Silent Revolution: Door County’s silent sports community gaining traction

After the spring thaw, a narrow trail hides beneath the matted bed of leaves on the floor of Peninsula State Park. The air is crisp, the trees are still, and the silence of the forest is disturbed only by the rustle of a breeze through the lightly burdened branches of blossoming sugar maples, basswoods and beech trees.

Quickly, a low rumble grows, followed by the crackle of sticks and leaves, then a sudden whoosh as one of the season’s first mountain-bikers comes and goes in a flash.

Moments later, all is still again, the only trace of the bike’s sudden upheaval a narrow track in the dirt. That’s the beauty of silent sports. On a peninsula where the line between celebration and exploitation of natural resources is dangerously thin, biking and a bevy of other similar silent sports are increasingly earning a reputation as the perfect draw. This is owed in part to the fact that it’s one of the few ways to create an economic resource without destroying or severely altering the natural environment.

“The environment is on the top of everyone’s mind, so when you promote things that don’t leave a carbon footprint you get a great response,” said Door County Visitor Bureau President and CEO Jack Moneypenny. “Plus, silent sports are a perfect way to absorb everything Door County has to offer.”

They also provide big bang for a relatively small investment. A study released by the Outdoor Industry Foundation in late 2006 estimated outdoor recreation’s impact on the U.S. economy at $730 billion. In the five Midwestern states alone the number is over $61 million, including travel, gear, trip-related sales and taxes.

Rich Dirks is a road biker and cross-country skier who retired to Door County from Eau Claire in 2001. Since his arrival he has spent winters doing volunteer trail grooming at Whitefish Dunes State Park (about 40 to 50 hours a year, he estimated) and is a member of the Door County Silent Sports Alliance (DCSSA). Silent sports, he said, mesh well with peninsula lifestyle and economics.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Cycling is one of Door County’s largest tourism activities. Photo by Dan Eggert.

“With silent sports you provide an exercise outlet, it’s gentle on the environment, and there’s a growing demographic of people looking at an active lifestyle and active vacation,” he said. “It’s a truly sustainable economic driver.”

The alliance formed in 2007, bringing together the fractured groups of people that pursue various activities under one umbrella, and adding new weight to their efforts. Previously, a biker speaking up for better paths at a planning meeting was a lone voice. Now she has the weight of a united user group behind her.

Bob Dickson is the DCSSA president, and he admitted that frustration was one factor behind the group’s formation.

“We needed to get the voice of active residents heard,” explained the avid road cyclist, mountain biker and cross-country skier. “But that meant getting those sometimes disparate groups of people to work together. We were asking ‘How do we get involved with these other groups and realize we’re all working toward the same thing?’”

Alliance member Margaret Carroll explained why that’s more difficult than it sounds. “We have to start connecting people, because silent sports can be a rather solitary activity,” she said. “For some, that’s why they do it.”

Carroll is an open-water swimmer who kicks through a two-mile leg in Lake Michigan every day beginning in early May. The 48-year-old moved to Sturgeon Bay two years ago specifically for the easy access to swimming, kayaking, and skiing. She joined DCSSA shortly after arriving, and said the group can play a major role in enhancing the Door County lifestyle.

“Building connections between environmental groups, municipalities, and the business community is a big part of the effort, but even more important is connecting the silent sports enthusiasts themselves,” she said.

The focus of DCSSA was initially biking and cross-country skiing, and though the group has a broad scope, its largest efforts have been geared toward those pursuits.

Brian Merkel has been at Nor Door Sport and Cyclery in Fish Creek for 26 years, first working for his Dad and later taking over the store. He’s working with other bike enthusiasts in DCSSA to expand and improve county bike routes by getting it included in the conversation as municipalities work on their comprehensive plans.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

The Door County Half Marathon and Nicolet Bay 5k Brings over 2,000 people to Door County each May. Photo by Dan Eggert.


The ultimate goal is to create a route connecting at least the Northern Door villages from Egg Harbor to Sister Bay.

