"A whole lot of history is preserved down there...the mystery draws you in."
Photos by Megan Monday
John and Karna | Apostle Islands, WI
John: I grew up on the St. Croix River and spent my youth navigating it, learning all the channels, exploring solo or sometimes with a couple friends. I was a water person from the very start, catching snapping turtles, playing with snakes.
My parents weren't outdoorsy at all. I convinced my dad to come out camping on the river once, but in the morning he'd go straight home to shave and shower. So I got my own love of nature just by being in it. I think that’s all you need to start—just go out and be in it.
One year, a couple of high school friends and me got the idea to do some winter camping. My parents were kinda nervous about it, but they let us go on a three-day trip. We hiked upriver about six miles and pitched camp near an open spot in the river. By morning, that open spot had about three inches of ice on it. We learned afterward that it got to 20 below that night. I guess my parents got worried so they hiked out on Sunday and tried to find us by following our tracks. We had hiked up too far—they didn’t find us. Fortunately, we were just fine in our tent. But I walked into our house on Monday morning not even realizing that it had been 20 below or that my parents had been looking for us. They were not pleased. But that was the kind of stuff we did as kids. I was called to nature and didn’t mind the extremes.
When I got older, I kept my love of water and I learned to scuba dive. Later I learned to ice dive, as well. I dive all over the Midwest, and I particularly love the Great Lakes. We look for shipwrecks. There’s probably a thousand ships in Superior. The storms would just bring them down. And the sunken ships are just so cool here, because they don’t get covered with barnacles—nothing grows down there because it's so cold.
When you go diving for shipwrecks, at first it’s like being in a real thick fog. You’ve got all your gear on and as you go down, all of a sudden, you're starting to see this form, this fuzzy darkness that starts to take shape before you. Suddenly you can make it out—there’s windows and masts and stuff. It’s just so cool.
The wooden ships have these huge timbers, and down below they're all just sitting there quietly. You're making a heck of a lot of noise with your breathing, but they're just sitting there, and they've been there for so long. You can go down and stand on the deck of this ship that's been there for 50, 100 years. Sometimes you’ll find remnants from the logging days—old logs with chains, and on the ends of the logs you see the stamps of the old lumber companies. A whole lot of history is preserved down there, and you don't see it from up here.
Some people look out on our Great Lakes and say, "Wow what a beautiful lake." They are, of course, but learning to dive, you look at the lakes totally differently. You forever wonder, "What's under there?" The mystery draws you in. It’s such a cool feeling to be able to explore under the surface.
John: I met my wife by crashing her sister's wedding.
I knew the guy her sister was marrying, actually. He was an old high school buddy of mine, one of the guys who had gone camping with me in the 20 below weather, as it happens. But it had been a while since I’d seen him—all of my college years—so when I was back in town and heard about the wedding I thought, ‘Why not?’ And showed up at his house. He was happy to see me.
Karna: Meanwhile, my sister is getting ready at our house. Suddenly the doorbell rings, and here comes this stranger, arriving with the groom and the best man.
My mother, who’s a very sweet lady, answered the door. She was holding a milk jug, and asked the boys if they wanted anything to drink. John just took the milk jug, right out of her hand, and tipped it back. Drank the whole thing right there, right out of the jug. My mother was kind of surprised, to say the least.
He came in and made himself at home. Then he proceeded to walk around the house, including back to where my sister and her friend were sleeping. He woke them up, then dumped my sister and her friend out of their beds!
John: Well, now, it was springtime, time to flip the mattresses. I was just trying to help out!
Karna: They were surprised, we'll say. If you asked me I just thought, "Who is this lunatic we let in?"
Then we went over to the church. Little, tiny, country church where the ladies were getting together a small lunch reception. There, he actually was really helpful. He started the stove for them, figured out how to do the can opener, whatever they needed, because they were having trouble. They just thought he was wonderful, and they kept asking who this was. And we said, ‘We have no idea!’
Then it came time to leave the church. The bridal party all took off, and there was John, left with no ride. But he said he knew where the reception was going to be, so I told him I’d give him a lift. We got quite a ways down the road, far from the church, and I ask him where we are. He has no idea. No clue. I'm thinking, "Okay, this is not good. What have I done? I’m off alone in a car with a lunatic."
