Walking on the Lake

Photo: Jeff Miller

Summer gets all the glory where Lake Mendota is concerned.

Posters of sunbaked chairs at the Memorial Union Terrace capture its idyllic splendor, and it’s the time of year when usage of a certain word shifts from a noun (Terrace) to a verb (terrace).

It’s enough to make one forget that for several months each year, the lake is not sun-dappled and shimmering. Once its palette fades from vibrant blue to shades of gray and white, it is frozen and placid.

But there is a sense of peace and a quiet, stunning beauty to being on the lake in the dead of winter. Those who venture out onto the ice find solitude that can be scarce on a campus of forty thousand-plus students in the thick of a busy semester.

David Tolkin ’80 often walked out on the lake wearing hiking boots that his friends from Wisconsin called “wafflestompers,” named for the pattern the lug soles made in the snow. He lived nearby in Tralfamadore, a co-op on Langdon Street, and he recalls visiting the much-adored sculpture of the Statue of Liberty on the ice.

The co-op is gone now, and Lady Liberty has been in storage since 2011, when she was severely damaged by weather and vandalism, but the ice always returns. And based on the ski tracks and slushy footprints in the snow that cover the lake’s icy surface in the winter, plenty of people on campus appreciate the season’s serenity and count the days until the open water turns to ice.

The paths they take don’t necessarily go anywhere. Some tracks seem to travel just far enough to take in a chilly sunset; other tracks appear to stretch from the foot of the Terrace to as far away as Picnic Point, but only the hardiest of souls know that for sure.

Last winter, Lake Mendota froze on January 14. It won’t be long now.

Tags: Campus history, Lake Mendota, Student life

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