"70 square miles surrounded by reality..."
From Katherine: As I worked through the college application process, I had my hopes set on leaving Wisconsin behind. It may have been to prove to everyone that I could actually leave “home,” or maybe it was an attempt to gain some uniqueness to my story in comparison to so many of my high school classmates and my sister who also had attended UW-Madison and was loving it. When my mom and I left for my “tour” of schools that were actually of consideration, I thought without a doubt, that I’d know Notre Dame was for me. The hard part was over, I’d already gotten in, bless my church’s Catechism class going heavy on the service work. When we arrived, I was confused. The campus on a sunny October day was actually heaven with perfectly golden leaves, sun bright as ever, students looking classy and well-coordinated in their navy & gold. But I could not get over a few facts: no water and no immediately available bar scene. Call it what you want, but each school had a host of red flags that could not be ignored by my Madison-spoiled-soul. I’d visited Madison many times over the course of my childhood and teen years, visiting with family, and later visiting siblings of friends for a taste of college. And once you have the best, you can’t do better. And that tour of Midwestern schools solidified one thing for me, I needed UW-Madison in my story.
My four years at UW-Madison were undeniably important and fun. Obviously the college experience is a turning point in many lives, and for me that was no different. Between friends, football, and living big, it’s one of the times of my life that I’d actually be HAPPILY willing to experience one more time. And then again. And again. And again. And I know with certainty that a huge part of that is due to the magic of Madison, WI.
Speaking of undeniable fun, I’ve recruited a few of my best college girlfriends to write this story with me, so without further ado, here is our story of Madison + Lake Mendota.
As an isthmus, Madison is nestled between two large and beautiful lakes: Monona and Mendota. Campus, and a few more of our favorite spots are located along Mendota, which is 9781 acres. Mendota is by far the largest of all 45 lakes in the county, and is rich in history extending back to 12,000 years ago in the glacial age, and then to just a few hundred years ago when these lands were inhabited by numerous Native Americans tribes.
A portion of campus includes the Lakeshore Preserve, which is home to Picnic Point and the Lakeshore Trail, popular for walking, hiking, and biking and home to multiple residence halls. There are numerous Indian effigy mounds just inland from the lake, in the heart of campus. UW boasts a proud, rich Native American Studies program, ever popular to students. As someone fascinated with Native American culture (I’m less than 2% Mohawk, but as a child I often asserted that it was much more than that), I loved my Native American studies coursework, which gave me a chance to understand the culture and conflict that has taken place in the Midwest, and beyond, throughout history and even recently, as experienced firsthand in Northern Wisc during the Walleye War of the 80s & 90s.
Closest major city & airport?
The closest cities, if Madison’s size of 250,000 isn’t cutting it, are Milwaukee, WI (80 miles) or Chicago, IL (150 miles). The Dane County Regional airport, MSN, is just a short drive from downtown Madison, and flies to many major hubs across the country, connecting you to wherever you need to go! If that is not an option for you, Mitchell International airport in Milwaukee is only about an hour and a half drive away.
Distance to nearest grocery store?
While campus lacked a downtown grocer during our college years, unless you considered the Triangle Mart, Riley’s Liquor, Walgreens, or the Willy St. Co-op your go-to, there were quite a few options within a short drive from campus. My roommates and I considered a trip to nearby Whole Foods or Metcalfe’s Sentry (Hilldale Mall) to be a total splurge, which we’d make a bit too frequently, and especially during times of high stress. Campus now has multiple grocery options, including a Fresh Market in the heart of campus, but most students likely enjoy the upgraded dining hall options that are sprinkled throughout university buildings. Every visit since we’ve graduated, we’ve been a bit envious of the new amenities, but there’s a certain sense of pride knowing that we “roughed it” in comparison to the new generations.
Reason lake is important to us?