“It doesn’t have to be separate paths, necessarily,” Merkel said. “We can be creative. Maybe it’s an off-road path for a short stretch in one town, and a marked shoulder lane in another area. I look around at what other places in the state are doing, and there are some great ideas out there that we can use.”

The priority is to make it safer for bikes, but also to send a message that the peninsula is bike-friendly, which could benefit joggers, skiers, and other users as well. Gibraltar and Egg Harbor have set aside funds for a comprehensive bike plan, and Merkel said he hopes to see that backing create a domino effect of support from other communities.

Dirks said he’s seeing progress, as town and villages officials are beginning to use the language of silent sports in their planning.

“That’s a big step,” said Dirks, who like many conservationists has waited years for government at all levels to take environmental issues seriously. “It may take a few tries, and there may be some frustration, but eventually people start to listen.”

Casey St. Henry was introduced to Door County not as a place to sit on the sidelines and admire nature, but as a place to experience it.

“Until I was an adult, I only knew Door County as the area around Newport State Park and Europe Bay where my parents took us on vacation each summer,” he recalled. The family would make the nine-hour drive from Columbus, Indiana and spend days on the lake and in the woods, and St. Henry developed a bond that would eventually bring him to the area full time.

“I enjoy the area very much for the silent sports activities,” he said. “That’s what brought me back.”

St. Henry has worked at Bay Shore Outdoor Store in Sister Bay for three years, and in that time he’s seen interest in kayaking, skiing, and outdoor recreation balloon.

“We get so many people looking for information, tours, and looking to buy kayaks, it’s certainly growing,” he said.

That growth has been recognized by towns and villages in Northern Door that have stepped up to make more water access available.

Liberty Grove purchased a tract of shorefront at the Garrett Bay boat launch in Ellison Bay in part to make launching at the popular locale easier. Egg Harbor expanded its public beach with a $1.6 million acquisition. And two years ago the Village of Sister Bay took the biggest leap, purchasing shorefront property in the heart of the village for $4.9 million. The land was used to expand its beach and park, and the purchase was inspired in part by the growing demand for access to the lake for sailing and kayaking. This year, Bay Shore Outdoor will be renting kayaks and other watercraft from a designated launch on the south end of Sister Bay’s beach.

Come winter, however, those launches freeze over, and bikes are confined to the garage. But Carroll said those who consider Door County a part-time attraction for the outdoor enthusiast are mis-guided. She said the weather extremes are part of the reason for the county’s appeal. When the bay freezes over, she straps on skis and experiences the peninsula in a whole new way.

“There’s so much going on here in the winter,” Carroll said. “The state parks don’t shut down.”

The Silent Sports Alliance has pushed hard for improvements to the state park ski trails. Dickson, who owns The Shallows Resort in Egg Harbor, believes enhanced trail maintenance, combined with spreading the word about Door County as a winter sports destination, will help the stagnant winter economy. “I look at the demographics of the people that visit here and see a great opportunity for winter tourism,” Dickson said.

Though parks officials are by nature conservative when it comes to change, owed largely to their long-term responsibilities to the resources they manage, a better dialogue with user groups has developed. Discussion of trail expansion and enhancement has moved forward at Peninsula and Potawatomi State Parks.

Potawatomi officials are considering redoing their entire trail system to make it more organized and user-friendly. Dirks said improvements don’t necessarily have to come in the form of huge alterations. “The removal of one tree in the right spot can make a large improvement to the trail,” he said. “We’re not talking about clearing a road.”

St. Henry loves to ski, but recognizes that mother nature plays a big role in how far Door County can push its winter clientele. “My first winter here there wasn’t much snow at all and I was miserable,” he said. “But the last two the snow has been great, and we had many days when all our skis in the store were rented out.”

The silent sports revolution is not confined to land and sea. Nearly a decade ago, Stein Gabrielsen brought kite boarding to the peninsula, giving lessons and demonstrations in Ephraim. A group of enthusiastic disciples followed his lead, and within a few short years sailboats and sunsets had new competition for space over Lake Michigan waters.

