Washburn Wisconsin
By Cyndi Perkins

It’s not your stereotypical stop in the Apostle Islands area, and we weren’t there on a pleasure cruise. So Washburn, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior’s west end was an unanticipated delight. From Houghton, Michigan the trip is about 120 miles. Seeking a certified service center for the new Yanmar engine in our 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy, we scheduled an appointment with Superior Marine Services Inc., headquartered at Washburn Marina. The travel plan called for an overnight trip from Houghton to an anchorage somewhere in the Apostle Islands. From there it would be a short sail into Chequamegon Bay.

Washburn’s role in the region’s fascinating history is highlighted along the lovely Lake Walk.

Because the Portage Lake Lift Bridge spanning Houghton-Hancock was restricting weekday openings in summer 2004 due to highway construction on the Houghton side, we fueled up at 12:30 p.m. and otherwise prepared for the 1 p.m. opening of what is known as the heaviest lift span in the world. The bridge operators, quite a friendly group of professionals, monitor radio channels 16 and 12. With our usual “Thanks for the lift, bridge,” we proceeded down the waterway and out into Lake Superior via the upper entry. Rain was in the forecast, but as of 5 p.m. we’d seen nary a drop, although west/southwest winds had clocked to northwest by that time. Winds veered to on the nose for most of the night, although at times we were able to use the headsail to help pull Chips along. The 1-3 foot waves weren’t troublesome, although every once in awhile we’d take a bigger one on the bow. Scott cooked a nice dinner and I took first watch, from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Scott woke me at 4:30 a.m. in the chilly first light of day. The coffee and the Force 10 propane heater in the cabin were greatly enjoyed by both captain and crew. In late June we were the only boat out there and we felt privileged to “have the lake to ourselves.”

We’ve been cruising Superior for several years. One would think that might translate to seeing everything the region has to offer but actually we find ourselves drawn to the same outstanding harbors time after time. On this passage we set a goal to break tradition and stop at places we’d never visited before. In keeping with our objective, at 8:30 a.m. we dropped the hook at Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, in 11-13 feet with a rippled sand bottom. In our view, it’s a five-star anchorage, with some of the best wind protection, holding and scenic beauty. We were prepared for a crowd, as was the case during our previous visits to the Apostles. But loons and mergansers were our only company all day as we snoozed, read and relaxed after the all-nighter. In early evening a Minneapolis sailboat anchored in the bay; a few families clad in jeans and sweatshirts ventured down to the beach.

Washburn Marina offers all the amenities of a big-city facility in a laidback, scenic atmosphere

At 7 a.m. Wednesday we weighed anchor, bound for Washburn via the South Channel to Chequamegon Bay. We had no trouble locating Washburn Marina in the crisp clarity of a sunny Lake Superior morning. Our only obstacles were the fishing nets at the mouth of Chequamegon. We gave the markers a wide berth, passing to port. By 10 a.m. Chip Ahoy was rounding the Washburn Marina breakwall. We were instructed to tie up on the inside of the wall. Most of the facility’s 200 slips were filled and the SMS crew was busy launching other vessels at the boatlift. After a consultation with Les the mechanic, we plugged in and started to think about dinner. With perfect timing, our friends and world cruisers Rosi and Jim stopped by, as anxious to hear about our adventures traveling America’s Great Circle Loop as we were to hear of their experiences in Honduras and other exotic locales over the past several months. After a glass of a nice merlot all ’round, we piled in their truck for the ride to Deepwater Grill & Brewery in Ashland. Based down the shore in “Corny,” as Rosi invariably calls it, the couple planned to splash their “north sailboat,” Paddy’s Hurricane, before the Fourth of July, having left their “south sailboat,” Libelle, in safe harbor down in Louisiana.

That’s Chip Ahoy tied to the inner breakwall awaiting service on her new Yanmar engine.

On the way to the restaurant, we stopped by the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center on US Highway 2 for a quick tour. The five-story observation tower offers a terrific view, while interactive exhibits educate and entertain. Personalized trip planning services are also available and best of all, admission to the center is free. Stomachs growling, we bypassed the boardwalk trail and went straight to the restaurant. Deepwater Grill, formerly the old railroad depot, proved a wonderful place to continue catching up on cruising news. We found the atmosphere casual and the food and drink truly top-notch, from edible orchid garnishes to the creamy red beer on tap. The menu is eclectic, with nothing run-of-the-mill on it. I tried the chicken lasagna with gorgonzola cheese, Scott sampled the pasta special, Rosi was served a beautiful salad nicoise and Jim went for the rabbit. Delicious! With promises for a Keweenaw rendezvous later in summer 2004, Rosi and Jim dropped us off at the marina way past our normally early bedtime.

Visitors and residents alike make frequent use of the Washburn area’s many points of access to the waterfront

In between visits from Les on Thursday, Scott and I explored downtown Washburn, which presents the cruiser with a convenient combination of shopping and historical sights. Scott bought his first 12-pack of Leinenkugel Beer at a discount-priced liquor store on main street within easy walking distance of the marina. The grocery store, shops, galleries and restaurants are also close by, an important consideration for carless cruisers. We have carried a bike on board and find it a very handy way to get around, but unfortunately the last one we had got so rusty during our sail up the U.S. East Coast that we donated it to a Hudson River marina.

We also enjoy strolling through beautiful scenery, and the Washburn Lake Walk is about as good as it gets. You don’t have to venture very far down the trail overlooking the bay to be astounded by the scenery, but if you’re like me the panorama will pump you up to hike farther than planned. The walk is a very popular attraction with locals as well as visitors and it’s always nice to see people out enjoying the great outdoors. On Thursday night we followed the Lake Walk to the locally famous Steak Pit, situated high on the hill above the marina. Beef prices were steep ($20-25 for a steak), but the food and atmosphere (especially the fountain in the dining room!) are first-rate. Scott had the Steak Sante Fe special, a concoction featuring pepperjack bacon, mushrooms, sautéed peppers, onions and jack cheese. I had the broiled walleye. Yum! We also chowed down on the complimentary appetizer of peanut chips with a tangy cream dip, as well as the customized tossed salad with all the dressing choices, bacon bits and croutons served in crocks at your table.

Business concluded, we departed the marina on Friday. We forgot to turn in the restroom key - or maybe it was a subconscious acknowledgement that we’ll be back? In any event, Washburn, Wisconsin is a safe and pleasant harbor worth repeat visits.

Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with her husband, Scott, aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop – a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport in Houghton, Michigan, they have been visiting and revisiting favorite destinations on the lake. Cyndi will be sharing other top northern and Midwest destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s notebook” feature. And by the way, the restroom key did get mailed back to its rightful owners!