In the parlor of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, a photo of President William Howard Taft hangs on the wall. Across the room, an Edison wax cylinder record player rests on a table.
Nearby, chamber pots sit beside quilt-covered beds.
A dining table is set with white stoneware emblazoned in navy blue with the insignia of the U.S. Light House Service. It appears as if the light keeper and his family might walk in any moment for their midday meal — but the lighthouse hasn’t been manned since 1946.
Still, the isolated building is full of life for the 18 weeks between Memorial Day and Columbus Day as groups of two to six volunteers take turns living here. Their weeklong stays are free in exchange for agreeing to keep the place clean and provide daily tours.
“It’s been restored to about 1910,” Erik Lucia explained. He and his wife, Cyndi, have served as docents the past 13 summers, living for seven days and nights without electricity or running water, spending their evenings reading books by lantern light.
While it’s not for everyone, a stay on Rock Island — the second island north of the much-more-visited Door County peninsula — certainly provides an adventurous alternative to a hotel. Adventures abound on and around the county’s 34 named islands.
Capt. Matt Olson even named his tour company Door County Adventure Rafting.
Departing on a trip to islands offshore from Fish Creek, Olson played the haunting theme from “Titanic” as he motored his six-passenger boat through the harbor.
It’s designed “to make people a little nervous about what type of tour they’re going out on,” he said.
Moments later, outside the no-wake zone, Olson cranked up the volume on a heavy-metal song as the inflatable watercraft raced across the waters of Green Bay at a bone-jarring 25 miles an hour.
He only slows down (and turns off the music) as he approaches the several islands past which he sails. There’s Chambers Island, with its own islands in Mackaysee Lake. Others are named Jack, Little Strawberry and Pirate. Olson states that, when the water level is high, Pirate Island can be completely submerged.
Sometimes, Olson ties up at Horseshoe Island. With a well-sheltered harbor, it’s now part of Peninsula State Park.
“It makes the perfect anchorage for people to go out there on their private boat or boat rental and hang out there for the afternoon,” he said.
On the other side of the county, visitors can walk to an island, though they may get their feet wet.
Cana Island, reached by a rocky causeway sometimes covered by a few inches of water, is home to what’s probably the most-photographed lighthouse in Door County. The 89-foot-tall tower has cast its guiding light onto Lake Michigan for nearly 150 years.
An outdoor deck is reached by climbing a 97-step spiral staircase. From there, visitors are rewarded with impressive vistas of both land and sea.
Not far away, at the northern tip of the peninsula, a year-round ferry carries both people and vehicles across once-treacherous waters on its 7-mile journey to Washington Island, the largest of the many islands.
While its 700 residents rely on the boat to get to supermarkets and doctors’ appointments on the mainland, tourists use it primarily for one-day explorations of the island. Those choosing to leave their cars behind can get around on rented bicycles or mopeds.
Washington Island’s Scandinavian heritage is best recalled at the Stavkirke, a late-20th-century replica of the traditional churches found in Northern Europe. Located across the street from Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, the ornate, wooden Stavkirke is open daily to those in search of a tranquil spot for meditation or prayer. It also hosts occasional church services, as well as weddings.
A quick pedal or drive away leads to another place where people can unwind and commune with nature: Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, where the perfume of thousands of purple plants fills the air each summer.
“The fragrance is ever-present when it’s in bloom,” said Edgar Anderson, one of the farm’s owners. “You can’t help but smell the aroma of the plants.”
“We have benches located through the field,” he added. “People can sit there for hours, as much as they want.”
Even when the plants aren’t flowering, guests can visit the red barn in which the lavender is dried. The oil is then extracted using a still that looks as though it once belonged to a moonshiner.
A drop of the oil rubbed onto the temples is said to relieve headaches. The plant is also used in a surprising array of toiletries sold in an expansive gift shop, where teas, jams and even chocolates are infused with lavender.
Folks headed to Rock Island must first travel to Washington Island and traverse it before catching a second, smaller ferry. From the landing at an impressive boathouse, it’s a 1.5 mile walk to the Pottawatomie light, perched atop a bluff on the north side of the island.
Those without a fear of heights can climb three steep staircases to the lantern room, where a replica of the original Fresnel lens occupies most of the space.
“When they burned kerosene, the wattage was about the same as a large Christmas tree bulb, but it was visible for about 14 miles,” Erik Lucia said of the lens’ magnifying power.
From this eagle’s nest, visitors can spot ships making their way from the bay to the lake. These days, however, mariners are guided by an automated light on top of an austere metal tower.
“It’s a little difficult to get here,” Lucia admitted, “but we feel it’s worth it.”
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
IF YOU GO
Pottawatomie lighthouse: www.fori.us
Door County Adventure Rafting: 920-559-6106, doorcountyadventurerafting.com
Ferry service to Washington and Rock islands: 920-847-2546, www.wisferry.com
Cana Island Light Station: www.dcmm.org/cana-island-lighthouse
Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm: 920-847-2950, www.fragrantisle.com
Door County Visitor Bureau: 800-527-3529, www.doorcounty.com