Dave Cooper’s official gig with the Apostle Island National Lakeshore is archaeologist and cultural-resource manager.
But he’s also a boat captain, a wildland firefighter, a search-and-rescue team member, a diver and youth mentor. He the guy who organizes programs that require cooperation between federal and state agencies, with the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and anyone else he needs to get the job done.
“Dave Cooper’s work shows the impact one person can have not only within a park, but across a whole landscape,” said Apostle Islands Superintendent Lynne Dominy.
Cooper’s efforts to protect the historical and cultural resources of the National Lakeshore have won him the John L. Cotter award for excellence in National Park Service archeology. The award is given annually to honor the career and pioneering contributions of John L. Cotter, whose career of more than 60 years included a number of positions with the National Park Service and provided many contributions to the development of historical archeology in the United States.
Cooper has held a number of important archaeological positions. He founded the Wisconsin underwater archeology program and initiated surveys of historic Great Lakes shipwrecks, helping to locate and protect a number of Lake Superior’s priceless submerged resources. He also helped establish the U.S. Navy’s first underwater archeology program.
For the past 12 years he has worked at the National Lakeshore, working to protect sunken ships and fishing camps, the legacy of Native Americans who have hunted, fished and lived among the islands.
He is perhaps best known for his leadership in restoration efforts for the park’s lighthouses, which today are recognized as the best-preserved collection of lighthouses in the National Park Service, Dominy said.
“It’s a real honor — I’m still kind of stunned. There are some pretty big names in archeology in the Park Service. I feel a little intimidated being in the same company,” Cooper said.
Nevertheless, Cooper is not shy about discussing the importance of the work he does.
“It is a huge part of our state history. For places like Bayfield, Washburn and Ashland, this is what helped to create these towns,” he said. “The Ojibwe who have been here for thousands of years are a maritime people, so the story of the water and the story of the lake is the story of how we all got here, and how people have made a living from the water and the land.”
Right now, Cooper is studying Native American fishing sites, which go back 4,000 to 5,000 years. He is also working on fishing camps from the 1800s into the 1900s and researching other industries like logging and quarrying that also depended on the lake for transportation. He continues to work on the lighthouses of the Apostles.
“They are a big part of Apostle tourism. They are the postcard views that people think of when they think of the area,” he said.
Cooper first became enthused with underwater archeology when as a youth he bought a snorkel and face mask from the local hardware store in Door County where he grew up and began diving on some of the shallow shipwrecks in the region. He developed his strong feelings about preserving archeological sites after seeing sunken ships stripped of their artifacts by recreational divers.
“After a number of years of having this stuff just rusting in garages, it was from the divers that I started hearing, ‘Why don’t we leave this stuff in place, develop the same conservation ethic that hunters and hikers and other people have developed to preserve their sport and resource for the future?’” he said.
Cooper took the message to heart and made it part of his job to preserve the resources so they can tell the story of the region’s history to future generations.
Cooper’s many skills and wide-ranging interests have made him invaluable to the National Lakeshore, said Lakeshore Chief of Resource Management and Public Information Officer Julie Van Stappen.
“Dave has done so much over his whole career. He’s also an exceptional person who goes over and above,” she said.
Van Stappen said Cooper excels at helping people from disparate backgrounds work toward a common purpose, such as his work on the Lakeshore’s cultural resource program.
“Prior to Dave, cultural landscapes didn’t the attention they needed. He’s managed to really get those into good shape by being willing to pull together a lot of people to help with that. But he’s always first and foremost leading by example,” she said.
Van Stappen said that when restoration of the lighthouses began, the Lakeshore was between maintenance chiefs.
“Dave just took that on. He basically worked with the contractors and their representatives to make sure the jobs were done and done well. He’s always willing to jump into things, and does everything exceptionally well,” she said.
Dominy said Cooper is one of a kind.
“He’s been amazing. He’s going to be impossible to replace, but he’s created a foundation for the future, for the next manager who comes in to pick up where he leaves off. He’s created a great legacy here,” Dominy said.