Paradise at Death's Door

A family's history and a history of Washington Island, WI.

Paradise at Death's Door
A family's history and a history of Washington Island, WI.

After hours of driving up the Door County peninsula, you’re relieved to stretch your legs as the lake's chill breeze spits droplets of water onto your face.  You lean over edge of the ferry destined for Washington Island, WI. Your eyes follow the giant, undulating waves of Lake Michigan as it seemingly tries to climb its way on board, only to be opposed by the ferry’s powerful wake. The other tourists on the boat snap away pictures of the waterscape, the boat, the sky, and the faraway islands pointed out by your captain, who narrates their histories with scripted interest. 

The Ferry

The Ferry

The captain points out one island in particular which appears to be only a square brick house sitting on top of the water. It’s the Pilot Island Lighthouse, the captain says, and though it is currently overrun by a flock of cormorants, it was once one of the key lighthouses which made safe passage to Washington Island possible over Death’s Door, the strait between Lake Michigan and Green Bay notorious for unexpectedly taking ships and sailors beneath its waters.

Pilot Island Lighthouse

Pilot Island Lighthouse

The name, the captain continues, sometimes known as Porte des Morts, from a disastrous battle between the Winnebago and Potawatomi tribes, according to reports given by the Native Americans to area fishermen in the 1840s. Disputing over territory on what is now Washington Island, the Potawatomi prepared a defense against the invading Winnebago, who were reluctant to share the island.

While Potawatomi attempted to warn villages via signal fire, the Winnebago attacked them by surprised, which also resulted in their own losses. Ultimately, everyone died, and ever since lake-farers tales of sudden inclement weather have haunted Door County, which derives its own namesake from the strait.

Though the situation certainly doesn’t apply to you, when you arrive at the docks, you nonetheless remember the captain’s tale as the passengers maneuver their cars from the boat to dry land. You back out your car with caution appropriate to being forced to drive backwards over the edge of the massive boat and to the gravelly dock, where cars that have made land drive busily in all directions. For a few terrifying seconds, you realize one edge of your car is on shore and the other on the boat, and you feel the bob of the boat rock the front end of your car up and down. You press a little harder on the gas, and before you know it, you’ve landed at your destination.

Washington Island

Washington Island

Depending on your plans, you may either speed off quickly to claim your room at the local bed and breakfast, or delay the arduous task of setting up cam p for the rest of the day. No matter your choice, you soon after go about doing what you set out to: explore. You’ve heard of Washington Island from friends, relatives, or co-workers who may have stayed only a day or have vacationed here for decades. You start with the most obvious; what’s right in front of you.

Like many small towns in rural Wisconsin, most shops on the island are, in a word, quaint. Some feature topical souvenirs and others Norwegian décor, while others feature stereotypical cabin fare and the dazzling metallurgy of local artists. Throughout your stay you see a lot of local art on Washington Island, and if you’re among the more shrewd, you figure it may have something to do with creative locals of the 660 year-round population being stuck to the five miles wide, island miles long. As you wind your way through the shops, you get the impression that people left alone to their thoughts tend to be more gifted to their creative output.

While you try to make your way towards the place where you’ve chosen to sleep that night, you pass by several houses with signs indicating an artist in residence, a local brewery, or one of several alpaca farms, where you can buy various things made from the strange mammals.

Growing tired of roadside sightseeing, you pull over along one of these not-quite-hidden gems nestled along the verdant roadside. Maybe you stopped at the pugnaciously red stable-turned-coffeehouse slash art gallery called The Red Cup Cafe, whose owner will gladly have a passionate conversation with you about how annoying tourists usually are that time of year. While this chat may be mildly uncomfortable, you’re also sipping the best Chai tea you’ve ever had in your life.

Maybe you pull along instead to the shack on the opposite side of the island, where you feast upon a proper Irish meal of steak and potatoes, while gazing up at the incredible art decorating the ceiling. The patrons around you talk casually of Schoolhouse Beach, where you decide to visit next on your island journey.

You drive about two minutes west until you happen upon an unassuming sign indicating ‘Schoolhouse Beach.’ When you pull in, you get the vague sense that the car paths are deliberately narrow and winding, but somehow fit your vehicle between two pines whose branches hang low over your car. You hear waves lapping on the shore, and quickly jump into your swimming suit while no one is in sight.

Schoolhouse Beach

Schoolhouse Beach

If you’re lucky, it’s sunset. As you make your way towards the shore, you spot several signs explaining the beach’s history. A geological marvel, the beach is lined with gleaming limestone rocks, apparently only one of few in the entire world. As you approach the short you are dazzled by the dancing light of the pink sky reflecting on the indigo water. Stepping carefully between the rounded stones along the beach, you notice a raft about twenty feet from shore which seems to be inviting you.

