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Living on peninsula time (Door County trip report)

If--like me--you had never heard of Door County until a year ago, I'm going to do my best to describe where I've been for the last week. I first heard of it when a neighbor of ours in the building did the Door County Triathlon. Which is one of the best-known, best-run indie races in the entire country. Then, by chance, I stumbled across a guide book in a local bookstore and it was...intriguing is a good word. It's hard to do the place justice because, even after visiting, I'm still at a loss for the overall theme.

For those of you trying to picture it on the map, Door County is the reason there is a Green Bay. It's that little pointy piece of Wisconsin sticking out into Lake Michigan...to the west is the bay, to the east is the lake. To the north, a series of islands. The largest, Washington Island, has a year-round community with a ferry running to the mainland. The passage between the two is dangerous and full of shipwrecks, however, and gives the county its name. Porte des Morts--Death's Door. The entire peninsula sits only about 3 feet above bedrock so most of it is full of stones and rocky bluffs.

It only has about 28,000 people in the whole county, year-round, but the population jumps to maybe 250,000 in the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. So despite the town signs that say "Egg Harbor--population 201" it can feel very crowded. The side on Green Bay is known for a series of artsy, small towns, resorts, fishing villages. The side on Lake Michigan is known as the "quiet side" (where we stayed) and is mostly farms and nature areas.

Add to this the fact that Door County has a rather proud history of people with ethnic backgrounds like Swedish or German and it makes it hard to wrap your head around. It's part young and hip. It's part old and graying. It's sleepy and touristy and decaying barns and new mansions and family farms next to wineries. Just...odd. There are no traffic lights and only 2 major two-lane highways. The rest is rural county roads. Some straight as an arrow. Some curving through forests only to give way to vacation homes with tennis courts, boathouses, and sweeping views of beautiful natural harbors.

We stayed on a sheep farm which has about 150 (possibly the world's largest flock) colored Corriedale sheep. The breed standard is white, but our hosts run a fiber business and art gallery as well as bed and breakfast. So they desire a mix of proverbial black sheep, grays, etc. because the fleece is so desirable. (More about them later.)

We arrived Friday evening at dusk and settled into our room thinking we would drive to Sturgeon Bay--the nearest "large" town--for dinner. But on Gretchen's recommendation, we drove up the road a bit to a very small restaurant that had traditional Friday fish...and a very good steak for Kelly. By the end of the trip, we'd eaten wood-fired pizza, some of the best tapas we've ever had, and at a microbrewery. And a restaurant with live goats on the roof. Go figure.

Saturday morning, the sun didn't so much come up as make it bright enough to see the rain. It was a foggy, drizzly, miserable day...where we had fortunately pre-booked a tour on a trolley to visit some of the local wineries. Which was amusing itself. The driver said he'd never seen the trolley so full of cases of wine, but we must have been the only people on the tour to not have a single bottle. Oh, we had cheese. And mustard. And local dipping sauce. We actually ended up driving back to one of the wineries (and touring yet another) where we found stuff more to our tastes. But what the peninsula is known for--and what people seem to like--is fruity, sweet wines. Especially with cherries. That's the famous crop and it's in EVERYTHING. Fudge. Pie. Beer. Wine. We brought home 4 delicious bottles of other stuff...including sparkling and some decent, robust reds. But the stuff being purchased in large boxes was the other stuff so that's what gets pushed to large groups of people, I think. The wine tour ended with a very average lunch--contrasted to Gretchen's farm breakfasts with homemade pottery holding warm, real maple syrup or locally grown melon or cherry-oatmeal pancakes--then we headed out to so some souvenir shopping. Which looked promising, but ended up a bust as we went from weird shop to weird shop in the rain. We ended up having better luck at private art studios. Side note: one of the wineries has a distillery with amazing gin. If only I had a reason to buy a bottle...it would take me years to finish it!




Sunday we were itching to see the sheep on a farm tour, but the morning started a lot like Saturday ended--rainy. Fortunately, by the time lunch came around, we'd see the sun and it would last the rest of our vacation. So, our visit to the Cana Island Lighthouse would be overcast, but the experience more than made up for the weather. CIL sits on a piece of land that barely rises out of Lake Michigan on some rocky shoals. There is a natural tombolo between the "island" and the mainland...sometimes. Waves from storms have been known to crash onto the lower floors of the Keeper's house and over the power lines. Yikes! The lighthouse was first built in the 19th century and burned oil that had to be carried by the Keeper from the oil house and tanks on the island. Eventually, the lighthouse was automated though the lens is still the original. A tiny 250 watt bulb the size of a Christmas tree lightbulb rotates into place now automatically when burned out--once every 3 months. Sensors know when it gets dark to turn the light on and it can be seen 18 miles offshore...still used as an active navigational aid run by the Coast Guard. Absolutely amazing place...and we climbed to the top! The mama says beware of the giant spiders inside the pit toilets near the entrance booth though.

By Sunday afternoon--with the sun shining--we made it to some of the rocky bluffs and caves that line the coast. Same on Monday, we'd see a park with a 1000 foot drop to the bay. But, first, on Monday we'd finally get to meet the flock. It was a long walk to the back pasture via paths along a stone wall previous generations tried to build but gave up on. Gretchen and Dick use electrified fences to keep the sheep contained because they can easily be moved to new grazing. The sheep learn the hard way when they're lambs then mostly don't go near the fences again. Unless it's the rams. They're different and require turning around the steel gates to their pens so they can bash in the opposite side after denting the other. But the ewes are friendly and mostly follow a few leaders back and forth from the barn. And they're used to visitors, so a couple will come right up for some rubs and a hello. They were mostly munching quietly on grass while we watched them and asked our questions. Our hosts are getting older and need help around the farm with baling hay and lambing is getting to be too much. So this season they will be breeding only a handful of ewes which they will then age alongside. No more increasing the flock since they will be farmers in their late 70's by the time the flock reaches the end of their lifespan. Kelly and I not-so-secretly wish we could take it over! Though Dick had to take about 7 lambs down the road one morning before breakfast for sale/slaughter. It's a tough relationship to love your sheep...Gretchen cried a bit as she wished that they be tasty for some future dinner.

Tuesday on the drive home we took the old, long way along the lake...this was the only way before the divided highway went in. Like the roads of Door County, it's two-lane highway with slower speeds as you move through each small town on the way to Manitowoc--which is where you join up with the modern interstate towards Milwaukee. And, once you hit Milwaukee, it's pretty much one big piece of civilization/suburb down to our home in Chicago then. You don't really realize when you're up where I did my triathlon on the state line in June, but it's just a short jump from there to Racine.

About half the visitors to the farm are regulars and half are new. They've had guests from every state but Wyoming and 39 nations...Kelly is tempted to go ahead and make our reservation for next year already. It was that enjoyable. Assuming you don't mind not being able to get a cellphone signal. We'll have to work on the grandmas for babysitting. Maybe by the time a year passes, they'll forget how tired they were.


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