by Dave Weiman
Published In Midwest Flyer – December 2017/January 2018
Nestled between the beautiful turquoise blue waters of Lake Michigan to the east, and Green Bay to the west, with hilly topography and rock outcroppings, and beautiful, green deciduous and pine forests, is Washington Island, off the tip of the Door County Peninsula in northeast Wisconsin. The island is also located north of the tension line (the line marking the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole). The island was founded in 1850 and became home to immigrants who established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in the U.S. It is Wisconsin’s largest island (36 square miles) and dubbed “The Crown Jewel” of Door County.
The French named the treacherous waters separating Washington Island from the Door County Peninsula, “Portes des Morts” or Door of Death. This is where Door County gets its name.
One day a group of 350 Pottawatomie Indians tried canoeing between the Door County Peninsula and Washington Island and drowned in the process. Today, you can fly to Washington Island, or cross Death’s Door in a ferry. I prefer to fly!
Washington Island’s First Aviator
The first aviator on Washington Island was Claude C. Cornell, son of veteran fisherman John W. Cornell of the fishing company J.W. Cornell & Sons. Cornell owned a cabin-class Stinson, powered by a 125 hp Kinner engine.
Washington Island Airport
Known today throughout the Midwest for its Annual Fish Boil Fly-In in July, the airport (2P2) was established in 1935 and features two turf runways: Runway 14/32, 2232 X 150 feet, and Runway 02/20, 2250 X 150 feet.
When we called the airport this fall, we were sadden to learn that long-time Washington Island Airport Manager, Walt Nehlsen, 86, passed away on July 24, 2017, after a brief illness. He was preceded in death by his wife, Evelyn. The Nehlsens are survived by their three children: Marilee (Jeff) Nelson of S. Beloit, Illinois; David (Linda) Nehlsen of Whitewater, Wisconsin; and Peter (Leila) Nehlsen of Washington Island, Wis.; 10 grandchildren, 17 great grandchildren, and hundreds of friends in the aviation community.
Memorials to Walt Nehlsen may be given in his name and will be used for several causes he fully supported, including WIChip (Service/Support on Washington Island), and Leader Dogs for the Blind. Condolences may be sent to the family in care of Peter Nehlsen, 1141 Old West Harbor Road, Washington Island WI 54246.
The Nehlsens retired to Washington Island in 1998 from Whitewater, Wisconsin, where Walt was a farmer and an electrician, and Evelyn, a loving mother and homemaker. Walt continued flying on the island, and served as airport manager up to the time of his death. He worked hard for his community and loved aviation. He was also sensitive to our serviceman, especially those who served and died in World War II. It meant a lot to him to visit the American cemeteries at Normandy, France and Pearl Harbor.
Walt saw the airport not only as an important lifeline for residents, but as a source of economic development when pilots visited the island on vacation.
The new airport manager is Richard (Dick) Donnelly, who learned to fly in the 1960s, and once had aspirations of becoming an aircraft mechanic.
Dick first came to Washington Island with his wife, Judy, 34 years ago. The Donnellys became full-time residents 20 years ago when Dick retired as a computer programmer for Caterpillar in Joliet, Illinois.
The airport has runway lights for Runway 2/20, and as soon as the trees are removed on the approach end of Runway 32, lights will be available there, as well. Other improvements planned for the airport include a new terminal building for pilots, a new lawnmower, and better tie-downs. There are no plans to pave the runways.
Washington Island Attractions
Attractions on Washington Island include water sports, bicycling miles of trails, golfing, fine and casual dining, a performing arts center, boat cruises, ferry rides between the various islands, lighthouse tours and historical museums, caves, quality art and antique shops, and wonderful scenery.
No worries about ground transportation upon your arrival. Bicycles are available to pilots at the airport free of charge, thanks to the generosity of local pilot, Mike Burger, as is a van owned by the local Lions Club. The bicycles and van are both on a first come, first serve basis.
Bicycles can also be rented at Island Rides Bicycles, and they will deliver and pick-up the bikes at the airport. Call 920-847-2126.
Of course, I arrived in time for lunch, so Dick drove me to a relatively new restaurant called Jackson Harbor Soup. Dining is available inside or outside on the deck overlooking Jackson Harbor, where you can catch the ferry over to scenic Rock Island, a primitive 912-acre pedestrian-only island where you can take a walking tour of Rock Island State Park, and tour the Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse), and stone buildings built by a wealthy inventor who owned the island between 1910-45. You can hike 10 miles of trails, a one-mile interpretive trail, and 5,000 feet of beach (www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks/specific/rockisland/index.html).
Sites on Washington Island are many.
The Art & Nature Center features a working beehive, bird calling station, exhibits, and artifacts in a circa 1904 school house building.
The Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum includes refurbished buildings of a former fishing village with artifacts from the commercial fishing past, and photographs and videos on local maritime history. Coast Guard, ferryline and area shipwreck displays are also featured. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.
The Farm Museum showcases life on a Washington Island farm in the 1880s, including original buildings moved to the museum site from island locations, and old-time agricultural implements.
The Stavkirke is a church built by island craftsmen who incorporated shipbuilding techniques and ancient Norse tradition. The structure lives and breathes like a Viking ship.
Schoolhouse Beach has the distinction of being one of only five beaches in the world with all white limestone “polished” rocks, and is part of the Niagara Escarpment. Schoolhouse Beach is a protected harbor area and the island’s original shipping port. The swimming is excellent there, if you don’t mind cold water, and the beach is marked and features a diving raft.
Red Barn Park/Gislason Public Beach has a playground, picnic area, grills, trails, and benches. The Red Barn offers summer events, such as Family Storytime beginning at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, and live entertainment on Friday. Local and visiting artists perform original music and theatrical events.
Sand Dunes Beach allows picnic lunches, but no campfires.
Trail riding with hypoallergenic Icelandic horses is available at Field Wood Farm, or walk with butterflies and moths in the gardens of the Butterfly House.
Mark your calendar for the 2018 Washington Island Fish Boil Fly-In, Saturday, July 21 from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., sponsored by the Washington Island Lions Club. We suggest arriving early to avoid the rush!
For additional information on Washington Island and Washington Island Airport, call Dick Donnelly at 920-535-0546 (cell) or 920-847-2553 (home), and visit the following websites: www.WashingtonIsland-wi.gov, and www.VisitWashingtonIsland.com. We suggest that you download a map at http://WashingtonIsland-wi.com/island-map/, and check the weather at www.Weather-wi2P2.com. Fuel is not available on Washington Island, but it is available on the mainland at Ephraim-Gibraltar Airport (3D2).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilots are encouraged to call the airport manager in advance to check on the availability of bicycles at the airport, and the availability of the Lions Club courtesy van, as both are available on a seasonal basis only! See contact information above for Dick Donnelly, airport manager.