Door County’s Outdoor Attitude: Efforts grow to increase county’s active elements

Twenty eight year-old Colorado resident Chris Kates meets his Washington D.C. based brother Zack, 33, each July at their parents’ place in Ephraim. They’ve been doing so for 25 years, and though they acknowledge the scenery is fantastic, they’re not interested in just sitting back and soaking it in from the shore.

“Every time we come, it’s nothing but watersports,” Zack says.

They’ve been wind surfing for 15 years but also own kayaks. They were launching in Ephraim July 2 when Zach was trying to sum up the draw. On cue, a kayaker paddled lazily along the shore, unknowingly providing all the illustration necessary.

“How can you beat that?” Zach said as he looked on in envy.

Brothers Chris and Zack Kates spend much of their Door County vacation on the water. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The Kates brothers are just two of a growing population of Door County visitors who’ve found the peninsula a haven for increasingly edgy recreation, a trend flying in the face of the peninsula’s gray-haired, sweat-free reputation.

For decades the cherry served as the undisputed symbol of Door County, the ripe red fruit beckoning to visitors, summer job-seekers, and marketers throughout the region. But as the prevalence of orchards has dwindled to a fraction of its once grand stature, new images have risen to the fore. Kayaks strapped to minivan roofs, mountain bikes departing for Peninsula State Park, and kites flying high above Baileys Harbor are becoming ever more common signs of summer to a new generation.

Today’s travelers are seeking more than quaint visual stimuli, seeking out ways to engage with destinations through education and activity as never before. Bob Dickson, owner of the Shallows Resort in Egg Harbor, has recognized the need to attract a different visitor.

Stein Erik Gabrielsen helps a young surfer catch at wave at The Ridges beach in Baileys Harbor. Photo by David Troup.

“You always have to reinvigorate the guest base,” he says, cognizant of the fact that Door County’s visitor base has been getting older for the past decade. Dickson is president of the Door County Silent Sports Alliance, a group formed last year with an aim toward improving access to outdoor activities and raising the county’s profile as a destination for active, challenging recreation.

Dickson said the group was sparked by a desire to improve ski trails in the county’s five state parks but has expanded to include the promotion of kayaking, road and mountain biking, hiking, and all manor of outdoor activities, a rapidly growing industry and an ever-larger factor in attracting tourists.

“Don’t we want to attract the younger, more active visitor?” he says. “Those are certainly the people I’d like to attract to the Shallows.”

The alliance is trying to partner with the state parks to enhance skiing opportunities in the winter by expanding trails, improving equipment, and providing volunteer opportunities for grooming.

“The winter season is totally under-utilized,” Dickson says. “We need to get Door County to go grow a reputation as a place for good skiing.”

The peninsula has the assets to improve its standing, he says, but the access to amenities and the quality of existing trails has to be enhanced, then it can be marketed to a much greater extent.

“Look at what our neighboring states are doing to promote mountain biking and skiing and you see we are way behind in Wisconsin,” he says. “With five state parks in Door County, why can’t we be among the best places to go?”

In 2000, Stein Gabrielsen brought kite boarding to the county en masse, giving lessons and demonstrations on the Ephraim shore. It wasn’t long before people started catching on to the latest way to enjoy Door County’s geographic good fortune.

“Door County has the best wind in the state,” says Gabrielsen, owner of Door County Surf and Kite Club. Baileys Harbor has become a Midwest Mecca for kite boarders, where on a windy weekend hundreds of cars can see the kites rise above the shore off Anclam Beach as they enter the village, enticing them to stop and check it out rather than pass straight through.


Len Villano

The sky in Ephraim and Baileys Harbor is full of kites belonging to surfers when the wind blows come summer. Photo by Len Villano.

Gabrielsen says there are more than 20 places on the peninsula to go, ranging from beginner level to expert. He isn’t giving away all his favorites, but says young kids can get up on a surf board at Ridges Beach, while adults can kite surf and board in Ephraim, Rowleys Bay, and several other great spots.

The major reason the sports have grown, Gabrielsen says, is the lowering level of risk involved for the novice.

“The equipment has finally evolved to the point where it’s a lot safer to learn and do,” he says. “From the design of the boards to even the design of the life jackets, it’s much easier to learn. And, more people are doing it, so there’s an infrastructure of support.”

In short, “it’s gone from a fringe, wild sport to a mainstream, safe sport.”

Dickson and Gabrielsen emphasize increasing access as the next step in generating a new clientele for Door County.

“The best thing we can do is enhance the beaches, carve out a couple more spots, truck in a couple loads of sand,” Gabrielsen says. “People don’t go to Vail for the mountains and snow. They go because Vail has provided access to the mountains and snow in terms of ski lifts, lodging, good restaurants and services. If we build a skateboard park we’ll see massive growth in a different type of tourism.”

Dickson said a lot of work needs to be done to educate the public and especially local government on what silent sports are and what they can mean to the local economy.

“We have to let them know what minimal environmental impact a sport has,” Dickson explains. “And in this day and age when gas is so expensive, silent sports are self-powered, green recreation.”

Forming the Silent Sports Alliance has given an often disparate group of activities a common voice. The group has already provided meaningful input to the Door County Comprehensive Plan, the Transportation Consortium, and the Egg Harbor Road planning in Sturgeon Bay.