Washington Island

August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

I don’t remember that I ever felt especially excited about islands. I gave them a fair level of fascination, from books such as Five Have A Mystery to Solve and of course all of the Anne of Green Gables series. But I grew up in spaces where the land stretched wide away from us, and a far horizon of earth greeting sky was the view to admire, as we watched storms and sunsets and the overwhelming blue of summer.

My father would say, and I would agree with him, that living on an island must make a person feel bound, with the land running out so quickly, cut off by water. Islands had an element of fear, in one’s inability to escape the small society they compelled. No, thank you, I thought. I may visit islands, but I wanted to live where I could ride my horse for miles and miles and miles; where I might get up one day and go as far as I please, and see where I end up.

Oh, but then.

Never say never. Life tends to turn one’s decidedness on its head (or, at least, mine does!). On our Door County adventure, we took a day trip to Washington Island, which is just off the tip of the peninsula, and now I am enchanted with islands, and that one especially.

The island is 23.5 square miles, and while tourism is its main industry (having overtaken fishing and agriculture) it still has a calm, even sleepy feel to it. The houses are primarily older and either cabin or farmhouse or gingerbread in style. There are docks and boats, of course; there’s a fantastic fiber shop/school, and a gathering place called Fiddler’s Green where artists and locals get together, especially in winter, to talk and be and do life in a way that recognizes their interdependence.

One of our first delights was a remarkable wooden church, called Stavkirke, which seems like it fell out of a fairytale. Behind it a prayer path meanders through the woods. We would miss church on Sunday so this gave us a moment of grounding in our faith. Reflection. I spoke blessing over family, and gratitude for this place, softly, but nonetheless with reverence. I think J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would approve.

We visited an older couple on their Scandinavian horse farm, featuring Gotlands and Icelandic ponies and a Fjord. The couple was quiet and kind and their horses were spunky and beautiful. They had a big white dog that looked like a Great Pyrenees, but wasn’t, and an affectionate black cat, and splendidly colored roosters and chickens, and chattery, cheerful ducks. I think this couple, and me, we are cut from the same cloth. This was just the start; as the day went on I began to feel as if this island was full of what Anne Shirley would call kindred spirits. It seemed as if I had discovered a mini, U.S. version of Anne’s beloved P.E.I. I skipped alongside my mother and told her so, and she laughed, and nodded.

For lunch we ate at a cafe run by a Methodist minister with six adopted children and a kayak museum in the back, displaying evidence of her days as a fairly renowned expedition kayaker. If one were to live here, I thought, what other sorts of people would one run into? What draws a person to a quiet island, a half-hour’s ferry ride away from shore? But I knew. The franticness of the rest of American society seemed . . . distant. It didn’t belong here, and it felt farther away than a boat trip past Death’s Door, the watery passage where many a boat has succumbed to the intensity of Lake Michigan funneling into the Green Bay. This is a place for refuge-seekers.

Somewhere in the middle of the island we climbed a tower, to get a view of the farmland interspersed between the trees, and the water in the distance. And there is a Farm Museum, with a lovely barn and all sorts of old implements, snowshoes for horses, old churns and tool sharpeners, memories of a life I sometimes wish I might have lived, and sometimes think I might still.

“Just think,” I said to my father, “for Grandpa, this isn’t really history. Not like it is for us; this was normal life, a lot of it.” My grandfather has been gone for twelve years, but I am still fascinated with his life, a boyhood throughout the 1920s and a teenager during the Depression, a young man during World War II who had to stay home and farm his Dakota land. He ran a team of horses but saw the changes through the 40s and 50s, the rise of the tractor and chemicals and farms getting bigger and bigger. If he can see us from heaven, which I kind of suspect he can, I wonder what he thinks now. Of how agriculture is going, and how his stubborn granddaughter believes, in many ways, that going “backward” is going forward.

After a visit to the little Nautical Museum we needed to go back to the ferry, so we might get back to the mainland for ice cream and a swim. I wasn’t quite ready. And to think we almost didn’t go to the island in the first place! I hope it can stay as it is for a good long time. I hope I can go back again soon.

*Thanks to Kim & Elena Romkema again for many of these pictures, as my camera decided to hit the dust! There was so much more I wish I could have captured from this trip . . . guess there will need to be another!

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