To the Island
by Norbert Blei
It was around 1956. My first visit. I was a guest of my future in-laws who had access to a house in Ephraim one week each summer. I remember taking a ride with them by car one afternoon all the way to Gills Rock—a considerable distance in those days. The plan was to buy some smoked fish for dinner at the small store on the dock, take in the view, watch the ferry from Washington Island arrive or depart, if you were lucky to be there at the time. Simple pleasures. I remember the Griffin or the C.G.Richter (two small ferry boats which carried about 8 or 9 cars and a number of passengers) sidling sidling up to the dock, the mooring line tossed, made fast, the engine powering down, the steel-plate, side ramp slowly lowered by a winch …steel banging on concrete, voices of the crew, the line of waiting automobiles up the hill, starting up, ready to be driven on-board …the small ferry rocking a little with the weight of each car leaving the dock for the deck, skillfully parked, slipped into the smallest space place by a crew member.
A quiet excitement in the air. A journey over the water to who-knows-where about to begin. It was not the Queen Mary arriving or departing, nor a Carnival cruise ship. But it was a picture postcard setting. Old-time Wisconsin. A man and a boy fishing from the dock. White gulls squawking, winging against a blue sky, setting down on roofs, on fishing tugs, sprinkling themselves upon the bobbing water…waiting for something to engage their nature…only to ascend suddenly against the bluff, the panorama in the distance. There was the feel of a lake breeze. The smell of fish. And the gentle warmth of the sun, destined to set hours away above, slipping into the waters and clouds…setting off a light-show you could never capture with a Brownie camera, though you kept trying. It all made for the wonder of travel. Being there…elsewhere. A certain calm.
A study of engagement, disengagement. Reflection. All from a small ferry dock. Something you could not quite find at the edge-of-nowhere, anywhere else in the Midwest, if you hailed from the city, came north each summer to find yourself on a Wisconsin peninsula surrounded by blue water and air so fresh air you could taste. Something to take back, to keep—the way it was, the way you were. And at that point, just around the harbor where the ferry docked…the ‘Top o’ the Thumb,’ the ‘Tip of the Peninsula’… at the very end of the Door peninsula, where on a clear day you could see all the way to Escanaba, Michigan, there was that strait folks talked about, separating the mainland from the Island, that dangerous passageway connecting Lake Michigan to Green Bay, steeped in local history, printed on maps as Porte Des Mortes. A watery graveyard of old sailing vessels. Memories of Indians, canoes, the French, schooners, white sails, storms, drowned sailors, lighthouses…foghorns singing mournfully over the depths.
A stretch of water the Island ferry continues to cross every day, every season, in all kinds of weather. If you looked very hard north, north-east from the tip of the peninsula, scanned the islands in the distance, the water meeting the horizon, there…maybe you caught just a glimpse of if it, the Island ferry about to enter, cross the haunted Death’s Door again…all of the back-and forth business of time and passengers, everything caught in such beautiful falling, lifting, innocent summer light. Just to witness this part of the end of the peninsula, the beginning of something else, got you thinking. Took you back, took you elsewhere—be it Gills Rock in the early days, or the dock at Northport where the ferries began running in 1984.
Who is the ferryman in the wheelhouse?
What must his life be like?.
What’s over there, anyway?
How could anyone live on an island?
There must be some real stories there.