On the Old Mission Peninsula in the mid-1970s, the summers at Haserot Beach were especially hot ones. The beach was a stretch of sugar sand between the Old Mission Resort and the Village of Old Mission. Nestled in the middle of the harbor facing East Bay, it had plenty of time to turn up the heat from dawn to noon.
On one soon to be momentous afternoon, I was sitting on the beach talking to some friends when John King pulled up in his family’s new boat. The Kings had a cottage just down the shore. John now owns and operates King Orchards across the bay near Eastport. He asked if anybody wanted to take a boat ride out to the Buoy. Several of us jumped at the chance, especially after spotting a large beer cooler sweating in the stern.
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In no time, we were rounding Old Mission Point and heading briefly out into Lake Michigan, then turning back into the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay. I remember feeling the sun beating down as we passed the lighthouse, glistening white and shiny on the shore.
In the distance out in the middle of the bay, I could see the buoy coming into view. The buoy was not actually a floating type buoy that you might picture. It had always been called “The Buoy,” but in reality, it was a large man-made concrete island sitting on the end of a rock reef rearing up its ugly head just below the surface.
In this region back in the 1800s, ships were the mainstay of commerce and communication, and more than a few of those ships entering or leaving the bay discovered this reef shortly before they were damaged or sank. This is the reason why by 1870, Mission Point Lighthouse was putting out its warning beacon until 1938, when it was replaced with an automated light station (The Buoy).
As we approached, I could see the platform rising a long way out of the water. On top of the platform was a very tall super-structure consisting of four large cement columns which supported a metal tower with a ladder leading up to a crow’s nest with a beacon light above it. I remember sitting in the boat and thinking, it’s a long way up to that crow’s nest. It’s hard to tell nowadays because the tower was removed years ago.
We pulled alongside, tied up the boat, and clamored up the ladder onto the large concrete platform. As I stood on the whitewashed surface, I turned around, taking in the magnificent view. First facing north, the open expanse of Lake Michigan, and then to my left, the Leelanau Peninsula, Suttons Bay, Lee’s Point, Traverse City at the foot of the bay, Old Mission Peninsula, and Mission Point Lighthouse. Beyond the point, the Michigan shoreline stretched towards Charlevoix and Petoskey.
In no time, the cooler was out of the boat onto the platform and we found ourselves having a grand old time in the middle of the bay on our own private man-made island. Life was good!
It wasn’t long before our attention and our gaze was focused on the crow’s nest at the top of the tower. My lifelong friend Nick Kroupa dared me and my friend Joe Curths to go up there and dive off the top of the tower. Nick knew that Joe and I could at times be incredibly stupid, as we were locked in a years-long competition to outdo each other. He also knew that we would be fighting each other to clamor up that ladder in no time. And, of course, he was right.
I was the first one to the ladder, and as I climbed, I noticed my friends down there getting smaller, their jeers growing fainter. I started to realize this might not be such a good idea. Finally, reaching the top I soon found myself standing on the platform grasping the railing. Yup, I was right. This was in no way, shape or form a good idea. I looked down at my friends, who now resembled a bunch of heckling ants and knew I had reached the point of no return.
I finished the beer I had carried up there by grasping the open tab with my teeth. I then threw the can down at the jeering throng, along with a few expletives, and climbed over the railing. As I stood on the edge of the platform, my arms behind me clutching the railing, I assessed my situation. The reef ran east to west, so I decided to face north, and looking down, I noticed the concrete base was much bigger around than I thought. The chance of me not being able to jump out far enough to clear it was a distinct possibility.
I had never dove off anything higher than a 10-foot cherry-picking ladder set out in the bay, so I wasn’t quite sure what my diving form should be. All I had to go on were cliff diving episodes I’d seen on “Wide World of Sports.” You know, the show that featured Jim McKay saying “the agony of defeat” in the intro, set to a backdrop of a skier severely crashing and burning down a mountainside. I did not want to be that guy.
I decided to crouch down and stand up three times, and on the third, I would jump out as far as I could, tilt my head down as I put my arms up over my head, and turn into this very picturesque ten-point diving position. On the third crouch, I leapt out as hard as I could as if my life depended on it, and instantly could see that it did. As I started to tilt my head down, I noticed time slowing down. I seemed to hover for a moment as I took in the beauty of the clear blue sky and the slightly rippling water sparkling like a thousand diamonds in the sunlight with the green point of the Peninsula thrusting out into it.
