I hear this question a lot. When I tell people that I’m spending the weekend on “the island,” the first thing they want to know is if there’s a bridge, or are there cars on the island, or how will I get there?
Washington Island, off the tip of the Door County peninsula, is much too far away to support a bridge. It is part of a series of islands connecting the Door peninsula in Wisconsin and the Garden peninsula in Michigan. The islands are divided equally between both states with Plumb, Pilot, Detroit, Washington, and Rock Island belonging to Wisconsin. Washington Island is the largest, about six miles by seven miles, and has a permanent population of about 650 people; although, the original settlement was founded on Rock Island which is now a state park that one can camp on or hike.
The Native Americans called the watery passage between the mainland and the island “Death’s Door” because so many of their small craft were lost in the strong currents where Lake Michigan and Green Bay meet. In fact, in many of the gift shops on the island you can by a t-shirt which states, “I would cross Death’s Door to Get to Washington Island!” and I do! All the time! So how, you ask?
By the ferry of course!
The Richter family of Washington Island owns the ferry company consisting of several car ferries that have been shuttling tourists and residents back and forth, year round, for three generations. They even have an ice-breaker ferry that can get through the winter ice floes that wash up on to the shore. The island is completely dependent of the ferry system for gasoline, food, goods, mail, and even emergency medical transportation to the mainland. In the winter there are only two trips, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, that can take hours to make the normally twenty-minute trip. It is very rare that a ferry can’t run on any given day, and trips in the three winter months must be booked in advance. Depending on the season and the day of the week, the ferries run up to every 15 minutes starting around 6 am and going until 9 or 10 at night.
There is a stone breakwater on the mainland side to help the ferries load in rough weather.
The ferries are kept on the island side over night and when not in use.
As previously stated, barring any bad weather, the trip takes about 22 minutes one way. On the trip you can sit in an enclosed cabin or out on the upper deck.
This is my daughter Sophia and her friend Zoe enjoying the cold, breezy ride on the top deck of The Washington; cars are kept below on the main deck.
Sometimes, you get a free car wash depending on how rough the waters are when you cross! This particular trip was peaceful though.
One of the islands the ferries pass along the way is called Plumb Island. It used to be where the Coast Guard Station was, but they have since moved to Washington Island. The “Friends of Plumb Island” group is trying to decide whether to open Plumb up to private land purchase or turn it into a nature conservancy because there are many bird species that breed on Plumb. There is also talk of turning it into a state park as they have with Rock Island. The lighthouse on Plumb is one of the most painted and photographed places in the Door.
Another island one passes on the journey is Pilot Island which used to function as a guide for the big ships entering Green Bay from Lake Michigan. It is a lonely and tiny outcropping that used to house a light keeper who was visited only twice a year with supplies. The light is now controlled remotely. I wonder if it is haunted from light keepers past!
The ferries, for all their storied past, are quite sophisticated and safe, equipped with a pilot house with all the bells and whistles of modern technology. A ferry boasts a crew of usually only three or four who direct the loading and unloading of cars and people and pilot it safely across Death’s Door.
I have taken more ferry rides than I can count, and I have always felt safe and secure, no matter the season or weather.
Taking one of the Washington Island ferries to the island and back, like my favorite curvy road in my previous post, adds to the ambiance and specialness that is Washington Island to me. If you would like to discover more about the island’s ferry company, you can do so here! …and if you’re ever in the area, maybe I’ll meet you on the ferry!