Introduction to "The Life Ring" in Brent's own words...
"I often get asked if White Shoal Light is haunted…and my response has always been, 'absolutely'! It could be argued that every lighthouse retains a memory of past events….none more so than an isolated offshore lighthouse. Perhaps it’s the open water, or the fear of a storm, or fog blowing in without notice. Lighthouses are some of the most dangerous places to live and work on earth. Perhaps it is simply the isolation that can play tricks on one’s mind. There are countless stories of lightkeepers descending into complete madness after witnessing a strange event at a lighthouse.
Having spent many hours at White ShoaI Light alone over the past six years, I can attest that lighthouses definitely have their own personality….and yes, things most certainly do go bump in the night! It so happens that 99% of these occurrences can be easily explained…a clanking shackle on the davit, wind whistling under the window covers, the slamming of doors, the rattling of a window pane. Most times, it is your own mind playing tricks on you. However, there are those 1% of strange occurrences that defy explanation….and that is what this story is about.
Something happened to me in September of 2017 at White Shoal Light that was very disturbing. In fact, I still don’t like to talk about it. No one that knows me has ever heard this story because the circumstances in which I found myself were so unbelievable that it still bothers me to this day. I feel that I am finally at a point where I can recount the events of those fateful Fall days of 2017. I will tell the story exactly as it occurred. Perhaps someone reading this can help shed some light on what I could have possibly witnessed. Or perhaps it will forever be one of the greatest mysteries in the annals of White Shoal Light."
Just one last fitting to solder together, pressurize the system, check for leaks, and I was outta there! It was Friday September 22, 2017 and I was on a mission. I had hoped to be setting sail from Big Stone Bay by no later than 4pm that afternoon, but it was already pushing noon and I still had to finish the plumbing project I was working on, get home to pack up, then drive the three hours north to the boat launch at Wilderness State Park. I had my fingers crossed as I slowly opened the main water valve to the quaint little cabin in Southeast Kalkaska County. Listen….wait for it….as the system slowly pressurized, I was waiting for the dreaded hiss of a fitting I had forgotten to solder in my haste. Silence….it was a beautiful thing!
Back in Traverse City, I grabbed my gear, tossed the boat and outboard motor in the back of my van, hugged the family, and hit the road. Just north of Elk Rapids, I was jamming to Carly Simon’s song “Anticipation” that was playing on the radio. Five miles north of Charlevoix, I realized that I had forgotten the emergency set of oars that I always took on the boat with me. Oh well, I was already more than halfway to my destination and didn’t want to get out to White Shoal Light past sunset. I rolled into the boat launch parking lot at Wilderness State Park (Big Stone Bay) at 4:45pm. There was a small fishing boat trailer attached to an old pickup truck in the lot…otherwise, it was deserted (which was common for that time of year). I set about inflating the 13-foot Zodiac-style boat I had taken to White Shoal many times earlier that year and loaded in it a cooler, bag of junk food, extra clothes, cot, sleeping bag, flashlight, VHF marine radio, cell phone, and a bottle of Ernest Hemmingway’s Pilar dark rum for good measure. I was on the water by 5:30pm.
Sailing out of Big Stone Bay headed Northwest, I couldn’t help but sing “There’s a port on a western bay, and it serves a hundred ships a day……”. I was particularly anxious about this trip. It was to be the first time I had the chance to spend overnight at White Shoal Light alone. I was also anxious about my mission to catch some large waves crashing onto the structure during a storm. I had been monitoring the forecast all week and there was a low pressure system in Eastern Wisconsin that was due to blow directly over White Shoal sometime beginning Saturday afternoon. "Brandy, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be"....I belted out at the top of my lungs while leaving the shelter of Big Stone Bay. Lake Michigan was flat calm that evening, but I couldn’t shake the foreboding feeling this was going to be a trip I would never forget. It is roughly a 13-mile trek from Big Stone Bay out to White Shoal Light and I made the trip in record time…75 minutes.
Upon arrival, I circled the structure on the water to assess the best place to tie up and offload gear. We have four separate ladders at White Shoal Light that lead from the water line straight up approximately 20 feet to the crib deck. These ladders are found on the NE, NW, SE, and SW sides of the crib. The SW ladder is missing two rungs…which makes it difficult but not impossible to climb. During my last trip to White Shoal in July that year, I had hooked up an electric hoist to one of the massive davits on the deck to aid in lifting heavy objects up to the crib. I also left behind a small generator and some other overnight gear. After tying the boat to the NE ladder, I began lifting gear and finally, the boat itself up out of the water with the electric hoist. I took everything inside the boathouse in preparation for the high winds that were forecast to begin after midnight.
For those who have not yet visited White Shoal Light, the structure is massive….rising 143 feet out of the water and consisting of eleven separate levels for a total of just over 5,000 square feet of interior space. Deck one (the boathouse deck) is the first thing you enter from the crib deck. This is the largest single deck with fifteen-foot-high ceilings and massive wood boathouse doors that open inward over a set of rails where the keepers could roll their boat inside the structure during storms. The rails had long since been discarded over the side of the crib and lay in approximately 12 feet of water. When wide open, the boathouse doors provide an opening 10 foot wide by 10 foot high. Beside boat storage, the boathouse deck was used to house generators and air compressors to power the light and massive compressed air fog horn. All of this equipment had been removed in the mid 1970’s when the last Coast Guard crew left the lighthouse…they had been replaced by solar panels, batteries, and a new electric fog signal. This left the structure pretty much empty and void of all creature comforts.
I had decided to set up my overnight quarters on Deck 2 just above the boathouse. Deck 2 served for most of the structure’s history as storage for battery banks and a small machine shop. The only bathroom at the lighthouse was also located on deck two...though it was not operational. I set my cot and sleeping bag up in the largest room that had 5 hopper-style steel-paned windows overlooking a small balcony that wrapped 360 degrees around the lighthouse just above the boathouse and roughly 18 feet above the crib deck. The balcony is accessed through a tiny double door at the top of the stairs on Deck 2.
