The Plum Island boathouse with Washington Island in the distance. The kayak entry point to the island will be near the boathouse.
Wisconsin's newest island destination
History and nature combine for a plum of an isle.
For visitors traveling up the Door County peninsula along State Highway 42, the end of the line comes at Death's Door. Crossed daily by ferry, the Porte des Morts, or "Death's Door" is the narrow strait in Lake Michigan between Washington Island and the Wisconsin mainland.
Just east of the ferry route, a large island with a light tower and some late 19th century buildings may pique the interest of ferry–goers. Up until this year, access to the island was mostly prohibited, leaving travelers to only wonder what might be waiting to be discovered.
Not anymore. Plum Island will be open to the public beginning Memorial Day weekend in 2015.
"People are naturally curious, and for most, this will be the first time they'll be able to get out to the island," notes Tim Sweet, president of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands.
Opening the island
Plum Island, along with Pilot Island, which is located farther east in Lake Michigan, were previously owned by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The lighthouses and range lights on the islands were essential for providing safe and efficient navigation on the most treacherous part of Lake Michigan. Ships would line up with the front and rear range lights on Plum Island to give them the correct bearing to enter Death's Door. By cutting through this strait, ships could save time by not having to go farther north to circle around Rock and Washington islands.
The lights are still used for navigation and the Coast Guard will continue to maintain them, but the decision to transfer the land stems in part from the agency looking to expunge ownership of surplus real estate.
The Coast Guard transferred the islands to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2007, and through a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, FWS determined that access could be allowed on Plum Island while still protecting the island's natural resources.
The FWS and Friends are working to conserve and protect the refuge's resources, preserve the lighthouses and historic buildings and provide recreation opportunities.
"Species protection is the priority, but we also want to offer public access to the island," explains Sadie O'Dell, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The Friends, Washington Island Ferry Line and local residents have been really helpful with transporting supplies and getting people to the island for work parties. The area has a history of community involvement and everyone has been pitching in."
Over the last several years, Friends members have been diligently fundraising and planning to address critical needs on Plum Island, performing much needed stabilization and restoration work to the historic buildings and dock, removing invasive species and preparing for public access by installing trail signs, clearing hiking trails, getting temporary bathroom facilities in place and building a welcome kiosk and other interpretive signage that will educate visitors about the unique wildlife resources and maritime history the island and refuge has to offer.
In 2014, two visitor access days were held on the island, but in 2015, the public will be able to visit the island throughout the summer.
A wildlife refuge
Plum, Pilot and Hog islands make up the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. At 325 acres, Plum Island is by far the largest of the three islands and will be the only one open to the public. Two other small islands in northern Door County — Spider and Gravel islands — make up the Gravel Island National Wildlife Refuge. Access to both these islands is also prohibited.
Waterbirds such as double–crested cormorants, herons, great egrets and gulls are common to the refuges. In 2013 it was estimated that over 5,700 nesting pairs of cormorants make the islands of the northern Door County peninsula home. The majority of the birds make their nests on Pilot, Spider and Gravel islands.
Plum Island has a rocky shoreline, but it also has an interior forest of aspen, sugar maple, basswood and eastern hemlock. White cedar trees line the shore.
While Plum Island may not have the large populations of waterbirds, the island is home to deer, coyotes, several species of snakes, blue–spotted salamanders, spring peepers, frogs and other wildlife. In spring, there may be seasonal closures in certain areas on the island to protect nesting bald eagles.
Refuge officials ask that visitors stay on the island's trails for the eagles, but also for the protection of other native species such as the federally–threatened dwarf lake iris.
"Even though it's an island, we're still not immune from invasive species, which is why we ask visitors to stay on the designated trails or to access the island at the designated access point," says O'Dell.
Pilot and Hog islands
Both Pilot Island and Hog Island are less than four acres and serve primarily as sanctuaries for nesting waterbirds. Access to these two islands will be prohibited to protect the large bird populations.
"We ask boaters and kayakers to keep about a ¼–mile distance from the islands to protect the birds and their nests," explains John Below, refuge officer. "The shallow water around these islands also makes it difficult to have safe public access."
There are no buildings on Hog Island, but Pilot Island has a lighthouse, and like the buildings on Plum Island, it is in need of repair.
