The Lighthouse Coast

Wisconsin's Door County is known as the 'Cape Cod of the Midwest,' with hundreds of miles of coastline and more lighthouses than any other U.S. county

October 01, 2006|By John Muncie and Jody Jaffe | John Muncie and Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

ON THE ROCKY BOTTOM OF DEATH'S Door, a narrow strait in the Wisconsin peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, lie 128 shipwrecks and one rusting Volkswagen Bug.

The shipwrecks are from the age of sail and steam; victims of gales, fog-shrouded nights and hidden shoals. The bug met its end 100 years later in the Age of Aquarius; weather and rocks had nothing to do with it. It seems the car was chronically ill and its hippie owners wanted to give it a grand send-off. So onto the car-ferry it went, and somewhere between Northport and Washington Island, they pushed it overboard.

Ferryman Bryan Stefancin told us the Bug story. It's a hand-me-down tale; Stefancin's only 20, too young to have been a witness to that wreck, but in his three summers crossing Death's Door he's seen storms kick up the kind of big waves that once sank schooners.

"In weather like that, it's a roller coaster," Stefancin said. "The boat rocks a lot, water splashing over the sides. If people don't set their parking brakes, the cars start rolling around on deck." When the waves reach 12 to 16 feet, the ferry stops running.

Our 30-minute trip across Death's Door was smooth, but reminders of the peninsula's treacherous nature are everywhere. After the Great Lakes became a big commercial waterway in the mid-1800s, the United States began building lighthouses around its dangerous shores to guide the ships. Lots of lighthouses.

There were so many lighthouses that Door County (Wisconsin dropped the "Death" part in 1851) has more than any county in the country. And this past summer, we set out to see all 10.

During our visit, we crisscrossed the peninsula (much of it is less than 10 miles wide) driving from boat-filled harbors, through wide-open farmland punctuated by silos and red barns and back to the limestone cliffs and sand dunes of the coast.

Along the way, we discovered what else Door County is famous for: cherries (we found cherry wine, cherry soap, cherry jam and cherry barbecue sauce) and "fish boils," a kind of Midwest clambake that involves whitefish, someone called a "Master Boiler," and a 15-foot explosion of flame.

Cape Cod II

Door County is the thumb of mitten-shaped Wisconsin. It sticks out more than 75 miles, separating Lake Michigan from Green Bay, and claims about 300 miles of coastline, the longest of any U.S. county.

With its string of tidy fishing villages, its rugged coast, its beaches and its summer getaway reputation, Door County has been called the "Cape Cod of the Midwest." But that description only works if you haven't been to Cape Cod, Mass., since the 1950s.

Despite a boomlet of vacation homes and condos in the 1990s, Door County is still uncrowded. There's not a single Starbucks.

We traveled to Door County from Chicago, a four-hour trip. Our first stop was just inside the county line. Following a hand-painted "pick your own cherries" sign, we found ourselves at Cherry Lane Orchards.

It was a warm, cherry-ripening sort of summer day, but owner Tom Sayer wasn't happy. The previous night, he'd been hit hard by a hailstorm.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "Everything was going along fine until last night. Five minutes took it all out." But as he walked us through his 12-acre orchard, pointing out tart and sweet varieties, the trees seem bowed with fruit.

Back inside Sayer began an enthusiastic pitch for the health value of cherries, tossing out words such as "anthocyanins" and "antioxidants." Purely for medicinal reasons, we ate some free samples.

Cherries quickly become a Door County theme. By the end of our trip we had passed dozens of orchards, eaten cherry-stuffed French toast (delicious) and taken our first sip of cherry wine (not as bad as you might think).

For our four-night stay we rented a cabin near Clark Lake from local real estate man Leif Lautenbach, a 39-year-old enthusiastic Door County native, who left us a key and a county map penciled in with a dozen recommended destinations.

Clark Lake is just inland from the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula and about 14 miles north of Sturgeon Bay, the county's biggest town (population 9,000). In 1880, a ship canal was cut from Sturgeon Bay to Green Bay, ending the need for ships to navigate Death's Door and turning most of the county into an island.

We reached the cabin in late afternoon; from its deck we could see the last of the day's windsurfers, water skiers and canoeists heading to shore. Water sports of all sorts draw vacationers to the county; the latest one is scuba diving among the shipwrecks preserved in the clear lake waters.

The next morning we drove to the Green Bay side of the peninsula and checked off our first lighthouse, Eagle Bluff, from the list.

Door County's 10 lighthouses run the gamut. Some are regularly open to the public; some aren't. The state runs some; the Coast Guard others. One's a private home. Some are easily accessible; some can only be reached by boat.

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