By the time I had brought my gear up and set up my cot, darkness was rapidly approaching. Before closing up for the night, I always walk the crib deck and peer over the edge on each side down to the water line to make sure everything is secured for the night….this has become a routine for me every time I visit White Shoal. It was getting close to 8pm and the wind was beginning to freshen up a bit out of the West and a chill was blowing off the surface of the water. After a brief walk around on deck, I pushed the massive boathouse doors closed and secured them shut with a short 2x4 wedged from the right side door down to a steel hatch on the floor. This was the only way to lock the doors from the inside due to damage that had occurred over the years of neglect that kept the original latches from engaging.
Once closed in for the night, I ascended the tower to the top, unlatched the parapet door and enjoyed the last remnant of the setting sun. The wind at 125 feet above the lake is usually stronger than at the surface…making it a bit unnerving at times to be out on the parapet. This night, the winds were just starting to pick up.
I slowly made my way back down to Deck 2 with the aid of a flashlight and settled into my room for the night. I was anxious. As the wind began to increase over the course of the next couple hours, I began hearing noises I had never heard before at the lighthouse. I tried to do a bit of reading before finally giving up and crawling into my sleeping bag….it was just before 11pm and I was both physically and mentally exhausted.
It was a moonless night as the clouds continued to roll in from the West. After turning out my little LED lantern, it became pitch black…making it nearly impossible to see my hand outstretched in front of me. In time, my eyes would adjust so I could clearly see the layout of the room I was in. At this point, I had no idea what events would unfold over the course of the next 48 hours. The only thing I knew for certain was that the waves had already built from flat calm to 4-6 feet and were forecast to get much higher….making it impossible for me to leave the lighthouse. I was committed until the storm had passed.
I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that overcame me that evening. Recalling all those nights as a kid staying up late watching horror movies like “The Shining” was not helping. I kept tossing around and looking in the direction of the door leading into the room I was camped in waiting to see the creepy Shining sisters standing there asking me to “Come play with us, Brenty.”. When all else had failed to calm me down, I did what I always do in stressful situations and slipped the headphones over my ears and cranked up some disco music. That soulful hi-hat pulsing at the beginning of the song, I began to sing along…“Who loves you pretty baby?….who’s gonna help you through the night”? I could always rely on Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons to calm my nerves. It wasn’t long and I was starting to doze off. The time was 11:45pm.
I was born at Saginaw General Hospital in July of 1974 and raised in a small one-horse town called Merrill (approximately 20 miles West of Saginaw). Merrill had a population of around 800 souls when I was a kid….one stop light, a couple bars, a small library, a school, and some other businesses one would typically find in a small midwest town. Oh, and there were railroad tracks that went right through town, paralleling highway M-46! The railroad tracks were my favorite part of Merrill. When I was in middle school, I converted my 10-speed bike to ride on the rails and would spend hours riding through town waving at all the curious onlookers. Most folks would point and laugh….there goes that crazy Tompkins kid riding the rails again. Others would yell out their front door demanding I get the hell off the tracks. It was always one adventure after another in Merrill.
I must have been quite tired from the adventures of the previous day because I found myself on the floor next to the cot, my headphones crushed under me. I reached for my phone to check the time. It was 1:35am. By this time, the wind had increased to such an extent that it sounded like a freight train rolling outside my windows. There was a particularly annoying rattle coming from somewhere above me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep until I had located the source of the noise and attempted to eliminate or at least dampen it. I grabbed my flashlight, slipped into my lighthouse slippers, and headed aloft. Navigating the spiral staircases at White Shoal is difficult enough during the daylight hours. At night, it can become downright treacherous. I made my way up to Deck 3 and poked my head into each room shining my flashlight directly at the windows…for that is where I assumed the rattle was emanating from. Deck 3 historically consisted of the main galley in one room, a dining area in another, with a third room used as a bedroom. I’ve been told by past lightkeepers, that the guys would spend the majority of their off-duty hours in the dining room either playing cards, or in later years, watching tv. The dining room was large enough to also house the radio equipment on a small desk in one corner.
Everything sounded secure on Deck 3, so I continued aloft past Deck 4, Deck 5, Deck 6, and up to Deck 7. Up until the mid 1970’s, there was a large set of steel compressed air tanks that sat in the middle of deck 7 for use with the fog signaling equipment. In 2017, it was just a wide open room with windows facing N, S, E, and West. The windows at White Shoal Light were mostly original from 1909…the year they would have been custom constructed and installed on sight. They consisted of copper clad wood sashes and frames in a typical double-hung layout, complete with pulleys and iron weights behind each frame. The glass was 1/4” thick with a chicken wire mess in the center (I assume this was the precursor to tempered glass). The walls of the lighthouse are roughly 28” thick with the wood windows near the inside plane of the walls and a storm cover (consisting of 1/4” thick Lexan plastic sheeting) on the outside plane of the wall. The storm covers were not original to the structure, but added in the 1970’s at the time of decommissioning to further protect the original windows.
And there it was, the annoying rattle I had sought. The wind was blowing in under the storm cover through a missing glass pane in the West facing window and rattling the plastic sheet violently against its metal frame. I took the t-shirt off from under my sweatshirt and proceeded to carefully push it out through the missing glass pane and wedge it between the outer metal frame and the storm cover. Mission accomplished. Perhaps now I could get back to sleep. I grabbed my flashlight and sweatshirt and began descending the spiral stairs. Halfway back down to deck 4, I was getting chilled and made the mistake of attempting to pull my sweatshirt over my head while on the stairs. Before I knew it, I had misjudged a step and my right foot slipped on the edge of one of the stair treads. In an attempt to catch my balance, my other foot decided to take off without me and I essentially rode on my butt down 10 steps and came to land with a large thud on the wood floor of Deck 4. Sitting there very startled on the floor, I began to replay the contortions I had just been through in my mind and was angry with myself for attempting such a foolish move on the staircase. Thankfully, it appeared I had not suffered any broken bones….just a bruised coccyx.