From Erin: There’s a spot on John Nolan drive that starts to curve north over Lake Monona and the Capital building comes into view. It is this exact moment that the stress of the world melts away, my surroundings go quiet, and I feel peace. I know I'm home. Madison holds such a special place in my heart (it is the namesake of my dog, after all). I am forever grateful for the four years I spent there. For the education I received, the immeasurable experience working at Memorial Union (right on the water), and most importantly for my sweet girlfriends and the irreplaceable bond that that magical town imprinted on our hearts.
From Annette: I spent my childhood visiting Madison to attend those crisp, fall Saturday Badgers games with the best college football team in the country, but never spent much time near its lakes. And like Katherine, I had my heart and mind set on attending college somewhere else. But there is something about Madison that felt remarkably approachable, and yet still boasted over 40,000 undergraduate students. Surrounded on either side by two beautiful lakes, you can’t help but think they are embracing Madison in a hug. I have a special place in my heart for Lake Mendota. There is something about it that takes your breath away because of its unassuming beauty. Strangely, I remember one particularly ordinary day when we walked down to the crew docks, sat in the shade, and watched a duck sleep peacefully on top of the water while chatting away the afternoon. But it had meaning for me. For as crazy, fun, and hectic as Madison can be, the lake brought us escape, and brought us closer together. Lake Mendota is about memories with friends, but also a pitcher (or more) of beer, the occasional late-night skinny-dipping (not an admission), and more laughs than I can count. It also brought me sanity when everything else seemed stressful. I spent many months at the Terrace or in the quiet room in College Library that overlooked the lake, studying for the LSAT. It was the perfect antidote to whatever anxiety or ailment I had. A needed, if only brief, respite from the daily grind. Spend the time to enjoy Madison’s lakes. Use it as a backdrop for your life as often as you can. The one thing I learned is that life can get in the way of enjoying the beauty of a place, especially when you think it will always be there for you. But as I’ve learned firsthand, when you move away from a place and you no longer have the ability to appreciate it whenever you want, you long for it that much more.
From Katherine: Lake Mendota is one of the most beautiful parts of campus, and that’s saying something when this campus is beyond stunning. The sheer size of this body of water is pretty mesmerizing, and whether enjoying time at the Terrace or walking the Lakeshore Trail, it offers a chance to step away from the everyday life, if only for a few moments. It’s a chance to disconnect from stressful times in schoolwork, social lives, all forms, really. At the Terrace especially, you find yourself among a community of people seeking the same relief that comes from the water. When you’re among a community of 40,000+ students, you can definitely feel like a small fish, but that feelings dissolves at the Terrace. What also dissolves are the boundaries between students, faculty, and visitors - regardless of major, beliefs, backgrounds, etc., you’re enjoying the same magic of the lakeside atmosphere.
And there were more times like that. A post-muddy football game mid-thunderstorm on the Kohl Center lawn called for a rinse in the lake. Another time, a friend decided the only way in which to ensure he could clean off all of the mud that he had managed to accumulate all over his body was to take a dip into Lake Mendota. Mind you, this was fall in Wisconsin and neither the air temperature nor the water temperature were anywhere close to feeling ‘warm’ - but hey, when in Madison. And don’t worry, he was able to get all of that mud off without having to drag this through his apartment. This was actually a very practical approach to getting rid of that mud, and not ‘crazy’ like many outside of Madison may think due to the weather. Wisconsinites are known for ignoring intense or less than ideal weather conditions when there is fun to be had
Summers Activities(From Beth, who spent multiple summers in Madison)
Madison, WI is well-known as a great college town; however, while many students go home during the summer, many students stay to enjoy everything Madison has to offer - and there really is so much to do! Every night of the week you can find something different, with activities appealing to a wide spectrum of interests. For starters, the Memorial Union Terrace themes multiple nights of the week:
More fun summer activities:
Some other local favorite traditions:
What do you do when it rains?
Local joints to check out?
Where to get a fish fry?
Have a sweet tooth?
Lessons learned at the lake, and at UW.