Lake Michigan Adventures-Washington Island, WI

August 2, 2021

          The alarm blared at 7:30 a.m. “Mom we need to get going, the ferry for Washington Island leaves at 10.” I am not a morning person, but quickly got out of the bed excited for another day of Door County exploration.

          “I’ll get us some coffee,” my mom volunteered to grab us some ‘liquid caffeine’ from the continental breakfast as I stuffed snacks, maps, and other essentials into our travel backpacks.

We left the hotel just after eight-thirty bound for the harbor Gill’s Rock, at the top of the peninsula, to catch a ferry to picturesque Washington Island. Sturgeon Bay is roughly an hour from Gills Rock, via Highway 57.  It is a scenic and less developed village, relying on its rugged beauty of rocky bluffs and water access to delight tourists.  Gill’s Rock and neighboring Northport (WI) are harbor towns for the Washington Island ferry launches.

There are several ferry options including the state-run ferry system, but we decided for the longer tourist focused ferry – the Washington Clipper.  It is a thirty-minute scenic ferry across ‘Death’s Door’ with views of neighboring islands and geology.

I was introduced to Washington Island on a HGTV show, ‘Lakefront Bargain Hunt,’ and blown away with images of the serene beauty and crystal blue waters. 

Washington Island is the largest of Door County’s thirty islands with 35 square miles of shoreline, farmland, and community.  The county’s only year-round island community, Washington Island is home to 708 permanent residents several thousand summer inhabitants. 

The Island Clipper is a 65 ft, 149 seat passenger ferry with a lower (indoor deck) and upper open-air deck.

“What a gorgeous view,” I mentioned as enjoyed harbor views as we waited for the ferry launch.  “Gills Rock is at the top of the Door Peninsula, which means we will be crossing the Porte Des Morts today.”

“Death’s Door,” my mom translated the French. “Are you sure this is safe.” She said half-seriously. 

“The captain of the clipper says they have top navigational equipment and safety equipment,” I replied as the ferry left port.  The engine hummed as waves crashed in rhythmic procession.  “We are setting sail for adventure.”

“And we couldn’t have asked for better weather,” my mom noted the clear sky set against the deep cerulean waters of Lake Michigan.   

Leaving the harbor, the captain introduced the crew.

“I’m your captain and we are going to embark across Death’s Door to Washington Island’s Detroit Harbor.  The trip will last around thirty minutes and you’ll have opportunity to experience great views, learn some history and see several area lighthouses.” The captain, a well-spoken brunette proceeded to tell us the history of Death’s Door.

“We are about to cross the infamous Porte des Morts – the Door of Death or Death’s Door.  This narrow strait links Lake Michigan and Green Bay between the northern tip of the DC peninsula and a group of islands known as the Potawatomi Islands.  The passage has always been a dangerous strait, which shoals extending from the neighboring shores creating a risk for running aground.  The area is also prone to unpredictable weather – including powerful gales.  Death’s Door has been the site of hundreds of known shipwrecks. To put it in perspective over 100 large vessels were stranded or damaged in the fall of 1872.  We are crossing atop several wrecks – preserved by fresh water – echoes of a disastrous past.  Fortunately, modern navigational tools keep us safe in these dangerous waters.”

“I read divers come here for training to learn more about how to survey shipwrecks,” I told my mom. “Le Griffon is said to have sunk near Death’s Door in 1679, but has never been found.  At the time it was the largest sailing vessel on the Great Lakes.”

“Fur trappers and missionaries settled this area early,” my mom comparing the timeline with the settlements of historic Charleston and Boston – who were just emerging in the 1600s.

As we crossed ‘Death’s Door,’ we were able to view neighboring Plum and Pilot Islands in the distance.  Both islands are home to beautiful lighthouses – imperative for coastal navigation prior to modern tech like sonar and GPS.

Pilot Island is uninhabited except for its storied lighthouse, which was build in 1858 to guide travelers through Death’s Door.  The lighthouse is now abandoned, a beautiful coastal ghost beacon.  Some local advocates are working to rehab Pilot Island as a history center.  The beacon has so many stories – of love, loss, hope, failure, and perseverance to survive. 

