Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

20 miles of Washington Island

Despite a cold rainy start that had me questioning my decision, the day turned into a cool, relaxing day on the island filled with plenty of biking. I managed to catch most of the main attractions, at least the ones I was most interested in seeing. When I added up the mileage, I’d done about a 20 mile day. I haven’t done a ton of days longer than 20 miles in the last five years, and this one felt really good.

Greg’s Surly Long Haul Trucker bike parked against a log fence. In the background, Green Bay looking west lies through the trees.

Lake Michigan is a surprising lake. Like any large body of water, its shoreline takes on new colors, textures, and populations depending on what where you catch it. Down in Milwaukee, it’s blue, covered in marina, and busy with mostly recreational traffic. Islands are fascinating because the waters open up in every direction, exposing the lake’s immensity in a unique way.

Washington Island is big and compact enough that most of the action is inland from the shore. There are cattle and lavender farms on the island, a grassy airport, and miles of road on a tidy grid to connect all of it together. I’m glad I didn’t follow my instincts to only look at the lake because I would have missed some wonderful highlights.

I’m not typically a person who goes out of my way to look at churches but this one was worth the stop. This is the island’s Stavkirke (Norwegian style Stave Church), maintained today by Trinity Lutheran (ELCA), was built in the 1980 and 90s, topped in 1999. It’s modeled, though, after a much older church in Borgund, Norway. That church was built in 1150.

It’s unfortunately unusual to see buildings constructed, furnished, and decorated almost entirely out of wood. Maybe that’s why another tourist looking around was trying to find the stonework that must be there (there is none), but you needn’t suspend disbelief to appreciate the intricate joinery and carving in this space because it’s all on display in front of you.

Another inland highlight from the day was my favorite kind of geographic oddity: A recursive lake! That is, a lake on an island in a lake. Little lake hangs up in the northwestern corner of Washington Island and was home to a Late Woodland People’s settlement, one of the oldest known communities to inhabit Wisconsin. It’s a 41 acre, spring fed lake that drains directly into Lake Michigan. At only 6 feet deep it would be a decent lake for some good paddling, but not much else for recreation. It’s quiet and peaceful. On the south shore is the Jacobsen Museum and a few homes, and the rest of the lake is protected by the Door County Land Trust.

I briefly stopped at Schoolhouse Beach in between Little Lake and the Stavkirke. The air was a little too cold and windy, and the water a bit too wild, for my taste so I didn’t swim. Instead, I took a rest and enjoyed the view of Green Bay stretching north toward Upper Michigan and appreciated the unique rocks. These rocks were polished by glaciers and refined by the sloshing waters of the Great Lakes over thousands of years, and is one of only a few limestone pebble beaches in the world.

Lake Michigan makes for a pretty good natural rock tumbler.

The last thing I want to highlight is the Nelsen’s Hall Bittter’s Club. Nelsen’s is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Wisconsin and never closed during prohibition on account of the owner, Tom Nelsen, having a pharmacist’s license. This allowed him to continue serving Angostura bitters as a tincture by prescription. As much as I appreciate the legal hacking required to make that happen, I can’t imagine getting too tipsy on bitters alone. I took a shot of the stuff to join the club and I’m now a card carrying member.

A business card sized piece of paper stamped with a pink thumbprint from Nelsen’s Hall. It reads: “This certifies that Greg Boone has taken ‘the Cure’ by consuming the prescribed measure of bitters and as such is a fully initiated member of the Bitters Club. You are now considered a full-fledged Islander and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other Islanders.”
My official Bitters Club Certifícate, inked with a thumbprint of bitters. Nelsen’s remains the largest purveyor of Angostura bitters in the world in part thanks to the club that sells it by the shot.

This week was a good one to be up on the island because it’s a slow week before Labor Day weekend, one of their busiest. So there wasn’t a ton of mingling and dancing to do, but the folks I did get to chat with were friendly and accommodating. I look forward to coming back soon!