With the island's location and the lack of vegetation, the buildings on Pilot Island are more exposed to the elements of Lake Michigan. Restoring the roof of the Pilot Island lighthouse was the first project for the Friends.
"The roof of the fog signal house collapsed before we could repair it and we wanted to focus our efforts on the lighthouse before it was lost," explains Sweet.
What can visitors expect to find on Plum Island? For those who make the trip, wildlife watching opportunities abound.
The FWS and the Friends are dedicated to providing "Wildlife Dependent Recreation," which includes deer hunting, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education and interpretation.
Hiking around the island offers panoramic views of Green Bay, the Door County peninsula, Lake Michigan and the other neighboring islands. The 2–mile trail around the island's perimeter is called the "patrol road," and is the same route that staff from the Coast Guard's old lifesaving station used to take.
"Twice a day, every day during the commercial shipping season, no matter what the weather was, crew members from the station had to walk the circumference of the island. One would start out going one way, and the other would start walking the other way looking for ships in distress," explains Matt Foss with the Friends, who has written extensively on the island's history.
Plum Island also presents a unique opportunity for visitors to get a close–up view of the Coast Guard's operation on the island in the early 20th century. While still in need of repair, the range lights, the keeper's house, boathouse, life–saving station and fog house are all intact.
The remains of one of Wisconsin's oldest lighthouses can be found on the south part of the island near the front range light. James Myster, regional historic preservation officer with the FWS, organized archaeological digs with Professor Brian Hoffman and students from Hamline University in Minnesota over the summers of 2013 and 2014. Buttons and old fish bones that may have been meals were uncovered. There are plans for more digs this summer near the collapsed lighthouse and in other areas to search for evidence of past human presence on the island.
Death's Door also lives up to its name. Plum and Pilot islands are part of Wisconsin's Maritime Trails, and numerous shipwrecks are scattered near the islands.
Plans for the future
The Friends and FWS envision the old boathouse becoming the visitor center to the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge where interpretive and educational displays on the island's history and wildlife will greet travelers. More funding is needed for that to happen, but a kiosk with map and information will be available at the boathouse when the island is open this summer, and volunteers may be on the island at certain times to answer visitors' questions.
The boathouse will get the most immediate attention, but all the island's buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and in need of stabilization.
The Friends hired a preservation architect to develop a building stabilization plan which they are currently using to help address the most urgent needs, and are now looking to complete a Historical Structures Report to aid in restoration planning for the buildings.
"Like the state did with Rock Island, we're looking to stabilize the outside of all the buildings and secure them so they don't deteriorate any further, with the hope of fully restoring the insides when there is enough funding available," says Sweet.
Getting to Plum Island will still take some work. As part of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan Water Trail, kayaking in for a day trip will be a popular way to reach the island. FWS is planning to have one designated kayak entry point near the boathouse — on the northeast corner of the island — which will allow FWS to monitor visitors' impact. Due to the fragile nature of the refuge's natural communities, docking boats or entering the island at undesignated beach areas will not be permitted.
The breakwater dock has been deteriorating over the years and needs to be repaired before it is opened for public use. Private motorboats and sailboats, though, may moor offshore and use dinghies, etc. to access the island at the kayak entry point.
The Friends will continue to hold workdays and special events on the island where catching a ride might be possible.
"We're also working with local charters and concessionaires to provide rides to the island for people without a boat, but how that will all work out still needs to be determined," says Sweet.
For the 2015 season there will not be an admission fee to Plum Island. The plan is to have the island open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend during daylight hours only. Only foot travel will be permitted.
Trail maps, a kiosk for visitor information and port–a–potties will be available near the boathouse, but there will not be any drinking water or garbage cans, so visitors must practice carry in, carry out.
There is no overnight camping on Plum Island, but the nearby communities of Gills Rock, Ellison Bay and Washington Island offer accommodations and services and camping is available at Newport and Rock Island state parks.
For most, a day excursion to Plum Island will be the first time they set foot on a part of Wisconsin they could only once see from a distance.
"We've seen people fall in love with the place and want to come back year after year," says Sweet. "And as more people come, we know they'll feel the same way."
Joseph Warren is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.