Making The Nature Scene: Fresh-air fixes for the pandemic winter blahs

Our new outdoor column kicks off with a bunch of ideas for winter fun.

Our new outdoor column kicks off with a bunch of ideas for winter fun.

Illustration frame by Maggie Denman.

We’re plowing right along through winter 2020-21, a.k.a. Seasonal Affective Disorder: Pandemic Edition. Outside is one of the safest— and only—places to go these days. Depending on your ability and tolerance to cold, the winter plein air can be a refuge. In recent weeks, I got all Aldo Leopold on the swans smoothly landing and free-jazz trumpeting in Lake Mendota. But yea, it has come to pass: I’m bored of walking and jogging in my neighborhood. An informal poll shows that I am not alone in this. 


Luckily, the Madison area is rife with parks and nature-y zones—prime safer places to be outside of your home. For this reason and more, I present to you a new monthly column, Making The Nature Scene. It’s currently the only scene I have access to without the aid of a computer, and for that, I love it all the more. I’m infinitely inspired by Wisconsin’s natural beauty. I grew up on a farm in flat, flat Central Illinois that’s been in my family for more than 100 years and previously belonged to the Illini people. Nature is among my first and longest-lasting relationships. I carry this deep connection to the land wherever I live. For the last decade, that’s been on the shores of Madison lakes. I hope this column helps you connect with the living land that supports us all constantly. And is keeping many of us grounded these days. 

Making The Nature Scene (the column) is about connecting with, you guessed it, nature in the Madison area and other spots within the daytrip zone. Immersion in nature—specifically two hours a week—is associated with health and well-being. Because we’re animals who evolved outside, not sitting in front of screens. I hope to help you get to know the local land, flora and fauna more fully and enjoy yourself too. If there are any spots you’re interested in reading about or any outdoors knowledge you’d like me to look into, say hey! For this first installment, here are a plethora of options for outdoorsy good times when it’s cold and grey. 

There are so many local winter activities aside from regular old walking—not that there’s anything wrong with that! Note: whatever you do outdoors in Madison, please wear a mask (WAM) and stay six feet from everyone outside of your household/bubble. People in my near North Side neighborhood can be alarmingly cavalier about these regulations to prevent death. (Maple Bluff, I’m looking in your direction.) WAM in solidarity. Maybe just respectfully WAM for good measure and to keep your mug warm. I will attest that it’s possible to WAM while jogging and while biking. You can pull the mask down when there are no people in sight. There are few things more jarring during leisurely a pandemic stroll than a swiftly approaching, heavy-breathing, unmasked person. WAM! It’s a fun reason to remember George Michael. Delightful enough to excuse the difference in the spellings of the band name and the acronym, right? 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Union and Madison Parks are replete with outdoor activities as the winter of our discontent continues. 

Madison Parks has a few trendy additions to its usual slate of winter action this year. 

Moving on, a hot tip that I was unaware of: the Parks Department asks that you stay off of ice rinks and lagoons until they’re declared open by the city. You know why? Cause, 1. Safety. Ice needs to be five inches thick to support people and grooming equipment. 2. Hanging out on a body of ice that isn’t open can damage it, so it takes longer to open the spot. Don’t be that person. Instead, check this page for rink and lagoon statuses.  

  • Ice skaters and hockey players have nearly 20 locations citywide to enjoy. As always, skate rentals at Elver, Tenney, and Vilas Parks will be open. But you’ll have to bring your own hot chocolate and do all of the bundling up because concessions and warming stations are closed per pandemic. Outdoor seating is limited and masks are required. WAM! Check this page for skating updates before you head out.

  • Sledding is an easy, joyful winter activity. Flying full-speed down a hill is such a care-free nostalgic feeling. It might be a bit dangerous, but what’s the fun without the risk? Yet please take only the normal amount of sledding risk. WAM while doing your best to stay six feet away from anyone who’s not in your household. Here’s a nifty map of designated sledding hills in Madison. The hill at Elver Park is lighted and has sled rentals! 

  • Cross-country skiing trail grooming is still going down, pandemic be damned. There’s free skiing on trails at Cherokee Marsh South, Door Creek, and Owen and Turville Point. In other locations, annual and daily permits—purchasable online—are required for skiers 16 years and older. Elver Park has a snow machine-made loop—just stay clear of the equipment and don’t ski over the power cords! Here’s everything you need to know about skiing in Madison Parks. 

  • Another fun new outdoors tip for 2021: Vilas Park will rent snowshoes when its ice rinks are open. Overall, there are 17 Madison Parks-designated snowshoe spots. Did you know… It’s a best practice, according to the Parks Division, to wait for at least four inches of snow before snowshoeing. When you get to it, please be cool and avoid groomed cross-country ski trails. Also, be kind and keep to the trails when you’re in conservation parks. Otherwise, you might wreck the snow tunnels of tiny mammals like deer mice and shrews. They’re cute and vital. Protect them!

  • Madison Parks boast seven spots to get cozy around a fire of your own making—in a fireplace. Technically, fireplaces in park shelters are for people who have reserved the building. But an empty shelter is all yours. 

And if you’re going to walk it on out, here are a few pandemic-inspired tips.

  1. Any walk is better than no walk. Right, dog owners? Especially first thing in the morning. Around the block, down to the lake and back or just standing out on your porch or balcony until you get cold. Not feeling it? Bribe yourself by walking to get a coffee. Indulge in that crisp lake air! When it’s safe to not be WAM-ing, of course.

  2. In case you’re new to the area, layers.

  3. Walking buddies are priceless. Find a friend or acquaintance who lives in your general vicinity that has a mutual agreement to get outdoors. It’s a good time to catch up, vent, and escape from the walls that confine/protect you all the live-long day. 

  4. Bringing water and a snack means more freedom to roam.  

  5. You can make walks more challenging with weights. I take a hiking daypack and throw 10 to 20 pounds of dumbbells in for a little extra exercise. You can also throw in bags of rice, cans of soup for your family and anything that takes up space and has mass.

  6. As a consummate nature hippie, I’ve found that being under trees is super soothing. Find a few trees. Stand under them. Gaze up at their branches. Maybe lean on one. Perhaps give it a little squeeze for good measure. Thank it for its service. Trees are good people. And/or maybe I’m trying to cuddle a tree. It’s been a long pandemic.

  7. If you’re meeting a friend or perhaps someone for a first date, consider not wearing your prescription sunglasses. Between a mask, obscured eyes and winter head and hands coverings, it’s like trying to kick it with The Invisible Man.

Til next time, please WAM!, even outside, if you can see people you don’t live with. Only you can help make outdoor Madison fun, safe and comfortable for all!

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