We also enjoyed a view of the Plum Island Range Lights, which were part of the Plum Island United States Life-Saving Station.  Plum Island is now a wildlife refuge for migratory birds.

“Welcome to Detroit Harbor,” the captain announced as the ferry docked on Washington Island. I found out that ‘detroit’ means ‘strait’ in French and why many areas in the Great Lakes are called ‘detroit’ – they are not after Motown. “If you signed up for the Viking Train around the island – your tour guide will meet you by the dock…also you make rent bicycles if you prefer to explore the island on your own.”

“I signed us up for the Viking Train,” I reminded my mom. “It is a 90-minute open tram tour of the island’s top sights.”

Over a dozen ferry passengers boarded the open-air tram, led by island resident and history expert. 

“Welcome to Washington Island, we are so excited you decided to take in the island life,” the upbeat guide kicked off the tour, driving down a thick forest road. “Washington Island historically is the guardian of Death’s door.   However, it’s beauty and natural resources have drawn humans throughout history to explore the island.  Its earliest known name is Wassekiganeso, an Ojibwa name that translates to “his breast is shining” and apparently refers to the glint of the sun that reflects the shimmering limestone cliffs.  Native American tribes lived and used the land for thousands of years, but the dangers deaths door left the island as a bit of enigma.”

“The water looked so peaceful as we passed death’s door,” I noted to my mom. “It reminds me of North Carolina’s Graveyard of the Atlantic – beautiful and dangerous – at least before modern navigation.”

“Jesuit missionaries and French fur traders like Robert La Salle passed through Washington Island in the 1600s.  The island was named after President Washington in 1816, shortly after his death. On June 20, 1850, the Town of Washington was founded at Henry Miner’s house on neighboring Rock Island…Henry Miner moved his settlement to Washington Island in 1867.  He built a small house large enough to accommodate a family of three, his cooper shop, and the island post office.”

“The mail never fails,” I laughed thinking how difficult that postal code would be in the 1860s.

          Lake cottages were hidden behind the thick forest of white pine and birch, as the tram rumbled along the winding road. The tour guide explained that Washington Island used to be a logging center, with the white pine felled for lumber.  The islands dwindling forest stunted the logging industry in the 1950s.

          “We have arrived at the heart of Washington Island’s retail district – The Main Road has several shops, delicious eateries and art gallery.  We’ll stop for 15-minutes for you to explore to do some shopping – if you want to stay longer, I’ll pick you up in 90 minutes during the next tram.”

          Washington Island’s Main Road retail district is helmed by the Mann’s Mercantile.  This hardware and general store provide everything from Washington Island souvenirs, homemade fudge, bike rental and a full-service True Value hardware store.  It has anchored the community for years – ‘womb to tomb’ – we’ve got you covered.

          I loaded up on postcards and we each got hats to help block the sun and wind.  I also got us a few waters and Bavarian cinnamon nuts for a snack.

          Across from Mann’s is the renowned KK Fiske’s, which serves Fresh Lawyers daily.  I thought that was a joke against legal eagles but turns out lawyer is a local fish that is called the poor man’s lobster.  If we had more time (and transportation) I would have ordered a lawyer or broiled whitefish. 

          Not far from Mann’s is another Wisconsin institution – Nelsen’s Hall – a restaurant that serves up scrumptious rib eye and bitters.  Nelsen’s Hall is the largest purveyor of Angostura Bitters in the world (according to Guinness Book of Records).  Tom Nelsen, a Danish immigrant, built the hall in 1899 and it became a popular watering hole, but Prohibition threatened business.  Tom Nelsen applied for an was granted a pharmacist license to dispense bitters as a ‘stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.’  Angostura Bitters is 90-proof so it can knock you off your feet.  The hall remained open during prohibition and is the oldest legally continuously operated tavern in the state of Wisconsin.

          Travelers who take the bitters challenge – one shot – become official members of Bitter’s Club with a certificate of membership.  Over 10,000 certificates are handed out to visitors each year saying: “I am now officially considered a full-fledged Islander and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with other Islanders.”

