Winter in Washburn
Ski across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight and see the ice caves, too.
© Beth Gauper
On the mainland shoreline near Cornucopia, a giant icefall is tinted blue and pink.
In summer, the Bayfield Peninsula, on the northern tip of Wisconsin, is a playground of sand, water and woods, beloved by tourists.
In winter, the playground expands.
Lake Superior freezes and people come to play, walking to the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia and skiing across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight.
The window of opportunity can be narrow. The ice caves can be reached for only a few weeks, sometimes for only a few days. The Book Across the Bay race, which has grown from 350 skiers to 3,300, is held only on one day.
Get lucky, and you can do both.
One year, I was lucky. I got to explore the caves and ski on the bay and in the forest. I found a swell place to stay, to have coffee and to eat, all in Washburn, a workaday town that generally plays second fiddle to Bayfield.
It was in the first-rate Good Thyme bistro that Torsten and I heard that Apostle Islands National Lakeshore rangers were allowing visits to the ice caves.
It was mid-February, on the early side; often, the shoreline ice isn't thick enough to support people until late February or early March.
The next morning, we drove toward Cornucopia and joined a stream of people traipsing the mile to the caves, alongside a mountain range of ice pushed toward the shore by the wind.
Every year, wind, water and snow sculpt new patterns on the shore and on the cliffs, draped in ice that seeps through the red and pink sandstone layers and emerges in fantastical formations, like the stalactites and flowstone of underground caves.
Even daily, the scene changes; by midafternoon on the day we were there, the sun's warmth had turned snow into foam and made icicles a milky white, like meringue.
Many Book Across the Bay skiers wear goofy costumes.
On the cliffs, bulging ice falls gleam a pale blue or green. Inside the caves, soda-straw icicles carpet the ceilings — "chin bristles," Torsten dubbed them — and bacon-strip ice covers walls.
"It's incredible. I can't believe my eyes," I heard a woman say from inside one of the caves.
The people-watching was nearly as good. There was a Boy Scout troop from De Kalb, Ill., and a winter-camping class from St. Scholastica in Duluth, lugging gear on plastic sleds.
People were setting up Coleman stoves and having picnics on the ice. In late afternoon, the photographers come out, trying to catch the warm rays of sunset on the red sandstone or a moonrise over the cliff-top cedars.
But we had to get ready for the race.
Cars on ice
As we drove back through Bayfield, we saw cars driving to Madeline Island on the ice road, lined with discarded Christmas trees.
"Look at that: They built a freeway on the lake," Torsten said.
In Washburn, school buses were waiting to take us to the starting line in Ashland.
The 10-kilometer Book Across the Bay started as a community event in 1997, something fun to do in the depths of winter that
also would raise money for the Washburn Public Library and Tri-County Medical Society.
It's still a homespun event, more tour than race, though some skiers use it as a warm-up to the American Birkebeiner.
At the starting line, there were skiers of all ages. Skiers from Madnorski, a ski club in Madison, had shown up in feather boas and tutus, and members of a 4-H club were dressed as the Jolly Green Giant and a bunny.
We started in a pack, with the skate-skiers whizzing ahead on the left. By the second kilometer, I had a track to myself, the
stars were out and I skied into the darkness, following ice lanterns and ticking off the kilometers, each one marked by a
bonfire and water stop.
As the path bent toward Washburn, I saw fireworks exploding over the town and picked up my pace, gliding over the finish line just ahead of a 12-year-old girl from Ashland. A volunteer said, "Thanks for skiing with us today."
Torsten was waiting, giddy after his first race.
"Another bonfire would come rolling around, and I'd think, 'It's so cool to be skiing by firelight,' " he said. "That was fun, fun, fun, fun."
It's pretty much the most fun you can have in winter for $15. We went into the heated tent for chili, hot dogs and cocoa and to listen to a blues band. Then, we went back outside to watch the giant bonfire, ringed by trees strung with twinkle lights.
Not a tourist town
We'd been staying in Karlyn's Cottage, owned by Karlyn Holman, a nationally known watercolor artist who has a gallery, studio and classroom on Washburn's main street.
She was at her gallery when we dropped off the keys the next day, and she told us about Washburn.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers glide along the trails of Mount Valhalla.
