Thursday, August 25, 2011

Through the Door

File:Map of Wisconsin highlighting Door Peninsula.PNG
We've now finished a week and a half trip through more of the Door Peninsula than many Wisconsinites have seen, and liked it well enough to agree that we'll be back, sometime.  It was in many ways the most scenic part of Wisconsin we've yet visited, and the roads were terrific for biking: well paved, not too hilly, and oh, so quiet.

We started and ended with visits to museums in Green Bay, which sits at the base of the Door Peninsula. The starter was the National Railroad Museum, a fairly impressive collection of rail cars and locomotives. One of their biggest stars is Big Boy, one of 25 built in the early 1940s for the Union Pacific RR.  At 1.2 million pounds, it was the heaviest steam locomotive ever built. We wonder if anyone running this monster ever did learn what every single control was for in this jumble of valves and dials.  Interestingly, although you could theoretically throw coal into the firebox, that's not how it was done since this engine burned coal faster than any human could heave it in -- it was fed automatically by a screw device from the coal car that ran behind the locomotive.

The museum had quite a few railroad cars as well, just two of which we've illustrated here, the kitchen from an early 20th century dining car and a mail car, where postal workers sorted the mail as they picked it up from towns and cities along a rail line.

Our first destination was Little Sturgeon Bay and a resort called Wave Pointe. Do any of our readers know why developers think it's cool to misspell "Point" these days? Well, misspelled or not it was a nice place with views over that little marina, or off to the side to the back portion of the bay. Across the bay the next morning we stopped to photograph this group of pelicans.

A little further on we had our own photo taken by another tourist, with Green Bay the bay (as opposed to Green Bay the city) in the distant background.

That was in Potawatomie State Park, and nearby we climbed the first of many similar towers around the peninsula for a view of Sturgeon Bay the bay -- yup, there's also Sturgeon Bay the city. The tower is 75 feet or 99 steps high, depending on how you want to think about it, and was built in 1932. The bay was 225' below us when we made it to the top.

By the way, that gash on the opposite side of the bay (you can click on the picture to enlarge it, then hit your back button to return to the blog) is Old Quarry County Park, and it illustrates what lies under the Door Peninsula -- dolomite limestone.  In fact, the spine of the Door Peninsula is part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geologic feature that is responsible for the massive climb by the Erie Canal at Lockport NY, for Niagara Falls itself, for the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, and for the Door Peninsula here in Wisconsin. Since dolomite is harder than rocks which were created later on top of it such as sandstone, shale and less durable forms of limestone, the escarpment resisted erosion better and remains where other rocks have been crushed and taken southwards by the continental glaciers, or carted off by eons of slow erosion by wind and water.

File:Niagara Escarpment map.png

The Door Peninsula and Door County (the northern 2/3rds of the peninsula) get their name from the French description of the ship's passage at the northern tip -- "Portes d'Enfer," i.e. The Door to Hell. There are a lot of sunken ships up there. Given that danger, and to cut a lot of miles off the trip from points to the south like Chicago or Milwaukee into Green Bay, a canal was cut across the peninsula in the 1870s. They only had to cut through a mile and a quarter, then dredge Sturgeon Bay a bit. Technically, much of Door Peninsula is actually now an island reachable only via any of three bridges. Needless to say, there was no need for locks on a canal like that.

People talk of the "bay side" and "lake side" (west and east sides respectively) of the peninsula as the busy side and the quiet side, in the same order, and we saw why. There is only one town on the lake side, and it's fairly small. We encountered some sand dune beaches a short ways north of the canal, then charming Moonlight Bay further up.

Between those two placid spots is the one dramatic place on the lake side, Cave Point County Park, where Lake Michigan is taking on the Niagara Escarpment and sometimes winning.  In fact, there was one bedroom-sized chunk of the peninsula sitting in the lake, awaiting further dismemberment by ice cracking and by waves.

If you look closely at the map of the Door Peninsula above, you will notice one sizable island plus a few small ones right above the Portes d'Enfer. This 1896 lighthouse is on Plum Island, one of the obstacles in that strait that used to hurry sailors on to the nether world. We passed it on a ferry to that bigger spot, Washington Island, whose main charm is its remoteness -- $28 r/t for the 2 of us and our bike, much more for a car, will do that to a place. But Washington Island did have some "sights," such as Sand Dunes County Park on the south side, where we had a picnic lunch with a trio of turkey vultures soaring above us, perhaps eyeing our Wisconsin cheese and crackers.  And then there's the absolutely amazing Lighthouse Beach Park on the north shore, with its rounded dolomite stones reaching right into the water in the third photo, just perfect in a challenging sort of way for building things, in the last one.

