The 30-ish woman I had met in Los Angeles grinned with nostalgia when I mentioned my recent visit to Wisconsin. So, I got it when she spoke fondly of summers at the family lake house and boating on Lake Michigan.
Stunningly scenic Door County Peninsula is really an island connected to the mainland by bridges across the Sturgeon Bay Canal. Seventy-five miles long and 10 miles wide, it pokes out like a long skinny thumb from the state’s northeastern corner into Lake Michigan. The bay of Green Bay is on the other side. With 298 miles of shoreline, blissful bays, and dense forests, people looking to escape the daily grind make their way to “Cape Cod of the Midwest” -- Door County’s nickname.
Sure enough, when I arrived in the village of Ephraim (founded in 1853) and walked the long driveway to my room inside a white two-story wood-framed house, it felt a lot like New England -- a swing seat on the porch outside my window, the woods behind me, Adirondack chairs, and Eagle Harbor across the street.
Door Peninsula is the state’s largest county -- and a world unto its own. It’s no wonder the wilderness and charming village life here attracts visitors from around the world.
Wisconsin conjures up cheese and football to most non-Wisconsinites, but I fell hook, line and sinker for Door County’s remarkable shipwreck history, Scandinavian influences and glorious outdoors.
Why, then, was this paradise first named Death’s Door -- or Portes des Mortes, French for Door of the Dead?
According to legend, the Ho-Chunk and Potowatomi tribes and French seafarers perished while crossing the treacherous currents between the peninsula and Washington Island becoming a “watery grave” earning its dark moniker. But as tourism increased, the morbid “D” word was dropped. Today, sunken schooners resting in peace at the bottom of the freshwater lake are an homage to Door County’s maritime legacy.
On an adventurous high-speed boat tour, I held onto my hat as Captain Matt Olsen, proprietor of Door County Adventure Rafting, guided our group of four around Bailey’s Harbor in an inflatable rigid boat (like what Navy Seals use). Equal parts thrill ride and educational tour, we took in lakeside views of the peninsula, pricey cottages, learned about a once-thriving fishing industry, and cruised around tiny islands with working 19th-century lighthouses. Door County’s 11 lighthouses comprise the largest collection of guiding lights on the Great Lakes.
It’s not every day that we visit shipwreck sites on a lake. After a high-gear adrenaline rush in open waters, Olson down-shifted to motor around shoals to view wreckage that had worked its way to shallow banks.
“This wooden beam is just a small piece from any number of larger boats that sank miles away,” explained Olsen – some of the mystique that lures both sport divers and academics to Door County. “Marine archeologists from the University of Wisconsin dive the wrecks and map them out to protect and preserve them.”
At the Door County Maritime Museum these findings, including shipwreck maps, artifacts, and the area’s shipbuilding history with the chance to explore every inch of the legendary Tug John Purves built in 1919 – paints the story of maritime commerce around the Great Lakes that connects to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The peninsula’s earliest settlers from Sweden and Norway were also lured to the peninsula because its lush landscapes, rugged coastline, abundant fishing and logging were reminders of the homeland.
That explains the Scandinavian traditions and cuisine around Door County – from “Midsommar” festival in June celebrating the arrival of summer, and outdoor fish boils on the lake at Rowley’s Bay waterfront resort where whitefish and potatoes boil in a giant cauldron on an open fire – the original group meal that used to feed lumberjacks and fishermen.
Architecture is no exception. Like the authentic Norwegian log building housing Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. Made with Norwegian yellow pine, rosemaling (delicate floral painting), and a sod rooftop (look for grazing goats!), it was constructed in Norway, disassembled for transport to Door County, then rebuilt.
The iconic log building, including a “butik” (Scandinavian gift shop) has become a beloved Door County attraction. And my taste buds danced with delight at the first bite of Swedish pancakes folded like linen napkins, fresh lingonberries and exquisite chunks of pickled herring.
Door County’s Peninsula State Park is the “crown jewel” of the state park system. Its somewhat-rounded shape jutting out into Green Bay reminded me of British Columbia’s Stanley Park – but four times bigger (over 3,700 square acres). It’s a one-stop outdoor destination with hiking, bicycling, camping, a golf course, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, famous Nicolet Bay Beach, and the renowned open-air Northern Sky Theater.
I could hear a pin drop bicycling through the quiet forest, that is, until a few inclines challenged my cardio fitness. On another night I returned to the depths of the forest and under a starry sky joined a full house for opening night of “Boxcar,” a heartwarming Wisconsin story of a boy and a vagabond.
Another reminder of Door County’s extraordinary place on the planet is The Ridges Sanctuary, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1937. This sandy landscape of crescent-shaped ridges and boreal forest is home to the most biologically diverse ecosystem in Wisconsin. Rare and endangered insects and flora thrive here, including the Hines Emerald Dragonfly and indigenous orchids that caught the eye of the Smithsonian Institute, which now partners with The Ridges in a continent-wide orchids study.
“Our goal is not gardening or farming…we don’t water or weed,” said Ridges board member Jane Whitney, as we “tramped” underneath the forest canopy through marshes and bogs on a raised meandering boardwalk (wheelchair- and stroller-friendly) to the backdrop of soothing bird calls, a turtle bobbing above the lily pads, and a non-poisonous snake unaffected by our presence. “The Ridges’ mission,” she said, “… is long-term research and education.”
Whitney’s stories about The Ridges Sanctuary thoroughly captivated me -- but then again, everything else I discovered around Door County Peninsula was anything but ordinary.
WHEN YOU GO:
Door County Visitor Bureau: www.doorcounty.com
Door County Maritime Museum: www.dcmm.org
Door County Adventure Rafting: www.doorcountyadventurerafting.com
The Ridges Sanctuary: www.ridgessanctuary.org
My accommodation: Eagle Harbor Inn, www.eagleharbor.com
Gallery 1 (3 images)
Gallery 2 (8 images)