All of Door County is spectacularly beautiful: blue water all around, the lush green of woods and shorelines, meadows of wildflowers, the fertile grounds of cherry orchards and the growing crops of the inland.
So it’s hard to pick favorite spots. Despite that, I have a particular fondness for one especially beautiful place: Rock Island. Door County juts far into Lake Michigan, and then a chain of islands extends even farther north beyond this peninsula. Rock Island is about five miles in circumference, and is the second island north of the peninsula.
Rock Island is entirely a state park. There are no roads, no services, no amenities. There is a pump with water and the welcome addition, installed a few years ago, of flush toilets. All of the forty campsites are walk-in and primitive, which means you carry in your tent and your sleeping bag and your food and water.
The usual way to get to Rock Island is to take two ferries. The first is a car ferry that crosses Death’s Door and takes you to Washington Island. Then, after driving across that island and parking your car at Jackson Harbor, a second ferry crosses the strait of water to Rock Island. Most people come for the day to walk the trails, see the restored lighthouse and hang out near the iconic boat house, built in the early 1930’s by a wealthy inventor who owned much of the island. Some people come prepared to camp for a day or two.
Dave and I decided to get to the island in a less traditional way; we put our camping gear into our fishing boat and decided to make the journey. All around us there are more experienced boaters than we; they’ve sailed the great lakes often, they read clouds and winds and know harbors, currents. Our boat isn’t big or even designed for pleasure outings. But we kept a close eye on the weather forecast and headed north.
It is fun seeing the land from the water. The water was calm. We took our time. The water was blue, the sun warm, the temperature balmy. It took us about three hours of motoring to leave Sister Bay,
pass through Death’s Door,
get close to Pilot Island which is pretty much destroyed by cormorants,
skirt the east side of Washington Island before we rounded the north side of Rock Island to enter the harbor from the west to approach the spectacular boat house.
In the early afternoon we tied up to the dock and found our campsite (which we had reserved in advance.) There was still time to walk to the lighthouse on the other side of the island to see the keeper’s house and to climb the stairs inside to look out northward to the traverse island chain. (Beautiful.)
And then back to the green lawn by the dock to eat dinner, fish from the pier and watch the sunset before walking back to our tent and climbing inside to end a pretty much perfect day.
But the winds came up at night. Despite our really good self-inflating air mattresses and nice fluffy sleeping bags, we were after all, still sleeping on the ground. (And we’re not particularly young anymore.) So we tossed and turned a bit more than usual, and each time we woke up, the growing gusts were a bit unsettling, troubling. I had packed cans of soup and extra peanut butter and crackers, so we would not starve if we needed to stay a second night, but we preferred to get home the next morning. And yes, we had Death’s Door to think about. The passage between the Door Peninsula and Washington Island earned its name because of the many shipwrecks in the passage. The currents and the winds from Green Bay meet the currents and the winds from Lake Michigan and in that narrow channel of water, those waters churn. We knew enough to be wary.
No cell phone service on the island meant no checking forecasts, marine reports. And though the winds were strong, the waves were not huge- we decided to pack quickly and leave. (Well, not before a cup of coffee on a gorgeous beach to greet the morning.)
We headed south towards home, and as soon as we came out from the protection of land, the winds in fact were colliding. The waves from the east and the waves from the west made our boat ride not horribly unsafe but disconcertingly bumpy. No regular pattern of waves meant lots of hard hits as our boat was jostled in the ups and downs. We got banged around. ( Hence no pictures of the event.) But it was only an hour or so of really rough waters- about ten miles where we wished for better conditions. And then we found protected harbors and took our time hugging the shoreline until we were safely out and onto land.
Worth it? Yes. Would I do it again, probably not.
Yes, it’s still one of my favorite places ever. From now on, though I’ll let the ferries take me back and forth to Rock Island.