As I slowly made my way back to my feet, I suddenly heard a very forceful door slam on the deck below me. Having three teenagers back home, a slamming door is not a sound easily mistaken. The only problem was, in the Fall of 2017, we had no interior doors located anywhere inside the structure (save a paint room door located 4 decks below me in the basement). With the wind howling as loudly as it was that night, I would have never heard the door in the basement slam. No, it had definitely come from Deck 3. Oddly enough, I was not initially frightened. Perhaps it was the adrenaline pulsing through my veins from the fall down the stairs that masked the fear. I confidently made my way down to Deck 3 and inspected each room again with my flashlight. Maybe I jarred something loose in my head during the fall? Either way, I continued back to my overnight quarters on Deck 2, crawled into my sleeping bag, and avoided lying directly on my bruised butt.
I was beginning to drift in and out of sleep when a low-battery notice sounded on my phone. Reaching in the darkness for my backpack, I felt around inside for my phone charging cord. Tube of Pringles chips, VHF handheld radio, bottle of Pilar rum, socks, an extra shirt…where was the cord? By this time, I had rolled off the cot and turned on a small LED lantern sitting on a chair. I proceeded to empty all the contents of my backpack and was dismayed not finding the cord. Replaying the previous days events over in my mind, I figured it was likely still attached to the cigarette lighter in my van back on shore. Well, that sucks, I said out loud. I was going to have to conserve the little battery power I had left on my phone in case I needed it in an emergency. Even though I had the handheld VHF radio with me, my phone was still the best option for contacting anyone back ashore on short notice.
Back in my sleeping bag I tried desperately to get to sleep...tossing and turning on the uncomfortable cot. And then it happened. The time was 2:37am. As I was laying on my back staring up at the concrete ceiling above me, a noise that I hadn’t heard before began to emanate from what sounded like Deck 3. It was very faint at first…barely audible in the tremendous cacophony. It took a few seconds of listening to the sound before I recognized it….radio static. I immediately reached for the VHF radio now laying on the floor directly under my cot and placed it to my ear. Fumbling around in the darkness, I found the on-off dial on top of the radio and turned it to the off position. The sound stopped. I kept the radio next to me on the bed and rolled over to try and get into a comfortable position to minimize the pain I was feeling on my behind. Ten minutes later, I was nearly asleep when the radio static sound returned. This time it was louder. I lay there in horror as I slowly reached for my handheld radio. "Please be on, please be on", I kept reciting to myself, but the radio was off and the sound was definitely coming from one deck above me. It was at this point that I first began to question my sanity…then things took a turn for the worse. As I lie there motionless, I began to hear what sounded like voices barely audible through the static. It sounded like two individuals having a conversation over a radio. The voices were extremely muffled and I couldn’t make out what they were saying….and honestly, I didn’t want to know! I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and just prayed the sound would go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it continued on and off for the rest of the night. At one point, I grabbed my phone and wrestled with the thought of using precious battery reserves to make a recording. I decided to record the sounds for a brief moment and then I would immediately turn my phone off and not turn it on again unless there was an emergency. Was this an emergency? My heart was pounding such that I was nearly convinced it was.
I began chewing my fingernails with a ferocity never thought attainable. It was way past time to crack open my bottle of Ernest Hemingway rum now sitting on the chair next to my cot. I lay there slowly sipping rum until the faint rays of the morning sun began to pierce through the darkness. I was never so happy to see the sun in my life! By morning, the winds had backed off slightly, but the waves were still crashing heavily onto the structure. I had had enough of this place and was going to take the first opportunity that day to lower the boat back into the water and head for shore. I didn’t dare use my phone to check the forecast, so I turned on my handheld vhf and tuned into one of the weather bands. It was a waiting game at this point. Would the waves calm down enough I could safely get back to shore?
As I sit at my desk recalling this tale in Fall 2021, it feels as though I am reliving the terror I felt all over again. Of course, I am now armed with more details that I wasn’t privy to 4 years ago. It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 when my friend Eric and I were removing a false wall on Deck 3 that we discovered the one and only remaining interior door that had been walled in since the mid 1960’s. It was painted shut and took us several attempts to open. All the beautiful solid oak interior doors had been removed for the purpose of ventilation during the decommissioning of the lighthouse in the mid 1970’s…save this one door that was hidden from view. It just so happens this door was right next to the table on which sat the radio equipment that was used to make countless calls to passing freighters and back to shore during the heyday of White Shoal Light. Was this there door I heard slam that night...even though it had been walled in and painted shut?
The trip out to White Shoal in the Zodiac - September 2017
Zodiac tied up to the ladder upon arrival at White Shoal
My overnight quarters on Deck 2
Left image: The only remaining door at WSL discovered behind a wall in 2018
Right image: The radio room on deck 3 in the early 1960's. The stained door in this photo is the same one we discovered painted green in 2018.
Out on the crib deck Saturday morning September 23, 2017, I began to make preparations to lower the boat back into the water and head back to shore. There was a problem. The only functional davit with the electric hoist attached to it was only capable of launching a boat on the NE side of the crib. The wind had died down but was still blowing enough from the West to cause 4-6 foot waves to wrap around the structure and make it nearly impossible to safely launch. I had raised the boat up off the crib deck, swung the davit outboard, and began the process of lowering the boat over the side when a wind gust suddenly slammed it against the concrete approximately 10 feet above the water. If the wind or waves pushed the boat into the steel ice plating that was located nearer the waterline, it would be game over. The sharp edges of the steel would make mincemeat of the Zodiac in no time. I raised the boat back up and let it come to rest on the deck.
Unless the wind let up for a period of 4 hours or more, it was looking like I was doomed to spend at least one more night on the shoal. I grabbed my VHF radio and listened to the weather band forecast. Winds out of the West Northwest 12-15 knots, increasing to 25-30 knots by dusk. Wave heights projected to hit as high as 10 feet overnight. Ironically, one of the main purposes of my late-season trip to White Shoal was to capture photos and possibly a video of waves crashing over the structure...I tried to remain positive. Problem was my phone was the only thing I had brought along to capture such imagery, and it was nearly dead.