There were two sights worth mentioning in the center as well. One was Mountain Wayside Park, though the "mountain" is so short that it takes another 75' tower to get you 225' above Lake Michigan for the view north. That's the quiet road we biked along to the base of the hill, where this 119-step staircase did much of the ascent for us, past a little fern grotto on the shaded north slope of the hill.

The final highlight of our visit to Washington Island was the Stavkirke built by the local Lutheran Church. It's patterned after a church in Norway that was built in 1150 A.D.  Washington Island has a strong nordic background, and in fact is the only place in America to see a significant number of Icelandic immigrants. The Stavkirke was a quiet place of contemplation, enhanced by the fact that you have to walk 100 yards into the birch-fir forest to reach it.

It was now time to ride back on the ferry and down the busy bay side, though this is Door County and busy is a relative term. One quiet side road took us to this outlook at Ellison Bluff County Park, and a series of remarkably quiet roads in Peninsula State Park brought us to views of the town of Ephraim and to Horseshoe Island, once a private enclave but now part of the state park.  In case you're wondering, that's part of the Upper Peninsula portion of the state of Michigan in the distance, about a dozen miles away as the crow flies.  If you enlarge the third photo you can see a sliver of the main part of Lake Michigan peeking over the hill to the right, but the lower half of Michigan is so far away -- over 50 miles -- that you can't see it thanks to the curvature of the earth.

We thought about riding this tandem at the state park beach but didn't think much of the idea of giving both riders a steering wheel.  That's a relationship breaker if ever there was one!  We also checked out the 1868 Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, one of the shortest lighthouses we've ever seen.

We spent an extra day in the nearby town of Fish Creek, seen here from the park. That was partly to see the park but also to feel unhurried as we had tickets to hear the final concert of the Peninsula Music Festival's 3-week season. The orchestra is composed of musicians from orchestras around the country, most of them first or second chairs, and they were just terrific performing Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto, Wagner's Siegfried's Rhine Journey, and Jeff's favorite, the Rosenkavalier Suite by Richard Strauss.

One more quiet road got us to stop for a photo, Cottage Row in Egg Harbor, then we got on the totally quiet Ahnapee Trail to Algoma, at the Lake Michigan base of the Door Peninsula. We were impressed with how orderly they've gotten the birds to be down by the Algoma Lighthouse.

And now we've come back through the city of Green Bay to pay a visit to Heritage Hill State Park, a collection of historic buildings from northeast Wisconsin. They have about 20 historic structures, but we'll illustrate just three: a cabin that was built by a fur trader some time prior to 1830; a wigwam, actually a reconstruction of ones built by Jesuit explorers and missionaries who were among the first white men to visit Wisconsin starting in the late 1600s; and the general ward from the base hospital at Fort Howard, which was built to protect Wisconsin from the British after the War of 1812, and was abandoned in 1841 when Canada proved to be a peaceful neighbor after all.

Lest our readers think our trip lacks any challenges other than the miles ridden, we'll close with two photos to illustrate three of them. Weather is the first challenge, and heat and humidity were major issues for us until two weeks ago.  We've been much luckier avoiding rain, though we did have to hang out somewhere for a while when this thunderstorm bore down on us one day on the Door Peninsula. We saw a dozen lightning strikes as it approached, which succeeded quite effectively in getting our attention.
Keeping the bike running well is the second challenge, but we've also had fairly good luck with the tandem, though we did break one spoke that a bike shop replaced and have had 4 flats that Jeff has repaired.  We also had a derailleur cable fray, but we had a spare and the repair took us less than 20 minutes.

If you look closely at Jeff working on that inner tube, however, you'll see the result of our third challenge after weather and bike problems -- motel rooms.  Every week we have to learn the layout of 5 or 6 new ones so that we can navigate through them to the potty in the middle of the night.  For instance, in one place we both visited the john in a bathroom that was particularly dark at 3 a.m., and both had the impression that it had the most uncomfortable seat we had ever rested our buns on. Then, after dawn, we discovered that each of us had sat on the toilet seat sideways! Well, on the Door Peninsula Jeff zigged around a wall when he should have zagged, and that cut over the eyebrow is a result.  A day later Louise nailed a chair leg with her pinky toe, surprisingly the first biker-furniture assault of this trip (last year we had 3 or 4).

