Washington Island’s Wonders Await
Wisconsin has its own island paradise that is at its absolute heavenly prime each July. Washington Island is breathtakingly beautiful, full of historic charm, and an adventure for little explorers. Last summer I took a day trip with my 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
Washington Island sits just five miles off the tip of Door County, a short ferry ride across a strait known as Death’s Door, site of countless shipwrecks. Now passage is safe and smooth, thanks to the Washington Island Ferry Line.
The island’s lavender fields are a draw for many July visitors. I encourage driving with the windows down to catch the calming fragrance as the picturesque fields are in peak bloom this month. Vibrant purple flowers coupled with the clean, uplifting fragrance can’t be beat.
We boarded the first ferry of the day—anyone with children will know that young kids do not sleep in with the excitement of being on vacation. Visitors are encouraged to bring their vehicles to explore the more than 100 miles of paved roads on the island. The other early birds on our ferry were delivery trucks taking provisions to the island. For my kids, the ferry ride was an adventure in itself, even more so by seeing our family minivan sandwiched in by large trucks.
A signature stop on anyone’s Washington Island adventure must include Schoolhouse Beach. Located on the north shore of the island, this is not your typical toes-in-the-sand kind of beach. Sandcastles will have to wait—this beach is covered in smooth, limestone rocks. Washed ashore by the clear water of Washington Harbor, these rocks make this beach one of only five similar sandless beaches in the world.
Thousands of these smooth stones from the Niagara Escarpment have washed ashore and been polished smooth by the waves. The escarpment is a geological formation that runs from Wisconsin to New York, most notably at Niagara Falls.
Don’t expect to leave with a souvenir rock; removing the signature rocks will result in a hefty fine. Enjoy them while you are there, though. My kids were endlessly entertained building cairns, or “skyscraper cities” decorated with bird feather “trees.”
Schoolhouse beach has a picnic area, a perfect lunch stop.
Located just south of Schoolhouse Beach is Washington Island’s Stavkirke church. Modeled after churches in ancient Scandinavia, this Stavkirke was built mostly by island volunteers in the 1990s. Beautiful gardens surround the church and make the structure even more picturesque. Carved wooden dragons, another nod to the island’s Scandinavian heritage and a favorite of my kids, adorn the roof.
Once inside, the craftsmanship really shines. A tribute to one of the key players in building the church on the island, the late Dale Bjarnarson, is visible overhead. His tool belt hangs from a beam, a memorial to his efforts.
The isle is served by Wisconsin’s smallest electric co-op, Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Inc. With just more than 1,000 members, the co-op, like the island, is a testament of the can-do attitude of most islanders. The staff of just four employees, led by Robert Cornell, the co-op’s manager, runs a tight ship. When the power goes out, it is “all hands on deck.” Cornell, Office Manager Mary Andersen, and Linemen Don Johnson and Mike Jorgenson (and at times even board members and the manager’s wife, Patty) head out the door to restore it.
“Our story started out with cooperation among cooperatives,” said Cornell, “Our first diesel generator came from Waushara Electric Co-op (now Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative).”
Cornell urges folks to consider visiting the island, even in the off-season.
“We have more winter visitors than ever before for activities like ice fishing and cross country skiing,” said Cornell. He advises to plan ahead. The ferry runs on a more limited schedule in the off season.
“The island’s motto since the ’50s has been ‘North of the tension line,’ ” said Cornell.
I can attest to that, even with two kids in tow.—Dana Kelroy
Washington Island is located off the Door County Peninsula. For more information, call the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce at 920-847-2179 or visit washingtonisland.com.