As you will find in my Mitten Trip guide to Alpena, the northeast corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula hosts an abundance of incredible experiences. In lieu of a hotel for such a vacation, I recommend something more unique and memorable: uninhabited (by humans, at least) Middle Island and the Keepers’ Lodge bed and breakfast at the Middle Island Lighthouse.
Captain Mike, whose family owns and operates all but a state-controlled corner of the 263-acre island, delivers tourists to and from the island a few times a day. If you have time, your stay also includes a nautical tour around the island to see the old Coast Guard lifesaving building, nearby shipwrecks, a view of the lighthouse from the lake, and maybe a few passing freighters—all accompanied by the best captain’s tales.
You’ll want to make it back to from all your shopping and exploring (or fossil hunting!) in time for the last trip to the island for the day, which is usually around dinner time. Upon your arrival, you’ll find a long dock made from local cedar trees and the steel that was previously the old high school football stadium. At the end of the dock is an off-road vehicle to carry supplies, as well as visitors, on its seated trailer. Be careful though, the ride gets bumpy!
The first thing you’ll notice about Middle Island is the calm silence. As you ride or walk the 2/3-mile trail across the island, even the repetitive, lapping waves fade, and the only sounds are the occasional bird, insect, or tree rustling as you pass. This is perhaps less uncommon for those who live in rural areas, but the quiet on Middle Island takes a moment to fully appreciate. The island sometimes has a couple deer and rabbit inhabitants, but any other sources of noise are entirely negligible.
Two silent miles of Lake Huron separate Middle Island from the shore, which is met by Rockport State Recreation Area, a sprawling 4,000-acre former limestone quarry. Even downtown Alpena, with its modest population of about 10,000, is almost 10 miles of farm and forest land away. If you’ve ever really wanted to “get away,” boy is this the place!
Staying on Middle Island is hardly “roughing it” though, which becomes clear as you reach the east side of the island and approach the lighthouse facilities. The trail ends at the old keeper’s house, a huge red brick duplex that provided living quarters for the keeper and assistant keeper for the first several decades of the 20th century. The building is under major refurbishing work, but there are still a few rooms and a small gift shop open to the public. It’s best to visit this building during the day, as there are more than a few tales of mysterious sights, sounds, and smells—some years it is coffee brewing, others it is buttered pancakes—emanating from the keeper’s house in the middle of the night.
If you’re in a hurry to get unpacked and settled (or if the smell of the keeper’s ghost’s breakfast made you hungry!), your next stop will the smaller building a couple hundred feet to the north. It appears to be a typical lodge until you look at a few unusual details. First, you’ll notice that the kitchen in the center of the communal space is raised by about a foot. Then, you’ll notice that there’s a lookout or crow’s nest-type riser in the highest window facing Lake Huron. It’ll all make sense when you see pictures that show how the building originally housed the fog signal, with its horn perched in the window and the enormous boiler and bellows mounted to the extra-thick cement foundation.
Despite its entirely functional origin, the foghorn-turned-BnB provides some wonderful accommodations. The raised kitchen features a working refrigerator, gas range and oven, and a sink with running hot water. Behind the kitchen are two private bedrooms, each big enough for multiple single or double beds. Atop the bedrooms is a semi-private bedroom with two bunk beds and more single beds. The other side of the lodge features a living room with a dining table and incredible view of Lake Huron, which you can also enjoy on the adjoining patio. There isn’t any electricity on the island, so be sure to plan ahead with flashlights and batteries if you want to do anything at night.
Once you’re settled in, and possibly unpacked and fed, it’s finally time to explore the lighthouse! You’ll walk the couple hundred feet south back to the keeper’s house, and then a few hundred more feet along a narrow concrete path to the base of the 80-foot tower. Like all lighthouses, there is a small donation (usually a couple dollars, used for preservation costs) required to go beyond the lower service room. You’ll then enter the hall to the tower and come face to face with a near-life size statue of a captain, affectionately called “Captain Creepy”. He seems only a little unusual during the day, but believe me, he really earns his unsettling nickname once it gets dark!
Standing atop a lighthouse is always an incredible experience. The view from the Middle Island Lighthouse is especially beautiful, because you can see the entire island, plus the inlet, coast and inland forest beyond—not to mention the number of miles you can see out into Lake Huron. Combined with the absolutely quiet surroundings, that was probably the most tranquil moment I’ve experienced in my life. Yet, even that was trumped when we were able to, with Captain Mike’s help, use a car battery to power the internal lights of the lighthouse and make the climb at night. (Note: Only do this with instructions AND permission.)
For nine and a half seconds, the world is entirely dark. The ground and water don’t exist, except for maybe a couple freighters lit up in the distance. The sky is filled with thousands of stars you’d never see within miles of any metropolitan area, and the Milky Way is painted clearly across the middle of the sky. And then, for half a second, everything flips upside-down. The light above you shines so brightly and directly, it seems like the sky disappears while everything below you comes immediately into focus. All of the colors are still muted by the darkness of night as your eyes adjust, but the gray trees on the horizon seem to stretch even farther than they did during the day. Before you know it, the light is off again, and the stars reappear.
If you’re like me and unable to sleep immediately after experiencing such an awe-inspiring moment, the far side of the lodge is one of the few spots that’s close enough to the lighthouse to have a shadow. There, you can escape the periodic blinking for a full view of the night sky, which is clear enough to count meteors and satellites as they pass. Don’t stay up too late though, because the next part is just as good!
Lake Huron is notoriously the “sunrise coast” to us Michiganders, and the view from Middle Island is not one to miss. Whether you’re on the patio, along the shore, at the lighthouse, or still in bed but near a window, you’ll have a full view of every color the sun reflects as it awakens—twice as beautiful with its seemingly endless reflection stretching all the way between you and the horizon. If we all started our day with a view like that, I doubt half as many of us would need that daily cup of joe to get our eyes open.
Now that you’re awake, there’s plenty of time for breakfast, a game of cards, or a nice book on the beach while you wait for Captain Mike to make the first trip to the island. If you prefer, you can stay on the island to hike, kayak, canoe, bird watch, or just relax. Or you can catch a ride back to Rockport, where you can explore Alpena and the other unique experiences it has to offer. As far as I can tell, there’s not a bad choice, as long as you make it back to the boat in time for your next incredible night on Middle Island.
Are you brave enough to spend a night with the Middle Island Lighthouse keeper’s ghost? Let me know in the comments!