If the walls and furniture don't get us first, we'll be at the end of the bike trip in one week, when we reach Milwaukee. We'll wrap up the bicycling part of this year's blog in our next entry.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Into the North Woods

We left you last in southern Wisconsin.  We're now leaving the North Woods that we've traversed for a few days and about to explore the famed Door Peninsula. 

We started this segment in Frank Lloyd Wright territory -- his famed home Taliesin is a few miles from the route we took, and he spent many of his early years in this area.  He designed only one warehouse in his career, and we passed by and photographed it in Richland Center.  It's known as the A. D. German Warehouse and was built in 1915.  Architectural historians lump it in Wright's "Mayan" period, with good reason as you can see.  Just outside Richland Center we passed what is referred to as a "natural bridge."  A stream does indeed flow through the hole in the rock toward the viewer, but calling it a "bridge" seems a stretch too far, though it is certainly picturesque regardless of its pontine qualities or lack thereof.

Then, for three days, we did about 90 of the 100+ miles in the Elroy-Sparta trail complex.  We'll let this sign tell the story of the Elroy-Sparta.  It was so successful it was extended in both directions, ending up in three additional names for the three additional segments.  One website calls it the Four-In-One Trail.  Anyway, this is our fourth time on one or more of the segments, the only trail we've ridden that much other than ones in our home turf of the Puget Sound area.
Once again, it's tunnels that provide a big draw.  Here's one of the two shorter ones that are about 1400' long and navigable without a flashlight, sort of, though it is dark enough in the middle third that you cannot see the side walls without your own light, only aim at the elusive Light At The End of The Tunnel.  The third one is 3800', the longest rail trail tunnel in the country until Washington State opened the Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel a few years ago. And the Elroy-Sparta does draw in the cyclists -- we saw over a hundred in our three days, pretty good for a trail that's over 100 miles from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee or any other city of significant size.  Here's Louise chatting with a couple in their 70s who are biking from their home in Illinois to someplace in the Dakotas, and then Melanie and Trillium, two sisters from Bellingham who started in Boston and are pushing hard for Trillium to get back in time for classes at Western Washington University.  If they can average 65 miles a day for the next 6 weeks, they'll have it nailed.  We exchanged email addresses and hope to hear from them again as they head west.

The last of the four trails brought us out to the Mississippi River near Trempeleau WI, where we took a side road right along the river to Perrot State Park.  We parked the bike at the ranger station and climbed over 500' up to Brady's Bluff for some more terrific shots of the river, including one with a barge headed upstream and another with a train headed downstream.  We spent the night in Trempeleau, and during the hours we were awake heard trains headed up or down the river about every 60-75 minutes, and that was just on the Wisconsin side where the BNSF tracks are.  CN has tracks on the MN side that are almost as busy.  And those are not short trains -- we counted cars on four that went by as we walked to and from dinner and/or during our meal, and they ranged from 97 to 137 cars behind the locomotives.  That lone hill, known as Trempeleau Mountain, is a piece of the limestone bluff that the river once ran to the right of before shifting to the left, leaving only this little bay that is rapidly turning into what is known as bottom land as it silts in and becomes terra firma once again.

We crossed the Mississippi to Winona Minnesota and it was easy as pie -- first took a trail past some houseboats and two railroad bridges, one clearly abandoned, and then a bike path on the bridge itself that looks narrow but was perfectly fine. 

The next day we rode up the Minnesota side to Wabasha and a fascinating visit to the National Eagle Center, where we learned more than we knew we could learn about these grand birds.  This area attracts numerous bald eagles, in large part because in winter the fast water of the entering Chippewa River stirs up the Mississippi enough to keep it ice-free for quite a few miles.  The center houses a half dozen eagles injured enough to be unable to return to the wild, and brings them out for talks several times a day.  Here's Louise checking out an eagle egg that was passed around and one of the eagles showing us his wingspan and his bad left eye.  Rabbit was on the menu on the day we were visiting, not as interesting according to the guide as rat day, although the twinkle in his eye told us that his story of eagles slurping up the tail like spaghetti was a tall tail -- er, tale.  Not all the eagles in the area were in the center -- they had telescopes on a balcony that we used to see two others perched in trees across the big river, looking for rabbits, rats and other delicacies on their own.

