Ten Views of Lake Wingra

The Madison area is known for its four lakes. But there’s a fifth, and its history, ecology and beauty are well worth a tour

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In an out-of-the-way corner of Vilas Park, above Henry Vilas Zoo, an effigy bird with angled wings soars along a ridge next to Lake Wingra. The bird, with an original wingspan of more than two hundred feet, is one of almost fifty effigy mounds that surround Madison’s smallest lake. They’re arranged in a half-dozen groups.

At the UW Arboretum and Edgewood College are elongated water spirit mounds that seem to crawl out of the lake. A bear at Bear Mound Park and birds all around the lake likely represent earth and sky worlds. Think of Wingra’s mounds as powerful signs from a vast thousand-year-old ceremonial landscape, where people enacted mound-building and burial rituals to renew and balance their universe. The Four Lakes area is rich in effigy mounds, but no place in North America had such a dense concentration as Lake Wingra and its 230-plus mounds.

Charles Brown of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who did the most to save Madison’s mounds, understood Wingra’s attraction: its bountiful springs. “There is no doubt that the number and size of them were largely responsible for the location of the six different early Indian village sites and the large number of Indian mounds (150) on its shores,” Brown wrote in 1927—and modern archaeologists agree.


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