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Ask a Local: Ferry Captain Joel Gunnlaugsson


When you live on an island in Door County, there’s only one way on and off: by boat. Captain Joel Gunnlaugsson has been transporting visitors and residents — plus mail, freight, medical supplies, oil, gas, and more — to and from the county’s largest island for the past 25 years. He and the rest of the crew with the Washington Island Ferry Line are on standby 24/7 for emergencies, but most of the time, you’ll catch him at the helm of the largest ship in the fleet, Madonna, making nearly a dozen daily round trips during the busy summer season. 

The ferry cuts through the Lake Michigan ice come winter, providing a lifeline to the Washington Island community of around 700 residents. It’s where Gunnlaugsson grew up and learned about ferry life from his grandfather and great-uncle, who also worked for the fleet; it’s now where he’s raising his family and also running the Townliner Motel with his wife.

We asked Joel about his experiences in Door County. He shares the places he likes to go and the things he likes to do to inspire you on your vacation to the peninsula and islands.

Q. What do you do on your days off?
A. In the spring, it’s Little League baseball with my kids, then summer is soccer. I’m also on the Door County Board of Supervisors, representing Washington Island, and I’m part of our local Lions Club.

Q. What are some of your favorite outdoor activities?
A. I like to hunt whitetail deer in November with my daughter. I also enjoy fishing, but in the summer, I work 65 hours a week, so Grandpa will take my kids fishing off the ferry dock so that I still get to see them during the day. 

Q. What is your favorite winter activity?
A. I enjoy snowmobiling and ice fishing, although when I’m driving icebreaker ferries across the bay with temperatures in the teens, I like staying in my warm house on cold days!

Q. Where do you go to catch up with friends?
A. Karly’s Bar on Washington Island. On Tuesday nights, it’s $5 for a burger, fries, and a cold beer — you can’t beat that! 

Q. Where do you like to take the kids? 
A. Recently, we all had a rare day off, so we went as a family to Pirate’s Cove in Sister Bay. We played mini-golf, walked around the marina, and ate pizza at Wild Tomato

Q. For a taste of local history, where do you suggest visitors go?
A. Washington Island’s Stavkirke church is modeled after Scandinavian buildings and is put together using only wooden pegs, no nails. Schoolhouse Beach is also a must. The smooth cobblestone beach is one of only a few in the world. It’s at Washington Island’s town park in a secluded harbor where we like to have cookouts.

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