At slightly after 2pm, there was a special alert that came over the VHF radio. The storm in Wisconsin was forecast to strengthen immensely over Lake Michigan during the evening hours. Winds were now upgraded to 40-45 knots out of the West with wave heights approaching 16 feet. At this point, I had already accepted the fact that I would be staying another night at White Shoal and set about to get the boat and my gear back into the boathouse. Just before sunset, I made my final round on the crib deck, looked down over each side to the water line, and made sure there was no flotsam or jetsam in the water or dangling off the side of the ladders. I also took great care to lash down the davit that had a tendency to swing violently in any winds stronger than 25 knots. Up on the balcony of Deck 2, I wrapped a chain around the end of the davit and secured it to the railing using a clevis (a device that resembles a horseshoe and has a screw pin that inserts through the open end). Clevises have been known to work themselves loose at an anchorage or anywhere there is a lot of movement. I made sure to tighten the pin extra tight. Back in the boathouse, I slowly pushed the massive doors closed and wedged the 2x4 behind them. I was in for the night…. the time was 7pm.
Darkness came exceptionally fast that night as I watched immense storm clouds build on the western horizon, the sun quickly absorbed into their menacing appearance. I was up in the aluminum lantern of the lighthouse listening to the wind as it whistled around the glass and helical astragals. The unimpressive LED light at the center of the lantern began flashing every five seconds. The original massive Fresnel lens had been removed from White Shoal in the early 1980’s to prevent it from getting vandalized and is now proudly displayed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. I checked the ratchet strap holding the parapet door closed and very carefully made my way back to my sleeping quarters on Deck 2. I was still sore from the tumble I had taken the night before and certainly didn’t need any additional injuries.
To say I was anxious as darkness crept in is an understatement. I was determined to keep myself busy and hopefully have the benefit of falling soundly asleep. Frankie Valli wasn’t going to do the trick tonight. Luckily I still had half a bottle of rum left. One item that made it out in July was a small jump-starter/charging station that was supposed to be used to recharge my phone. The station had a small LED clock on the front of it with an annoying blue backlight. I always like complete darkness when I sleep, but tonight I was looking forward to a small night light. By 9pm, the wind had increased to roughly the strength of the previous night. The noise level in the old machine shop was substantial. Again, as I lay in my cot, fear started to creep over me in waves. Why was I even there?…I attempted to justify my visit. I could be home, kicked back on the Barcalounger watching old reel-to-reel films on YouTube (a favorite pastime of mine). Instead, I was stuck in this menacing lighthouse waiting for the next noise to fill me with dread and horror. Why was I even interested in lighthouses? My mind began to wander.
“Get in the car kids, we are going to Highland Appliance to purchase a VCR,” my dad excitedly announced upon returning home from work one evening in 1989. For those of you who grew up anywhere within a 30-mile radius of Saginaw Michigan, you likely recall the awesome World War 2 carbon-arc searchlight that would shine miles into the sky whenever Highland Appliance was having a sale. We could see it very clearly from our home some 20 miles away in Merrill. We piled into our massive Suburban, complete with baby blue and grey pin stripes (also known locally as the Family Truckster, due to its ability to transport up to nine people in relative comfort). I had received my driver’s license during my freshman year in high school and was blessed to have the privilege of driving the Family Truckster to school. I became very popular with the sports teams and in fact was given the task of driving the entire golf team to practice some 20 miles away at Crooked Creek Golf Course almost every day after school.
Highland Appliance was the place to go in 1989 if you wanted anything electronic. They also had some of the coolest advertisements on tv and radio at the time. Upon arriving at the superstore parking lot, I was instantly captivated by the enormous searchlight spinning around on a trailer poised close to Bay Road. I had been watching the light pierce the darkness of the sky the entire 20-mile trip from Merrill. I was amazed at the super bright and focused light emanating from this scary looking contraption. I seem to recall my parents purchased a programmable VCR with wireless remote for $268.00…a bargain in 1989! I remember being so fascinated with the searchlight that I wasted no time beginning some research at the local Merrill Library. One day after school, I confidently strolled into the library and went straight to the front desk. “Give me everything you have on World War 2 vintage carbon-arc searchlights,” I said with a sort of demanding voice. The librarian looked only mildly annoyed as she pointed me to the 2-drawer card catalog. I was going to have to take it up a notch after finding the Merrill Library sorely lacking in searchlight information. I decided to drive to Hemlock, a mere 5 miles from Merrill, but closer to the big city. Certainly, they would have what I was looking for.
I never did find any information on searchlights until many years later when the internet came along. However, it was in that Hemlock Library that I was first introduced to Fresnel lenses and Michigan lighthouses. That was the closest information the library had regarding focused beams of light. I soon plastered the walls of my room with charts of the Great Lakes and lighthouse posters. I was obsessed. In the meantime, my friends’ rooms walls were adorned with KISS and Star Wars posters…I remember being frightened by the KISS posters. I certainly didn’t want to see Gene Simmons’ face appear that night in one of the windows of the lighthouse.
By 11pm, I had a couple shots of rum sloshing around in a mostly empty stomach and was feeling pretty relaxed. I drifted off to sleep….the faint glow of the blue LED backlight of the clock barely lighting the room. BOOM! CLANK! I sat up in bed half awake and startled. Thirty seconds later, a low thud that I could feel in my chest rang out through the room. The time was 2:37am. Near the window just a few feet away, I could hear the davit smashing into the side of the tower. The wind was blowing at gale force by this time and rain was hitting the window covers with such force that it sounded like two freight trains passing by. Should I attempt to go out on the balcony and lash the davit down, or just let it swing violently in the wind all night? I decided to cautiously open the inner and outer balcony doors on the East side of the light tower and step out into the darkness. It was amazingly calm on the lee side of the tower, but rain still wrapped around the structure and instantly soaked me. As I made my way through the darkness with my underpowered flashlight, I could see that a few more steps around the corner and I would be hit with the full force of the wind. I grasped tightly to the railing and bent into a crawling position in an attempt to keep my center of gravity low. When I finally made it to the site where the davit was hitting the wall, it was all I could do to keep myself from blowing over the edge of the balcony. The davit would swing an arc outward roughly 20 feet and then violently swing back toward the tower and smash into the concrete just above the height of the railing. As the davit made one of its swings close in, I noticed that the chain and clevis were nowhere to be found. However, there was a line trailing off the opposite end of the davit that I was miraculously able to reach and tie off to the railing. I was forced to crawl directly into the fury of the storm on the West side of the tower, rain blowing horizontally in sheets and stinging the bare skin of my hands and face. I slowly crawled back around the balcony opposite the way I had approached, to the relative safety of the lee side and entered the balcony door soaked to the bone….my lighthouse slippers squirting out water with every step as I made my way back inside. I pulled the outer door shut and secured the inner door with a metal pipe.