We crossed the Mississippi for the seventh and last time at Wabasha and headed into the Drifless Area, a section of Wisconsin that missed being steamrollered by any of the four major continental glaciers that covered the northern part of what's now the U.S. between 20,000 to 10,000 years ago.  Lucklily we only crossed a small part of it before getting into the valley of the Chippewa River for a flat ride into the interior.  These hills are challenging, but the scenery sure is interesting back in these valleys!  We had a short day and went canoeing in the afternoon on the Chippewa, and it was one of the most interesting canoe trips we've taken.  The river was exceptionally high though not quite at flood stage, so it was flowing fast.  We were taken by truck 10 miles up the river, and without paddling all that hard found ourselves back at the boathouse 2 hours later!  Even more exciting, we had four flyovers by bald eagles, three adults and one brown-headed juvenile. 

We find ourselves answering questions about where we're headed almost every day.  One of the most frequent questions we get after folks hear the kind of mileage we're putting on is "what roads do you bike on???"  It's usually spoken in a way that seems to actually ask, "You guys aren't crazy enough to head down the Interstate, are you . . .?"  Well, on this trip so far about 35% of the miles have been on trails, mostly fairly safe and uneventful places for a bike ride, but every now and then . . .

Except for that little problem, our ride across the width of Wisconsin was pretty easy for the first third of the way, done on the paved Chippewa River Valley Trail shown above.  The next third was a bit more challenging, and involved covering some big miles in an area with few paved roads.  Adding to the equation was a powerful tail wind that promised to blow at 15-20 mph for two days.  That's great when you go with the wind, not so great when you go 90 degrees to the wind, as we would have had to do to stay on back roads that jogged here and there for a few miles at a time.  So we tried the fast highway for about 50 of those 100 miles through central Wisconsin, and it turned out just fine.  In fact, it was faster still, since we got an additional boost when large trucks went by.  For those two days we averaged 18 mph while on the back roads, over 19 mph on the shoulder of the highway.  In case you're wondering, the rumble strip wasn't all that rough to ride over, and when there were long breaks in traffic we did cross it to ride on the slightly smoother cement surface.  But the smooth part of that asphalt shoulder is wider than it looks, and was no problem to ride down -- particularly with the wind as our additional partner!

That road is Highway 29, the last major road across the state even though it's only about half-way up the state.  But the vast majority of the state lives below it (it runs from a point near the Twin Cities through Eau Claire to Green Bay), and the area above it is generally referred to as the North Woods or sometimes Northwoods.  Hwy 29 roughly parallels the 45th parallel, staying just a mile or two south at the closest approach.  For West Coasters like us, that doesn't seem very far north -- even Portland OR is north of that line -- but in the eastern half of the country it is the north, as 45 degrees marks the northern border of NY and Vermont, and runs quite a bit north of Bangor ME.

For the last third of our passage across Wisconsin to Green Bay we rode 80 miles of the Mountain Bay Bike Trail, and it truly felt like the North Woods.  For one thing, we had dense woods on either side of the trail 95% of the way.  More importantly, we almost never had a road running nearby.  Most rail trails have nearby roads because railroads got there first and took the best routes, then roads generally squeezed in next to them to take advantage of that route.  The railroad that became our trail did the usual thing of making a bee-line regardless of direction when it was on flat ground, and winding gently around hills otherwise.  But the roads hereabout stayed on the north-south-east-west grid that defines midwest geography, and so we rarely saw roads except when our trail crossed one, every 2-3 miles.  Since houses need roads for access, we almost never saw houses either.

Sounds boring, but it wasn't.  Jeff especially was busy staying on track, as it were, since the smoothest part of the trail was the track to either side of the median, and there were occasional sticks to avoid or animal burrows built right on the trail by critters that clearly didn't read the trail user rules.  But those deep woods kept changing, we stopped a few times to talk to a couple from Virginia to take this trail, to explore this once-busy railroad station that used to watch 65 trains a day go by, and to visit a small town nearby for lunch.  We also had to be sure to take the correct branch when another trail joined ours for a few miles.

And we also had a great North Woods experience at Konkapot Lodge.  It was built by an extended Mohican family on the Mohican Reservation here in northern Wisconsin, and the folks running it were as friendly as the place was inviting with its glowing log architecture.  We had a terrific dinner a mile down the road at an Indian casino -- best vegetables of the entire trip, in fact -- and we slept like lambs with the windows open to the quiet woods surrounding the lodge.

We're spending a rest day in Green Bay, which also coincides with a prediction of 70% chance of rain all day.  Hopefully we'll figure out how to navigate the local buses to the National Railroad Museum for some mostly indoor activity.  After that, we're on to the famous Door Peninsula for a week and a half.  We'll tell you all about "The Door" in our next blog.