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  In August 2007, Greg Greene of Oshkosh and I did an epic paddle - 27.8 miles in surfskis around Washington island, located across fabled "death's door" at the very tip of the Door County peninsula.

Erik Borgnes

   We left from the Northport ferry dock on mainland, Door County, and set off on a North/NE course towards the northwest tip of Washington Island. That day, the NOAA marine report called for 2-4 ft seas with the wind out of the WNW. For the first mile, the waves were on our beam and only about 1-2 ft. Only 2 miles later, we became more exposed to the NW waves that had traveled across the long 60 mile fetch of Green Bay. While the winds weren't especially strong at the time, i.e. about 10 knots, the waves grew steadily to 3, 4, and some close to 5 ft in base to peak height because of the previous nights winds. As we headed diagonally across the Death's Door, we could see the U.P. of Michigan straight ahead, to our right were Washington and Plum Islands, and behind us was Lake Michigan. We neared the bluffs on the north shore of Washington Island and then skirted the pebble beach, with driftwood and occasional cabin hidden among the evergreens along the shore. Finally, at the N tip of the island we turned southeast WITH the waves. We opted to paddle straight towards the isthmus between Washington and Rock Islands, skipping well known Schoolhouse Beach at the head of the bay to our right. For the next downwind leg, we both worked on surfing skills on the now clean 2-3 ft waves, hooting and hollering in the backdrop of 68 F water and sunny skies thinking that life doesn't get much better than this.

The end of the downwind leg was at the narrows between Washington Island and Rock Island.

This is why it's called Rock Island

This area is pretty majestic. In front of us, was the Thordarson boat house which is worth the trip in itself just to see. To our right was Washington Island and the small inter-island ferry dock. To our left was smaller Rock Island, a state park in itself, with its north facing bluffs and southern beaches.

Inside the boathouse

Approaching the narrows, the water got shallower and shallower. The bottom was covered in white sand which gave the water incredible shades of light blues and greens and a tropical appearance. We skirted sandbars to our left and right. Straight ahead we could look out onto the expanse of Lake Michigan. That was mile 14 of our trip. At that point, we decided that we were feeling fine so we skipped the brat and burger stand in the bay by the small ferry dock, and we pushed on southwest for the next 8 mile leg.

Morning at the Beach

The southwest shore was fairly flat protected water, but we were now coping with a 10-15 knot headwind the whole way. There were lots of rock shoals that stuck way out into Lake Michigan there and more than once I scraped my rudder while over 100 yds from shore. The water was so clear, though, that it was pretty easy to avoid the shallow areas. We saw a couple of bald eagles along that leg as well as some monster 3 foot fish in the water. We stayed tucked in close to shore to get out of the wind, but by doing so, we had to pick our way through the shallows and sandbars. It was a more interesting course to paddle, but in retrospect, it would have been faster to have stayed further offshore.

At the SW corner of the island, we cut north to Detroit Harbor, the main commercial area of Washington Island - if you can call it that. At that point, we had been paddling for about 4 hours and, understandably, we were looking
for any place with food. The obvious failsafe spot, as viewed from the water, was the Northport-Washington Island ferry dock area. So we headed there, beached the surfskis on the sand, and went into the marina restaurant dripping wet. That was the first time we set foot on the island. Even though we never ventured further than the stores right in front of us, you could tell that Washington Island was a pretty special place. I bet it was like mainland Door County was 40 years ago with lots of characters and interesting history. Greg and I split a large coffee, a coke, 2 cookies, a powerbar, and a thick, moist piece of buttermilk coffeecake that we bought from a restaurant that would have been equally at home in the Florida Keys. Before we got too hyperglycemic, we got back into the surfskis and set out west, into the wind, for the final 45 min Death's Door crossing. This time, it was pretty much a cakewalk because we stayed in the lee of Plum Island. Between Plum and Northport, the waves were only 1-2 ft but we found bigger waves to surf from the passing ferries and tourboats.

Here's the link to our GPS track:

On a windier day, the route that we did had the potential to be pretty harrowing because of our two crossings of Death's Door and their considerable open water exposure. But, as a 24 mile circumnavigation only, you would get blown towards the island when you're on the windward side or be on flat water when on the leeward shore, so it would be a pretty controlled paddle. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Washington Island is THE scenic circumnavigation to do and one that I will do again.

Erik Borgnes










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