“Door County has the best wind in the state,” Gabrielsen said. A decade ago the sport was intimidating to the casual athlete, and the costs of taking it on were prohibitive. Gabrielsen said that has changed with the evolution of equipment that makes it more affordable and much safer for the novice.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Kayak tours have become a mainstay of Door County vacations. Photo by Dan Eggert.


When the wind is good, Baileys Harbor’s Anclam Beach is the most popular launching point for wind-surfers and kite-boarders. Crowds gather on the shore to catch the show as the sport’s practitioners launch themselves high above waves. Those who want to take their chance in the wind can rely on a corps of local boarders who love to introduce people to the sport and share their knowledge and love of the outdoors.

They are the stewards of a new economic driver, one built not on the pounding of nails and rattle of a jackhammer, but on the silence of sports in tune with the peninsula environment.

What is a Silent Sport?

Silent sports is a term coined by the late Greg Marr, founder of Waupaca-based Silent Sports magazine. Marr used the term to describe those activities powered by human propulsion – biking, kayaking, swimming, skiing, climbing, running – and leave minimal or no adverse impact on the environment behind them.

Door County Half Marathon & Nicolet Bay 5k

The waters of Nicolet Bay wouldn’t be palatable for swimmers for another six weeks, but that didn’t concern the 954 folks who gathered at the beach in Peninsula State Park May 2nd.

They were there for the second annual Door County Half Marathon and Nicolet Bay 5K, which weaves through the revered park on a scenic closed course certified by the United States Track and Field Federation.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

The first edition of the race, in 2008, drew 581 participants and went off without a hitch, garnering praise from runners for the scenery of the course and event organization. The 2009 race grew to 954 runners, 693 in the half marathon and another 261 who took on the more palatable 5K.

The race is the latest in a handful of competitive events building on the popularity of silent sports in the county. The Door County Triathlon and Fall 50 endurance relay have drawn extreme athletes to the peninsula for five years.

While post-race festivities for the inaugural half marathon were held in the park, organizers moved them to Clark Park for this year’s race to accommodate the event’s growth.

Following the race, downtown Fish Creek bubbled with the energy of hundreds of runners refueling their tested bodies at restaurants, coffee shops and pubs, a welcome sight in early May.

Check list 2009

Door County’s Running Competitions

  • May 2, 2009, Door County Half Marathon & Nicolet Bay 5k, Fish Creek, 10:00 am, 5K, 1/2 Marathon
  • May 9, 2009, Blossom Run, Egg Harbor, 8:30 am, 2 mile/5 mile
  • May 24, 2009, Maifest Run, Jacksonport, 9:00 am, 2 mile/10K
  • July 4, 2009, 4th of July Hairpin Run, Fish Creek, 8:30 am, 5K
  • July 18 & 19, 2009, Door County Triathlon, Egg Harbor Saturday, July 18th – Sprint, Sunday, July 19th – Half Iron

    Photo by Dan Eggert.

    Photo by Dan Eggert.

  • July 25, 2009, Washington Island Rec Run, Washington Island, 10:00 am, 2 mile/5K/10K
  • August 15, 2009, Algoma Shanty Days Run, Algoma, 8:30 am, 5K
  • September 5, 2009, YMCA Duathlon and Labor Day Run, Fish Creek, 9:30 am, Run/Bike and 5K
  • October 3, 2009, Potawatomi State Park Run Wild, Sturgeon Bay, 10:00 am, 3 mile/10K
  • October 24, 2009, Fall 50, Door County, 7:00 am, 50 miles – Team and Individual Competition
  • November 7, 2009, Sevastopol Turkey Trot, Institute, 9:30 am, 1/2, 1, 2 & 4 mile
  • May 1, 2010, Door County Half Marathon & Nicolet Bay 5k, Fish Creek, 10:00 am, 5K, ½ Marathon

Did you know?

  •  More Americans camp than play basketball.
  •  The number of Americans who bike regularly is double the population of Canada.
  •  The number of annual participants in snow-based recreation is more than double the combined annual attendance for NASCAR events.

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