You’re listening to ‘Parks and Landmarks,’ an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Indian Lake is one of twenty six “Recreation Parks” managed by Dane County. It’s roughly ten miles northwest of Middleton, but easily accessible as it’s just a short detour off U.S. 12. The park’s roughly 800 acres are centered around a wide valley with a small lake in the middle. It’s this lake that gives the park its name, so you might be surprised to find that it offers few opportunities for recreation.
The lake (at Indian Lake) is surrounded almost entirely by wetland plants, tall grass, and wildflowers. There are maintained paths all over the place, but none of them actually go down to the lakeshore. The placement of the paths, and numerous wooden benches along them, suggest that you’re supposed to appreciate the water from a distance.
In this instance, I think that’s the right approach. There is a designated boat launch, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used for that purpose. People who are used to paddling around Madison are unlikely to be impressed by Indian Lake’s waterfront offerings. The whole thing is less than half the size of Lake Monona’s Brittingham Bay, so don’t rush to bring your kayaks up here from the city. I suspect, if anything, people bring their boats here to fish, but that’s about it.
So, if people don’t really swim or canoe much out here, what’s the point? The people who built this park could have left the lake off limits to everyone but the local wildlife. Yet, the boat launch exists, and it’s a whole separate entrance, wayyyy on the other side of the lake from the main parking lot. Why did the county build a whole second driveway, just to have access to an unremarkable body of water? The answer lies with the real focus of the west end of the park: dogs.
On the map, the west end of the park is denoted the “pet exercise area,” but there’s no fence to mark the boundaries as you look around. Instead, you find the same wide, grassy paths as everywhere else, only now populated by dogs roaming free. If it gets too hot out in the field, that’s where the lake comes in. Dog and human alike can cool off by jumping off the dock, or walking straight in, down the ramp.
Of course, some of this is conjecture, on my part. I’ve never visited Indian Lake during truly hot weather, though my first trip was unseasonably warm for February. The Indian Lake I know is nothing but brown grass, bare trees, and muddy trails, but I love it anyway.
A lot of this has to do with the park’s terrain. Indian Lake is just on the edge of Wisconsin’s unglaciated “driftless” region, and you can tell as soon as you turn left off highway 12. The road leading up to the park snakes between hills steeper and more frequent than we’re used to in the flat part of the Badger State. Amidst these ridges, you’ll still find farms. Rows of grain or beans snake their way down the valleys, but every hill has a point at which it becomes too steep to plow. This means that most of the ridges in this region are topped with trees, but cleared or grassy down below. In a satellite view, this creates a mesmerizing pattern: green and gold striations all over the driftless.
On the ground, this dichotomy means that you can hike between habitats quickly. From the main parking lot, you can either walk down along the lake, or up to the top of the ridge within ten minutes. The path up is narrow in spots, muddy in others, but it’s constructed in such a way as to give you the best view possible all the way up. After a few minutes, the trail stops its ascent, and you find yourself under a canopy of hardwoods. Off to one side of the trail, a building, no bigger than a garden shed, sits behind a spiky black iron fence. The hut doesn’t have many exterior details, but the cross atop its roof makes its purpose unmistakable.
This is Saint Mary of the Oaks. I’m sure there are rules that make this technically not true, but I like to call it the smallest Catholic Church in Wisconsin. At first glance, this gray box with a pointed roof seems a bit out of place. Like, who put a child’s drawing of a church in the middle of the forest? But, simplistic design aside, the craftsmanship is still impressive. Sure, there are people dedicated to its preservation, but the structure has stood, mostly unchanged, for a hundred and sixty five years.
The inside, for what it’s worth, is actually kinda cozy. The walls are the same smooth mortar as the outside, but painted white. There’s a window in each side wall, and stained glass in the door, so the little space is plenty bright, even without so much as a candle going. A guest book sits atop the wooden altar; you can record your visit, and leave a little message, if you wish. While bigger churches are monuments to the glory of God, Saint Mary of the Oaks is a modest space, perfect for a moment of reflection.
If you’d rather look outward than inward, Indian Lake has you covered, too. Not twenty yards past the chapel, the trail opens up again, terminating in a spectacular lookout. Beyond a low wood guardrail, the ridge drops off, permitting a view of Indian Lake, and the verdant hills and valleys beyond. When a single farmer hauled all those stones up here to build that chapel, perhaps this is what he was thanking God for.
Before I go, I feel I should mention a few upcoming events at Indian Lake Park. If you’re in the mood for some volunteer work, there’s going to be a seed collecting event this Friday, from 9am to noon. Volunteers will collect seeds from Indian Lake’s prairie, so that they can help with native plant restoration elsewhere. If you can’t make this one, there’s also a collection day at the same time on October 18th.
For those who like to experience their parks at a faster pace, the 13th annual Trail Run at Indian Lake is on October 1st. Those interested can learn more and sign up at friendsofindianlake.org.
Finally, on october 19th, there’s the Owl Walk. For five dollars, you’ll be treated to a two mile walk through Indian Lake’s forests, where you’ll get as good a chance as any to see and hear some of our local birds of the night. Though you’re not guaranteed to see an owl, you are guaranteed s’mores, so you really can’t lose. Information can be found on the Dane County Parks website, and I’ll link all this stuff in the online version of this article.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.
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