John: I did know where the reception was…just not how to get there.
Along the drive, he asked a lot of questions and memorized the names of all my brothers and sisters—there are nine of us. By the time we got to the reception he called everyone by their names. They were all like, "Wow, he’s so cool!" And I'm like, "Wait, he’s crazy!"
But there was something I liked about him I guess, because when he asked me to go with him to another friend's reception that was in the same town later on in the evening, I went. We didn’t get home till two in the morning.
After that crazy day, John started asking me if I would go out to pizza with him. The pizza shop he wanted to go to was right on my way home from work, and it was free pizza, so I went. Then I just kept going. I ate a lot of free pizza that summer, and that crazy man kinda grew on me.
Karna: I never learned to swim as a kid. So when John invited me to go on a scuba trip, I said I’d have to hang out on shore while he dove. We did that enough times—me climbing up on the cliffs to see them in the water down below. I finally decided I needed to learn how. I took swimming lessons and I practiced blowing bubbles in the bathtub, you know. 'Cause I decided I was gonna do this scuba thing.
One time we were diving up in the Boundary Waters. John teaches diving, and on that trip we had all these college-aged diving students with us. I got in the lake and we had all these kids just hanging around us, right on our heels. I'm like, ‘Hey guys, you know, you’ve got the whole lake! Go look!’ But they just kept hanging right there.
So they're hanging around, and we’re all looking at stuff in the bottom, and John comes up to me and hands me a pop top ring. You know, pop cans, you pop the top? One of those rings. John has always been able to find more stuff in the water than I have. So I'm looking at it, and he holds up this sign underwater and it says, "Will you marry me?"
I look around and the students are all around us, and I see that they're filming. And I just start laughing. When you laugh, you have to inhale, which cracked my mask. We had to go to the surface.
We get to the surface and I'm laughing my head off. And he's like, "Well?" And I said, "Well, I suppose...yes!" And it turned out the ‘pop top’ was actually his mother's engagement ring.
Karna: In the ‘90s we had a lot of dive students, and we were up in Superior diving often. One of our students told us how she stayed up here in the summers and had even volunteered once as a lighthouse keeper. As soon as I heard that I was like, "Hey, that sounds so cool!"
So we applied. We got selected within just a few weeks, and placed on Sand Island. Volunteering here, it has a lot of similarities to when I worked at National Parks when I was younger. You are an ambassador! An educator! A protector! These places are important and beautiful, but often underfunded and short-staffed, so as a volunteer you can make a big impact and help keep things moving along.
There’s a certain type of person that volunteers up here…they’re the type of people who are little bit more open to whatever happens. They're not real set in their ways, because there's so much that’s unpredictable.
John: On a typical day, you get up, you get the weather. You have to get the weather. The weather changes so incredibly fast, it's marvelous here. I love to watch the weather. The park service has a slogan that goes: ‘The Lake is Boss’, and a lot of that has to do with how the lake acts with the weather. It acts like an ocean, can change in a short amount of time.
You have a few chores to do in the morning right away. You check with the campers, make sure they're fine. Then you do some cleaning at the lighthouse. When we talk to the visitors, we try to share with them what a really incredible place this is. For some of them, they automatically connect to that, but others, maybe if they aren't so tuned in, they're mostly just excited that they can get cell reception out here. You hope though, that most folks are really noticing what a special resource we have right around us.
Karna: It’s the most incredible thing in the world to be on top of the lighthouse and just watch the world go by. You watch the ships, you watch the water change, you watch the bald eagle that flies over here almost every day. Comes right by the tower. I think they must have a nest in one of the big pines over here, 'cause there's an older one and a younger one out here. Just watching the weather and the waves change, it's just marvelous. The blueberries are ripening, the raspberries.
It’s a big gift to us to volunteer out here. Some people say, ‘Is volunteering really a vacation for you?’ But it is! We always want to be of service and help, and I think the parks are in such dire need. Anywhere you go, you can find something that you can work on and help somebody with. To volunteer out here in this gorgeous, special place…it’s just really satisfying.
-John and Karna | Reedsburg, WI (volunteering in the Apostle Islands)