Sunday, June 1, 2014

Door County Weekend

I suspect that for many Minnesotans, Door County seems too far away for a weekend trip, not exotic enough for an extended vacation, and likely to be overcrowded with tourists from Milwaukee and Chicago during the summer months. On the other hand,  with 300 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, five state parks, a landscape rich in ethnic enclaves and maritime lore, and numerous obscure nature preserves and sanctuaries, it seems like a place one ought to get to know.

We spent three days in Door County recently, on the tag end of a driving trip across central Wisconsin that also included Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Horicon Marsh, Kettle-Moraine State Forest, Milwaukee, and Steven’s Point.

Our timing was impeccable: the warblers were passing through but the Memorial Day tourists had not yet arrived. We approached from the south along the coast, paying a brief visit to Sheboygan’s refurbished river harbor and whisking through Manitowoc. Our first extended stop was the Hamilton Wooden Type Museum in nearby Two Rivers.

This is the kind of museum that really ought not to exist. Wooden type is a technological dinosaur, of course. What’s the point of mounting a permanent display of outmoded Xs and Ps, of maple logs, huge saws, platen presses, and even linotype machines, in an abandoned warehouse with a leaky roof out in the middle of nowhere?

Anyone who likes literature, printing, hand-made paper, and classic type fonts will understand.  

Jim Moran, the museum director, gave us a tour of the building. He perked up when I mentioned the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.  His brother, Bill, is a professor of printing history at the University of Minnesota, and the family’s involvement in the printing industry extends back for generations.

We wandered the back rooms for a while, then took a spin around the gift shop, where various broadsides were on display. The shop’s proprietress, Mari Dawson, explained how she arrived in Two Rivers from Iowa City and places even further south,  and described what a waysgoose is. It made me want to attend one, though the last piece of cold type printing I did was in 1980—a rather dull broadside listing the twelve best sayings (or so I thought at the time) of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

There were very few genuine books for sale in the shop. We bought a colorful poster done by master printer  Rick Von Holdt in 2009 to commemorate the museum’s tenth anniversary.

From Two Rivers we continued north to Algoma—one of many small, tidy Wisconsin towns that still look vaguely robust and lived-in—then followed county roads S and U into Sturgeon Bay. A half-hour later we were puttering through Peninsula State Park, looking for a place to camp.

The park has 460-odd campsite in four widely-spaced campgrounds, and it took us quite a while to settle on the perfect site, in an otherwise deserted loop overlooking Nicolet Bay. We got back to pay the fee—the office was closed—only to discover a list of numbers indicating the thirty sites in the park that were considered “open.” Ours wasn’t one of them. There was no map indicating where the "open" sites were located, however, and the sun was getting low; we decided to pay the $15 camping fee, return to our Shangri-La,  and take our chances. 

We had eaten our dinner and were sitting around the fire listening to an extremely loud frog trill from high in a tree behind our tent when the ranger arrived, on foot, flashing her flashlight through the dark.

“This loop is closed,” she said, in a measured tone of voice, though she immediately added, “I’m not going to make you move. That would be stupid.”

“Thank you very much,” I replied, perhaps a little obsequiously, resisting the temptation to add, “If it’s closed, why is the entry gate open?”

We chatted for quite a while about the upcoming holiday crowd, and about “enforcement.” It was pretty obvious she enjoyed rescuing elderly hikers who were suffering from heat-stroke, though perhaps she took greater pleasure in breaking up college beer parties at 3 AM. She told us her previous position at Lake Wissota State Park, near Eau Claire, had been pretty dull.

We asked her about the frog we’d been listening to—it had long since gone silent—but she had no idea what it was.

The next morning the air was full of newly-hatched mayflies. We followed the Shore Road back to the park entrance, spotted a scarlet tanager at Weborg Point, and also--even more thrilling at me--a solitary sandpiper in the grass nearby. This is far from being a rare bird, but the specimen I saw was dazzling as it poked around in the grasses in the shadows of a spruce tree hear shore.

We rode the Sunset Bike Loop through the woods to the nature center (closed) and back. It’s a lovely loop, passing beneath towering limestone cliffs and punctuated by hills and turns, but it’s narrow and I suspect it can be treacherous in the summertime when heavily used. (We passed no one during our circuit.)

Just as were we loading the bikes back onto the car, I heard a bird call I didn’t recognize. It was like the lazy, five-note buzzing call of the black-throated green warbler, but it only had four notes, even lazier and less precisely duplicated. I found the bird. I saw the black throat, but not the slightest hint of yellow anywhere. White chip on the wing. Dark blue on top, more difficult to get a good look at from below. We both watched it for several minutes. It was a black-throated blue warbler!

The last one I saw locally was thirty-five years ago in Gooseberry State Park. (We saw two recently on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, where I imagine they’re more common.)

We told the naturalist at the Park office, expecting she’d say, “Yes, they’re around here,” or some such lukewarm response. But no.

 “Where did you see it? I’ve only seen one in my life.”

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