You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
I should probably start this episode out with a very mild content warning. Today we’re going to discuss a clothing-optional beach, and the reasons why it closed. My descriptions will be far from graphic, but still, this one may not be suitable for all audiences. That said, if you force a child who’s too young to know what sex is to listen to WORT, you’re a bad parent, because they’re bored out of their mind. With that out of the way, let’s head to the beach!
When it comes to water recreation, the people of Wisconsin are spoiled for choice. In Dane County alone, we have the Madison four lakes, the Yahara River, and half a dozen creeks that feed into them. We have Lake Wingra, the Sugar River, a slice of Lake Koshkonong, and more ponds in county parks than are worth counting. On top of all that, we have a little piece of some of the most pristine river for hundreds of miles.
The borders of Dane County are fairly simple. With few irregularities, it’s mostly rectangular, but about ten miles of its very northwest corner are cut in a jagged diagonal by the Wisconsin River. Specifically, it’s part of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, an officially-designated nature preserve. Any Dells Duck Boat tour guide will tell you that the Wisconsin sports over a hundred and twenty dams, that it’s “one of the hardest working rivers in the country.” That’s certainly true, but if the upper and middle sections are the state’s hardest working river, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is where its water goes to retire.
From the Lake Wisconsin Dam at Prairie du Sac, all the way to the Mississippi, the Wisconsin’s water flows unrestricted, with not even so much as a beaver dam in sight. Much of the land along this ninety-eight mile stretch is state or government owned. You’ll see individual houses and campgrounds as you float along, but once you leave Sauk City, the only other town you’ll notice is Muscoda, about halfway to the confluence with the Mississippi.
Unlike the Big River, which the Wisconsin eventually joins, it’s remarkably quiet along the banks. You might hear traffic on a distant country highway, but there are no train tracks flanking the Lower Wisconsin’s shores. Similarly, the lack of dams keeps the river low and wide. Some experienced fishers know how to keep their boats from getting stuck on sandbars, but for the most part, the only boat traffic is powered by paddles. The intended effect of this is to provide an ideal habitat for wildlife, but in a lot of ways, this is the best part of the river for people, too.
On any hot summer day, you’ll find swimmers and sunbathers crowding the beaches of Sauk City, and the sandbars of Spring Green. The Lower Wisconsin is generally deep enough to be pleasant to swim, but not too deep to stand, far out from the shore. The water also flows fast enough to keep clean, but not fast enough to sweep people away. Generally. That statement requires an asterisk. Swim at your own risk, and all that. My point is, people come from far and wide to swim the shores of the river, especially with how filthy the Madison lakes get by mid-summer. But there was a time, not so long ago, where they didn’t have to drive even as far as Sauk County.
Mazo Beach was the colloquial name for a stretch of shore a few miles north of the village of Mazomanie. It sits downstream from some private homes, and the Mazomanie Canoe landing, and it’s part of a much bigger parcel of state property, extending inland. It’s about a mile from the driveway’s entrance off county highway Y, to the actual parking lot, by the beach. Though this location makes Mazo Beach quite secluded, it’s important that it’s just barely still in Dane County.
As things like Madison’s annual Naked Bike Ride demonstrate, Dane County district attorneys have long been lenient in regards to prosecuting public nudity. Wisconsin law only states that it is illegal to “Publicly and indecently expose” one’s “genitals or pubic area,” and it has long been the stance of the county that exposure has to be pretty explicitly sexual to count as “indecent.” So, while Mazo beach was never intended for nude swimmers, its seclusion and jurisdiction inevitably attracted people for that purpose.
It’s interesting, the domino effect this had. An influx of nude swimmers naturally drove away any beach users who were uncomfortable with nudity. In driving away the prudes, they unintentionally created something of a safe space for the LGBT community. Now, this was the late 20th century; I’m sure some naturists were able to overcome the cognitive dissonance, and still be homophobic. But the saying goes that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And this isn’t part of the saying, but I’d venture that those who walk naked in their glass houses have extra reason to be non-judgemental.
So, over time, Mazo Beach coalesced into a haven for nudists, LGBT folks, and the left. By the late 90’s, the christian right could no longer ignore such an obvious target, and began a decades-long campaign to close it.
When I say that, I don’t mean the entire Christian right. Most of the effort was made by Pastor Ralph Ovadal, and his hardline non-denominational church. In the late nineties and early two-thousands, members of Pilgrim’s Covenant Church were a common sight at the entrance to Mazo Beach. They would picket, and heckle people as they entered, much like you’ll see outside a Planned Parenthood clinic today. In ‘99, the DNR put up a permanent gate at the entrance, meaning visitors had to park their cars along the road, then walk or bike the remaining mile to the beach. This measure was meant to make it difficult to enter the beach quickly, and therefore discourage its use as a site for hookups. But this wasn’t enough for pastor Ovadal’s followers. They believed that any nudity at the beach was intolerable, as it was causing direct harm to children.
Like any other beach, parents would bring children of all ages to Mazo. And this was a big rallying point for the people most strongly against the nude beach. Their concerns ranged wildly, from “the children’s innocence will be ruined, seeing naked adults,” to “they’ll be targeted by the predatory gays,” all the way up to elleven; the big theory was that people were bringing cameras to shoot child pornography.
To a modern audience, these claims seem unfounded at best, and virulently homophobic at worst, but I don’t think they played that well twenty years ago, either. There was never much evidence of harm to children at Mazo Beach, so to advance things politically, its opponents had to focus on illegal drugs and public sex.
Over the years, the DNR tried everything to stop people from enjoying themselves too much at the beach. They put up that gate, they restricted open hours, they even cut down shrubs to give people fewer places to hide. And yet, every time they did a week of surveillance, they would always arrest people for sex or drugs. Now, the nude beach culture is not blameless here. Mazo Beach was renowned as a place where people could be themselves, and I’m sure some people took that too far. But, can I let you guys in on a little secret? Every park is like that. You shouldn’t go looking for illicit activity in parks for the same reason you shouldn’t bring a black light to a hotel. It’s better for your own enjoyment to leave some things unseen.
Ultimately, that was the problem: Mazo beach was seen by everybody. What once was a quiet shoreline in a nature preserve was now a spectacle. People can’t resist gossiping about a beach where people get naked, have drugs, and do sex. In 2012, the New York Times wrote a piece on the Mazo Beach controversy. The following year, it was written about all the way on the other side of the Atlantic, by the Daily Mail. And you know what they were writing about, honestly? A pretty mediocre swimming hole. Perhaps it’s been neglected, or it’s just the way the river bends, but little pebbles pepper the sand here, in a way that looks uncomfortable to walk or lay on. Other nearby beaches don’t have this issue.
Finally, in 2016, the DNR gave up. They closed Mazo Beach permanently, at least for the swimmable months of the year. There’s a master plan in place to refurbish it, to make it a more traditional swim beach and canoe landing, but it’s been six years, and there’s been no progress. In truth, without its defining gimmick, Mazo Beach doesn’t seem as unique or necessary. Mazomanie has a great separate canoe landing, only a couple miles away, and if you want to go swimming, Sauk City isn’t much farther. Despite finally being free of its dogged opposition, the future of Mazo Beach seems as uncertain as ever. Only time will tell what it holds.
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.