Digest>Archives> April 2003

Volunteers Get Inside Look at Big Sable

By Jim Merkel

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Bill Harding at Big Sable Lighthouse in Michigan.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

Of all the ways to start a summer morning, Jocelyn Bussies had about the best possible.

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Bill Harding examines some of the artifacts in ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

“I leave the window shades open and the window up and I roll over and there it is, this beautiful view,” said Bussies, a retired school teacher from Jenison, Michigan. “Could it be any nicer?”

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Bruce VanWingen at the top of the Big Sable ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

What she saw on those mornings last June was the shore of Lake Michigan, with nothing but sand and water. “No buildings or people,” she said. “Just pure, untouched beauty of nature.”

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Don and Jocelyn Bussies relax with a cup of ...
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Bussies and her husband, Don, were two of six volunteer keepers at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse on the east side of Lake Michigan north of Ludington, Michigan. In return for greeting visitors, showing them to the top, running the gift shop and doing other household chores, they stayed in their own quarters on the second floor of the lighthouse dwelling and called it home.

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Paige Harding, Jocelyn Bussies, and Sandy ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

Bussies could speak of many things she enjoyed about the two weeks she spent at the lighthouse last year, but she started with the people who make the 1-1/2 mile walk from Ludington State Park to the lighthouse.

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The Big Sable Lighthouse.
Photo by: Wayne Sapulski

“It’s just a lot of fun to see families camping and hiking and coming out here with their kids,” Bussies said. “I’m enjoying the other two couples that we’re sharing the job with. They’re not people we knew before. And it’s turned out to be a perfect match.”

When a writer visited the Big Sable Point Light Station early last June, he found the Bussies’ housemates made similar comments. Bruce and Sandy Van Wingen and Paige and Bill Harding spoke of the people they’d met, the friendships they’d formed and what it was like to have the light to themselves after the last visitor left.

Their enthusiasm comes as no surprise to Mary James, the former executive director of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association. James saw about 100 people serve as live-in volunteer keepers at Big Sable in 2002. She says there’s a reason why they’re willing to work eight to ten hours during a vacation. “The reason that we have those 100 people is they get to stay in the lighthouse for two weeks. That’s a big attraction and they have such a good time,” James said.

“They work hard for that privilege of staying in that lighthouse for two weeks,” James said. “They’re busy and they’re very conscientious. They do a wonderful job for us.”

So good is the association’s work that about half of the volunteers who come for the two weeks each year are repeaters. “We’ve got some now who’ve been there four and five times. They have a good time. And they love it up here,” James said.

Among those repeaters are the Van Wingens, who were back in 2002 for the fifth year as volunteer keepers. They’d already served one two-week stint when the couple who originally were to serve with the Bussies and Hardings couldn’t make it. So the Van Wingens agreed to do another week.

Preparation for each day begins early. “We usually have breakfast and by 8-8:30, we go out and we take care of the garbage and we sweep the sidewalks and 10 o’clock we’re open,” Van Wingen said. The next eight hours can be busy, with part of the group selling books and lighthouse replicas in the gift shop and others bringing people to the top of the 112-foot-tall tower, which was first lit in 1867.

“It’s a working vacation,” Van Wingen said. However, “We usually have time in the morning and the evening to enjoy the lighthouse ourselves.”

After everything is done, there is time to sit on a couch in the quarters on the second floor of the dwelling and relax. It’s one part of the tour that most people don’t see.

Don Bussies, a retired purchasing agent, likes the peacefulness of early mornings and evenings. “People leave and it’s just the six of us in the lighthouse. It’s beautiful to come out here and watch the sunset and watch the light come on,” he said. “We have a couple of eagles. We see commercial ships come by. Last Saturday morning when we woke up, there were more than 40 fishermen fishing out there.”

The joy of munchies is a fringe benefit.

“We were sitting in this very room until midnight last night, a bowl of ice cream and a bowl of popcorn or whatever, a cup of coffee, and we were just getting to know each other and enjoying each other more every day,” Jocelyn Bussies said.

On the day a writer came for a visit, Paige and Bill Harding of Portage, Michigan planned to have friends in that evening.

“We’ll have some guests coming in, a bonfire out back, a wiener roast out there and do some s’mores,” said Paige Harding.

The forecast for two days hence called for rain, which was fine for Harding. “We’ll go up to the tower for the storm, because when the lightning comes, it’s so much fun to watch it from up there,” she said.

Harding’s interest in lighthouses came from her grandfather, who served as the plumber for lighthouses from Maine to Massachusetts. Her husband first got his love for lighthouses from reading the books of Edward Rowe Snow, also known as the Flying Santa.

“A typical day is, get up and sweep the walks, check the facilities outside. Then we open for business with programs coming through and taking turns in the tower,” Bill Harding said. “It’s interesting the various places they (visitors) come from. This week, we’ve had folks from as far away as England and Oklahoma.. . . .I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.”

This story appeared in the April 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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