s all in the Mammoth Cave area.
She did a little work on the surface, but it was primarily in the cave known as Salts Cave. It’s connected into the cave network. It’s a large interconnected system there. Mammoth Cave is currently surveyed at over 426 miles of passageways that all fit within the over 52,000 acres of land in the park. Among that is a section known as Salts Cave and she did a lot of her work there. It helped establish an understanding of how Native Americans began to cultivate and manage plants and resources here in North America. It’s pretty foundational in the history of archeology and in the history of research, so just being able to walk in those same spaces and know how important some of that work was… As a land manager I was very aware of that and had a lot of reverence for that Native American history, and appreciated how important those resources are for understanding our world.
Neil: What attracted you to come to the Apostle Islands?
Ed: Well, I grew up here in the Midwest…
Neil: Always wanted to be a Wisconsinite, eh?
Ed: Well, having lived just a few minutes from the border, I think I spent as much time outside enjoying myself in Wisconsin as I did in Illinois. Any time I was going camping or fishing, I was looking north. Early experiences really root themselves inside of you. So seeing the opportunity for a cultural resource manager position at Apostle Islands…it was kind of a beacon, like a lighthouse off in the north drawing me in. Just seeing that chance to come and work in Wisconsin, I thought that would be a lot of fun.
Neil: What types of things are you working on now?
Ed: I just started in late October. We’re in the midst of our winter season, waiting for the cold to break and the water to become available to get out to the islands again. I’m certainly anticipating all of that. I’m getting a lot of reading done to help understand the history and learn about the many resources of the park. Also assisting the park leadership team to get a lot of planning done for the upcoming year. We’re looking at a lot of projects that are going to happen this year.
We’ve had a couple of meetings talking with some of the partners we work with. Groups like the Friends of the Apostle Islands and the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy I’ve had some interaction with and am looking forward to working with more in the coming year. I’m also looking forward to further discussions with our tribal partners in this area about co-stewardship projects that can happen here at Apostle Islands. I’m very interested in fire management and cultural resource management as it relates to the landscape.
Neil: What do you think will be your favorite aspect of being here?
Ed: Some of those things I just mentioned…getting to work with some of these partners. I’m very interested in a park that has such a proximity to tribal reservations and working with tribal communities. I think there’s unique opportunities to learn from tribal members from this area. I think they bring a unique set of indigenous knowledge that helps land managers and helps the public to really understand our resources in a way that is unique to their perspective and their world view. Having them in such close proximity, we can go right down the road and have a conversation with people. That’s not always available in national parks, especially in the east.
Neil: Are you a boat operator?
Ed: I have some boating experience. The National Park Service has their Motorboat Operator Certification Course (MOCC) and I’ve done that. Granted, that was on the rivers and reservoirs of Kentucky, when I was at Mammoth Cave. So, I got some boating experience on the Green River and reservoirs near there, which is completely different from Lake Superior. So, while I’ve done that training course, I think I’ll be revisiting that training in a new course this spring to refresh my skills and get a chance to work with some of the boat operators here in the park.
Ed: Well, as I mentioned, I have a wife and two kids, and we do like to travel.
Neil: How old are your kids?
Ed: I have a son who is a freshman in high school. He just started at Ashland High School. My daughter is in Lake Superior Elementary School in the fifth grade. He is 15 and she is 11. We enjoy getting out and about. We do a lot of road trips. Certainly, we’re looking at exploring around this area, maybe northward. We’d like to take a trip around the Lake Superior region. Maybe getting up into Canada in the next year or so would be a lot of fun. So that’s something that, as a family, we are looking forward to.
My Grandpa grew up in Depression-era West Virginia in the 1930s. He graduated from high school in 1952 and immediately came up to the industrial cities in the north. Chicago, at the time, drew a lot of people especially from central Appalachia where he was from. He was very drawn to the lakes. He was able to find a job working on a freighter in the Great Lakes. He spent the first year of his life in Chicago working on the Arthur M. Anderson.
The Anderson was built in 1952, the year he graduated from high school, and he was on it the year after. So he was amongst the earliest crews to work on the Arthur M. Anderson.
That ship, as you probably have heard, is a well-known ship, kind of a historical ship, and it still travels the lakes. As a matter of fact, that ship is in dock in Duluth for the winter.
So the reason I’m bringing this up is it is a connection that I have from my Grandfather. He took many trips up to Duluth and Two Harbors, and I think it would be cool to go to Duluth sometime this winter and maybe get a chance to see that ship a little more up close. It is a fun part of local history that influenced me. I heard about it as a kid, and it’s something that left a bit of a mythical impression in my mind.
Neil: That is great Ed, thanks. I’m sure you will enjoy exploring the islands and the Lake Superior region.