          Tempting as the bitters sounded, my mom and I decided we better pass – otherwise we’d certainly miss the boat.

          We made a quick trip to art gallery featuring Icelandic and Scandinavian handcrafted wood art and eclectic clothing. Washington Island has a large Scandinavian population, including the oldest Icelandic communities in the United States outside of Iceland itself.  The Scandinavian immigrants brought farming, logging and other skills that enhanced the local economy and quality of life. 

          “All aboard, the Viking Train,” our tour guide rallied the passengers as we started the next leg of the journey. 

          The guide pointed out the Lavender Farm – which is the largest in the Midwest, before continuing to the Icelandic influenced the Stavkirke Church.

          I love visiting churches and taking time to pray and reflect.  During COVID I enjoyed a documentary series on the world’s famed churches and one episode included a tour of Scandinavian churches.  To see an exact replica in Wisconsin was unexpected and rewarding.

          The foundation for the Stavkirke laid in 1991as a project by Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Designed a place for the community to worship and gather – the church was built by local carpenters and volunteer labor.  It is truly a labor of love – born out of faith and a desire to pay homage to the population’s Scandinavian heritage.

          The Stavkirke refers to the use of vertical posts in the church. Stav means pole or support, and there are 12 center staves or masts as well as heavy beamed, ship-like construction throughout the church structure. Viking shipbuilding techniques characterize the all-wood construction: tongue and groove joinery; shaped masts; ship ‘knees or frames; and use of wood trunnels (dowels or tree nails) and heavy wrought iron fastenings.  The Washington Island Stavkirke is patterned after the Borgund, Norway church built in 1150 A.D. 

          As we approached the dark wooden structure, I was overwhelmed by the simplicity and grandeur of the church.  I felt like I was in a faraway world – the detailed craftsmanship and Christian symbols woven into each corner of the structure.  Gorgeous flowers lined the ‘prayer path’ leading up to the entrance.  Inside, glorious folk art influenced icons of Christ lead pilgrims to deeper contemplation. 

          After taking several minutes to pray, we boarded the Viking Train for our next island stop – The Farm Museum, which is a living history museum featuring nine restored farm buildings giving visitors a glimpse into Washington Island life.  This stop was super interesting because it puts in perspective the difficulty of farm life and sacrifices and joys of living in the remoteness of Washington Island.  It is a tribute to the strong community Washington Island has nurtured for over 170 years. 

          The exhibits provide a window into ‘island home life,’ different types of farm equipment and a catalog of industry and rise and fall of varying island industries (potatoes to lumber…).

          Our final stop on the Viking Train was Schoolhouse Beach – a slice of paradise in Lake Michigan.  As the tram headed north on the Main Road, a well-worn white church, which used to be an old schoolhouse emerged on the edge of the road. The tram veered right as lakefront peered through the trees.

          “Welcome to School House Beach, one of only five sandless beaches in the world.  Rocks from the Niagara Escarpment smoothed water and time create the gorgeous pebble beach,” the guide detailed.  “Do not take the rocks, there is a fine – we don’t want to lose our beach.  Leave only footprints.”

As I mentioned before, I fell in love with the idea of visiting Schoolhouse Beach when watching an HGTV show about Washington water.  The images of crystal blue water and smooth round rocks seemed mythical.  The in-person experience did not disappoint.  Schoolhouse Beach is one of the prettiest spots I have ever visited.  The water feels tropical, and the waters invite a sense of calm and curiosity.

For fifteen minutes I stared at the water -the soft ripples caressing the rock- strewn beach. The wind sounding like an island song as the sun kissed my skin.  If this isn’t paradise on earth – I don’t know what is.  The beach was crowded with swimmers – obviously a popular local hangout.  

“This is heavenly,” My mom breathed in deep, enjoying the view.  We hated to leave, but we still had a lot more travel before day’s end.

The Viking Tram returned to Detroit Harbor as the Island Clipper arrived at port; just after 12:30 p.m.

“Perfect timing.”

We survived the return trip across Death’s Door leaving a bit of my heart on Washington Island– my mom and I have fallen in love with Lake Michigan.

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