The remains of at least three vessels were scattered on the reef west of Isle Royale, a testament to bad weather and poor navigation. To prevent further wrecks, the U.S. Lighthouse Board ordered the construction of the Rock of Ages Light, a 10-story lighthouse built in 1908 and topped by a beacon that cast a light 15 nautical miles across the water.
Today, the interior of that lighthouse is in shambles, but a volunteer crew plans to restore a portion of it as part of a yearslong effort that may someday open it up for public tours.
Organized as the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society, the group will spend seven weeks this summer restoring the fourth-floor keeper's quarters.
"Right after I first saw it, I thought something had to be done to restore it," said David Gerth, who along with his wife, Heather, has overseen most of the restoration work so far.
Their efforts have been approved by the National Park Service, and this summer the Gerths are looking for more volunteers to join them. They think they have space for about 20 volunteers, depending on how many weeks people sign up to work.
The bulk of the interior restoration will take three to four years, the Gerths said. The lighthouse has 10 levels — it includes a keeper's quarters, kitchen, bathroom, living room and engine room — and roughly 2,500 square feet of floor space.
The Gerths spent the past three summers doing mostly demolition work, removing rotted wood and cracked plaster. A Park Service assessment of the lighthouse found that it's plenty strong despite its age and appearance.
As a tourist visiting Isle Royale, David Gerth remembers the first time he saw the weatherworn lighthouse while ferrying to the main island, about 3 ½ miles east of the lighthouse. It caught his interest as a restoration project.
Gerth created the Preservation Society in 2008 and has spent the time since raising funds and building relationships with the National Park Service. He and Heather married last summer and spent several weeks following their honeymoon working on the lighthouse.
"It is an extraordinary place to be and not a lot of people get to go there," Heather Gerth said.
More information on the volunteer effort can be found online at rockofageslps.org.
While the Gerths oversee the lighthouse cleanup, hiker Derrick Passe will be clearing brush in some of the wildest country of northern Minnesota.
For two decades the Two Harbors resident has walked into the woods for at least a week each spring armed with hand tools and sometimes a few friends to clear established trails. This year, he'll spend the month of May — his longest commitment yet — overseeing cleanup of trails littered by blowdown from a powerful windstorm last June. Passe said he's got volunteers lined up for much of the month. Fully supported by the U.S. Forest Service, Passe works in conjunction with the federal staff overseeing maintenance and care of the trails.
Two other groups will help: The Kekekabic Trail Chapter of the North Country Trail Association will lead two groups from the American Hiking Society Volunteer Vacations program to Thomas and Alworth Lakes to remove debris. Seven volunteers from the Conservative Anabaptist Service Program will clear the Kekekabic Trail for a month starting in early May.
Passe, who said he's never had problems with wild animals or accidents, said he loves the challenge of working deep in the woods, some of his only witnesses being the black and white spruce, pines and northern white cedar.
"You see very few people. The people you see are out there enjoying the trail, too," he said.