Unlike Bayfield, which attracted tourists from the start, Washburn was all business, named in 1883 by a railroad company for a recently deceased stockholder, Cadwallader Washburn.
Washburn bustled during World War I, thanks to a DuPont dynamite factory, but it has settled into a more sedate existence as district headquarters for Chequamegon National Forest.
Its milling, shipping and quarrying days still are reflected in its sturdy buildings of Lake Superior brownstone. Today, Washburn is a tightly knit town of year-round residents, including artists and others who make a living from the tourist trade in Bayfield but can't afford to live there.
"We've got so much to offer people who want to be part of a community," said Holman, whose daughter, Renee, is chef of Good Thyme restaurant.
One of the 19th-century brownstones up the street is home to Chequamegon Book & Coffee Co., run by former Madison residents Richard and Carol Avol.
It has an unusually interesting collection of new, used and rare books, plus gifts and discounted CDs and reading tables next to tall corner windows.
After having coffee and buying some books, we drove through the wooded peninsula up to Mount Valhalla, where the forest service maintains a network of ski trails.
Lots of people were out skiing, and we joined them on the Teuton loops A and B, both of which started in gradual uphills and finished with nice, long downhills — energy-wise, a lot of bang for the buck.
The peninsula also has downhill skiing, as well as another 35 kilometers of cross-country skiing, at Mount Ashwabay.
There's no shortage of things to do in Washburn. When snow falls and ice freezes, it's time to come out and play.
Trip Tips: Washburn in winter
Getting there: It's between Bayfield and Ashland on Wisconsin 13.
Events: Book Across the Bay, a 10-kilometer race or tour across Chequamegon Bay
from Ashland to Washburn, a benefit for the Washburn Public Library, will be Feb. 16 in 2013.
Skiing: Mount Valhalla, eight miles from Washburn on County Road C, has 30 kilometers of trails, some groomed for skating, and a lodge where skiers build their own fires. $5 parking fee. 715-373-2667.
Mount Ashwabay, eight miles north of Washburn off Highway 13, has 13 downhill runs
with four rope tows and a T-bar. There are 35 kilometers of cross-country trails. Open Wednesdays, Saturdays and
© Beth Gauper
Chequamegon Book & Coffee is a cozy haven in winter.
Alpine passes are $18 weekdays, $23 weekends, $14-$18 for youths 17 and under. Cross-country passes are $8-$6.
Ice caves: They're reached from a parking lot off Meyers Road, four miles east of Cornucopia on Wisconsin 13. It's a mile walk, so wear sturdy boots and, unless the lake path is packed, snowshoes. Boot crampons are handy for climbing around inside the caves.
Usually, the ice along Lake Superior does not allow access until late February, if at all, although in 2009, it was solid
enough by Jan. 29.
Sometimes, as in 2011 and 2012, the ice never freezes.
Accommodations: The North Coast Inn is a mom-and-pop motel that includes chalets with kitchenettes, 715-373-5512.
Nordic Bay B&B is one the shore of Lake Superior and has three rooms, one with
twin beds, and a two-bedroom cabin that sleeps eight and has a fieldstone fireplace, 715-373-5891.
The comfortable Karlyn's Cottage, near the bay front in Washburn, is decorated with many of the owner's watercolors and has a nice kitchen and living room with VCR. 715-373-2922.
The McGrath House is in town near the beach and has two bedrooms, two baths and
sleeps eight, 715-373-5428.
The Super 8 is right on the waterfront in town, 715-373-5671.
The Bayfield area has many other inns, condos and motels; see Bayfield in winter.
Dining: Good Thyme Restaurant occupies the 1913 Monroe
Sprague house, a mile north on Wisconsin 13. Call 715-373-5255 for reservations. It's open for dinner Wednesday-Saturday in
winter and Tuesday-Saturday in summer.
Patsy's Bar & Grill, where Warren Nelson & friends recorded two live CDs, is a good place to get a burger. It was recently renovated and has an outdoor eating area.
Chequamegon Book & Coffee, at 2 E. Bayfield St., is open daily.
Nightlife: StageNorth hosts community theater, concerts, dance performances and films, 715-373-1194.
More information: Washburn chamber, 800-253-4495.
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