Before Madison, before maps, it was always the lakes.
Deep, defining waters already showing us who we were, even 12,000 years ago, as the Ho-Chunk tell it. They say the Earthmaker came from the north and stopped here to admire the beautiful landscape he created, and decided to make a soup. That’s when the burbling overflow from the Earthmaker’s clay cooking pot rushed in to fill the depressions that formed the Four Lakes—in TeJop, as Madison is still known to its indigenous tribe—Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa. They are the spiritual pools that have carried the whispered histories of every generation since.
Today, the time-lapsed tale of Madison’s growth reveals a nearly unrecognizable picture, but it’s no less developed by its lakes, including Wingra, and five streams that flow and feed the Yahara chain. Try this: Close your eyes and picture the city of Madison like a snapshot—what do you see?
Is it the John Nolen skyline, Monona Terrace at its center, the Capitol dome peeking like a crown behind it? Is it the tangerine, lemon and grass-green chairs lining the Memorial Union Terrace? Is it the long, curled finger of Picnic Point, reaching out toward the stacks of the old Oscar Mayer plant? Chances are, whichever image of Madison comes to mind, the view is likely from a lake.
Plenty of people thought building a city on a skinny isthmus pinched between two lakes couldn’t be done, even with the ambitious plans presented by John Nolen, the visionary architect. But it had to be done, because this is where the people always gathered, and gather still. Madison’s lakes host an endless swell of locals and tourists, athletes and loungers. Even the frigid Wisconsin winters can’t keep the people away, from Polar Plungers to Frozen Assets Festival goers, passionate ice boaters skidding at breakneck speed, hardy fishermen huddled over tip-ups and hearty artists raising a replica of the Statue of Liberty as if to catch her icy breath above frozen water. But it’s sweetest in the summertime. Ask any Hoofer or waterski-team member, log roller, sailor, paddle-boarder or angler. Ask any one of us who dreams of this time of year.
There is no Madison without its life-giving lakes. And there’s no shortage of ways to celebrate them this summer.