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A Snapshot of Apostle Islands & One of Their Stewards

Special projects leader Tommy Richardson led WUWM's Susan Bence on a tour of Stockton Island. The experience proved to be as much an exploration of a major boardwalk project as it was demonstration of Richardson’s love for his job.

Credit Susan Bence

Richardson says he never dreamed he’d be working here. We’re on a Park Service boat, heading from a dock outside Bayfield to Stockton Island.

He grew up “near” but a world away from the Apostle Islands. Richardson's grandfather farmed outside Ashland; his dad worked at the local paper mill for 30 years.

For his part, Richardson says he wasn’t much for school, and when he had the chance, he struck off on adventure.

He joined and planned to make a career with the U.S. Army Infantry.

"So I had a injury in the service that prevented me from being the infantry any more," Richardson says.

It's an injury Richardson doesn’t want to discuss. He says simply his hands were broken and his back was messed up.

"And this was after 9/11 and I asked for all kinds of positions other than shooting a rifle," Richardson says.

With their next step still up in the air, Richardson and his wife moved back home, and he ended up at Northland College in Ashland.

"It took everything I had to finish Northland.  At this time we were having a baby, our first one, my first semester.  So here we are two kids later. I did finish school, my wife kept me in basically," Richardson says.

Again he never thought it would be with the park service. Richardson said he simply started knocking on doors.  "And  I begged for a job over here," he says.

Richardson says what started as a seasonal position with its small maintenance crew evolved into leading special projects like the one we’re about to see on Stockton Island.

In 2011, the park designed an “Accessibility Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan" to make the popular islands and their popular lighthouses reachable – no matter a visitor’s physical abilities.

On Stockton Island that meant creating a boardwalk connected to group camping platforms.

Richardson led the crew…

"So yes I’m very proud of this place, so you’re going to hear a load," Richardson says.

Credit Susan Bence
Fire pit is built into floating picnic platform.

After slathering ourselves with bug repellent, we head from the beach onto the boardwalk the built by the crew he manages. Richardson says they’ve grown to be a family…..

"Three years ago I got this team.  We advertised the job - we needed 13 personnel, very labor intensive.  We tried to hire local and we only got so many people so we hired outside the area.  We had a guy quit on us because it was too labor intensive.  We were moving boulders.  I've got pictures of it.  It's just an amazing display of teamwork,"  Richardsaon says.

The rest of the crew stuck together.  They tackled the boardwalk first.

"It's a very sensitive area, one of the most sensitive on the islands for artifacts, not to mention the natural resources.  So all this you see is floating.  We couldn't dig anywhere, except for the latrines.  One of the biggest challenges was my boss said 'we're going to put a firepit on a wood boardwalk'," Richardson says.

Richardson googled around trying to come up with a way to make that dream real.  He credits his boss with its final design.

"We put iron gates, we put sand underneath.  This is an ADA fire ring.  This is welded so nobody moves them.  This is only going to be the third season and we'll have to keep an on eye them, (but) we haven't had any issues," Richardson says.

The crew created a meandering boardwalk that flows with its surroundings….one of the camping platforms can hold up to twelve tents.

Credit Susan Bence

Richardson leads to his proudest achievement – a set of specially designed. pristine privies. He opens one door – insisting on a smell test.

"And they keep them cleaner, because when they're nicer, they keep them cleaner.  And we went from six latrines to just two," he says.

As we weave the boardwalk back toward the dock, Richardson makes a not to self.

"I gotta talk to one of my guys he was out here weed eating," Richardson says.

Some of the trimmings lay scattered on the planks. 
"Yeah I gotta talk to him, I’m not very happy about this," Richardson says.

Heading back to the mainland, Richardson reflects on his team. He says simply, "We take care of each other, you know."

But in the same breath admits he runs a pretty tight ship….

"I’ve been told the crew like an infantry squad.  My leadership style might be a little off the wall and different, but it works for me and I'm proud of it," he says.

Richardson gazes out the window as the village of Bayfield comes into focus. He remains in inspection mode, even on the boat. "These dirty windows are unacceptable. Just letting you know," he notes. 

Richardson says he fell into his dream job, and he intends to do it right.

Credit Susan Bence
Stockton Island beach

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.