Wild Ice – Isthmus | Madison, Wis.
Pete Witucki lives just a block from Lake Wingra, but for several glorious weeks in January he couldn’t resist the call of the sirens of Lake Monona.
“I like that wild ice when we have it and we don’t have it very often,” says Witucki.
Using Nordic skates – a removable elongated steel blade that clips onto cross-country ski boots – Witucki took to the ice a dozen times during those peaceful days, even skating a marathon one morning in going around the lake about 2.5 times in about two hours.
Until the snow fell on January 23, unusually clear, smooth, fast ice turned Monona Lake into a winter wonderland and a magnet for skaters, hikers, fat bikers, dog walkers, ice fishermen, ice boat racers and others. Pandemic fatigue likely heightened the sense of euphoria many felt amid the great expanse of ice and sky. The fact that everyone knew it would be fleeting – as it was – made it even more special.
Most years, says Hilary Dugan, a limnologist at UW-Madison, Madison’s lakes have “black ice” that’s good for skating and boating for maybe a few days early in the season. “Once the precipitation hits the frigid ice, the ice cover turns into a thick, muddy mess. Wind during the freeze will also cause newly frozen patches of ice to pile up on top of each other – you’ll notice this along the shores of Mendota.
The lack of precipitation in the first three weeks of January helped keep Monona Lake ice smooth and thick, Dugan says. On the weekends in particular, people flocked to the lake, with some staying for the sunset and a bonfire. Wildlife lovers were on the lookout for bald eagles, foxes and a snowy owl, which during a rare stopover in Madison created a buzz all its own. When local photographer Kenton Fowler posted a picture of the beautiful bird on Instagram, someone asked, “I’m dying to go out and see this beauty tomorrow morning if I’m lucky!” Advices ? »
People just couldn’t get enough. While the lake was still clear on Friday, Jan. 21, Tony Sturm was skating near Yahara Park with his son, Dante, and a friend. Sturm says he always keeps his eyes peeled for what is normally a brief window to skate on the lake and was thrilled to have the ice available for several weeks. One night he skated over nine miles in a loop from Yahara Park to Olin Park to Olbrich Park. “I don’t remember the season being that long,” he said. “This is amazing.”
Witucki was also back on the ice that day, this time with her young children, Rory and Tess. As the two skated away from shore, Witucki joked that he would have to pick them up at Olbrich Park, due east about three-quarters of a mile, if they were covered in ice.
Near Olbrich Park Beach, Jo and Ben August had just finished an afternoon of skateboarding. “We’ve lived here for 33 years,” says Ben. “It’s only been a few years since I can remember the ice being as smooth and consistent as this year.”
The “spectacular” ice even inspired Paul Cooley of Madcity Paragliding and Bob Cook of Kite Riders to create a new sport: call it “ice boarding” or “winging on the ice”.
“Normally we would take our skis, snowboards and kites, but we don’t have the snow to grip them,” says Cooley. So they came up with the idea of retrofitting skateboards with blades and using the “wings” that Cook uses in the summer for water sports.
“So we’re experimenting,” Cooley says, as he prepares to hit the ice that afternoon with one of his prototypes. The two have spoken to a manufacturer to start making the ice boards and hope to put them on sale later this season.
The next day, Cook and Cooley returned to Olbrich Beach, offering free demonstrations and lessons. It was very cold, but sunny and the shimmering lake was filled with skaters, cyclists, walkers and ice boats. That night, the snow fell and the magic of the endless transparent ice in the middle of the city came to an end.
But Cooley is a philosopher, noting that boaters who have swarmed Lake Monona in recent weeks are used to traveling to other states to find the kind of ice they need for their sport. Now that he and Cook have been bitten by the ice boarding bug, they might pursue a similar strategy: “We might end up traveling to do it.”
Monona Lake area
Composition of the bottom:
Hudson, Esther, Olbrich, Bernie’s, Brittingham, Olin
5 landing stages:
Access to Olbrich Park; Tonyawatha Park boat ramp; Winnequah Trail; Law Park; Olin Park
crappie; largemouth bass; northern pike; walleye; musky; smallmouth bass; sturgeon; Catfish