Chambers Island: A sea kayaker’s day trip
I have been told I have the magic touch when it comes to choosing dates for kayaking across the bay of Green Bay. (To be clear, I’m talking about calendar dates.) Last year our “Paddle Across the Bay” group journeyed from the northern mainland tip of Door County to Washington Island under ideal weather. For this year’s “Paddle Across the Bay last Saturday, nine intrepid sea kayakers accompanied me from Tennison Bay in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek, Wisconsin, to Chambers Island, a round trip of 18 statute miles.
Once again conditions were excellent. We gathered at the Tennison Bay kayak launch. Following a brief meeting to discuss safety, signals and VHS radio channels, we were on the water by 10:05 a.m.
After 1.5 miles, we encountered a slight crosswind on our way past the Strawberry Islands, but the waves were a manageable one-foot high or less. Four miles later we made a brief stop on the east side of Chambers Island to get out and stretch. We followed the island shoreline 2.5 miles to the north and west, arriving at the Chambers Island Lighthouse.
Because I scheduled the trip to coincide with the annual Door County Lighthouse Festival, we knew that we would be able to tour the lighthouse during our lunch break on the island. When we landed we had the lighthouse to ourselves. The caretakers were evidently on the other side of the island preparing to transport tourists to the lighthouse who were arriving by tour boat.
Chambers Island Lighthouse History
Chambers Island lies 7.5 miles northwest of Fish Creek and 11.5 miles northeast of Marinette. The island was named after Col. Talbot Chambers who sailed past it in 1816 on his way to establish a military post at the head of Green Bay. (Interesting footnote: Col. Chambers was court-martialed in 1826 for apparently being drunk on his watch many times.)
Settlement of the island began in the 1840s and grew rapidly during the 1850s. In July 1866 Congress appropriated funds for construction of a lighthouse to guide mariners through the west or main channel from Lake Michigan to the port of Green Bay. After clearing trees from several acres, the construction crew began work in 1868 on the lighthouse building. Except for the octagonal construction of the top of the tower, the 45-foot tall Chambers Island Light dwelling is almost a carbon copy of the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse located in Peninsula State Park and constructed at the same time. The towers were deliberately built with different shapes so mariners could distinguish the two during daytime.
A sixth order Fresnel lens was installed and lighthouse keepers kept the light shining from 1868 until 1961 when the Coast Guard decided to automate the station to save money. At that time they erected a 97-foot steel tower south of the dwelling and put a battery powered beacon on top. The batteries have since been replaced by solar panels.
According to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, official whereabouts of the Chambers Island Fresnel lens is listed as “unknown” although some reports say it was sold at a surplus property auction to Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska, hundreds of miles from the waters of Green Bay. Today similar lenses are valued in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
The Challenge: Access
Currently the only way to visit the Chambers Island Lighthouse is during the annual Door County Maritime Museum’s Lighthouse Festival or by private boat. Although the lighthouse was not abandoned (Joel and Mary Ann Blahnik serve as its caretakers) the structure is in need of significant restoration.
Over the past several years, some restoration efforts have been made. The roof has been repaired and the iron railing secured. But it takes money and manual labor. The idea of a “friends” group has been proposed, such as those organized for Plum and Pilot Islands. However, the most challenging issue remains: establishing access for non-boat owners to get to the lighthouse.
After 30 minutes or so of solitude and sunshine on this particular Saturday of the Lighthouse Festival weekend, we were joined by a large group of lighthouse aficionados, some of whom walked with us to the beach to watch us paddle away and continue our circumnavigation of the island. (If you were one of those who took photos of our group, please share them with me so I can post them here.)
On the back (west) side of the island we encountered slightly larger waves up to two feet, so the more experienced paddlers kept a close eye on everyone. One member of the group said the experience was “intense” but our group returned to the kayak launch at Tennison Bay around 5 p.m. with little trouble, other than some sore body parts as a result of spending more than five hours on the water.
Our delicious, thirst-quenching post-trip debriefing and celebration was held at Wild Tomato in Fish Creek.