I no sooner made it back to my sleeping quarters when I heard loud thuds that sounded like someone beating their fists on the boathouse doors. I remember the fear overcoming me as I started to breathe heavily. I reached for the bottle of rum and took a good swig. Someone is out on the crib deck and probably needs help, I kept telling myself. How is that possible? I can’t just sit here and do nothing. Then it happened a second time…three very distinct thuds coming from the boathouse. Natural sounds rarely adhere to a strict cadence, and it is often in the randomness that we take comfort. It isn’t until sounds become organized, where there is obviously intelligence behind the noise that we become highly sensitized. Thud, thud, thud!
Gathering every bit of courage I had left to spare, I slowly made my way down the spiral stairs to the boathouse. The knocking had ceased as I pondered my next move. I didn’t have any weapons with me but was able to locate a 4-foot-long metal pipe leaning up against the wall. Who would be out on the lake in such horrendous conditions? Was there a shipwreck nearby and someone happened to miraculously swim to the lighthouse? Or would I open the doors only to come face to face with a creature covered in seaweed, arms outstretched, lurching toward me? My mind was in overdrive as I cautiously removed the 2x4 holding the doors closed. The force of the wind on the doors instantly threw me off balance as they violently opened inward. As I stepped back to regain my footing, I tripped on the steel lip that was the access grate to the basement. I slammed down hard on my already-bruised bum, my flashlight flying out of my hand, coming to rest on the floor a few feet away. I scrambled to reach the flashlight and shined it out into the pitch-black night. Sheets of rain were reflecting off the light beam as I frantically tried to locate someone or something in the darkness. Then I began to weep. Perhaps they were tears of joy or just the release of all the fear pent up inside. Standing there before me in horizontal rain and gale force winds was………..absolutely nothing.
I clawed my way to my feet and lurched slowly out into the maelstrom. I shined my flashlight in all directions as I stood in the doorway. Hello, hello, I screamed! Nothing…there was nothing there. I dare not venture out more than a few feet and risk slipping on the steel deck of the crib only to get blown over the side, never to be seen again. I recoiled back into the boathouse and with tremendous force pushed the boathouse doors closed and wedged them securely again. This same event would repeat itself three more times that night before I finally decided I had no other choice than to ignore the pounding.
Massive boathouse doors and the basement hatch that I tripped over
I fell exhausted onto my cot. The time was 4:15am. Paranoia slowly began to creep in. Perhaps someone or something is after me? Was I being hunted? Things took a more sinister turn when I suddenly heard a faint tapping on one of the window covers directly across from my cot. Whatever was out there was now within a few feet of me standing on the balcony. The knocking became more intense. The sound would pause just long enough for whatever it was to change position and begin knocking on a different window.
I grabbed my phone, made one final recording before the battery died, polished off the bottle of rum, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, and tried desperately not to hear the knocking. By this time, the wind had begun to subside slightly….only making the knock more audible! I was terrified! “Think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts”, I kept repeating to myself.
As fear paralyzed me, and the effects of the rum began to kick in, my mind drifted and I found myself recalling various life moments. Ever since I was able to drive, there was a secret spot along the Pine River near Porter Michigan that I would frequent whenever I needed to be alone to think. The family truckster would barely squeeze down those narrow two-tracks. I had come across the spot quite on accident driving through the Porter oil fields one spring afternoon. I loved watching the old oil derricks that could be found nestled deep in the woods all around Porter. They would clank and creak….as if always gasping for one last breath. At the end of one particular two-track was a tiny trail that ran roughly 1/4 mile back to the river. It was rarely used. In fact the deer seemed to keep it pruned just enough so you could walk it without fear of brushing up against poison ivy. The trail led to a horseshoe bend in the river where an enormous sand bar had formed. I would often swim there in a deep gouge at the north high-bank side of the river. It was a great place to fish, listen to the wildlife and just be alone. At times I would lay on the sandbar in a foot of water and pile sand up over my body. For all the times I spent in my secret haven throughout the years, I never did see another human. It was magical.
I must have passed out, for I awoke to the sun’s rays beaming through the balcony door window, shining down the hall and lighting up my room. The time was 9:15am. The wind had finally settled and the storm had passed. I was in a bit of a daze trying to comprehend even where I was. I was apprehensive to venture outside, but also anxious to get back to shore. Making my way down to the boathouse, I grabbed the metal pipe from the night before and cautiously opened the boathouse doors. As I stepped out into the gleaming morning sun, a sense of calm rushed over me, there was a warmness in the air. I walked to the Northeast ladder and peered down to the water. There was some seaweed tangled around the base of the ladder, which commonly happens during high wave activity. As I turned to make my way around to the NW side of the crib, I looked up and could see the davit fastened securely with the chain and clevis to the balcony railing. I stopped frozen in disbelief, then slowly backed up to the davit, and collapsed at its base. I sat there and began to laugh uncontrollably. Was I hallucinating? Was everything I had just experienced hours before all in my head?
