The Joy of Winter: Biking, Kiting, Kayaking on Ice
There are no slopes, ski lifts or half pipes on the peninsula, but that doesn’t mean people here don’t go to extremes for winter fun.
Last winter, photographer Brett Kosmider set out to capture photos of residents who don’t let a little snow – or a lot of ice – stop them from getting down the trail, on the water and in the air.
For them, it’s not just about getting exercise. It’s about challenging yourself. It’s about clearing your head. But most of all, it’s about seeing the county’s landscape from a vantage point few attempt to find.
Maybe Kosmider’s photos will inspire you to see it in a new way, too.
The winter can be harsh, but it can also reveal new terrain for riders. Studded tires provide traction for fat-bike enthusiasts to ride over the iced-over waters of Sturgeon Bay, sharing the landscape with the fishing shanties and snowmobiles. On the ice, you make your own line and you don’t have to share the road.
Man of the Winter Sea
It’s a blindingly bright January day at Cave Point County Park, where the winter sun is revealing the detail of the ice formations clinging to the rocky bluff and bouncing off the calm waters of Lake Michigan. And then, from the south, the unexpected appears: A man paddling a 17-foot, orange-and-blue Current Designs Solstice GTS sea kayak slices through the water and into the frame.
The man is Chuck Germain, one of the hearty few who are willing to take to the waters surrounding the peninsula in the heart of a Door County winter. The Egg Harbor man has kayaked at least once a month, every month, since 2001.
“I like to get out more than once, but it depends on the year and the ice,” he said. “Last January was pretty brutal, so I got out only four times. The year before, I got in 13 times in January.”
Germain used to be a runner, but bad knees forced him to give it up. Now, at age 70, he kayaks, bikes and skis to get his outdoor fix. He kayaks more than 100 times each year, and he swears he’s not cold when he’s out in the winter – his favorite time to paddle, even when the temperature drops to 12-15 degrees.
“The winter months are the most scenic out there,” Germain said. He has the water almost entirely to himself; the snow and ice create formations along the shore; and when conditions are right, the water is a calm, clear blue.
Safety is crucial for Germain, who said that anyone who wants to give it a shot should go with an experienced kayaker. He’s been paddling for 25 years, and he takes many steps to ensure that he makes it home safely each time.
“You have to be smart in the winter,” he said. “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”
Being smart is a combination of having the right equipment, taking the right precautions and knowing when to cut your losses. Germain won’t walk over ice to launch his kayak; instead, he launches from shore into open water. He also stays close to shore, and he won’t go out at all if it’s windy.
Germain wears a dry suit and uses only a sea kayak, which will float if it overturns.
“You can’t do it in a recreational kayak,” he said.
He usually paddles by himself (there aren’t, after all, a lot of people who are willing to hit the water in the winter), so before he goes out, he messages his wife where he’s launching, what direction he’s going and when he plans to be back.
And as Germain floats to the shore and pulls his kayak back onto the cold land or snow, he knows he has just completed an experience that few people on the planet will have.
Few people in Door County are as dedicated to getting outside as Chris Miller. Bike, board, skis, summer, fall, winter – if there’s a way to do it, he’ll try it.
“It’s a stress relief for me,” says the Ellison Bay photographer and father of two. “You forget everything – your bills, your duties. You’re just in the moment.”
There are few ways to get further away from it all than one of Miller’s favorite winter sports – snowkiting the bay.
In January and February, the iced over bay takes on the feel of a desert, an enormity you can glimpse from land, but only feel by being in it. On a clear, sunny day it can be blinding. It can also be freeing.
Miller is one of a handful of kiters who take to the shore, many trying to get the exhilaration they otherwise find on the slopes out west. Not surprisingly, he got the idea from Stein Erik Gabrielson, the Godfather of the county’s kiting and windsurfing scene.
Unlike kite-surfing in summer, snowkiting doesn’t require a perfect wind, but the right snow makes a difference. Miller loves seeing what he calls “corn snow”, when the snow is partly melted. As for judging the ice, he takes a simple, but traditional local approach.
“I ask the fishermen,” he says. “They’re out there every day.”
Then if the ice is good, he goes whenever he can.
“As long as the wind’s blowing, I’ll go,” says Miller, who first kited on water in 1999. He might get out 30 times in a winter, and once launched in Juddville and skied all the way to Ellison Bay on the iced over shoreline. He’ll reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour – “it feels like 70” – and when he launches off a jump can get as high as 20-25 feet off the surface.
That brings a thrill, but it’s now just speed or air he’s after.
“It’s just different out there in winter,” he says. “It’s this untouched landscape of the county that you can’t access any other time, and it’s totally open.”