Washington Island: slow pace, rich rhythms

My borrowed bike has no gears or hand brakes, but there is little need for either. The terrain is rural and relatively flat, the traffic sparse, breeze gentle. Shade seems to appear whenever sunrays get annoying.

So little exists to alarm or disengage the average rider’s rhythm. Forget the need to race, and no audience pokes fun, prods you along or judges your level of athleticism.

“Trespassers will be violated,” one driveway sign says. “Friends and guests welcome,” insists another. A “Capital Brewery Island Wheat” board sprouts from a field where the grain for this Wisconsin beer is cultivated.

Riding a no-speed bike encourages you to take it slow and take it all in. A slow pace makes it easier to notice surroundings, to think about how you fit in with the littlest creations and creatures – while en route to nowhere in particular.

Doe and fawn graze at dusk, hours after most businesses have closed for the day. The average TV retrieves few, or no, channels. If you must stay plugged to others, rely on a phone card, not a cell phone.

A good day on Washington Island, off the tip of Door County, ends with a cone of Double Dutch Fudge, licked in sync with the lazy swaying of a wooden swing for two, near the busiest intersection of town. It is a four-way stop, not quite 10 p.m., and two vehicles are unlikely to cross paths during this time of day.

Many of the people who visit this 35-square mile island come for just the day, then hop a ferry back to the mainland at 6 p.m. or earlier. Here are a few of the things that summer day-trippers won’t experience.

– Tuesday Burger Night at Karly’s, where about 300 people yak and sip outside, while waiting for dinner. The choices are straightforward: Burger or cheeseburger? Raw, fried or no onions? It’s $3.50 for a burger and fries.

– Weekly worship inside the Stavkirke at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. The exquisite little wooden church, patterned after one in Norway, seats only about two dozen people. The Rev. Frank Maxwell – officiating in sandals, khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt – wraps up the service in 30 minutes. Expect his guitar music stand to double as a Eucharist table.

– Six-course meals, with matching wines, cost three figures (per person) at the Washington Hotel’s restaurant, where chef/proprietor Leah Caplan seeks ingredients from organic farmers and other Wisconsin artisan purveyors. Island-grown wheat, ground in the restaurant’s flour mill, is transformed into crepes that hold strawberries, gnocchi topped with grated Sarvecchio cheese, pizza crust (topped with smoked whitefish and boiled egg bits).

– The same hotel makes and serves wheat doughnuts from 9-11 a.m. on Wednesdays, croissants on Saturdays, until Labor Day.

Sunset Resort, in business since 1902, shows off its ethnic heritage during breakfast. On the menu, served 8-11 a.m., is Swedish limpa bread, crepe-like Icelandic pancakes (topped with cherry sauce) and Norwegian Grilled Toast (which has a crumb coating; eat it with cherry-rhubarb jam).

– Being at the resort for sunset is a treat for the eyes, but the view also is grand at Peoples Park, near the largely undeveloped Little Lake.

– Shops are scattered throughout the island, and each one seems to have at least a slightly different specialty. Serious outdoor enthusiasts – particularly fishermen – gravitate to the Island Outpost for lures, apparel and gifts.

– People who weave, sew or craft items with fiber in other ways need to visit Sievers, which for decades has sold looms and presented fiber arts classes. In the gift shop are colorful, classy and varied works by former students.

Whenever you visit, realize that you’ll need to bring or rent a vehicle of some type (unless taking a 90-minute Cherry Train or Viking Tour Train). Cory Anders of the Dor Cros Inn, 1.5 miles from the ferry dock, began offering bikes for rent ($5 for two hours) after seeing too many tourists arrive on foot, then valiantly try walking the three miles to downtown.

The number of people who stay overnight during summer swells Washington Island’s population to around 2,000. This includes the 700 year-round residents, many of whom work two or more jobs to make a living and meet the basic needs of islanders and visitors.

Ken Koyen runs The Granary bar-restaurant, grows wheat and fishes commercially. Valerie Fons, a Methodist minister on extended sabbatical, operates Bread and Water, a bakery-restaurant and kayak excursion business. Numerous other examples exist.

Accommodations run from rustic cottages and tidy bed-and-breakfasts to full-service but small resorts and inns. It is the same way with other enterprises; they are an unusual mix of down-home and sophisticated – but it works.

Washington Island is a 30-minute ferry ride from the tip of Door County. For more: www.washingtonislandchamber.com, 920-847-2179.

Note: Dinner for two at the Washington Hotel was subsidized during this visit to Washington Island.