An Open Door
Step into Door County Wisconsin’s “thumb” where history, beautiful landscapes, and awesome food make it worth the visit.
Wisconsin is known for many things, and I’m not only referring to “cheese heads” and the Green Bay Packers. It’s “America’s Dairyland,” home of the first ice cream sundae. It also has one of four spots that marks the center of the globe—the intersection of the 45th parallel of latitude North and the 90th meridian of longitude West is halfway between the geographical north pole and the equator as well as between the Prime Meridian and the 180th meridian.
Fun facts, indeed, but Wisconsin is also known for its diverse ecosystem, from prairie and grasslands to temperate forests, wetlands, and coastal environments. There’s also plenty of water, as the state has more than 1,000 miles of coastline along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, 43,000 miles of rivers, and more than 15,000 lakes. One of the most ecologically rich and diverse environments is found on the Door Peninsula.
Carved out by glaciers, the Door Peninsula (often described by Wisconsinites as “the thumb” in the state’s shape), is part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological occurrence, simply speaking, formed by erosion that creates a ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a steep cliff on the other. The Door Peninsula is a section of that ridge with exposed dolomite rock cliffs 200-250 feet high coming off a sloping terrain.
The soils are shallow in the northern half and richen toward the south where most farmland exists, but there’s an abundant variety of woodlands, plants, and wildlife everywhere. There’s a white cedar tree on the west side escarpment that is more than 600 years old. More than 300 bird species, and white-tail deer, black bears, and more are seen on the peninsula.
Fishing is a staple in the waters surrounding the peninsula with whitefish being the primary catch for the commercial fishing industry, but trout, sturgeon, bass, salmon, walleye, and northern pike swim the waters. Montmorency cherries are a big crop, and the Ridges Sanctuary off Baileys Harbor on the Lake Michigan side is home to 25 species of orchids. The Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchid blooms freely around the peninsula and is Door County’s official flower.
Death’s Door and the Islands
Thirty-five islands sit off Door County peninsula as the escarpment runs up toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but only Washington Island is large enough to support a year-round community. Residents and visitors can take the car ferry across “Death’s Door,” the five-mile passage between the tip of the peninsula and the island, or transit via their own boat. Kaps Marina is located next to the ferry terminal and accommodates boats to 60 feet (with one spot able to handle a 100-footer), has fuel, power, and general services, including a restaurant. On the other side of Detroit Harbor is the Shipyard Island Marina that also offers service and repairs.
More than 275 shipwrecks happened in the waters around the peninsula
Death’s Door is the primary navigational passage from Lake Michigan to Green Bay and has many stories to tell. Legends speak of Potawatomi and Winnegabo Indians losing life when the weather turned bad, capsizing canoes and stranding some on the rocky shores which led to the designation Porte des Morts (Gate of the Dead) by French explorers and later to Death’s Door, of which the Door Peninsula got its name. The strait became more well-known and documented for its rough waters that wreaked havoc during the early shipping days, especially with sailing ships. More than 275 shipwrecks happened in the waters around the peninsula, and in 1881, the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was built to avoid the passage.
The Door County Maritime Museum has three locations to keep the shipping history in the present. In the Sturgeon Bay location, visitors get the chance to steer a freighter through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, albeit via a life-size wheelhouse with a virtual screen.
Recreation in Door County, Wisconsin
Door County is full of fun during every season. From cross-country skiing in the winter to golf in the summer, there’s plenty to do, including a summertime experience like no other: fish boils. The tradition started back with the Scandinavian settlers as a way to feed large groups. The basic process of boiling salted water, potatoes, and onions in a large pot over an open fire before adding Lake Michigan whitefish and “boiling over” the fish oil before serving is a sight to see.
There are five state parks and 19 county parks in Door County. Dolomite/limestone ledges and caves are highlights at Cave Point County Park. The lighthouses are always a favorite as is Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park. Unobstructed, panoramic views of the surrounding islands, Green Bay, and Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula are seen from the 60-foot tower on Eagle Bluff. The park also features a scenic 18-hole golf course, bike trails, the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, nature centers, and more.
Once a year, Fincantieri, one of the world’s largest and most diverse shipbuilders, opens its Sturgeon Bay shipbuilding yard to the public. The guided tour showcases the enormity of constructing and maintaining the Great Lakes fleet, including cargo ships, barges, ferries, and offshore support vessels. The 63-acre yard launched the 639-foot freighter Mark W. Barker last October, the first U.S.-flagged freighter built on the Great Lakes in almost 40 years.
Sturgeon Bay is also the home of Marine Travelift where the fist mobile boat hoist was designed and manufactured back in the 1940s. By 2010, they delivered the world’s largest mobile boat hoist at 1,102 tons (1,000 metric tons). From a small town in Wisconsin, Marine Travelift is a global manufacturer of innovative boat hoists, lifts, and transporters.
I spent one early morning watching Baileys Harbor Fish Company pull whitefish from trap nets. The Hickey Family has been working the Door County waters since the mid-1800s with the use of gill and pond nets starting in the early 1900s. The fish caught this morning would be my dinner that evening.
My days don’t start without coffee, and a visit to the Door County Coffee & Tea Company was in order. The family-owned business does all the roasting, packing, and shipping in house, which also has a café and store. A stand-out dish at breakfast was the Hash Bake, a savory blend of cubed, skin-on potatoes, sour cream, butter, creamy mushroom soup, and, you guessed it, cheddar cheese. Blended with a few cups of Death’s Door Coffee, that cold morning fishing trip was a warm memory.
The White Gull Inn, a historic bed and breakfast on the Green Bay shore in Fish
Creek, was the host for the evening’s fish boil. Salt was the only spice used in this combination of potatoes, onions, and whitefish, and with the addition of lemon, melted butter, coleslaw, homemade bread, and cherry pie at the table, this was a fun meal.
If you make it back to Fish Creek for another dinner, don’t miss the creations of Chef Chris Wiltfang at Skaliwags. Chef creates a food experience like no other because of his South Georgia charm blended with local seafood, steaks, and custom-made dishes.
Across from the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay is Sonny’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria. The second-floor view of the historic Sturgeon Bay Bridge and SkipperBud’s Harbor Club Marina add to the restaurant’s waterfront ambience, and the pizzas are awesome.
Cheese is a major food source in Wisconsin, so a stop at Renard’s Artisan Cheese is pretty much required. Door County’s oldest cheese store and bistro is in the hands of Master Cheesemaker Chris Renard, the third generation to craft the family recipes his father and grandfather perfected. Chris and Ann Renard also craft more than 50 flavor-infused specialty cheeses. The Honey Truffle grilled melt is incredible.
So Much More
Fish Creek has a quaint main street with galleries, boutiques, bars, and restaurants. I checked out the Cana Cove Surf Company in a repurposed old Quonset hut that features shaped, fiberglass surf and stand-up paddleboards by owner Matt Olsen. It’s a surprise to many, but surfing is alive on the Great Lakes and takes an entirely new technique to ride the short, choppy-type sets.
The Baileys Harbor Yacht Club Resort was a perfect base for my stay
as it is about halfway up the peninsula, so everything is within a quick drive. After all,
the peninsula is only about 18 miles across and the tip is about 43 miles from Sturgeon Bay. Whether cruising the Great Lakes or following the Great Loop, don’t miss Door County, Wisconsin.
-by Steve Davis
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