Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Washington Island (Door County - pt 2)

By the time we left the park it was after noon, and nearby Fish Harbor was simmering with Memorial Weekend vacationers. We crossed the peninsula to the “quiet side,” negotiating a major roadblock and following several back-country detours to avoid Jacksonport’s Maifest. The festival might have been fun, but we were on our way to The Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor. Here the dunes of Lake Michigan rise in a regular procession, and each brow further inland, as heavily wooded as the last, nourishes a different set of orchids and other plants.

We’d been there before, though I had no recollection of where it was located. I took a right turn on Ridges Road (makes sense?) and we followed it out along the shore to Tofts Point, where the road dead-ends.
Wrong road.

We hiked out to Toft’s Point itself, where quite a few Caspian terns were bracing themselves against a stiff wind coming in from the southeast across the vast open lake. The shoreline consisted of very flat slabs of limestone (I presume) covered here and there with a slurry of sandy muck that supported a smattering of grasses and stunted evergreens. If I had been taken there blindfolded I might guess I was standing on the shore of Hudson’s Bay.

Also growing in patches across the rocks were dwarf lake iris (evidently uncommon) and some sort of arctic phlox.

Back in the car, we returned to the highway and continued north, where we soon came to the Ridges, chatted with the man in the gift shop, and took a long walk down the cedar-covered humps that are the ancient dunes. We enjoyed it, though the only bird we saw was a great-crested flycatcher that flew out into the open above one of the sloughs dividing the ridges, posed for twenty seconds on a dead branch, then vanished again into the underbrush.   

The only thing we saw blooming during our walk was trailing arbutus. “It’s been a late spring,” the man had told us at the shop, apologetically. But we already knew that. In short, the Ridges was a bit of exercise and fresh air, but also a dud.   

Continuing north, we breezed through Sister Bay, which has some of the unbridled development that gives Door County a bad name, Ellison Bay (nicer) and Gills Rock, before arriving at the pier where the ferry departs for Washington Island. We bought tickets and got in line to wait for the 4 o’clock transit.

Another ethical dilemma: I bought tickets for a car and two passengers. But we had two bikes strapped to the back of the car. Should we have paid the additional $16 dollars to bring those bikes to the island and back?

It’s a half-hour trip, and during that time Hilary struck up a conversation with a woman who, like us, wore a pair of binoculars around her neck. She told us about the crested caracara that had been sighted on Washington Island. That’s a bird that rarely ventures farther north than Oklahoma.

We got to talking about other sightings, and when I mentioned the black-throated blue warbler, she, too, was curious. “Where did you see it?” she wanted to know. (It might still be there.) We told her, and then I mentioned the blue-winged warbler we see every spring along the same back road in Forestville State Park, in southeastern Minnesota. Then she told us about the pine warbler she sees every spring in a tree by the ferry landing. 

“I haven’t seen a pine warbler in years,” I said.

“Well, they aren’t common,” she replied reassuringly.

It was clear we weren’t chatting with an ordinary birder. The woman was an expert, a researcher, writing a book about the rough-legged hawk. She was headed to the island to lead a birding event. Her name was Sandy Petersen. She lives in Madison. Though she was a little secretive about her background, she knew an awful lot about recent controversies regarding the little islands we passed our way to Detroit Harbor. And she told us where we were most likely to see the caracara. She emphasized how important the wind direction was in determining where birds were most likely to be found on any given day. We learned later from folks on the island that she’d been the naturalist there for seventeen years.

We spent the next day and a half on Washington Island—just to see what is was like. The island is roughly 6 miles square, and you could probably drive all of the major roads that crisscross the island in an hour. There’s a harbor in the southwest where the ferry arrives, and a smaller one in the north east, where a smaller ferry takes visitors out to nearby Rock Island—now a state park with a lighthouse at the far end, closed to all vehicular traffic. The only town, Washington, is basically a collection of widely-scattered businesses stretched out for half a mile along Main Road, which runs north-south through the western third of the island.

Much of the island’s interior is given over to farms of one kind or another. Wheat was big for a few years, during an organic beer phase; a generation ago it was potatoes. Now lavender is making a run. There’s a horse farm that specializes in Scandinavian breeds. And a few fishermen still set their nets and bring in a catch daily. You can order fresh-caught whitefish or “lawyers” (eelpout) at local restaurants.

We had eelpout for lunch at KK Fiske’s, where the waitress—the owner’s niece—told us all about the local fishing industry. It didn’t take long.

There was no one else in the cafĂ© to keep the young woman busy, and Hilary said, by way of conversation “I suppose it will be getting pretty busy this weekend.”

“Oh, it’ll pick up a little bit, but it doesn’t really get busy until the end of June, when the old-folks start arriving by the busload.”

“People like us,” I laughed.

“God, no,” she replied. "I mean OLD. We get two kinds of people. We call them the newlyweds and the nearly-deads.”

Earlier in the day we’d gotten a latte at the Red Cup Coffee House, packed with newly-arrived summer residents catching up on the news and exchanging tales about winter damage to their cottages and houses. From there we stopped in at the beautiful Stavkirke, a full-sized replica of a medieval Norwegian church tucked into the woods amid the daffodils, alongside a Nature Conservancy parcel.  

But much of Washington Island’s interior—fields or woods—is pleasantly nondescript. For tourists like us, the chief sights, aside from the stave church, are the curious Jacobsen Historical Museum, Jackson Harbor (with its marine museum), Schoolhouse Beach (with its stunning white rocks), and the local craft shop (with its subtle rag rugs and Cherokee baskets).

We visited them all, and we still had plenty of time to sit around in Adirondack chairs at the Sunset Resort where we were staying, staring out at Green Bay as the sun dropped toward the horizon. The air temperature was perfect. Some gulls squawk at one another as they fly back and forth from the low-slung islands extending northward from the tip of Figenschau Bay.

A slight breeze. Two foreign flags flapping—a blue cross on red, and a red cross on blue. I suppose I ought to know what they are but I don’t. 

Many of Washington Island’s first European settlers were Icelandic. That might be a good first guess?

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