As my head tilted down and my arms went over my head, I started to arch over and headed downward. Now the water, the base of the buoy, and my friends came into view as I started to accelerate. The view got bigger and bigger as I went faster and faster. I heard the wind whistling past my ears and the water coming at me like an approaching freight train, and I could not get off the track. I saw the side of the buoy and knew I’d cleared it with several feet to spare.
Now I was a foot from the water. There was a collision, and all went dark. The next thing I knew, I was ten to 15 feet under the water, still heading down. I instinctively arched my body and pulled out of the dive, struggling as hard and as fast as I could to get back to the surface. I broke through to the surface, and as I gulped for air, I saw two of my friends swimming towards me. It seems the general consensus was that I may have knocked myself out.
John King recalls, “I saw as you hit the water that your arms buckled, and your head was taking most of the impact.” Still in the water, I assured my friends that I was ok. But it was quickly becoming clear that I was not. I managed to get back on the buoy, sit down on the cooler, and proceed to join in on torturing my friend Joe to get up there and dive.
He finally said he would, but only feet first. “I’m not that crazy,” he said, nodding in my direction. I told him feet first would be alright and called him a big baby as he laughed and climbed the ladder. He reached the top, stepped over the rail, and stood on the edge with his arms back, just like I had done. For the next ten minutes, he made several attempts to leap, but his hands would not let go of the railing. Despite all the good-natured jeering and heckling, Joe just couldn’t do it. Finally, he meekly climbed back down.
Now, anyone who knew Joe back then knows that for Joe, this was the absolute worst, but he took it in his usual good humor. He turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you did that. You are either the bravest or craziest ******* I’ve ever known.” I laughed and replied, “Maybe just a little bit of both.”
The boat ride back to Haserot was relatively laid back, being both out of adrenaline and beer. I spent my time gloating on being the wildest guy in the boat, while in reality, my head was pounding, my arms ached, and my lower back and the back of my calves were on fire.
Back at Haserot, I got out of the boat, shuffled up on the beach and laid down, putting my hat over my face and pretending to take a nap while my friends did my bragging for me up and down the beach. After a sufficient amount of time had passed, I slunk off the beach and made for home.
I was in agony. It seems my perfect diving form wasn’t so perfect after all. My arms collapsed, my head took most of the impact, and because I was starting to rotate backwards as I hit the water, my lower back and the back of my calves slapped against the water. I was told later that it sounded like a boat oar smacking against the water.
Needless to say, I wasn’t seen at the beach for a few days. When I returned, I found my beach cred had gone up considerably, which I enjoyed the rest of the summer.
So, was it worth it? Well, yeah, but only because I survived. Was it worth risking my life? Absolutely not. Would I do it again? No.
Then why did I do it? I’m not sure. I do know that through my life, this was part of a pattern, and it was just one of the stupid things I’ve done. There’s more. Stay tuned.
Do you have a memory of the buoy or any photos of the original buoy? Let us know in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
A Brief History of the Buoy by Mission Point Lighthouse
From TerryPepper.com: After 67 years of service lighting the Point, plans were underway to eliminate the need for the Mission Point Light. Since the station had been established to mark the shoals off the point, improvements in offshore construction and automated lighthouse illumination had come together to allow the erection of an offshore navigation aid to directly mark the shoal itself.
Thus, in 1938, work began on construction of a pier for the new light in 19 feet of water, approximately 1 7/8 miles northwest of Mission Point. The pier was made up of a circular pier of interlocking steel piling with its center filled with stone and concrete. Atop the pier deck, four concrete cylinders were poured as a foundation for a 36-foot tall skeletal steel pyramid tower.
Topped with a 200 mm lantern, power for the lamp was supplied by a 330 candlepower electric light with its power provided by a rank of batteries. In order to conserve energy, and therefore reduce the frequency at which the batteries required recharging, the light emitted a single white flash every ten seconds. With a focal plane of 52 feet, the new unmanned light was visible for 13 miles at sea.
At some time over the intervening years, the skeleton tower was removed from the crib of the new light, and replaced by a cylindrical D-9 type tower outfitted with a solar powered acrylic optic.