Growing up in the Midwest, I spent many wintery Saturdays skating on ponds in the neighborhood. While they were small and well frozen over by New Year’s Eve, I’d still worry about falling through the ice. I’d clear a window through the snowy surface and peer down through the glazed surface looking and listening for cracks. It was inevitably hushed on the pond, the snow on the lawns, hills and trees absorbing any noise around my little world.
Visiting Door County, the quiet and well-endowed peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, I had the chance to go ice fishing with the dudes from Wacky Walleye. When our guide met us along the icy beach of Green Bay, he pulled up in a four-wheeler, our shuttle out to the heated shanties where novice and seasoned fishermen were already perched, pulling in walleye and whitefish. I figured, if the ice could hold this beast of an all-terrain vehicle, along with the amply proportioned guide, I’d be fine. And I was more than fine. Bouncing along the 3-mile trail out into the frozen bay, the world looked wider and more welcoming. Colorful shanties, some heated tents, others more permanent little cabins dotted the icy landscape in a line, following the ridge of the lake bottom below, where fish would gather ready for a fight.
Inside our shanty, shared by four bundled up bodies, we learned to cast our short rods, watching for the line to curl and go limp, signaling its contact with the bottom of the lake. Jigging my pole with short abrupt tugs up and down to tempt the whitefish, I felt tension as my pole arched against the weight at the other end. “Fish on!” I slowly and steadily reeled in my bounty, as the guide stood at the ready with a net and a broad smile. Finally, though the 10-inch-wide hole, I saw a big, bold… bouquet of zebra mussels. Drat! I stayed out ice fishing for a few hours, punctuating my jigging with walks among the shanties, eavesdropping on conversations inside among the (mostly) men who were holed up for the day. Wacky Walleye offers full and half-day excursions from $100, including tackle. BYO cooler to transport your catch, snacks and layers upon layers of warm clothing. While the sun is “warm” on Green Bay in January, the air hovers well below freezing.
Later that night, we dined on somebody else’s catch at a celebratory fish boil at the adorable White Gull Inn. The fish boil tradition began a century ago by Scandinavian settlers of the peninsula as an economical way to feed large, hungry crews of lumberjacks and fishermen. Churches picked up the tradition to raise money and neighbors from all over the county would flock for the fish and cherry pie. We waited, with a drink in hand, for the start of the “show.” The cook and ringmaster tossed in freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish to the huge pot of boiling potatoes over an open fire and huge flames erupt, signaling dinner is nearly ready. A simple wholesome meal was served buffet style, starring platters of chunky tender fish, soft salty potatoes, creamy coleslaw and pie.
That’s good fuel!
For winter travelers looking for an alternative to skiing holidays, Door County offers a slice of America that most of us have long forgotten, if we ever were lucky enough to know it. Small towns dot the lakeshore, historic bed and breakfasts, coffee shops and diners mixing with more elevated options. At Door County Coffee between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor, everyone is perky. That’s the Midwest hospitality and enthusiasm for their beans, not just the caffeine talking. After a made from scratch breakfast, I checked into their Coffee College where I learned they use only Specialty Class 1 Arabica coffee beans, which are the top 2% of what is grown in the world. You’ll find their recipe for Spicy Coffee-Infused Cowboy Sausage & Potato Hash on their website along with dozens of coffee-complementing recipes and an order form for bags of beans.
Outdoors, try snowshoeing or cross country skiing at Peninsula State Park where dramatic ice formations, frozen waves, catch the winter sun for a brightness that makes the world seem strong and fearless.
Bundle up for a winter hike through The Ridges Sanctuary where a volunteer or staff naturalist will guide you exploring the 1,600-acre preserve, the state’s oldest. Built in 1869 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the Upper Range Light and its companion Lower Range Light stand sentinel and are the only lighthouses of this design that are still on range and functional as navigational aids. These modest but enduring structures played a critical role in the history of Baileys Harbor and in the founding of The Ridges.