Friday, March 14, 2014


Early morning ferry, Wednesday, March 12, followed
track from previous day to open water.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Wednesday morning the crossing was quite good, but man, I got cold!

The temperature was +5 degrees, but the wind was 30+ mph, and it felt as though it circulated up one pant leg and down the other.   Warmer clothing would have been smarter, but I was on a mission to Sister Bay where I would speak in front of a group, and coveralls didn't seem right.  Standing outside my truck taking photos of the boarding, then underway out the channel, then outdoors again at Northport, took the warmth out of me.  And that was before I visited cousin Steve's farm on Old Stage Road, where with shovels we pried up frozen corn cobs from a crib to feed deer that roamed in our island neighborhood, and before we loaded a dozen hay bales Steve tossed down from his barn's loft, for daughter Evy's horses.

A warm-up at Al Johnson's never felt so good.

Have I become sissified these past 12 months, working from the comfort of our home, venturing outdoors only for mail or an occasional trek on snowshoes?  I credit the many people whose work requires they be outdoors for extended periods of time, including our ferry crews.

The compliment of vehicles on the
ferry Wednesday included two empty trucks and
the Bethel Church passenger bus.
The crossing itself Wednesday morning was excellent.  Solid bay ice held to the west of Plum Island and in its lee our route smooth and easy, despite the brisk NNW.   We were quickly into open water after first passing through the previous days' track for a mile or so.

That same morning, several miles north of Washington Harbor I was told, the Roger Blough had been stuck for nearly 24 hours in ice.  It was escorted by a Coast Guard cutter as the two made slow, and then no progress.  The cutter Mackinaw arrived to assist, and eventually the Blough made it rhough the Rock Island Passage and beyond, into the partially-open lake.  This event occurred just days after the suggested curtailment or postponement of lake freighter operations came from the Ninth Coast Guard District that anticipated such heavy ice conditions.  (See previous blog.)

I spoke this afternoon with Randy Holm, Rock Island State Park Ranger, to find out what was happening on Rock Island.  He makes a few trips over to Rock each week he says, by snowmobile, to check on buildings, and campers.

"Campers?" I asked, surprised there were people interested in winter camping, much less on Rock Island.  Three groups have camped there so far, according to Holm.  He's generally notified in advance - and he tries to leven their experience with useful information, such as low wind chill predictions, pending snow storms, and snow depth.  Last weekend about 45 snowmobilers gathered in the shelter house on Rock Island, during a pleasant afternoon group outing from Washington Island.

Randy's partner, Melody, he said, recently slipped on a patch of ice in their drive while getting out of their truck, and she struck her head sharply against the running board.  Bruised, and now with stitches in her head, Randy suggested she consider safer activities than birding and photography.  We hope this won't slow her down for long, as she's often captured great bird photos.

Oldy, moldy -

Contemplating this winter's snow and ice cover (although it is raining this Friday afternoon as I write) made me think back to several occasions when I've snowmobiled to Plum Island.  In even the coldest of winters we've observed, the Door Passage and even the waters near Plum Island in the Back Door can remain open.   For that reason, crossing the ice in the area of the Door is never recommended.

But, there are always exceptions to a general recommendation.  In 1979, when the ferry C. G. Ricther's gear went out, coupled with a long stretch of cold weather and heavy bay ice, I snowmobiled with Nathan Gunnlaugsson to Northport.  Our first trip was a sort of test run from Washington Island to determine ice thickness.  At that time, solid ice spread from the Bay well beyond Pilot Island to the lake itself, and this ice never moved in the ensuing weeks.  We chose to cut across Plum Island, from the Coast Guard life saving station to the Rear Range Light, as much for the novelty as anything.  Crystal clear ice in the Door was a bit unnerving, but trapped bubbles indicated that it was 10 or more inches thick, and this ice cover continued to build in the ensuing days.  For 19 days, in fact well into March, no ferry runs were possible.

