Shedding Light on Plum Island

Article and photographs by Grace Johnson, Celebrate Water Administrative Coordinator

On Aug. 11 and 12 I had the opportunity to spend the night on Plum Island. This interesting trip was possible because of the graciousness of the film crew for Lighting the Door, a documentary that is set to come out in 2019. Before I get into the details of the weekend I would like to issue an apology to my mother. On the first day getting to the island she had called to remind me to wear sunscreen and bug spray.  While I tried my best to keep up with it over the weekend, there were times when it slipped my mind. So while I complain and lament my insane amount of bug bites and my crispy skin, I must say, “Yes, mother you did tell me so, I apologize for letting the ball drop.”

I hadn’t been camping in years. The last time I went out was in 2011 when I went on a backpacking trip with the Youth Group from Shepherd of the Bay Church. While the activities during each trip were different, I can say that ultimately, after both, I ended up a sweaty, sunburned, mosquito bitten mess. I can also say for both trips that despite the discomforts I felt after each, I wouldn’t change anything or turn down the opportunity.

Lifesaving Station

The first day we met up at the docks in Gills Rock where Captain Jim Robinson would take us out to the island. He has been a big help to this group in giving them complimentary rides to show his support for this documentary. The ride there was fairly uneventful, but things picked up as soon as we docked. I had never been to Plum Island and have only seen pictures, but it was exactly like I imagined. As soon as we docked, we unloaded all of the gear and planned out the first few hours of filming. The director, Jake Heffernan, had a binder that was filled with all of the shots  he needed and with what cameras. Prior to the trip he had also sent out a detailed document that went over everything including the buildings that were on the island, which ones we were going in, and what was to be expected at each spot. It is important to note here that when I refer to the film “crew” I am actually referring to the friends and family that have been volunteering their time to help Heffernan complete this documentary.

At the helm of the movie is Jake Heffernan, an amateur film maker who works on his documentary in the spare time from his day job working for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. His Plum Island crew consisted of his wife, Heather Heffernan, their son Malichi, friends Erin Hock and Isaac Buhle who brought along their son Ryland, his brother-in-law Jeremy VandeHei, and friend Megan Tappa. While the group all have their own day jobs, the work was divided up to ensure that everything in the film was covered. People were split up into teams, each with their own job. Some were to film the exteriors of the buildings, while others needed to document everything that was happening in the process of filming. Although they are not professionals, they took the process, and their jobs, seriously. That doesn’t mean that the close group of friends didn’t have a fun time and spend most of the day joking around with each other.

Rear Range Light

The first day of filming was spent mostly at the Rear Range Light and the Fog Signal Building. I climbed up the 71 steps with the first part of the crew. Now, I’m afraid of heights so I wasn’t too thrilled about the concept of being up that high, but the view was definitely worth it. At the observation deck you can see clear across the island. It was beautiful. Jake used this time to send up the drone he was renting to get aerial views of the Range Light and the Keepers Quarters, located at the base of the light. After sending the drone around we made our way to the other end of the Range Light to the Fog Signal building. This was my first opportunity to check out a facility that is usually locked up and not available to public access. It was crazy. The paint was peeling off the walls, the rooms smelled of mold (the humidity and heat did NOT help), and there was debris all over the floor. These buildings were just abandoned and left to fight the elements. The only sign of life in the building was an old box of D-Con Rat Poison on the floor. After checking out the first floor Jake invited me to follow him up to the second floor where the fog signals were installed. He then went on to explain when, why, and who had put these signals in. The room was small, hot, and smelly, but Jake took the time to climb up to a small platform where his tall frame was even more confined as he tried to document all of the places in the building and what was happening to them. After filming, the hike back to the camp was hot and sticky. After arriving at the boat house (and having a light lunch), Jake and Jeremy geared up with GoPros to snorkel and dive around the boat house building while the rest of us were given a break and cooled off in the waters surrounding the island. The day was wrapped up with another trip back to the Range Lighthouse for fantastic views of the sunset and observing the bat count with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (admittedly this is where I got most of my bug bites as I thought it was a good idea to go out there in shorts. Sorry mom). The bats flew out of the building from all sides, fluttering past us. One of the counters managed to count over 500 bats, and we were supposed to go into this building the next day.

