Walk Across Lake Winnebago: impressions from my first time crossing the ice

This is one of the more unusual Wisconsin winter activities I have heard of. Hundreds of people covering the width of Lake Winnebago by walking across it? I was excited to try this out the year I heard about it… but unfortunately, our stretch of recent mild winters meant that the walk had to be called off the past two years. This year, I got my chance! So my ladyfriend and I headed out.

The Walk Across Lake Winnebago began with a bus ride to take us to the opposite side of the lake. This was a bus full of adults, and so partying was key to the atmosphere, and the discussion.

These were people who came ready for a winter event. People were dressed warmly; properly prepared. Throughout the event, I did not hear anyone complain about being cold. What a relief for me, after all the complaints the media and casual conversation make about how intimidating and unpleasant they find winter, to be around plenty of people ready to go out into winter like it’s no big deal!

And this was no event for the hard-core only. Yes, it involved walking eight miles, and doing so while wrapped up in winter clothes. But this was no race, it did not involve testing one’s extreme abilities. It was a lot of average people ready to have a nice walk outdoors… in the middle of winter. For 2-3 hours. In temperatures around 10 degrees. On a snowy path across a frozen lake.

When the bus arrived on the eastern side, we then had to walk (perhaps a mile?) from our drop-off point to the lake itself. I was a little nervous about the walk at this point, since the road we walked on was fairly slushy and slippery. I did appreciate this portion from a landscape-encounter perspective: this is a lake which is bordered by cliffs on one side, so it felt appropriate to begin by walking down a hill to get to the lake.

The walk over the lake itself proved smoother. The path was not slushy. There was a plowed road across, two lanes wide, easy to walk on. Actually, these seemed to be roughly ideal walking-across-lake-conditions; enough snow for traction (rarely did I see exposed ice), since walking on the ice itself would have been trickier.DSC06807

Since the road was plowed, there were borders (1-2 feet high, often) on each side. (Until the last mile or so, which did not follow the main road across the lake, and thus was less level, and narrower.) So the route felt prepared, and somewhat contained. I stepped off to the side a few times to soak in the feeling of the frozen lake a bit more, and sat on the side too. I don’t recall if I saw anyone else doing that.

As far as ‘knowing nature through labor’: I now know the width of lake via my own effort! It gives me some pride, and greater awareness of my area, to know the size of this lake through my effort.

This was longest distance I’ve ever walked while being able to see the whole distance most of the way, shore to shore. As you might image – or have experienced from canoeing or swimming – the size of the shores changed *slowly,* progress takes effort. I said “most” of the time: at times, snow would block out shores… so I just knew I had to walk further than I could see!

I have mentioned the road, and we got plenty of glimpses of how, when the lake is frozen enough, it is used for transportation. I have some experience of this from the lake my grandparents lived on, but not on such a large scale. We certainly did not feel isolated out on the lake. (My pictures are somewhat misleading, in part because I wanted to capture the depth, not the groups of walkers closest to us; with a steady stream of walkers, we always felt amidst company.) Along with the road, there was a constant set of tracks we could see on both sides of us. There were many ice-fishing shanties to see, grouped primarily in a few locations. Vehicles used the road, too; several dozen trucks passed us.

Also, there was a line of old Christmas trees marking a route, perhaps fifty yards from the road itself. For the unfamiliar, sticking such trees on the lake, at regular distances, provides a convenient way for drivers to identify the path across a lake (particularly when it covers such a distance).

Along with that, there were the social spots – these are Wisconsinites in winter, after all! People used to ice-fishing and Lambeau Field are going to have themselves a good time on a winter walk, too! (See https://milwaukeesnow.com/2014/01/27/culture-of-cold-at-packer-games-lambeau-fans-and-cold-weather/ for related reflections of mine.) People, including at least one biker, hauled beers on sleds; apple pie shots; and beer and brats waiting for us when we crossed the lake! This felt very much in the tailgating tradition. There were, if I recall correctly, and three spots where people gathered and hung out a bit (or waited in line for restrooms, at least), highlighted by the halfway point, where dozens of people hung out.

It was a friendly group. One person saw me resting, asked if I was ok, and offered me some water (should’ve come prepared…) I appreciated that generosity, as well as the casual, friendly tone of other walkers who I heard from. People weren’t in much of a rush, so they could talk on their way.

Thinking about it, participants put in an impressive effort, especially for such an unusual thing. We know the kind of credit we assign to, say, marathoners, or fun run participants. But for this? People spending 2-3 hours constantly on their feet, light exercise, often with fairly weighty clothes. And while this wasn’t bitterly cold, it was cold – my cheeks did get pretty chilled at points, and I was glad that I came dressed warm. How many other people walk – not drive, snowmobile, canoe, sail, snowshoe, etc – across such a distance in winter?

What moved me the most were some magic moments near the middle when snow started falling at a decent rate… and the shorelines disappeared! I stopped to look around, to soak it in. I started from the shore, and now here I was, able to see snow-flats around me, snow falling near me, snow-fuzziness in the distance. But for all I could see there, there was no world around me except for that snow 🙂 I let my mind roam a little. (If I get the chance again, I’ll wonder longer…)

This was an encounter with the wildness of winter. The chance to look off into the distance, see the sky aflight and abuzz, and feel stirrings of hope that something wonderful exists beyond… and knowing in my heart that something wonderful *does* exist there, the opportunity to be surrounded by such a globe of whirling snow. (And I was not alone in doing so, hundreds of people chose to immerse themselves.)

This is a moment I have longed for. I have had related moments on Milwaukee lakeshore, when all I could see was the nearby forest and some of the lake ice. But this moment felt further out. Here, I could kind of imagine that I was off on some epic journey, to who knows where… I was in the midst of a step into a temporarily unknowable (if not trackless) world. I cast about for an epic to match this with in my mind. (I did get a better sense of the battlefield Alexander Nevsky managed…) And yet, there was a steady stream of people ahead of me and behind me, sharing the trek, so it wasn’t so lonely-heroic. (Plus, if I looked in the right directions, I could see a few ice shanties and automobiles in the distance.)

So thanks to the organizers for giving me the change to feel that magic in the middle of the lake – and to do so in the midst of my own effort, and to do so safely. And thanks to the participants for being willing to take the time and effort to have a good time in the middle of winter… in the middle of a lake!DSC06825

[Note: I later wrote a piece you can check out on the history of the Walk,]

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About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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4 Responses to Walk Across Lake Winnebago: impressions from my first time crossing the ice

  1. I am glad to see the interest in reading this post. Leave a comment here, or email me at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com, if you have any feedback, or additional things to share! Also, you can check out https://www.facebook.com/#!/walkacrosslakewinnebago for more reports on the walk, including plenty of lively pictures!

  2. Pingback: Roundup of writing about winter 2013-4 | milwaukeesnow

  3. Pingback: Walk Across Lake Winnebago: the history of a strange but social event | milwaukeesnow

  4. Pingback: Walk Across Lake Winnebago, 3: Photos and Reflections from the 2015 walk | MilwaukeeSnow

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