The Cutter Acacia nosed up to the Northport dock (prior to the break wall, 
of course) and Coasties formed a grocery brigade, passing stores from the 
Shannon delivery truck to the ship's deck. Once groceries, passengers and the
 reduction gear replacement part (a piece that weighed in at #400) were loaded, the cutter 
headed for the Potato Dock, where the process was reversed.   This time, 
however,passengers walked an improvised gangplank and the 
ship's crane swung the cargo to shore.  This was the last time the
 Acacia was seen for several weeks, as she worked her 
regular assignment keeping ore boat traffic moving.

First, repairs had to be made.  The cutter Acacia, home-ported then in Sturgeon Bay, made an emergency run to bring across the weekly allotment of groceries for Mann's Store, and also the Twin Disc transmission part, which had been flown from New Orleans to O'Hare Airport, and then was picked up by Arni and Mary Richter.  We had no idea then, that even after repairs were accomplished, we would not be able to get under way again for some time due to heavy ice in and beyond the Door.

From L to R:  Bill Schutz, Bill Jorgenson, Mark Dewey, Rich Ellefson, 
Kevin Kruegerand Hoyt Purinton.  (I was the photographer)

Kenny Koyen drove his Dodge Power Wagon to Northport daily, picking up bulk freight for Island businesses.   We made daily runs with snowmobiles, too, towing sleds for the U. S. Mail and United Parcels, and whatever other freight we could manage.  On one run, as I recall, Nathan and I picked up Bob Rainsford and Ruth Wilcox, and their suitcases, passengers for the return run.  Most islanders stayed put, but for those who chose to travel, their first leg was by snowmobile, and then a friend's borrowed car at Northport.  A few arranged flights to or from the Island Airport.

Then (in 1995, I believe it was) a group of six from the Ferry Line, plus Kevin Krueger, made a late afternoon trip over the ice to Plum Island.  Daily, we'd watched a hole in the otherwise icy crossing near the Plum Island green can #1 as it closed up, getting smaller and smaller each day. Finally, it froze over solid.

I was convinced it would be safe going to Plum Island from Willow Point, near the Rutledge home on Green Bay Road.  We headed west for half a mile or so, and then came ashore close to the lagoon and away from the long, shallow reef, and we had no problems.  We rode single file in deep snow to the range lights, took a few photos, and then headed back to Washington Island, taking a tour along the west shore where Jack Hagen, among others, fished through the ice.

The strongest memory from that trip?  Bill Jorgenson riding his dad's (Walt's) Polaris, a snowmobile without padded seat, just a plywood board!  Bill taught us the meaning of "tough sledding."

Another form of tough sledding -

In the recent Peninsula Pulse we received in today's mail, Steve Grutzmacher, who professes to love numbers and statistics, reprinted three years of Door County township and village income.   The numbers he used, taken from public tax records, were in columns headed "Adjusted Gross Income" (for the townships) and the Adjusted Gross Income (for taxpaying individuals), which is more or less a per-household figure.

The figures were quite astounding.  Washington Island was listed in 2011 as averaging $32,240 per household, and 2012,  $37,700.   Although those two years' figures are somewhat comparable, in the other year cited, 2007, which may be considered "pre-recession," the figure was $73,155.  (This seems like an anomaly, a printing error.)   Among Door County's 14 townships, in 2011 and 2012 Washington Island placed dead last.

It is no secret that winters bring hard times, when many are scrambling to make ends meet.  Summers, for all our tourism and economic well-being, are too short to make up the difference.  When home starts lag, as they have for a number of years, ancillary businesses suffer, too.  People are resourceful, but the reality is that making maple syrup, cutting wood and plowing snow keep one busy, and maybe help stave off bill collection for a bit, but there is a tendency to go into the hole deeply during long winters.

No answers are readily apparent, other than, let's get on with summer and put some positive $$ back into those bank accounts.  I might add that this is true for a larger business, like the Ferry Line, just as it is for a mom and pop operation.  Earlier springs have generally brought with them more travelers, and folks who open their seasonal homes, less so when there are still snow banks in the woods.

Noxious Weed tamed, slightly -

If you somehow thought I might be commenting here on the prospect for medical marijuana in Wisconsin in this column, I have no desire to do so!

Instead, this is meant to further broaden Nikki Weed's apology via public forum.  She wrote this letter, we'd like to think, in heartfelt response to the many letters written when she dissed Washington Island and its people in her earlier Roundel, BMW owner club magazine, column.

