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Lake Wingra is a 320-acre lake in the Yahara River Chain of Lakes that flows through Wisconsin's Southern Savannah Region. Located in the heart of downtown Madison, Wisconsin's capital city, Lake Wingra provides a wealth of recreational opportunities and a healthy dose of nature to the city's many inhabitants. There is no private property along the nearly four miles of shoreline; instead, Lake Wingra is surrounded by two parks, the campus of Edgewood College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. The combined public lands offer a variety of ways to enjoy the water and shoreline. A swimming beach is located at Wingra Park, as is the only public boat launch, fishing piers and picnic areas. The park also rents boats, with rowboats, canoes and kayaks dominating the boating scene.
Although connected to the larger Yahara River Chain of Lakes and draining into Lake Monona, boat passage between Lake Wingra and the rest of the chain isn't possible by water. Only canoes and kayaks can access the lake via a water route, one that involves a portage around the small dam. A boat rental concession at Wingra Park rents paddleboats, kayaks, canoes and rowboats. Gasoline motors are not permitted. The concession also provides a small marina where privately-owned sailboats and craft can be kept in rental slips. As an added service, Wingra Park holds children's day camp activities during the summer focused on fishing, water and boating skills, beginning limnology and boating safety activities. One particularly popular camp session is geared toward teaching stand-up paddle-boarding.
Lake Wingra's name comes from the Ho-Chunk word for 'duck'; the lake has been a major stopping point for migrating waterfowl throughout its history. It is also a desirable fishing lake, holding bluegill and other panfish, walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass and an abundance of muskellunge. Muskie fingerlings are regularly stocked by the Department of Natural Resources. The muskies use Lake Wingra as a spawning ground, swimming up Wingra Creek to leap the low dam at the lake's outlet. Each spring, locals come to watch the Muskie Run, cheering for the most successful attempts. Extensive wetlands around the lake harbor a wealth of native amphibians, waterfowl and small marsh mammals. Miles of walking trails within the large Arboretum's grounds permit runners, walkers, bird watchers and nature lovers access to a wide variety of ecological systems being restored in the area. Visitors enjoy cycling, scenic viewing locations and the large Longnecker Horticultural Gardens. Arboretum grounds include several areas of forest, savannahs, prairies and marshes, all geared toward providing habitat for native birds, plants and animals.
Lake Wingra's central location is a natural hub for other activities in the immediate area. Of particular interest to those with children, the Henry Vilas Zoo is located just outside Vilas Park on the northern side of the lake. A rarity among zoos, Henry Vilas Zoo is free to access, a condition of the gift of the land donated by the Vilas family in memory of their young deceased son, Henry. Beginning in 1904, the Vilas family donated land, then funds to improve the site for public use, with the zoo being established in 1926. The nationally-acclaimed zoo is supported in part through the efforts of several community groups and offers many special events during the year. Lake Wingra can be reached via the metropolitan bus line, making it easily accessible to all.
Lake Wingra's long history shows many changes caused by natural and human intervention. The lake, along with others in the area, were created by glaciation thousands of years ago. Glacial deposits formed a ridge that forced water to percolate underground, emerging in a number of springs at what became Lake Wingra. Extensive wetlands made building near the lake nearly impossible as Madison grew up around it. Originally the lake drained by slow water passage through Gardner Marsh at the east end of the lake. As boating and outdoor recreation became popular around the turn of the last century, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association made 'improvements' to the lake to increase boat access. They dug a canal from Lake Wingra to Lake Monona for boat access, but the action reduced water levels in Lake Wingra. Their next step required building a small dam as a water control measure and installing a boat lock. Within a few years, it became obvious that the boat lock was seldom used, so it was covered with an observation platform.
Meanwhile, a failed development attempt built a levee along the eastern shoreline to drain Gardner Marsh for building lots. This was ultimately unsuccessful, and Gardner Marsh is now a nesting waterfowl refuge and part of the Arboretum. The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association had meanwhile accumulated parkland via the Vilas family and other donors, resulting in the majority of the lakefront becoming public lands. The dam was rebuilt in 2010, minus the boat lock, and keeps water levels stable except for the rare periods of excessive rain when Lake Monona's water level rises to meet it.
Today, various citizens groups, including the Friends of Lake Wingra, work to improve water quality and teach water users about good conservation practices. Because multiple municipal and private wells have lowered the water table in the area, only one large spring is now providing fresh ground water to recharge the lake. Additionally, as less permeable surfaces exist in the area, more water enters the system via surface drainage, bringing with it possible pollutants such as lawn fertilizers. Efforts to reverse these changes have resulted in Lake Wingra's water quality starting to improve with less seasonal algae bloom and better water clarity. The presence of two colleges offer unique opportunities for students to be trained in limnology and environment based on the readily-available lake for testing and experimentation. Madison residents, too, are learning good environmental stewardship to protect their beloved water resources.
Visitor to Madison will find this an exciting university city with plenty of nightlife, gourmet restaurants, unique shopping and exciting sports, particularly hockey. They will also find Madison a mecca for water sports and nature activities such as those showcased at little Lake Wingra. Madison holds all types of lodgings such as hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts. Real estate for sale is not uncommon, although its location near a major university tends to keep prices higher than average. Still, the muskies return to Lake Wingra every year-and so should you.
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