Washington Island and Rock Island
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Rustic, time-locked Washington Island, an easy (and safe) ferry ride from the mainland across Death’s Door, very nearly wasn’t included as part of Door County, but in 1925, the Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin’s favor in a border dispute with Michigan. At issue were a number of the dozen or so islands in the Grand Traverse Chain, of which Washington and the surrounding islands are a part.
The island isn’t what most expect. Many envision a candy-facade Mackinac Island, full of historically garbed docents or fudge sellers every two steps. Not at all. It’s populated by 650 permanent residents, and development is absolutely unobtrusive. The place has a pleasant weatherbeaten seaside look to it, rather than the sheen of a slick resort. Best of all, Washington Island has the feel of a small Midwestern town, right down to the well-used community ballparks. This explains the island’s perfectly apt PR tout line: “North of the Tension Line.”
Getting to Washington Island
Ferry lines run to and from Washington Island via the “top of the thumb” (see Gills Rock/Northport). Ferries have made the seven-mile crossing somewhat quotidian, but it wasn’t always so. Winter crossings used to be made by horse-drawn sleigh or—unimaginably—car, but weather conditions could change the ice or eliminate it altogether within a relatively short period. Today the ice freezes the crossing nearly solid for just more than 100 days each year, but modern ferries can take much of the ice thrown at them. When ice floes pile up during extreme cold, the ferries either “back up” and try to make an end run, or “back down” and run right at the ice. At those times, ferry service is preciously light and reservations are necessary to cross with an automobile.
You could theoretically paddle a sea kayak from Northport all the way to Washington Island—and it has been done. The lunatic fringe aspect of that notwithstanding, it would be the most breathtaking way to meet the Porte des Mortes head on. Obviously, you’d better be a damn good—and experienced—paddler.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition