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Thursday, July 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Paper


Peaceful waters
The quiet pleasures of a small lake

Credit:David Medaris
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There is a little lake up north. I'm not going to tell you its name. You don't need to know it. You don't need to visit it. It is enough to know that it exists.

There are thousands of lakes in northern Wisconsin. Like many of them, this one is too small to show up on the state map. Google maps and Mapquest can pinpoint it, but neither deems it significant enough to show its shape in blue. It is mapped in blue on page 70-something in the Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer, but is too inconsequential to merit a listing in the index - and it helps to wear reading glasses to find it on the page.

I adore this lake.

Its size has something to do with this. At 27 acres, it is too small to attract motorboat traffic, but big enough to enjoy in a kayak. It is a good lake for practicing leans, turns, strokes and other boat-control maneuvers.

But this lake has other qualities that justify affection. One is the lack of interest people have taken in it. There is one property abutting the lake. It belongs to some of my in-laws. That's how I was introduced to this lake. I was invited to stay at their cabin.

The cabin is up on a hill overlooking the lake. There is an overgrown footpath from the cabin down to the shore. A small dock is at the end of the footpath. It has a bench. In the early morning it is good to take an oversize mug of hot coffee down to the dock and sit on the bench and observe this little lake.

At first light, its surface is sometimes shrouded in a fog that damps the sounds of singing birds, the occasional splashing fish and an isolated, remote motor vehicle. The fog is slow to disperse. Once the sun has risen, it renders the fog a lighter but more tenacious mist. I can go back to the cabin, refill the mug with more coffee and return to the dock in ample time to watch the last wisps of vapor dissipate.

The low sun shimmers off the water's surface and bathes the clusters of blooming waterlilies in the warm light of dawn. There are stands of marshy grasses at either end. The lake is not deep. It is ringed by a dense tangle of native foliage and tall trees.

The water is clear, with a brown tone that resembles the patina of an antique. When I venture out in my kayak and look down into the water, I see a lot of wood that has fallen into the water, been saturated and sunk. Sometimes this wood is a limb that has fallen off one of the tall trees. Often it is an entire tree. Its roots may have let go of the soil in a gust of wind, or the soil may have let go of the tree's roots. Maybe the tree and the soil agreed to an amicable parting of the ways. I was not present to observe the tree's fall, so I don't know how it might have happened.

Skimming over all the submerged wood in a kayak feels like flying a seaplane low, peering down into the depths and viewing the masts of sunken schooners. The abundance of timber that has fallen into the water around the perimeter makes good coarse woody habitat for the fish in this lake, and for other fauna.

A turtle suns itself on a piece of wood that has fallen but remains exposed above the water's surface.

There is a blue heron standing on another length of fallen lumber. When I draw too close, it takes flight. Its wings sound like a great bellows.

Other tall trees appear destined for the water. Like an emaciated, more acute replica of Pisa's tower, one is leaning out over the lake at about 30 degrees from vertical. It is unnerving to paddle under it. It looks like it might be one nudge of wind away from joining the other wood submerged in the lake.

Perhaps the lake's most appealing quality is the fact that - unlike so many other lakes - it is not being loved to death. It is not overwhelmed by cabins, vacation homes or condos. It is seven miles to the closest gas station and grocer, 12 miles to the nearest motel.

I'm not knocking people who love lakes enough to live on their shores. Many of them are well-meaning, reasonable stewards of the resource. What I'm getting at is this. As a species, we tend to smother the places we love with affection when they would be better off left alone. For examples of what happens to lakes when they are loved to death, go see and smell lakes Monona and Mendota.

In contrast, this little lake is all but ignored. That's a good and healthy thing for a lake. That's why you don't need to know its name. Like thousands of other anonymous lakes or any other fragile place that is best left unvisited, this small body of water does not have to be seen to be adored.

To love it, all you need is to know that it is there.

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