Door County in the Midwest state of Wisconsin is a 75-mile long finger of land jutting out into the ocean-like expanse of Lake Michigan and filled with forests, sand dunes and beaches. It’s 245 miles north of Chicago and around 180 miles south of the Canada border so don’t expect to see a cactus!
It’s proper, small-town America, where the fast roads and boxy-chain stores haven’t spoiled the charm of the tiny communities founded by Scandinavian settlers. Most businesses, including accommodation, are locally owned. Jon Jarosh of Door County Chamber of Commerce knows that’s a selling point. “98% of lodging is within family run places that you won’t find anywhere else. That range runs from full-service resorts to B&Bs and cottages or home rentals.”
I headed to the northern tip of Door County to visit somewhere with even fewer influences from corporate America. I was heading to Washington Island and the journey itself was full of photo opportunities. During the last few miles of the drive, Highway 42’s two lanes zigzag through dense forest. It’s remarkable and if you can stop for pictures, do it. Try and snap another vehicle slaloming between the trees!
I was glad to sit inside the warm waiting area at the North Port Ferry Terminal where the vessel docked. It was freezing. I visited in October, at the end of the short season. The ferry operates two scheduled trips every day, all year around, but there are up to 25 runs a day in the summer and more at the weekends when Washington Island can experience 6,000 visitors.
The 1989-built MV Washington was made for these waters, created by shipbuilders down in Sturgeon Bay, 45-mins drive to the south. The 100-foot long ferry travels at 9 knots and took 30 minutes to cross the 5 miles of Lake Michigan to reach Washington Island. It seemed nearer from the shore. This flat, wooded rock is home to 700 residents year-round, although a few leave in the winter.
On arrival I was met by Hoyt Purinton, President of the family-owned Washington Island Ferry Line. He’s the fourth generation of islander to take a senior role in the company and he was full of pride for his lifeline service. Now in its 75th year, the Washington Island Ferry operates all year around and cancelled just 14 of their 4,000 scheduled trips in 2015 due to weather. They use icebreakers to cut through the frozen lake in winter.
Hoyt, like most islanders, has Scandinavian roots. He’s tall and fair-haired and as we chatted about the islands’ heritage, the names he reeled off all hailed from Nordic nations. At the side of the dock, the flags of the five Scandinavian countries fluttered in the breeze next to the Stars and Stripes.
Hoyt told me that tourism has replaced fishing and farming as the biggest economic force. There’s still some agriculture and a lavender farm now operates on the island. Hoyt’s company offers guided island tours on the Cherry Train, a road vehicle with open carriages that makes a two-hour trip around the islands’ circular lane.
It was a bit chilly. Driver and commentator Terry Moore sensed this from her customers, shivering in their train seats near the dockside pick-up. She advised us, “This is the coldest part of the island.” And then she offered out ‘blankies’ – thick fleeces to drape over our knees. I gratefully accepted the offer!
Terry is from Milwaukee on the mainland but she has been resident on the island for 23 years. Unusually for an island, she says she felt completely accepted within a year of her residency. Terry told me Washington Island is a safe place where locals leave their keys in their vehicles and most residents know each other.
We called into the first stop, Ken Koyen’s bar and restaurant, called KK Fiske – the Danish for fish. Ken has fished for 44 years and his speciality is burbot – a kind of freshwater cod. Locals call this fish a ‘lawyer,’ joked Ken, “because its heart is in its ass.” The window sign offering ‘Fresh Lawyers’ is popular with visiting legal professionals. The fish is prepared and boiled or deep-fried. You can have Death’s Door lawyer linguine or lawyer kebabs if you want.
Ken’s bar is a reassembled granary building, which he relocated from 90 miles away. The islanders ‘don’t throw anything out’ sensibility prevails here and the actual bar is made from the steps that led Ken and his mother before him up to the former schoolhouse.
It was time to board the Cherry train again and I was pleased to take a warming cup of Ken’s coffee with me as we headed towards School House Beach. The shoreline of this pine-surrounded bay is filled with round, white, polished rocks. “It’s a glacial limestone beach. It’s one type and not mixed like you’d find at most beaches,” boomed Terry. “This is one of only five in the world. The other beaches are in Norway, Sweden, France and Brazil.”
The uniformity of the rocks made them appear artificial. “People have asked whether they are fake, but they are real,” said Terry. And the entire beach is protected. Signs tell visitors that Washington Island has a bylaw that fines pebble pinchers $250 a rock!
Next, we visited one of the island’s highlights – the timber Stavkirke Church, set in woodland. It’s tall, unpainted and the roof rises up in stages, so the building’s levels resemble a tiered wedding cake. The design hails from the Viking period and is a replica of one in Norway, which was built in 1120. A local had tried to buy one of the Norwegian originals and have it shipped over but since there are only 38 left, he soon realised that wasn’t going to happen. So work to build Washington Island’s own copy began in 1991. Locals used photos to create a three-quarter sized version from island-grown cedar. They built a barn on the site and the church was formed inside that to protect it from the elements.
Our tour also took in the Farm Museum. They’ve relocated some of the original settlers’ homes to the site and filled the buildings with traditional furnishings and farm implements. The still caught my attention – a Mr Petersen used it to make moonshine during the prohibition!
Like many islands, there seems to be a love for a drop of the strong stuff amongst the locals. Hoyt told me that early residents had found a loophole, which meant that an island bar could remain open during the prohibition years. It was all down to Angostura Bitters. The owner made an argument that they could be used as a stomach tonic because of their vitamin B content, benefitting the local fishermen, so a special exemption was made for Washington Island. Hoyt added, “On an island you also knew when the people enforcing prohibition were arriving. So other things might have been sold…”
Terry recounted to me some of the dumb questions and comments she’s received over her years of driving the train. One guest told her that, “the relaxing island offered the perfect place to decompose.” Another visitor asked which of the four public beaches was nearest to the water.
Pretty Washington Island is well worth a trip and the Cherry Tour is a must. You can arrange your journey at Wisferry.com.
To travel to Washington Island, fly to Chicago and hire a car for the 4-hour drive to the ferry port in Door County, Wisconsin. You’ll need your own vehicle because public transport on the peninsular is poor. You can get a £400 return on BA if you go through Dublin.