A copy of Weed's response was tacked to the bulletin board at Mann's Store, and Hoyt took a cell phone photo of it, which is how I received this information.

Also published by Roundel,  just above Weed's apology, was Kerrie McDonald's well-written letter to Weed.  This also appeared, I am told, on Kerrie's Facebook page along with photos she's taken of Islanders.  Here is the text of Kerrie's letter:

"People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for"
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Ms. Weed,

I read your scathing column about Washington Island and, having grown up there, I can confidently say that you have sorely misjudged and misrepresented us.  Our community relies on tourism and your column is an offensive disservice to that industry.  

I hope that you will visit again but, until then, here is a glimpse of the people you so fiercely and unabashedly criticize.  The beautiful woman in photo 1 is the wife of ferry captain Joel.  The laughing children in photo 2 belong to ferry manager Rich.  The smiling deckhand in photo 3 is my brother Conrad.  The pictures surrounding them contain just a few of the many beautiful and intelligent people that make up the Island community.  

It seems to me that you came to Washington Island looking and listening for all the wrong things.  Life is more than BMW's and "reasonable good looks".  
Island people understand that and I hope that one day you will too.

Kerrie McDonald

The following is Weed's response: 

Posted at Mann's Store...
Nikki Weed replies:  As a former resident of Wisconsin, I apologize.  My mother and I drove up to Door County and had nothing but high hopes and dreams for what we would find on the island.  However, I did not plan ahead, and found many of the sights we wanted to see closed. Rather than take the opportunity to discover the natural beauty that is in abundance on Washington Island, I brooded about my mistake - and compounded that mistake when I wrote my column.  I meant no disrespect to Washington Island or its residents;  I can see now that what I meant to be an account of my own inner demons and foibles could be seen instead as an attack on a place and its way of life, and I am sincerely sorry. - NW

Apology accepted.

Now, if you'd care to bring a BMW car club to Washington Island some day, and infuse our local economy, we'd be happy to oblige you with information, a tour, and activities that might provide positive memories.

-  Dick Purinton


Don said...

During the last time Lake Superior froze over seriously, 1978, they were trying to sail year around. At the time, I was publishing a local magazine and I cadged a ride on the Roger Blough, to do a photo shoot for the mag. I don't know when I had been so excited. Unfortunately, the Blough get stuck in the ice of Lake Superior and lost a week of her shipping season, the week that I was scheduled to be aboard. Alas, I never got the opportunity again.
It would have been a great story, Dick, if I had been re-scheduled to leave last week.

Richard Purinton said...

A friend wrote with this added information, national averages for AGI (annual household income):
Historical Real Median Household Income for the United States

Date US
2012 $51,371
2011 $51,557
2010 $52,703
2009 $53,760
2008 $55,484
2007 $56,189
2006 $55,176
2005 $54,387

- DP

Richard Purinton said...

Here is another comment just received this morning, Sat. Mar. 15, 2014. (note that unless the reader expressly wishes, I don't publish names or email addresses, and most commenters do so "anonymously." I do appreciate all comments. Very few are denied publication or edited by me, unless I find them to be mean-spirited or otherwise offensive. - DP

Dear Dick,
As a fan of Door County, and the Washington Island Ferry, I really appreciate your periodic blogs. The recent ones for 3/14 and 3/11 were most fascinating. We will be coming to Door County in August, and will be using the ferry then. I do look at the web cam daily! Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Your blog & photos once again captured my attention. Especially enjoyed the remark about campers on Rock Island. In an act of questionable judgement in the first week of last March I opted to decline a trip to a tropical island to work in favor of visiting Washington Island. My rationale was business but mostly to photograph the low water levels and the ice/snow formations. On one spectacular clear/sunny day I hiked out to Rock Island to shoot and was quite surprised to meet a rather hearty woman who was camping on Rock Island with her husband during their annual vacation (you read that right). I later opined to my wife that this would be a vacation option to consider--a trial balloon that was not well recieved. I don't think I would have believed the camping remark had I not seen it myself.
Tad Gordon