by Julian Hagen, as related to Marybeth Mattson
It's just a different pace. When you get on the boat at Northport, a weight is just lifted off your shoulders. North of the Tension Line is what they call this place. And there's something about when you get on that boat, to come here, or to come back. It's hard to define what is magical about Washington Island; it's the people, or the nature, or the silence. It's hard to put into words, but there's something about certain little towns, they have a quirkiness, and a magic, and that isn't for everybody, but you won't know if you don't spend some time here.
In the past we've presented ourselves as an artistic getaway place, and lot of artists still come to the island to write or to work; they come here to create. Musicians come to write songs; even to record albums. I know if I'm writing I can't have anyone come in and surprise me, I need real quiet. It's not that you can't find it other places, but on the island it's readily available. Certainly for ourselves, it's what we knew growing up. It's a great place to write and there's plenty to write about, and being raised here, there's things that feed our fire – like sitting here at KK Fiske watching Tom and Kenny stringing nets.
It a lot of ways, Washington Island is how Door County was 35 years ago. The summer time up here is how the county used to be all the time. It's more laid back. We're not against change, but as a community we've tried to avoid changes to the island that would increase things like noise or light pollution, because we want to preserve that feeling. Like they say – We're 15 years behind Sister Bay, and we like it that way.
Part of the magic is getting out at night. We don't have the light pollution the main land has, so when it gets dark you can really see the stars and the northern lights when they're out. There's not a lot of traffic at night, so you can take a walk on the road in the evenings and still enjoy relative solitude. And, there's a night life here. People don't realize that. You don't have to party to be part of it, but you might want to stay on the island for a few days.
Coming here for two hours for a tour, or even coming over just for the day is a great starting point. You'll get to see the highlights of the island and help you get a lay of the land, but you don't really see a lot of the real magic of the island. I think it's at night; not like it's not magical at other places, but spending the night on the island, there's something strangely romantic about it, and certainly in the evenings. That's when there's music. The Granary/KK Fiske has music Fridays and Saturdays, and other nights sometimes in the summers; the Irish pub, Fiddlers Green has music on two or three nights, and jam sessions where we all sit in a circle to play. I think the record is about 14 people; there was one guy on a cajon (a box drum), another playing on a snare, two guys playing spoons, seven guitar players, two fiddles, four mandolins, and then there was an a cappella group singing sea fairing songs. So it's just always a surprise, and anyone is welcome to sit it. In summer and fall, there almost always something going on on weekends.
The island doesn't get much of the day tripper crowd, not that you can't just spend a day here, though in the winter the ferry runs less often, but that's a perfect excuse to spend a night or more.
On the island you can enjoy nature from just about anywhere, which certainly calls to locals and visitors alike. You can break it into seasons, and each season has something different to offer. From February until the season really starts up again, we hunt, fish, snowmobile, ski, have going away parties if anyone's leaving for any reason. The rec center stays open, which is excellent. We read and write, have potlucks, build things; there's always something to do.
In summer of course there's a lot going on; from music and theater, to golf when the course opens, hiking, biking; there's even soccer and little league, and often the teams let visiting kids play if they want to.
In fall it's the colors of course that people mostly want to see. There's the Fall Fun Fest and Cider Pressing Party, a great, interactive, family weekend.
In the winter, there's a bird count to participate in. If there is ice, it's similar to down in the county, there's ice shanties on Detroit Harbor, there's ice skating. When there's snow, it's kinda like Peninsula Park, you can pretty much ski anywhere as long as you know where the fences are and are respectful. A great place to view Rock Island is from the Potato Dock on the southwest tip of the island. From the Jackson Harbor Ridges State Natural Area you can even walk to Rock Island on the ice or take a snow mobile to the 950 acres of state park. You can even walk there in the summer, but there are some deep spots, so you should ask at the visitor's center about that.
There's no longer a curfew at Schoolhouse Beach, which makes it a great place for night photography. You can also go swimming all night (at your own risk), or have a camp fire – there are fire pits. The Mountain Wayside Park has an observation tower (there is a curfew here), from which you can often see the Escanaba lights, only 25 miles away. If you've got good eyes, you can even see it in the daylight, though sometimes its just a gray bar in the distance.With all the wildlife and the beauty of the land, this place is a photographer's dream. Anywhere you look, there's something. You might see ducks, swans, eagles... and that's only the beginning. You could spend a week just taking pictures, only to see the season change giving you a whole new, irresistible landscape.
We like to say, you haven't been to Door County if you haven't been to Washington Island. It's the biggest smallest town in the world. And, you haven't been to Washington Island if you haven't tried Lawyers. I believe this to be true. Unless of course you have a fish allergy – but most people who try Lawyers, even people who don't like fish, can't get enough of them. In most other place, they're throw away fish. But they're very mild, they're not fishy in taste or texture, and at KK Fiske, they're breaded, deep-fried into golden, bite-size pieces, and served with dipping sauce. There's also suckers, another "junk" fish. There's an abundance of them – and you'd never know but they're really good. Kenny Koyen of KK Fiske has started marinating and pickling them. And it's not just a delicious product, it's a way to keep his employees working in the slow season. This really gets to the heart of living on an island. We can't afford to waste, so we find creative ways to use what we have.
There's not actually a lot of shopping to do up here, there are some really unique things, and the necessities of course, but the island isn't about shopping so much, it's about the experience. But if you're looking for something fun and authentic, The What We Do In Winter Gallery offers hand-made art and useful things made from re-used items. It's what they call up-cycling. Again, things can be harder to get on an island, so often we work with what's at hand. Also, Sievers Looms is open year round. They have classes, and make looms that are shipped all over the world; there's even one in a shop near Zululand, Africa.
The actual year round populations is probably close to 450. There's a misconception that everyone on the island knows everyone on the island; now we may recognize faces, but the kinds of people that come to live or have summer homes on the island, they're the type that tuck away. They've come here for the peace and quiet, you know, and it's an island – you can sit and look at the water from so many different places. And you can find it on the mainland too, but up here it's just a little more at your finger tips. The people here are both proud of their place on the Island, and defensive of their choice to be here. We love what we have, and we respect that it's not for everyone. We have a co-dependent relationship with the Island, it's as much family as the people, it's the feeling of being here. Maybe its a little Shangri-La thing that happens, you can settle in and relax and be happy. You just gotta spend some time with us.
Like any small town, when you come here, it can be just to hang with the people (especially in the off-season). Certainly this time of year is when the locals spend more time conversing, maybe talking about each other as much as to each other! It's no secret, but strangely, that's the main thing to do. Even though the Red Cup is only open two hours a day in the winter, during that two hours its a bee hive. Here (at The Granary/KK Fiske) there's a group that shows up early, then a little later, and Nelsen's has a similar routine, but it's kinda like Al Johnson's where people sit and talk like that. A lot of it here year round, it's built on conversation. People just talk to each other a lot. Or read, and write. But it's really built on conversation. It seems easier to connect with people here, and to talk. People are willing to share more – it's something about an island, they talk about their lives, their past. From what I've noticed, from being down at coffee shops on the mainland versus here, it seems to bring a little more openness out of people.
It may seem boring to say that the magic of Washington Island is built on conversation, but if you want to get to know yourself, or your family, or even the people here that you cross, this place is kind of disarming in that way. The magic of the island is intangible, it really is a feeling.
Washington Island photography
by: Marybeth Mattson
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