After sitting at the base of the davit for nearly 30 minutes, I began to make my way around to the SW side of the crib looking for any clues that would confirm my terrifying experience from the previous night. Suddenly, I saw what looked like a tattered line laying across the deck (lines are the nautical word for a rope). The line dangled down off the south side of the balcony, crossed the deck, and disappeared over the side of the crib down the SW ladder. I followed the line and cautiously peered over the edge and found it was tied to a rung 4 feet above the surface of the lake. The loose end of the line went trailing off into the water and appeared to be parted (torn). Turning around, I followed the line with my eyes up to the balcony where I could see that it was securely tied to the railing. Strange…I didn’t recall any lines on the deck the night before. It isn’t unusual for items to blow in during storms and become entangled on the structure. However, the thing that made me uneasy was observing the perfectly tied knots. I headed inside and up to the balcony, opened the doors, and made my way around to the south side. And then I saw it. There before me on the deck of the balcony was the life ring. It was tied to the same line leading up to the railing. The ring had an old sun-baked line weaved around it and appeared to be painted orange. I lifted the ring and inspected it carefully. It was quite bruised and looked like it could be off an old shipwreck. There appeared to be several layers of paint coating the ring and no visible words or markings.
My mind immediately went into overdrive as I tried to justify the sudden appearance of the life ring. I was more confused than ever. All the evidence I had gathered so far seemed to confirm that someone was indeed at White Shoal with me last night. I sat motionless in the morning sun on the balcony.
Davit chained to the balcony railing
Pitch blackness on the crib deck the night of the "incident"
Back to Shore
I was on the water by 1pm. The wind had freshened a bit and was blowing lightly out of the Northwest, making 1-2 foot swells that were very pleasant to sail through. I had decided to cut in close to Waugoshance Lighthouse on my return trip. I often took this route back to shore, tucking close to the archipelago of islands that jut out from the tip of Wilderness Point. It was always an amazing experience motoring along in 5-10 feet of crystal clear water, watching enormous boulders pass under the boat.
Waugoshance Light was the first offshore lighthouse constructed on the Great Lakes and operated from 1851 to its deactivation in 1912. At the time of its construction, the wooden sailing vessels of the day did not require as much depth to safely sail the Great Lakes and therefore, Waugoshance Light was built approximately two miles off the tip of Waugoshance Island in roughly ten feet of water. By the first decade of the 1900’s, it became clear that a deeper passage was required for the much larger vessels now plying the area. Construction began on White Shoal Light in the Spring of 1908 and was complete by September 1910. Located 4 miles further out into the Straits of Mackinac and perched atop a shoal roughly 18 feet deep, White Shoal Light replaced the need for Waugoshance Light. The old decaying structure still exists today, though much more war-torn from surviving a constant 170-year battle with Lake Michigan in perhaps the most treacherous location on the lake.
Earlier in the day, I had carefully descended the SW ladder of the crib, untied the worn white line from around the ladder rung, coiled up the remaining line, and placed it along with the life ring in the boathouse. I decided to leave the life ring at White Shoal for the time being. It was a beautiful Fall day as I rode the swells in the direction of Waugoshance Light, my eyes constantly scanning the horizon in all directions. We were taught the importance of posting a sharp lookout at all times while aboard any vessel at sea during my time in the Merchant Marine. You can have all the fanciest electronics on your boat, but your natural senses and instinct are unmatched for navigation. Even with modern technology, there are still accidents that occur every year on the Great Lakes, the most recent in the vicinity of White Shoal occurred in 1994 when a freighter slammed into Lansing Shoal Light 20 miles further West, causing substantial damage to the lighthouse and even more to the freighter.
Approximately 1-1/2 miles away from Waugoshance, I spotted something floating in the swells just to the West of the abandoned light station. It would appear for 5 seconds and then disappear for another 5 seconds as it dipped into the trough of the waves. It is amazing how far you can see objects afloat on a clear day. Seagulls can be seen for roughly 2 miles depending on the observers height above water, and there are also plenty of mirages that can trick you while on the big lake. At first sight, a seagull is what I thought it to be, as it was white and had a slightly oblong shape. The closer I sailed to Waugoshance, the more curious I became about this object, that now appeared to be much larger than a seagull. Perhaps it was a boat fender…those were often found in the Straits, having come loose off pleasure craft or breaking free from docks during a storm. Whatever it was, I was going to check it out. After all, I was now in the middle of the most feared location on Lake Michigan, the Grays Reef Passage.
Grays Reef, a mere 5 miles south of White Shoal Light consists of a series of treacherous shoals and reefs stretching from the tip of Waugoshance Island, all the way West to the Beaver Island Archipelago. The area is known for its life-threatening ability to kick up enormous waves with very little notice. Grays Reef is not an area you want to be sailing through when there are sustained SW winds. The wind energy travels up Lake Michigan in a phenomenon known as fetch, as waves continue to build higher and higher out in the middle of the lake and then grow exponentially as they hit the shallow waters in and around Grays Reef. The area is extremely shallow and littered with boulders often the size of large automobiles just below the surface.
Motoring in the direction of the object, I began to get this sinking feeling in my stomach. The closer I got, the more I could make out the shape….it was another boat! With my heart now racing, I hastened nearer and could barely make out the outline of a boot projecting out of the boat on the rear port side. By this point, I was in a near panic as I approached the small vessel expecting to find someone laying motionless inside. Upon pulling alongside the craft, I could see there was no one aboard. The boot was stuffed onto the end of a wooden oar that lay 3/4 inside the boat with the handle and boot sticking out over the gunwale. There was a foul stench emanating from the bottom of the small (roughly 8-foot long) plastic dinghy. A nasty black soup littered with leaves and other organic material filled the bottom six inches of the craft. Floating atop this stagnant pond was an empty plastic Pepsi bottle, a sardine can with the top half peeled back and no contents inside, and a Ziplock bag tightly wrapped up with a rubber band around its center. I carefully stretched my arm into the boat and grabbed the dirty soaking bag that appeared to have something inside. Carefully, I removed the rubber band, my hands now coated in a slimy goo, opened the bag and found inside a deck of playing cards. I let out a roar of laughter….could this trip get any stranger? I worked my way to the bow of the dinghy and found a line tied to the bow eye that trailed off into the depths of the water. Upon pulling the line up, I couldn’t help but notice the line had an end that appeared to have been forcefully parted. It was at this point that I slouched back into the Zodiac and began to realize this was the same exact line I had found tied to the ladder rung at White Shoal. There were no Michigan Craft (MC) numbers and no manufacturers plate to be found anywhere on the vessel. The only markings visible were a set of badly-worn vinyl letters on the right and left stern quarter “Pelican 245.” This was the manufacturer’s designation for describing the craft.
