Balancing the tripod and camera on my shoulder, I carefully climbed along Lake Michigan’s steep and rugged shoreline searching for a rock ledge flat and wide enough to set up for a sunrise over the great lake. A continual onslaught of powerful waves violently crashed against the vertical expanse of rock several feet below me. Frequently, the water impact resulted in a tall fountain of spray that kept the rock surface wet where I knelt behind the tripod. As soon as I set up to shoot, kinetic energy released from a rogue wave brought a torrential splash over the ledge. My reflexes worked well to move the camera back fast enough to avoid drenching the electronics. This was the lake I wanted to photograph more than anything and it was not making it easy.
The day before, we drove over 300 miles from the northwest corner of Illinois to Baileys Grove Campground in Baileys Harbor, Door County. Door County comprises the upper region of Green Bay Peninsula that is surrounded by Green Bay on the west side and Lake Michigan on the east side. One year prior, we stayed in Michigan where I photographed from its eastern shoreline. This time on the Wisconsin side, if I could throw a rock far enough across the lake, it would have landed in almost the same spot where I photographed a year ago from a sandy beach.
Much of Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline within the state of Michigan is characterized by miles of gentle sand dunes that are created by the prevailing westerly winds. In stark contrast, Wisconsin’s western shoreline is characterized by tall rocky bluffs and rugged cliffs. It is the western portion of the Niagara Escarpment which is most prominent in Green Bay Peninsula. The escarpment rises from the shores of Lake Michigan and drops sharply into Green Bay. On a ledge, the peninsula benefits from the constant air movement from the surrounding waters which helps maintain moderate temperatures in the summer. Indeed, during our week-long stay in August, we enjoyed temperatures that never fell out of the 60 to 75 degree range. The warmer air also provides a longer growing season, perfect for the vineyards and vegetable farms, which we also enjoyed.
The challenging Lake Michigan shoreline cannot be described without mentioning how Door County got its name. Directly above the top of Door County lays Washington Island. Separating the island from the peninsula is a mere 7 miles of important navigational passage that connects Lake Michigan to Green Bay. Appropriately referred to as “Death’s Door”, it is littered with shipwrecks. In 1881, the dangers of this formidable, yet important shipping route led to the construction of a by-pass canal that cuts through the peninsula about 40 miles south of the point.
Door County has a rich Native American and European/French Canadian settlers’ history, but what caught our attention (thanks to the Ephraim Historical Foundation) was the charming bayside community of Ephraim. A few weeks earlier, we were introduced to the intriguing history of Moravian immigrants that settled in Winston-Salem, NC. While the southern community originated from Germany, Ephraim was founded in 1853 by a group of Norwegian Moravians led by the Reverend Andreas Iverson. On the shores of Green Bay, Ephraim soon became a busy shipping point as well as a tourist attraction. By the end of the 1800s, Ephraim’s main source of income was through tourism as hotels and businesses as well as the sale of summer homes attracted summer vacationers.
The Ephraim Historical Foundation has a wonderful walking tour of museums that can be visited within a day. It includes The Iverson House (the oldest framed house in Door County) and the Goodletson cabin which has an interesting history. The Goodletson home was built on Eagle (Now Horseshoe) Island in 1855 but in 1860, the family decided to move to Ephraim. Life was much more difficult back then compared to now, and consequently, people must have put a fair amount of time and energy into figuring out how to make life easier and affordable. Which got me asking the question, if you were living on an island and wanted to move to the mainland several miles away, which would be the most viable solution – wait until winter and drag the cabin across the ice or sail over to the mainland during summer and build a new cabin? Be it for the cost or the work involved in cabin building, the Goodletson family figured out that dragging their home across ice was the best solution. After setting it up in Ephraim, it remained in place for over a hundred years. Now, the original cabin can be visited on Moravia Street, next to the Pioneer Schoolhouse Museum.
When visiting a new place, some things must be experienced and quite often that experience involves food. Vivian and I tend to reserve our measly restaurant budget for exceptional places that represent a location’s unique culture. This time, it was the infamous Fish Boil which is much more than a meal – it is a show. Locals warned us to plan ahead and make our reservations several days in advance, so we reserved a spot at the White Gull Inn five days prior.
We can thank the Scandinavian immigrants for fish boil. Back in the day, it was an economical way to feed large groups of fishermen and lumberjack. Today, the fish boil is more than just a meal, it’s a spectacle. You are asked to arrive 30 minutes prior to being served so that you can experience the show of cooking the meal. It goes something like this. You and about 30 others stand around a large black kettle hanging over a fire behind the restaurant waiting for the water to boil. As soon as the water begins to boil, the fish boiler lowers wire baskets filled with potatoes into the water. Shortly after that, small cuts of whitefish are added. The only seasoning is salt and for every 3 gallons of water, there is a pound of salt in the boiling water. After about 10 minutes, the oils boil to the top. At that moment, the short-lived spectacle begins as the fish boiler pours kerosene onto the fire. With huge flames engulfing the kettle, water quickly boils over leaving behind the salted and cooked potatoes and fish. The fish chunks remain firm and believe it or not, they are tasty. It’s an all-you-can-eat meal topped with homemade cherry pie. Classic Door County cuisine.
Aside from the fish boil, small town charm, farmers markets and history museums, Door County has a variety of wilderness areas to explore – coastal wetlands, forests, meadows and rock ridges. Consequently, we filled our time with hiking and kayaking. Although the temperatures were ideal for outdoor activities, unusual northeasterly winds made the original idea of kayaking along the cliffs of Lake Michigan less appealing. Instead, we opted to take our inflatable kayak up to the Mink River, protected waters off Rowley Bay. A calm and casual day of paddling through a marshy area made us feel like we were back in Florida. Only a few hours earlier, I was standing on a precarious rock ledge trying to protect myself from the cold wet spray of great lake water. Tomorrow, we would hike through maple and birch forests in search of wild turkeys and a lone white pine. Door County packs it all in during the summer months.
As with the driftless area of Iowa, we did not want to leave Door County. As time goes on, we look back on the places we have visited and a few of them, like Door County have left deep impressions on us. I will always remember Door County for the peacefulness we experienced through its charming coastal towns, small farms, lack of noise (no trains!), lack of traffic (driving miles on a back road without seeing another vehicle), and near perfect weather conditions. In our short time, Door County was on its best behavior.
On the final morning of our visit, I walked back to the Cave Point parking lot after two hours of negotiating water spray and rocky ledges to photograph Door County’s “most iconic natural landscape” one last time. For the past week, it was only during my photo shoots at Cave Point that I felt the discomforts of cold wetness that reminded me of the harsh winters that come soon after the fair-weather tourists leave. I wondered if we would ever see this place in the winter. On second thought, I prefer my current impression of Door County to last a very long time.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
Specific to Wisconsin, prepare to pay for a yearly state park pass. We made reservations at Harrington Beach State Park near Milwaukee and paid for it online. Upon arrival, we learned that out-of-state visitors must pay a daily park fee of $11 ($44 for our 4-day camping stay). So, we opted to buy the yearly pass with the intention of staying at another state park. The take-home message here is, research each state and budget accordingly, and not only for camping at state parks but for day visits as well.