LELAND — Standing tall and monumental in the fabled Manitou Passage 8 miles off shore Leelanau County is a ghostly structure, a silent sentinel.
The North Manitou Shoal Light, affectionately called “The Crib,” remains a mariner’s best friend — a beacon for guidance and safe passage through the shallow waters of that unpredictable Lake Michigan area.
“When you stand on the top deck of the lighthouse, looking out at the lake, the sky is huge,” said Anna Ognisky. “It’s humbling to feel so small in comparison to the light and everything around it.
“It affirms that we are all just a small piece of something much bigger. I want anyone willing to take the trip and make the climb up to be able to experience that.”
Still operational but in need of structural and cosmetic repairs, the lighthouse is now privately owned after being auctioned off by the U.S. Government in 2016. The four-family group that owns the lighthouse — known as the North Manitou Light Keepers (NMLK) — plans to open the historic beacon to public tours and in fact have conducted a number of tours of the gutted structure this summer.
“It’s an amazing structure,” said Michael Kahn, 64 of Evanston, Ill. “We climbed up to the top where the light is and it was just an awesome view. The trip out (from Leland) was calm and perfect, and then once inside and up top, we had all these views of the water around us — it was pretty amazing.
“We all say it is a jewel, but it really is — it’s beautiful.”
Lowell Lampen, 60 of Milwaukee, climbed to the top of The Crib with Kahn.
“It was fantastic,” said Lampen. “It’s something we’ll definitely want to do again.”
Bill Pomphrey, 61 of nearby Lake Leelanau, joined Kahn, Lampen and a few other “best buddies” in touring the inside of The Crib a few weeks ago.
“I”m the lucky one,” said Pomphrey, “I get to look at the lighthouse every day. We’re going to get together and (climb up to the top again) during ‘diamond hour.’ That should be spectacular.”
“Diamond hour,” explained Pomphrey, is that exact moment — or few moments — when the setting sun causes the lake’s surface to sparkle like millions and millions of diamonds.
Dan Ognisky led the effort to acquire the North Manitou Shoal Light, which sits one mile offshore of North Manitou Island.
Born and raised in Flint, Oginsky and his wife Anna, watched patiently as the online bidding went back and forth, and back and forth. Finally, after entering what he thought would be his group’s final bid, Oginsky watched as another person submitted a higher bid.
“I thought that was it, we were out of it,” he said. “We had set an amount we’d bid up to and we actually went over it, by quite a bit. But just when I was ready to say ‘that’s enough,’ Anna said the lighthouse told her, ‘don’t give up on me.’ So, we didn’t. We bid one more time and we got it. We were very, very happy.”
Anna Oginsky, who spent her childhood camping with her family in Kalkaska, recalls the bidding ordeal.
“We were in the midst of a bidding war with another party and it started to feel like a stretch to win the auction for the lighthouse,” she said. “Our team decided to give it one last bid, and then we were outbid and the 24-hour wait period began. (The winning bid had to hold for 24 hours before a winner would prevail).
“For the first time in weeks, I wasn’t hearing anything about the lighthouse and it felt strange. I went to the auction listing online for the first time. The lighthouse looked sad, to be honest. It was clear that it was in disrepair and seemed out of place in the midst of such beauty.
“As I looked at it, I heard a voice say ‘don’t give up on me,’ said Anna. “I texted Dan immediately. We placed another bid, and 24 hours later we won the auction! In my heart of hearts, I have loved the idea of NMLK and the lighthouse since the very start, but all four families involved are in the thick of it — with our children, our jobs, and our lives, so it didn’t seem like a great time for such a big undertaking. It’s amazing that we’ve come this far.”
Besides he and his wife, Dan Ognisky said the three other families of “dreamers and doers” who rallied to bid on and win the Government Services Administration auction for the North Manitou Shoal Light also included Dave and Sherry McWilliam; Todd and Natalie Buckley of southeastern Michigan; and Jake and Suzanne Kaberle of Traverse City, “whose collective goal was to acquire The Crib and complete its restoration.”
Their winning bid was $73,000.
Established on Aug. 16, 2016 as a Michigan nonprofit corporation, NMLK is managed by its board of directors: Daniel Oginsky (president), Anna Oginsky, Dave McWilliam, Todd Buckley and Jake Kaberle.
The lighthouse, reads the NMLK’s website, “is a steel structure that stands on a foundation made of a ‘crib’ embedded into the lake floor that is filled with concrete and rock. “
Completed in 1935, the historic lighthouse marks the shoal, or shallow area, for ships passing through the Manitou Passage.
“Prior to 1980, the lighthouse was manned by a three-man crew of members of the U.S. Coast Guard,” reads the historical information on the website. “Each member served on the lighthouse in a three-week rotation, with two weeks on and one week off. In 1980, the lighthouse was fully automated and the Coast Guard crew was removed from it. Since then, the lighthouse generally has remained empty, but for the colony of double-crested cormorants who make it perch there during the summer.”
The lighthouse has a red light that flashes in 15 second intervals, a fog horn that sounds in 20 second intervals when conditions warrant, and a radar transporter beacon that emits a Morse code “n” on radar screens for passing ships.
Given its location, many people pass by The Crib on their way to visit the Manitou Islands. The lighthouse also can be seen and heard from the islands and the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore around Leland and Glen Arbor.
“We have a lot of work in front of us, but we’ll get there,” said Dan Oginsky. “When my wife said ‘the lighthouse spoke to me, it said don’t give up on me,’ she immediately became the spirit of what we are doing. We aren’t just dreamers, we are doers.”
Eventually, said Dan Oginsky, the group will restore The Crib to an operational state where parties, weddings and other social gatherings might be held on it.
“Of course, we plan to offer tours,” he said. “Our boat will leave Leland, weather permitting, and take our guests out to The Crib, and then after a few hours, return to Fishtown in Leland. We love sharing this joy — our joy — with other people. It’s magic.”
The Crib’s original Directional Code Beacon can be viewed in the Cannery Boathouse Museum in neighboring Glen Haven, which also sits about 8 miles from the lighthouse.
“As far away as the lighthouse is, it’s really quite easy to see from here,” said volunteer coordinator and Park Ranger Matt Mohrman. “It’s quite impressive, and has been for a long time.”
For more information go to northmanitoulightkeepers.org