The adrenaline began to course through my veins as I grabbed the VHF radio in my backpack, tuned to Channel 16, and issued a pan-pan. In short, a pan-pan is the international standard signal used to declare an urgent situation where there is no known imminent danger or threat to life….it is essentially one step down from a may-day call. I wanted to let other vessels in the area know there was a possible man-overboard situation in Grays Reef Passage. The output power of my small handheld radio was not likely to send a signal more than a few miles and I could see no other vessels within sight of my location. My eyes scanned the water in all directions as I desperately searched for someone in the water. It was now getting close to 3:30pm and I didn’t want to get back and pack everything up in the dark, so I tied the dinghy to the stern of my boat and began the long slow trek back to the boat launch. I repeated the pan-pan call several times during the trip back until my radio battery finally gave out.
The return journey, which normally takes an hour or so, took nearly three hours as I had to constantly adjust my speed and direction while towing the small dinghy. This provided ample time for my mind to reel with many different scenarios of what could have possibly taken place over the past weekend. I felt like I was slowly starting to lose my mind, again paranoia started to creep in. The paranoia became fever pitch when back ashore, I dumped the foul black water out of the bottom of the boat and out dropped a rusty hay hook…a menacing-looking device commonly used on farms to hook and move hay bales. The hay hook would make a great weapon, I thought as my mind began replaying the knocking sounds I had heard the night before on the windows of Deck 2.
I packed up my gear, deflated the Zodiac, and stuffed everything into the back of my van….including the dinghy and its contents. I would take everything back home to Traverse City, contact the Coast Guard, report my findings, and wait to see if there were any possible clues to the events that unfolded that weekend.
The sun was setting as I pulled out of the Wilderness State Park boat launch. It was a beautiful Fall evening in Northern Michigan as I wound the curving roads, admiring the bright changing leaves while exiting the park. I stopped at the small store in Cecil Bay, grabbed a pop and some jerky, climbed into the van, and cranked up some Tracy Chapman as I began the long drive home.
I wish I could tell you this is where my story ends, that nothing ever came of the discovery of the abandoned boat or the life ring I discovered that weekend. I wish it were so…but this is only the beginning of a story that has continued to the present day. The life ring has been a thorn in my side since I discovered it that fateful Fall day in 2017.
Abandoned Waugoschance Lighthouse
I was awake early the next morning at home in Traverse City. I’m not a morning person in general but was having a hard time sleeping with the events of the past weekend playing over again in my head. I brewed an extra strong cup of coffee and set about unloading my van. After taking account of all the items I had found in the abandoned boat, I placed a call to the Coast Guard to report my findings. I didn’t mention the horrifying pounding, knocking, and radio conversation I had experienced while at the lighthouse, for I felt it so unbelievable they would surely think I was insane. After reporting the discovery of a life ring and abandoned boat, I contacted a friend on Beaver Island and asked if they knew of anyone missing a small dinghy or a life ring, and requested they ask around the island if anyone had heard anything about a missing person.
I also notified the ranger at Wilderness State Park of my discovery and asked if he knew of anyone who may have been hiking or boating out around Waugoshance Island the past weekend. My information was noted by everyone I could possibly think to contact. Days went by, then weeks, then months….nothing. Fall turned into Winter and I became busy with work and family. I didn’t forget about my strange encounter, but as time wore on, it became less at the forefront of my mind…and by Spring 2018, almost an afterthought.
It was late May 2018 before I made it back out to White Shoal Light. This time, I had my son and a couple of friends with me. The midge flies were so thick that Spring, it made for a miserable boat trip out and an even worse stay at White Shoal. The show must go on and there was a ton of work that needed doing before we opened the structure for public tours scheduled for late July the following year. Midge flies are extremely annoying little non-biting flies that hatch in the cold crystal-clear waters of the Straits of Mackinac beginning around the middle of May each year. They prefer rocky lake bottoms for reproduction...hence you rarely find them in plague-size numbers further south than Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. Depending on wind direction, the minute you step out of your vehicle at Wilderness State Park, you find yourself covered head-to-toe in these docile insects. They fly together in enormous black clouds, millions of little wings pulsing out a high-pitched buzz that can often be heard for great distances.
Arriving at White Shoal that late May, our group was covered in midges, some in our ears and under our stocking caps. You have to get in the habit of keeping your mouth closed and limiting speech when at the lighthouse in Spring, depending on how many midge flies you desire to inhale….they taste like the bottom of the lake, with a gritty fishy aftertaste. The clouds of midges were so thick this particular trip that you could see the black swirls encircling the tower as far as a mile out from the lighthouse. The crib deck was coated with millions of dead fly carcasses on the lee side of the structure, the white stripes of the tower literally turned black by the live midges resting out of the wind. We often have to shovel six inches deep worth of dead flies into the lake. I made the mistake of walking through the heap of carcasses only to slip and lose my footing, falling onto my back into this lovely pile of fishy smelling goo.
Fortunately, the plague of midges is normally gone each season by the first part of July. They also don’t come inside the structure unless brought in on clothing and gear, so we tend to do a lot of inside work during the Spring months at White Shoal. Brushing the early Spring cobwebs off the boathouse doors, we opened the structure to find it pretty much how I had left it the previous Fall. I had nearly forgotten about the life ring until I spotted it sitting covered in paint chips, mold, and cobwebs, leaning against the wall at the base of the stairs leading up the tower. I grabbed the life ring, brushed it off and carried it up to Deck 2 where my cot was still set up…the memories started to flood back into my mind. I placed the life ring in the corner and set about getting to work, trying to keep focused on the tasks we needed to complete that trip.
