Cruisin’ Death’s Door

Cruisin' Wisconsin
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We’re cruisin’ again! But this time, we’re heading north to Wisconsin.

Every Wednesday night from now until August, WGN’s Julian Crews takes you on a new adventure. And we kick off the travel season with a journey to Wisconsin’s rocky shore. Off the very tip of the Door County peninsula, we’re sailing through a legendary passage known as “Death’s Door.”

America’s Dairyland is filled with lakes and woodsy cabins, but we begin our journey with a look at Wisconsin’s maritime heritage. There are 11 lighthouses dotting 300 miles of untamed shoreline as rugged as the people themselves who for centuries have looked to the water for sustenance.

On the shore of Sturgeon Bay, climb aboard a Great Lakes tugboat at the Door County Maritime Museum. Or visit the Cana Island Lighthouse nearby and the Maritime Museum in Gill’s Point. All three places showcase the region’s civilian and naval shipbuilding heritage, along with commercial fishing and bountiful stone quarries, where the locals harvested rock, sending it southward to Chicago in 1871.

Door County limestone was used to rebuild the city after the Great Fire. But for Great Lakes sailor and rescuers with the US Life Saving Service in the days before steam engines and GPS, the rocky shoals made navigation treacherous.

“There’s three shipwrecks here. The Nichols, the Forest and the Gilmore. And they’re showing up here on our side scan sonar,” said Jim Robinson with Shoreline Scenic Cruises.

Diver and licensed captain, Robinson takes visitors to see the shipwrecks visible beneath the clear green water.

“ Hundreds of shipwrecks tell the grim story where unpredictable winds and powerful Lake Michigan tides crash into the swirling currents of Green Bay; turbulent waters, according to legend, feared by Native Americans and early French explorers who named the dangerous passage “Death’s Door.”

Few know the hazards better than Robinson and Shoreline Scenic Cruises. His colorful Death’s Door Lighthouse Cruise departs from Gill’s Rock, with additional tour boats out of Sister Bay. With the capable assistance of granddaughter Cora Orrick,a fully-licensed crew member, Robinson takes visitors on a nearly two-hour excursion to shipwrecks and islands for $39 per person. The first stop on the tour: the old Plum Island Lighthouse.

“If you look carefully in the lantern room, that’s the original Frennel lens. That lens was built in France and shipped over here and installed in 1896,” he said.

Battered by the fury of Death’s Door, an eerie sight, the haunting Pilot Island Lighthouse was abandoned long ago to huge flocks of shorebirds. But there’s also profound beauty in these blue-green waters.

You can also charter a special Shoreline Scenic Cruise to stunning Rock Island, a 900-acre forested state park, with picnic tables, camp sites and hiking trails, and where you take a deep breath and enjoy the view, exhilarated by your passage through Death’s Door.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Ferry to Door County Islands

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Sea Dogs exhibit at Door County Maritime Museum

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Cruisin’ Wisconsin web extra: Surviving ‘Death’s Door’

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