Editor’s Note: While spring is blossoming in much of the country, in other places, winter still has a firm grip. This story, by RFT’s Vegan and Vegetarian Editor Teresa Bergen will make you especially grateful for spring and/or that you live in a place where it doesn’t snow a lot.
When I arrived at the Country House Resort in Door County, Wisconsin at ten o’clock on an icy February night, I understood why residents call winter “the quiet season.” The proprietors had left me a key in an envelope taped to the front door. I didn’t see another car in the parking lot or any signs of guests. I found my room, shutting the door against the dropping temperature. At that moment, it felt like I was the only person on the peninsula.
Door County is the piece of Wisconsin that sticks out on the right when you’re looking at a map. The peninsula is about 75 miles long by 10 miles wide. It’s a famous Midwest tourist destination. In summer. I had come to see what hardy visitors do in the winter.
This year brought an especially harsh and snowy winter for Door County’s 28,000 residents, many of whom had cabin fever by late February. But it was great for snow activities.
I awoke on my first day at the Country House to the radio listing the day’s ice and wind-related school closures. Was this really a good day to go outside?
But it was worth double hatting and double gloving to meet up with friends and snowshoe at the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor. Naturalist Marne Kaeske led my small group along a section of the Ridges’ five miles of trail. We snowshoed through a simple landscape: snow and bare trees, ending on the brutally windy shores of frozen Lake Michigan. Marne encouraged us to imagine springtime. The sanctuary is famous for its orchids, lady slippers and dwarf purple irises, and it’s home to the largest population of endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonflies. Less of a draw is the Ridges’ aggressive deer fly population. In the summer, Marne recommends hikers affix strips of two-sided tape to their hats. The tape easily catches 30 deer flies in a one-hour hike, Marne says. Hmm. Suddenly my frozen fingers felt a bit more endurable.
I also snowshoed at Whitefish Dunes State Park. Winter is the best time to admire the dunes, naturalist Carolyn Rock told us. During leafier seasons, vegetation makes it hard to see the contours. Carolyn led us up and down snowy dunes studded with skeletal trees, passionately explaining the geography and local wildlife. She pointed out a track where a coyote lost its footing and slid down a dune on its belly. We heard a pileated woodpecker and saw holes in the trees where the woodpecker had pecked and porcupines had chewed. After snowshoeing, Carolyn showed us her extensive pelt collection, some of which she skinned herself from road kill.
Another way to see the snowy countryside – and cover more ground than you will on snowshoes – is to rent a snowmobile. Door County boasts more than 250 miles of snowmobile trails. However, it’s not a place for snowmobile speed junkies. The limit is 55 mph, and slower in some places. Signs along the snowmobile route remind riders, “Stay on trails or stay home.”
Following the rules was fine with me. The trails cut through private land, traversing farmers’ fields. But in February you see no sign of crops, just snowy winter wonderland. It’s a magical feeling to skim over snow in a little machine. And even going 35 mph feels pretty fast when the wind whips up beneath the mask of your helmet.
Before leaving Portland, Oregon, several of my friends laughed at the idea of me trying to stick to my mostly vegan diet in beef and dairy-loving Wisconsin. But I was pleasantly surprised by most restaurants’ menus inclusion of at least one veg dish.
But first things first: Coffee. If you need a reliable coffee fix, stop by Door County Coffee and Tea in Forestville. In addition to making more than 100 blends of coffee – including many flavored and decaf – they run a breakfast and lunch spot and a coffee-centric retail space. For breakfast, I ate baked oatmeal made with apples and dried cherries, the fruit Door County is famous for. They even offered soymilk.
Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza & Grille in Fish Creek is the best restaurant for vegetarians and vegans that I tried in Door County. I never expected to encounter a place that offered vegan cheese and vegan sausage! I opted for their house-made veggie burger, which had a sunflower seed-walnut-tofu base. Their salads are also excellent and stray far from the iceberg lettuce that friends warned me to expect on my trip. I’m not the only one impressed by Wild Tomato’s. Even during the quiet season, we waited 10 minutes for a table.
The Inn at Cedar Crossing in downtown Sturgeon Bay also surprised me with its veg-friendliness. This historic building dates back to 1884, and features exposed brick walls and a pressed tin ceiling. Veg options include tortellini Alfredo, big salads and the killer tomato sandwich, which consists of feta, lettuce, basil pesto and hummus on a Telara roll. I ordered the nicely spiced black bean chili and a salad with warm walnut vinaigrette served in a little silver pitcher.
Sturgeon Bay’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill deserves a special mention for serving veg food late into the night. The extensive menu in this friendly and well-lit sports bar includes several vegetarian wraps, bruschetta, salads and appetizers.
I would have loved to stay in Door County a few more days. I learned that the quiet season doesn’t mean a boring season. Nor a hungry season. And if you’re a lacto-vegetarian, you’ll never starve in Wisconsin. The state is packed with cheese curds. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
If you go:
Ridges Sanctuary: Visitors can join a guided snowshoe hike every Friday and Saturday in winter. The fee is $8 for non-park members, plus $5 if you need to rent snowshoes. It’s free for children under 18.
Whitefish Dunes: If you visit Whitefish Dunes, you’ll need to buy a vehicle admission sticker. A day pass is $7 if your car has Wisconsin license plates. Out-of-state visitors pay $10.
Snowmobiling: You can rent four hours of snowmobile time for $100 from Zettel’s Sales and Service in Bailey’s Harbor. Helmets and snowmobile suits cost extra.