Discovering Washington Island
with Papa Joe on ATVs

Discovering Washington Island with Papa Joe on ATVs

Have you heard about the Death’s Door BBQ on Washington Island in late August? Last year, my family decided to check it out. Being my family, we always do things a little differently though. Most people take their cars on the ferry. Not us…. We took our four wheelers. Little known fact – Washington Island not only allows, but has found its niche in tourism, welcoming ATVers to explore their island. We took advantage of most of us having a rare Saturday off in August, which occurs maybe once a summer as we all work in the tourism industry, to bring our daughter Andrea there for her first time.

My dad and mom bought property on Washington Island before I was born. We spent every weekend we could here when I was growing up. I took my first steps on that property. We spent many days trying to sink my dad’s canoe at Schoolhouse Beach. We camped, rode our bikes like crazy and were here so often that my dad kept a junky old pickup truck at the ferry dock at Detroit Harbor so we walked on and didn’t have to pay the car fee. I feel like I grew up here. I wanted to share those memories with our daughter, and thought the best way to do it was to get the family together (some of them, I am the oldest of five so we’re almost never all together) and head to the Island. My father “Papa Joe”, husband Andy, littlest sister Claire (11 years old), our daughter Andrea (6 years old), and my mom joined me on the adventure. It was Andrea’s first time ever being on the ferry or to the Island.

We met at our house early in the morning to get the machines ready to trailer up to Northport. Once there, we parked in the overflow lot and unloaded while my dad went to get the tickets. ATVs cost the same as a motorcycle ($15, almost half of what a vehicle costs) so it’s not too expensive and well worth it. We were told to load first so that we could be placed in the very front corner of the ferry all together. We pulled the keys and headed up to the observation deck to enjoy the thirty minute ride over. After a few minutes of hesitation about the size of the boat, Andrea squealed that it was her first time ever on a boat that big. The whole ride over my dad and mom told Andrea and Claire about the shenanigans that my siblings and I did at the property. My half-sister Claire is seventeen years younger than me so she didn’t spend as much time on the island as my sister, brother and I did so this was a new thing for her too. They learned all about the time that I had four pet salamanders living under the log, us trying to sink Papa Joe’s canoe at Schoolhouse Beach, and how about thirty years ago, my parents almost moved to the Island to build a house. Needless to say, expectations were high when we docked at Detroit Harbor and headed out for our adventure.

Navigating around the island on four wheelers is pretty much the same as cars. You are allowed to ride on the roads and in the ditches but you must obey all speed limit signs and not go on private property. It’s a much cooler (and breezier) way to sight see though.

We headed straight for our property located on Wickman Dr. When my parents bought the property, they got an easement to the lake across the street so the first stop was the water. You can see Rock Island from our beach and in late August, the lake was warm enough for swimming but cool enough to be refreshing. The Island has several amazing beaches, the most well known is Schoolhouse Beach at Washington Harbor. This beach is known for being one of only five beaches in the world part of the Niagara Escarpment and having amazing large smooth stones. After taking a quick dip, we headed across the street onto our four acre lot taking the machines down the old logging trail. After exploring the property, we headed north to Jackson Harbor, where the Passenger Ferry runs between Washington and Rock Island. It’s a cool little place that feels like a completely different world and the Maritime Museum is definitely a must see. Rock Island is a 900 acre state park and has no motorized vehicles allowed. You can camp, swim at the beautiful beach, or check out the lighthouse. There is a gorgeous limestone boathouse so big that you can see it from Jackson Harbor that will take your breath away. Definitely worth a trip over there but we were starting to get hungry. Next stop was the Airport for the Death’s Door BBQ.

Held the last weekend in August at the Airport, Death’s Door BBQ Festival has grown into the Island’s largest event of the year attracting people from all over the Midwest. It is a KCBS-Sanctioned Competition with 100% certified judges and $7,500 in prize money. The food is amazing!!!! Andrea’s favorite was the Pulled Pork Parfait.


Imagine a solo cup. Now add pulled pork, bbq sauce, mashed potatoes, bbq sauce, and repeat til the cup is full. Yeah…. It’s amazing. We sampled brisket, ribs, chicken, shrimp, and bacon macaroni and cheese. We walked through the vendor area, went to look at some of the planes, and took another lap around the contestants. We met up with some friends from the mainland and spent the afternoon reconnecting with our family. Even though it’s only a ferry ride away from home, it felt like we were truly on vacation. Andrea got to spend a full day of quality time with Papa Joe and Grandma Mindy learning about how we grew up, exploring the Island and getting a taste of what the Island has to offer. After getting a belly full of barbecue, we headed back to Detroit Harbor to catch the last ferry home. Andrea fell asleep on the way and slept for most of the ferry ride, only to wake up when the waves started breaking on the front of the ferry. She learned a very valuable lesson on that boat ride. When the waves start crashing and splashing the cars on the boat, you stand at the very front and get soaked. It’s the ONLY way to successfully end an Island trip. Believe me, I’ve done it hundreds of times.

To find out more about Washington Island, visit their website. There are so many things to do and I can’t stress enough about traveling with your parents. Although it seems inconvenient at first, it will do wonders for the relationship between your children and your parents. The time away from “real life” can be the best times of their lives.

Washington Island Ferry Line Rates:

Adult - $13.50 Child 6-11 – $4 Auto - $26 Motorcycle $15 Bicycle - $4