I chose a room on Deck 4 that needed very little paint scraping and had some cool graffiti on the walls along with a beautiful oak hardwood floor. This would become my future bedroom while on station at White Shoal. I set to work cleaning the room top-to-bottom, scrubbed the floor to bring back the oak grain, relocated my cot from Deck 2, and stuffed some personal gear into the small closet to the right of the single bedroom window. I liked this location because it was nearly center of the tower…it wasn’t the largest room by far, but it felt cozy.
There were several trips to and from White Shoal Light that Spring and Summer and lots of materials brought out in preparation for the grand opening the following July. It was in August 2018 while cleaning out the old machine shop room on Deck 2 in preparation to convert it to our staff kitchen, that I had relocated the life ring to my bedroom on Deck 4. That’s when the nightmares began. They were minor at first, often scattered in theme, and I could rarely recall more than a few details upon awakening.
As Summer gave way to Fall, we continued toiling away preparing for public tours. Besides major cleaning, we had to remove loose paint, encapsulate the walls and ceilings, run new plumbing, electrical, and continue to deliver additional materials to the lighthouse. My room on Deck 4 became my hideaway after a long day’s work and by September of 2018, I even had an old record player and some classic 70’s albums that I would listen to at night before bed while rocking myself to sleep on a cheap patio chair. The nightmares became more intense every night that I spent in that room. Soon, I found myself waking up in a cold sweat nearly the same time every morning at 2:37am. I would sit up in bed, heart pounding, trying to make sense of a dream that was becoming stranger and more detailed every night.
We closed the lighthouse late that season during the first week of November. Fall gave way to Winter once again as the lighthouse became enveloped in thick layers of ice and snow out on the frigid tundra that was Lake Michigan. Back home in Traverse City, I found myself busy with work and family and rarely thought of the nightmares I had experienced at White Shoal the past season.
By Memorial Day Weekend 2019, we were in full swing at White Shoal, counting down the days to our grand opening on July 20th. We worked non-stop from sunup to sundown for nearly six straight weeks that May and June. In the evenings, I would stow away to my room, put on some records, rock in my chair, and sip on some Crown Royal and cola. It was the end of June that year when the nightmares became more frequent and recurring.
I would find myself walking through the thick state forest land of northern Michigan near dusk, when suddenly an old, dilapidated wire fence appeared before me, and behind it a massive clearing in the woods. Cautiously stepping over the fence that was bent near the ground due to a fallen tree, I would enter the clearing and walk toward its center. The outline of the fence could be seen in all directions as I slowly made my way toward a small shallow puddle. Peering into the brown murky water, I begin to smell a stench so foul that it makes me instantly nauseous. It is as though I am standing on a heap of thousands of decaying carcasses as the ground begins to soften and bubble below my feet. I begin to sink into the quagmire while vomiting as the smell overcomes me. Just as I am about to go under, I can see all around me at the tree line thousands of beady red menacing eyes staring at me. That's when I would suddenly wake up in a cold sweat at 2:37am.
That particular dream became more vivid as the nights passed. By mid-July, I started to become tormented by a second recurring dream that seemed to pick up where the first nightmare left off. As I am drowning in the horrible bubbly stench of the clearing, I can feel myself going under then resurfacing while gasping for air. Suddenly, someone tosses me a life ring and as I come up into the middle of the ring, I find myself back at my favorite swim hole on the bank of the Pine River. I go under again, kicking violently, and finally resurface, grasping the life ring with all my strength. As I look around, I can see thousands of people lining the banks of the river in all directions, folks pointing and staring aghast at the sight of me. I am pulled to the shallow sandbar where an old man in blue overalls, short white beard, red handkerchief sticking half out of his back pocket, walks toward me grasping the rope and pulling me closer to him. As I lay there listening to people on the banks murmuring as they turn away from me in horror, the old man suddenly grabs a paper feed sack and places it over my head. Then I awake, cold sweat….2:37am.
Though the life ring appeared in my dream, I never thought of it as a possible cause of the nightmares I was having. In fact, the ring sat tucked away in the closet of my room on Deck 4 that entire summer as we began to host tours and overnight stays for the first time in White Shoal’s history. Those of you who visited that summer and the fine folks I worked with never knew of the torment I was experiencing night after night. It wasn’t until after Labor Day Weekend 2019 that I cleaned up my room and decided to bring the life ring back to shore. I moved it to my room in the basement at home in Traverse City and immediately began experiencing the same recurring dreams, night after night. I began suffering panic attacks that became so acute that I was essentially paralyzed at home. For those of you who may have helped close the light station in October that year, you may recall I was absent from the final volunteer operations. I was going mad!
Finally, I started to connect the dots to the life ring and the nightmares and relocated it to the garage by late October. The nightmares ceased. White Shoal Light remained closed during the 2020 season due to the Covid pandemic and I never did make it out to the light station that year. It wasn’t until mid-July 2021 that we opened the creaking doors of the boathouse to pick up where we left off at the close of 2019. I spent roughly four weeks during the summer of 2021 in my room on Deck 4 and am happy to report the nightmares have not returned, though I do still experience occasional panic attacks.
I have no idea what happened to me that weekend at White Shoal in 2017 and still find myself trying to piece together the mysterious circumstances. As for the life ring, it is now stored away in an old semi-trailer on a friend’s property a couple of hours from my home in Traverse City, along with the artifacts that came out of the mysterious drifting dinghy. The abandoned boat was donated to the boat boneyard on West Bay in Traverse City where it has long since been forgotten and remains near a ditch overgrown with years of vegetation.
As for me, I am ok. The adventure of restoring White Shoal has been challenging, littered at times with extreme joy and other times of extreme terror. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Back in Traverse City with the dinghy and the life ring
UPDATE March 2023:
Since returning home from the terrifying trip to White Shoal Light during the fall of 2017 (nearly six long years ago), I have uncovered some additional information related to the mysterious abandoned dinghy floating lifeless in the Straits. After endless hours of research and tracking down leads, the story is slowly starting to come together as I piece together various parts of the puzzle. Below is a picture of the deck of cards that I found in the bottom of the dingy wrapped up tightly in a Zip-loc bag. This item, more than anything else, has led me down the path to unraveling this mystery. I hope to release further details this coming fall in Part II of "The Life Ring"....stay tuned!