Walk Across Lake Winnebago: the history of a strange but social event

It all started with one woman leaving her purse at a bar… and deciding to take an unusual route toward getting it back. It led to, year after year, lots of people telling participants “you are nuts.” But last year, over 600 people decided to join in – to get up, head to a frozen lake in mid-February, and spend hours walking across it!

2011 the big year

I had the chance to talk with Stacy and Jordan Frakes about the history of this new tradition. In 2003, Stacy Frakes lived on the west shore of Lake Winnebago. Like many others who lived on the lake, she was used to a local culture where socializing often revolved around the lake; visiting bars on the lakeshore, boating, fishing. And during winter, snowmobiling, and driving on the lake – odd as that may seem to people in other parts of the country, it is a regular part of the culture here. (Particularly on Winnebago, where sturgeon-spearing season is a winter highlight).

One Saturday night, she left her purse behind at Gobblers Knob in Stockbridge… across the lake from where she lived. For whatever strange reason, she decided to get it back by walking across on that beautiful Sunday morning, and invited her friends Connie Schultz and Jamie Caldwell to join her. (And for whatever strange reason, the three of them decided to actually decided to go through with the plan!) ‘We’re comin’ over for a Bloody Mary,’ she told the bar… and then the three went on over.

And this started a tradition. Now, Lake Winnebago gets heavily used in the winter. Trucks created informal paths across parts of the lake, and some people plowed paths to their shanties on the ice, so the ladies had trails partially blazed for them, even in the early years.

For a few years, just the three of them walked. Then Stacy talked her daughter Jordan into joining. By 2007, around 50 people took part – mostly family and friends, mostly women. (Area men were often participating in other outdoor activities instead, like fishing.) Many people kept saying ‘you’re nuts, why don’t you just drive over’… but over time, some of those people joined the walk 😉

Given the neighborly culture, local private organizations found their ways, over the years, to join in the fun as well. Paynes Point Hook & Spear Fishing Club, used to plowing routes on the lake for fishers, now maintains the ice-road for the walkers. Each year, new friends, neighbors and local businesses try to find a way to join and support the event, including supporting social refreshment stops on the way across the lake.

PPHSFC

Representatives of Paynes Point Hook & Spear Fishing Club plowing a road on the ice.

As one might imagine, an event premised on walking an extended distance, over what is essentially a level field, in the middle of February, can face challenges due to the weather.

2008 the Blizzard year

Walking through a blizzard in 2008

In 2008, a blizzard struck. Walkers had to rely on GPS and walkie-talkies to stay on track. The group wandered off course somewhat, which was frightening for some.

2009 slushy warm year

Slush in 2009

While that problem came from too much winter weather, too little winter weather can create a different set of problems. In 2012 and 2013, no walk was held – the ice wasn’t thick enough. (People still got together, though – why miss a chance to be social!) In 2009, the ice was thick enough… but with temperatures above 40 degrees, walkers had to trudge through slush… and melted water on top of the ice! At points, the water came all the way to walkers’ knees. (Understandably, some were unsettled by this, and wondering – wait, does that mean the lake was open? But for people used to living on the lake, and gauging the reliability of ice, they could assess the fact that this was simply a layer of melted snow on top of a solid layer of ice.)

One year, neighbor Karl Engling decided to have a ‘Margaritaville’ stand on the walk. But, given the weather, the drinks could freeze in straws. ‘We need warm drinks,’ they concluded. So since then, Engling’s ‘Apple Pie Ville’ has provided warm shots for people midway across the lake (or on the shore, during the years no walk was held). Others have joined in at other spots, with their own drink offerings.

Walkers suggested that if they were going to have an audience involved in such an activity, why not use it to raise $ for a cause? (Or, more light-heartedly, ‘we wanna do this dumb thing for them’ 😉 Since Frakes was on the board of the Neenah Animal Shelter, that was a natural choice as a cause to support. So from that point on, the Walk Across Lake Winnebago became a charity event as well, raising over $6000 in 2014 for the Neenah Animal Shelter and for Menasha’s K9 Unit.

At the time of the first walk, Frakes had never heard of anyone else walking across the lake (although she later heard from someone who had done so). Drive, snowmobile, sure – but walk? People thought they “were absolutely nuts.” But take a few people who are nuts… have them apply some gentle peer pressure to others, perhaps via tagging people on Facebook… and whaddya know, more join.

And, this being Wisconsin, if you have an event where people can have a Bloody Mary before they start, supporters set up stands with drinks available along the way, and you have people bringing sleds to haul beer on; well, it becomes another reason to drink and be social (think of the spirit of tailgating, but with exercise added… ) The Walk became something to look forward to in February, a chance for area people to come together.

And you end up with hundreds of people are being nuts together! It may be cold, it may be February, it may be strange – but they have a good time doing it, and I had a good time joining in last year (see https://milwaukeesnow.com/2014/02/03/walk-across-lake-winnebago-impressions-from-my-first-time-crossing-the-ice-2/) I hope you can join us if you’re in the area; if not, I hope you can find your own creative way to find outdoors fun this winter.

(See also http://www.walkacrosslakewinnebago.com/photos.html for a look at photos from past years.)

Note: all photographs in this post courtesy of and copyright Jordan Frakes.

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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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3 Responses to Walk Across Lake Winnebago: the history of a strange but social event

  1. Pingback: Walk Across Lake Winnebago: impressions from my first time crossing the ice | milwaukeesnow

  2. Pingback: January 2015 Winter Art and Writing Roundup | milwaukeesnow

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

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