By Ellen Magee
If the number and size of the Mendota Mental Health grounds’ effigy mounds are any indication, Governor’s Island and the Mendota lakeshore surrounding it for miles was sacred ground to the early inhabitants of the area. I have my own reasons for considering this land to be sacred or magical.
Governor’s Island is not an island any more. The first white man taking ownership of the island was Governor Farwell. In 1858, Governor Farwell gave it and miles of lakeshore land to the State of Wisconsin for the first state hospital for “the insane”. In the 1860s a land bridge was built to connected the island to the grounds of Mendota State Hospital.
In this time of COVID, I often drive to Governor’s Island with our dog, Snowball, in the hatchback. We cross busy Northport Drive onto Troy Drive until we turn left at the Mendota Mental Health grounds. Cinder Lane is the second left, just past the speed bump. I always slow down after that turn and look closely to see if there are any deer loitering in the woods. A sighting is rare in the summer, but during the winter several can usually be seen lying in the snow in the woods or, if it’s dusk, moving across the road in a small herd. Sometimes Snowball stands on his hind legs to watch them, but never makes a sound as they walk by.
The parking lot is straight ahead, not far, and the road turns into a dirt lane before you get there. On weekends in summer the small lot is full of cars and in winter, large trucks hauling trailers or fishing shanties. Snowball and I prefer weekdays. Then we usually have the place to ourselves. In summer there might be one car, often someone else with a dog. In winter there are sometimes a couple of trucks with trailers for hauling 4×4 vehicles. It is a popular ice fishing area and you can see the fishing shanties spread out over the huge area of the frozen North end of Lake Mendota. Each afternoon, about the time we arrive, the fisherpeople load up their equipment on sleds and head back to their trucks on their 4x4s.
If it’s icy I will have attached my ice gripper spikes. In winter I just wrap my scarf around my face for warmth, rather than wearing a COVID mask. Besides, we hardly see anyone walking after mid January.
Snowball blasts out of the car like he doesn’t know I will grab his leash before he gets far. If there is nobody in sight, I let him run off-leash. He trots around with his nose to the ground and leads the way to the trail. The trail is less than a mile long, but Snowball’s forays into the woods make his run about double. Snowball is an American Eskimo, and in the winter he is in his element. Once he gets on the trail, he starts out running full speed for five or ten seconds, then he flips onto his back and wiggles around in the snow for a few seconds, turns over, takes a bite of snow, and takes off again. These antics never get old; for him or for the entertainment value. Recently, someone built a snow figure near the start of the path and each time we walk, it’s more yellow. If Snowball smells a particularly fresh patch of yellow snow, he will roll in it, making a doggie angel. Soon after arriving he does his business.
At the beginning of the path one day, before the ground was snow covered, Snowball came running out of the woods with a big white bone with some red stuff still on it and dropped it at my feet. I ungratefully threw it back into the brush and to my surprise, Snowball never went looking for it again.
There is one place where the path forks to the right down to a narrow peninsula and Snowball barrels down the hill full speed. In the summer there is a little cove on the shore side where the water is perfect for Snowball’s dip. He runs into the water until it’s up to his chin and then sits down to cool off. He doesn’t like the big waves, although he has gradually gotten braver. He has a very thick set of two coats that insulate him winter and summer. When he’s done with his dip, he prances out and shakes, looking like a skinny chihuahua. If you know where to look in the hollow of one of the trees, there is a fairy bed of lashed sticks, a milkweed pod pillow and pretty abalone shells. There are duck blinds down at the end of this little peninsula in the fall. In the winter the wind chill can be pretty intense and I often skip that path, but not Snowball!.
As we progress back up along the main path, Lake Mendota is more visible. The path winds along the top of a bluff with the lake below on the right and dense thickets on the left of the path. In the summer there are often people sitting at the foot of the bluffs or in boats fishing. The city skyline is visible across the lake. As we walk around the island, the city-scape of course changes, which I find a bit disorienting. Walking back around the other side of the island, when the lake is open, I look for eagles up in the trees. When there are more people in the summer, we often get a tip, “There were eagles back there”, (pointing). Although I have only seen an eagle once, I always look, when I get to that area.
In the winter I try to spot the woodpecker we can hear, and once in a while I glimpse a cardinal or nuthatch. Winter is fun when we can see animal tracks and scat in the snow: usually deer and rabbits. Snowball typically appears quite anxious if he can’t see me. But on Governor’s Island he sometimes disappears into the brush until he hears me call his name–the magic of Governor’s Island.
I had an interesting experience this year around New Year’s. The lake was still open except for about six yards of ice out from the shore. There were a lot of geese, swans, and ducks congregating as they bulked up for migration. It was pandemonium near the parking lot. As the bird calls lessened on my walk, I heard a distinct whistle and thought, hum I’ve heard of whistling swans, it must be the swans. I could also detect a faint tinkling sound. I heard the calls again as I returned to the parking lot.
I came back several days later and the parking lot area was silent. The majority of the birds were gone, except some stragglers far out into the lake. After our walk, on our way back to the parking lot, I heard the whistling and tinkling sounds again, very nearby on the right. Not a bird in sight. I walked closer to the water to make sure I hadn’t missed a bird behind the bushes, and that’s when I realized the ice itself was making the sounds. Pure magic!
© 2021 Ellen Magee
Ellen lives in Madison with her husband and animals too numerous to mention. She is a retired social worker. Her family includes her son, two step-sons and their assorted kids. She keeps busy by writing racial justice-themed letters to decision makers and editors, mentoring people in substance abuse recovery, dancing, kayaking and e-biking. Her goal in retirement is to cultivate her friendships.