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Wintry Escapades in Door County, Wisconsin

Article and photography by Steve Gillick

Just after we arrived at Kurtz Corral in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, about one hour west of Green Bay, we watched a short video on human-horse relationship building. I would later discover that Pokey had some very different ideas. The video instructed us to use our hands to grip the reins and direct the horse to the right and the left. We were told to call the horse by its name, and to articulate commands so the horse would not confuse Whoa (Stop!) with Go (Go!). But Pokey, my mare, knew that each rider had been given some horse treats, and after a few crunchy nibbles, Pokey and I got along famously.

The one-hour trail ride took us through snowy fields, into the silence of beautiful forests and under thick snow-covered evergreen branches. I’m sure Pokey was amused as the branches whipped back in my face, however she plodded along at a gentle, relaxing gait, so much so that I almost fell asleep. At the end of the ride Pokey seemed to smile when I gave her the rest of the treats but, alas, I didn’t even get a whiney when I said goodbye.

All in all though, it was a good time, celebrating the wintry Wisconsin cold in a special way. Afterward, we stood around a fire stove, drinking hot apple cider and chatting with the Corral staff about the energy and excitement of this unique area of Wisconsin.

The name ‘Door’ County sounds very inviting but actually has an ominous overtone. Five Hundred years ago, in an attempt to wrest Washington Island from the Pottowatomie tribe, the Winnebago people departed from the tip of the peninsula and headed across the strait of water toward the Island. A storm arose and intensified with the result that as many as one third of the Winnebago lost their lives. The news was relayed to French settlers in the area who started referring to the watery passageway as “Porte des Morts” or “Death’s Door”, and the name stuck.

Jon Jarosh, the County’s Director of Communications and Public Relations noted that “visitors are always amazed at how much Big Water is around us. They think of Wisconsin as the land-locked Mid-West, and then when they can’t see the other side of Lake Michigan, they refer to it as the ocean”!

And while the waters can be terrifying at times, they can also offer absolute tranquility. On one day we visited Cave Point County Park where the mist from the dramatic, raging waves on Lake Michigan had attached itself to the tree branches, creating eerie, icy, art sculptures.

However on another day we piled into an ATV and headed to Larson’s Reef on the frozen surface of Green Bay. There the owner and staff of JJ’s Guide Service instructed us on the ABC’s of the ‘silent sport’ of ice fishing. First you take a ‘Swedish Pimple’, which is a lure that Whitefish find attractive. Then you position your fishing rod over the hole that cuts through the 18 inch-thick ice, allow the lure to descend 80 feet to the bottom, and then ‘jig’ the lure by raising it up a few inches, pausing, and allowing it to sink down again. While the fish see something jumping up and down at the bottom of the lake, only two of the four people in our tent caught whitefish, but all in all it was a relaxing adventure on a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

One of the County’s worse kept-secrets relates to the best way to enjoy Whitefish. The White Gull Inn has been offering a “Fish Boil” since 1956 but the tradition goes back to a time when social gatherings and local festivals created the need to feed a lot of people in a short time. First a cooking fire is stoked. Then a large pot of water is brought to a boil, before a basket of potatoes is added. After 30 minutes, a second pot of water s placed over the first, into which a bucket of white fish is added to the boil. Eight minutes later, the steaming fish and potatoes are served indoors along with hot butter sauce, sweet coleslaw and fresh homemade bread. It’s simply delicious!

But ‘Big Water’ is not the only notable landmark in this area. The other is The Ledge, otherwise known as the Niagara Escarpment. An escarpment is basically a series of cliffs between two different elevation levels and in the area of Southern Ontario/Northern New York, the Niagara River famously ‘Falls’ over the Escarpment. The landform then continues west and north to the Bruce Peninsula, before it turns south toward Wisconsin.

Here, ‘The Ledge’ as the locals call it, creates a micro-climate that’s ideal for fruit growing and in Door County, the cherry is the topping! In the county stores you can easily find over fifty different cherry-based and cherry-infused products including pies, pesto, vinegar, salsa, tea, syrup, granola, jam and fudge.

In wineries, such as the Door Peninsula Winery, you can sample not only a variety of Cherry wines but also a veritable salad of other fruity wines including Blackberry and Cranberry Merlot, peach, strawberry, plum, mango and more. And next door in the distillery, you’ll find Cherry Brandy, Moonshine, Vodka and Bitters.

At the Winter Cherry Festival in February, the Cherry Pit Spit challenges competitors to exceed the current spit records, with the Ladies’ at 38 feet, 3 inches and the Men’s at 48 feet, 1 inch.

And in Wisconsin, a.k.a America’s Dairyland, cheese lovers will find that this is the place to “edam”! Out of the 48 award winning cheeses featured at Wisconsin Cheese Masters, we sampled the 7, 16 and 21 Year Old Cheddars (the latter of which sells for $189.00 US per pound), as well as the rich, creamy, Billy Blue Cheese. For those sniffing out something stronger, the September “Stinkfest” showcases a plethora of pungent preferences including Limburger and Gorgonzola.

But it’s the locals who are the star attractions, where conversations connect visitors to the county. Many locals grew up here and decided that this was the place that offered the quality of life for both family and business growth. And connections also take place in the villages, towns and cities where they are close enough to make visiting convenient, but far enough from each other to maintain their own distinct identity. These include: Fish Creek (pronounced Fish ‘Crick’) population 997, Ephraim (‘Eee-fram’) population 201, Egg Harbour, population 203, and Sturgeon Bay (population 9000+).

As for exploring The Ledge (the escarpment), there is Peninsula State Park where snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and hiking go hand-in–hand with birding, photography, forest freedom and panoramic views.

While our January visit explored Door County’s winter attractions, it’s a true four-season destination that responds to the special interests that inspire many travelers: Musical performances, plays, painting, pottery, maritime history, golf, lighthouse visits, shopping, kayaking, biking, food, wine, craft beer, sports and more.

If travel is all about opening doors to new experiences, then Door County is the ideal portal.


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