Playtime in Washburn

In winter, ski across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight and see the ice caves, too.

Cross-country skiers at Mount Valhalla.
Skiers glide along the trails of Mount Valhalla.

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 usually can be reached for only a few days, or not at all. The Book Across the Bay race, which has grown from 350 skiers to 3,500, 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 we heard that Apostle Islands National Lakeshore rangers were allowing visits to the ice caves.

It was mid-February, on the early side. If shoreline ice becomes thick enough to support people, it's usually not 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.

On the cliffs, bulging ice falls gleam a pale blue or green. Inside the caves, soda-straw icicles carpet the ceilings — "chin bristles," my husband 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.

Book Across the Bay.
Many Book Across the Bay skiers wear goofy costumes.

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.

In Washburn, school buses were waiting to take us to the starting line in Ashland. (Now, the route begins and ends 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."

My husband was waiting, giddy after his first race.

Blue icefall at ice caves.
On the mainland shoreline near Cornucopia, a giant icefall is tinted blue and pink.

"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 $30. 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

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.

One of the 19th-century brownstones up the street is home to Chequamegon Book & Coffee Co., started 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, Wisconsin in winter

Getting there: It's 12 miles from Bayfield and also Ashland on Wisconsin 13.

Annual events: Book Across the Bay, a 10-kilometer race or tour across Chequamegon Bay from Ashland, is held the Saturday of Presidents' Day weekend.

A winter day in a Washburn coffeehouse.
Chequamegon Book & Coffee is a cozy haven in winter.

Cross-country skiing: Valhalla Recreation Area, 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.

Alpine skiing: 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.

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.

For updates on conditions, call the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, 715-779-3397, Ext. 499.

If it's not possible to reach the caves by the frozen lake, you can see them from the Lakeshore Trail on the cliffs above.

For details, see Ice caves of the Apostles.

Accommodations: The North Coast Inn is a mom-and-pop motel that includes chalets with kitchenettes, 715-373-5512.

The Washburn Inn, formerly a 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.

North of town, Bodin's Resort is on Chequamegon Bay and rents cabins from May through October.

Dining: Good Thyme Restaurant occupies the 1913 Monroe Sprague house, a mile north on Wisconsin 13. Call 715-373-5255 for reservations.

Cafe Coco serves breakfast and lunch and is a good place to pick up sandwiches and baked goods.

Patsy's Bar & Grill is a good place to go for a burger or fish fry.

DaLou's Bistro offers wood-fired pizza, panini, homemade gelati, beer and wine. Coco makes artisan breads and fine pastries.

Chequamegon Book & Coffee, at 2 E. Bayfield St., is open daily, though hours may vary in winter.

South Shore Brewery Taphouse, operated by Ashland's South Shore Brewery, offers beer and occasional music and special events. It's on Wisconsin 13 at Sixth Avenue West.

Nightlife: StageNorth hosts play, concerts, dance performances and films, 715-373-1194.

More information: Washburn chamber, 800-253-4495.

Last updated on January 24, 2022

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