Fog Signal Building

The last morning we were there was relaxing. The US Fish & Wildlife Service guys offered to take people from our group over to the Grape Shot, a shipwreck  just off the island. Jeremy had explored it the day before but was looking to get a few more shots. The water was calm and as we passed over we could look straight down to see the wreckage. After we got back, Jake’s son Malichi started breakfast and made pancakes for the entire group, plus the twoUS Fish & Wildlife Service workers, and the couple who had been on the island the previous day volunteering with Friends of Plum & Pilot Islands (FOPPI). The rest of the morning was spent packing up all of our tents and equipment before packing up a cart to go back to the Range Lights and Keepers House for one more day of filming. But first, everyone walked down to the water to cool off because of the high heat and humidity, followed by a light lunch and snack. What happened next was my favorite part of the weekend.

As we saw the night before, the Keepers House was infested by bats, and as a result, the home is covered in guano. The toxic nature of the building requires anyone who enters to wear a full body suit and use a breathing mask to avoid sickness. Jake entered the building first (he was the only person allowed in one side of the building). After finishing his solo exploration, I squeezed myself into one of the extra Tyvek suits, strapped the mask to my face, and donned blue gloves. We had to crawl through the broken door to get in and my mind was blown. The house is in shambles and there is guano all over the walls and floor. We went room to room taking pictures and capturing video to document the damage being done to the house. Again, the only signs of life were old beer and soda cans that were lying on the floor. We exited the building and stripped out of our suits, with sweat dripping down my hands and body. Despite the gross nature of what I was seeing and experiencing, it was a real eye-opener of what Jake was trying to accomplish.

Keepers House

This whole project was conceived because of one person’s interest in lighthouses and a drone as a Christmas present. He captured some footage and realized more could be done with it. In a conversation we had, I asked about how he started this whole project and where he got his knowledge of all the lighthouses. He told me it all started with an interest and he started to do more research to get familiar with each lighthouse and their corresponding buildings. Whenever we stepped into a building he would walk me through and tell me what each room was used for and other historical facts about the building. What he has accomplished and continues to do is all self-taught, which shows his strength of character and determination to finish this project.

What Jake is trying to accomplish is a large feat for even a professional company, let alone someone doing it in his free time, with his own money, and with the help of his friends. Not only is he spending his extra time on this, but he is using his own money to fund the project with the knowledge that his movie release profits will almost entirely be donated back to help the preservation of Lighthouses. His dedication and determination to protect these maritime giants is similar to the passion behind the Celebrate Water initiative. Although the majority of those involved in Celebrate Water are not professionals in a “water field” (myself included), we want to be a part of a movement that we are passionate about and doing what we can to help protect the waters of Door County.

There were so many adventures throughout the weekend and it was great to see this group of friends come together to accomplish something of this scope. I want to say thank you to Jake and the crew for letting me tag along and get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making a movie. All of the moments we sat around in the hot sun waiting for the next shot were completely overshadowed by the thought of what will be produced as a product of this hard work. Keep up the great work!

If you want to help support Jake and his ambitions you can donate to their GoFundMe page. You can also find more information about their film at or follow them on Facebook.

FOPPI member Patti Zarling interviewed Jake between work. You can find her article and another perspective on his project on the FOPPI blog here.

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2 comments on “Shedding Light on Plum Island”

  1. Thank you for your wonderful review of your experience! The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands are devoted to restoring these buildings to their earlier grandeur so please do come back from time-to-time and witness our progress. Better yet, come and spend some time with ripping out drywall, painting, scraping and enjoying the natural beauty that Lady Plum has to offer!

    1. Thank you for reading! It was a fun time and all of the FOPPI volunteers looked like they were working hard, especially in that heat.

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The only Great Lake entirely within the U.S. is Lake Michigan.

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