More than just a pretty view

By Baylee Wellhausen

Many UW-Madison students and community members walk, run and bike along the Lakeshore Path, aware of its beauty, yet unaware of its rich history.

The Lakeshore Nature Preserve has experienced footsteps upon its premise for over 12 thousand years — its a pathway winding through every aspect of ecology, touching both land and water, and everything in between.

“I used to run down the shoreline almost every day in the summer,” Molly Doner, former Rehab Psychology student, said. “I was always interested in how it became what it is today — the scenery is so pretty and I can only imagine how it was before it was a part of the campus.”

Doner is not the only one with these inquiries. What many people do not know is that the Lakeshore Nature Preserve is home to a wide array of habitats, forestry and wildlife. Its geology ranges from watershed to prairies, and wetlands to woodlands. Created after the last glacier paved its way through the Madison area, what is now the Lakeshore Preserve was once a retreat for Native American tribes.

Archaeological sites held along the Preserve have led to multiple discoveries of Ho-Chunk burial grounds, tools and bones..

Native Americans made their homes here (at least seasonally),” Field Projects Coordinator Adam Gundlach said. “And the importance of this place with respect to their spiritual beliefs is evident in the burial mound groups we now protect and care for.”

Photo by John Benson

There are four different mound groups that exist within the Preserve, all representing the cultural significance of nature in the Ho-Chunk nation. From an aerial viewpoint, it is noted that some were designed to portray various animals that habituate in the area.

These mounds are only one piece of the rich history of stories that is the Preserve’s foundation.

Multiple European settlers made homes along Lake Mendota in the dense woods, according to documentations dating back to the 1830s. Their legacies and homes, although long gone, are not forgotten. Staff and volunteers do everything they can to keep the land as close to its original state.

“Other layers of cultural history have been added since Euro settlement, each with their own story,” Gundlach additionally said. “Our current management attempts to preserve as much of the history as possible, while also adding another chapter in the story.”

A plethora of UW Madison classes utilize the Preserve for teaching purposes. Classes such as Biology, Forestry and Wildlife, Ecology, Botany, Limnology, and more require students to gain hands-on experiences within the Preserve’s locations. Field research, animal capture and tracking, genetic material collections, and other forms of outdoor laboratory activities occur. Teaching permits are needed to explore such areas in-depth, but the knowledge learned is limitless.  

The Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore) is one of the most significant programs established within the Preserve. A four-semester-long honors course, the Biocore curriculum engages with the Preserve’s plants and animals through intense restoration of its gardens and prairies.

Laura Wyatt, the Preserve’s Program Manager, believed the UW student-learning aspect of the Preserve is one of the reasons the area is so special.  “I most enjoy working with the education/research permits and facilitating a place for learning and exploration,” she said. “I enjoy engaging with students as they explore their understanding of natural areas; enjoy attending student research presentations. . .UW students are amazing.”

The students are only a sliver of the people who work hard to keep the Preserve well-maintained.

Bryn Scriver, who has been the Preserve’s Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for almost 9 years, says a significant aspect of the Preserve is its relationship with the Madison community.

“Each year we have between 600-850 campus and community members who donate their time to the preserve,” Scriver said. “Volunteers help maintain trails, remove invasive plant species, install native plants and collect native seed for sowing, among other activities.”

Many Madison residents, clubs, church groups, and businesses make annual trips to the Preserve to partake in nature preservation projects. Volunteering is easily accessible for sign up via the Lakeshore website, and events are of abundance throughout all seasons.

Scriver shared her personal project experience with me during her interview–one that she felt was among her favorites: “We captured and radio collared both fox and coyote. . .to see how those canids interact and how both interact with humans and domestic canids,” she said. “I was present during the examination and radio collaring of a red fox. . . the animal was beautiful.”

Photo by Ryan Hurd

UW Nutrition student Kaitland Woelky, said her Biology class took a trip to the Preserve for a lab, and it was an experience to remember. “We were able to observe the Lake and the wetlands surrounding it, fully and completely without distraction–it was so cool to watch the wildlife and vegetation and beauty of the lake in its natural state.”

Programs beyond the borders of the UW campus extend a helping hand as well. The Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve is a nonprofit, community-organized group whose mission includes Land Stewardship, Advocacy and Financial Support, and Education and Outreach of the Preserve. The Friends help pay for a team of interns that work in the area one day a week each summer, as well as provide assistance for other Preserve improvements.

“One of the most impactful contributions of The Friends is to plan and host free field trips in the Preserve each spring, summer and fall,” Scriver mentioned. “These field trips are often geared towards families. This is a great benefit to the Preserve and helps us to reach out to the community.”

Nonetheless, with such great beauty and attraction, misuse tends to be prominent. The Preserve faces problems of erosion, budgets for upkeep and growth and identity maintenance. According to the Preserve staff, a recurring trouble is the lack of control the Preserve has in its explorers. Some people stray from the trails of the Lakeshore Path, damaging fragile soils and plants species. If soil leakages enter the water, toxic algae can form. The staff encourages precaution and awareness of these conditions, and recommends staying on the paths designed for tread.

Additionally, the Preserve relies on donations for a portion of its funding. As a staple part of UW and the city of Madison, obtaining annual gifts is not too much of a pressing concern, yet creating awareness and promoting the Preserve is essential.

So the next time you find yourself seeking respite in the wonders that exist within the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, remember its history, beauty, and treat it well. Nature is pretty neat, isn’t it?

For more information on the Preserve and volunteering, visit