You rush headlong into the water, its cold embrace passing right through your skin and into your bones. Coming up for air, you realize it’s not as bad as you thought, and maybe twirl yourself a bit in the lapping water. As the waves carry you up and down, you dive back underneath, and open your eyes. You see not darkness, but thousands upon thousands of white rocks colored dark orange by the setting sun, forty feet below you. As you climb up upon the gently-rocking raft, you remind yourself to get up early for a morning swim. As the sky cycles through an array of impossible colors, you watch the fading light shine upon the water.

The next day, you wake up, trying to remember why your surroundings are so unfamiliar. Depending upon the situation, you either sigh or groan, with either contentment or anxiety, as you either try to bury yourself underneath the quilted covers of your cushy bed or realize that your inflatable mattress once again lost air during the night, and the pain you feel on your back is most likely from the gravelly surface beneath your tent.

If you stayed at a bed and breakfast, you try to arrange your appearance to be appropriate enough to present to your hostess and the other strangers who shared the building where you slept. When you arrive downstairs, you realize that bed robes aren’t quite the proper attire for the setting, as early bird tourists give you sideways glances. At first, you feel a bit self-conscious, but your anxiety could be annulled by the appearance of the hostess, smiling and ready to take your order when you’re ready. At her recommendation, you order a stack of blueberry pancakes, which you plan to accordingly drown in blueberry maple syrup. As more strangers enter the restaurant, you begin less and less as if you are wearing a bed robe at all.

If you stayed at a campground, you lay a few more minutes on the stony ground, trying to will some sense of comfortable sleep into your body. As you make your way out of your tent, chill streams of air rush over your exposed skin, and you decide to put a jacket over your pajamas. You decide to make a breakfast over a campfire, because you were intelligent enough to bring bacon via a lunch cooler. You congratulate yourself as you zip open the tent and let the cool embrace of morning envelope you.

You remember that your campground is in a forest, where the birds sings and the glittering leaves of white poplars whisper at the slightest provocation of the wind. You inhale, and recognize the scent of lake in the air. You give yourself a moment to take it all in. Lucky enough to have some leftover firewood from the last campers, you arrange pieces into a small pyre, and patiently raise the fire into a conversational flame.

You rummage through your bags to find that foldable frying pan, surely one of the best investments you’ve ever made, grease it up with pam and pat down a space for it on the fire. You find that cooler and lay your bacon on that sizzling frying pan as if you were tucking a child into bed, only you put on as many pieces as you can fit into that circular space. Taking in a deep waft of forest air and cooking breakfast, you lean back in your camper’s chair and let the morning sunlight soothe the hurt of last night’s rocky cradle.

Having finished your breakfast in record time, you ask around to see if there’s any particular sights often overlooked by tourists. You’re directed to a shelf of pamphlets, but more specifically to one in the top right corner. ‘Rock Island National Park.’ Sounds interesting, you say, and within ten minutes you’re driving along the rural roads towards the island’s northern edge.

Taking an even smaller ferry, called Karfi, to the remote island, you and a few brave passengers are almost made seasick by the waves’ relentless power. Facetiously, you wonder if you’ll be the latest casualty of the legendary Death’s Door. As you approach Rock Island, your attempts to humor yourself are silenced by the great silhouette of what appears to be a castle in the distance. Once again, your captain explains.

The stone Viking boathouse, the captain says, was built by inventor Chester H. Thordarson, who didn’t live to see his magnificent creation finished. Built from the stones on schoolhouse beach, he it towers above you as you approach the shore.

Viking Boathouse

Viking Boathouse

The inside of the boathouse is magnificent, old, and mysterious , with twenty foot long wooden tables stretching between a gaping fireplace and one of the largest windows you’ve ever seen. You can only imagine the kind of parties you could host with such a venue.

As you explore other parts of the island, you discover yet another microcosm of activity, with cyclist, hikers, fishers, and even hunters prowling the island for a sense of adventure. As you make your way back to your point of arrival, however, you are distracted by White Sands Beach, which, like its name indicated, is draped in an elegant white befitting a wedding gown.

After spending a day at Rock Island, you arrive back at the place where you slept the night before. But, tossing and turning, you are overcome with the urge to go outside, perhaps just to get some fresh air.

The fresh air is nice, but the view far surpasses it. As you lay down upon the sparse grass, you gaze into the depthless indigo blanket above. Old tales and primeval myths describe the sky as a giant blanket, tent, or spherical shell keeping us from the heavens but in this moment you realize how preposterous these illusions are, to have ever dared to describe the vision of the unknown stretching above you.

As you gaze into the ancient, nameless stars, you see, and you feel how small you are, how your existence is a part of an entire universe where you are more insignificant to your world than a single cell is to your body. It dawns upon you that this world, this universe, this reality, will continue to exist regardless of your life and will continue to do so for infinite eons long after the last molecule that was evidence of your being decays into mere atoms.

You might fall asleep outside, or you might wake up in your bed, thinking of it as a particularly vivid dream. You repeat your morning schedule, only with a bit more familiarity, a bit more warmth shown towards the faces you encounter again. It’s a small world after all.

When you depart the island, you know that a part of you has been left behind, caught a net of ephemeral moments woven between one place and the next.