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Adventure Travel: Volunteer at a lighthouse

Corie Russell is a Midwest-born writer living in New York City. After dabbling in the office life as an editor, she joined the ranks of full-time freelancers and writes about everything from home decor to the recession.

Alternative vacation

Tough economic times call for cutting back on luxuries. But it doesn't mean you have to completely forfeit your summer vacation. Many lighthouses offer free housing in exchange for volunteering, allowing you to enjoy the aqua waters without drowning in debt.



Volunteering while on vacation

"It was one of the highlights of my life," said Karren Jeske, who volunteered twice at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, WI for the United States National Park Service.

Jeske trained for about a week on the mainland and helped out at the lighthouse from May to October. The work schedule consisted of 10 days on and four days off with tasks including greeting visitors, painting picnic tables, keeping the house clean, and providing on-site vandalism protection.

The lighthouse was primitive, located on a remote island without running water or electricity. Jeske would take solar showers, which involved heating up a bag of water with the sun. "It was very bare bones, very basic," she said. Regardless, Jeske said she would do it again "in a heartbeat."

For a more civilized vacation, try a lighthouse such as Big Sable in Ludington, Michigan, in which volunteers stay on site for two weeks with necessary utilities. 

"We have all the creature comforts of home," said Ceil Heller, president of Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association. "Our keepers live in pretty good comfort."

Those seeking volunteer opportunities must be members of the association, which costs $25, and then complete the appropriate paperwork. In addition to Big Sable, volunteers can stay for a week at the nearby Little Sable or Northbreak lighthouses. Volunteers at Little Sable stay at the Silver Lake State Park ranger house, and Northbreak lighthouse keepers stay at the City of Ludington beach.

Paid in sunsets...

The three lighthouses average about 200 to 300 visitors per day in the summer, so volunteer keepers rarely have a dull moment in their 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. Tasks include cleaning sand off the stairs, giving tours of the lighthouse and working in the gift shop.

"It is sometimes a challenge because there's a lot of work involved," Heller said, "[but most of our volunteers] have walked away saying that it was a great experience to them."

Janet Gelf and her husband have volunteered at Big Sable for six years. When you love lighthouses the way Gelf and her husband do, she said it doesn't really seem like work.

"When I tell people we are going on a two-week work vacation, they think I'm nuts," she said. "But this really isn't work."

John Preheim echoes Gelf's sentiment, as he and his wife have volunteered at Big Sable for four years.


"We always say the sunsets here are our paychecks," he said. "It's those kind of things that keep you coming back."

More information on volunteering and on the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association is available by visiting www.splka.org or calling (231) 845-7343.

For more on adventure travel on SheKnows:

Best US motorcycle rides
10 Most romantic destinations 
Top 10 architectural wonders of the world

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