One of campus' best-loved natural areas recently got a much-needed facelift.
Actually, what Picnic Point got was more of a shave and haircut. Work on its eastern tip removed invasive plants, opening up dramatic views of Lake Mendota and the isthmus. Broad limestone staircases now lead down to the water, and a vast stone fire pit has been added, suitable for gatherings ranging from sing-alongs to live theater.
Work began in July 2011, during which the end of the Point was closed. Most of it was done by December, but final landscaping, including reintroduction of native species, was only recently completed.
Despite the attractions of the renewed setting, the work was far from cosmetic.
"The problem we were having was that large groups of people were gathering out there and compacting the soil, and that caused a lot of severe erosion of the edges leading down to the lake," says Gary A. Brown, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve. He also serves as director of campus planning and landscape architecture.
As invading species such as honeysuckle and buckthorn grew over the decades, more and more visitors clambered down Picnic Point's tip to glimpse the water. Lattices of tree roots were forced to serve as informal staircases. Shoreline erosion became an alarming concern by 2002.
In addition to that, "it just became a safety hazard," says Brown. The future of Picnic Point was threatened.
Altogether, the UW's Lakeshore Nature Preserve has 325 acres adjoining campus. Picnic Point, a peninsula between the university and Shorewood Hills, is about 30 acres and a little more than three quarters of a mile long, accounting for a healthy chunk of the UW's nearly three miles of campus shoreline. It's been used for more than a century by picnicking students, hikers and birdwatchers; more than 255 bird species have been seen in the preserve.
The Ho Chunk (Winnebago) once lived there. Before them, the mysterious Mississippian Culture left its trademark Indian mounds. Picnic Point has five conical mounds, one oval, and one short linear mound. As part of the recent work, an archaeological survey was carried out. Stone flakes were found, indicating stone spears were made on Picnic Point's tip.
Indians used the nearby narrows as a portage. Today it's one of the Point's two beaches. On a neighboring sacred hill lived a spirit horse, or so the Ho Chunk believed. It could be dimly glimpsed on misty days, and at other times its neighing could be heard.
It's difficult today to imagine what Picnic Point originally looked like. "We're pretty sure the Indians actually burned a lot of it, so that kept the vegetation down," says Brown. "In the past, it was quite open. There was never really a full woods there. In fact, most of the old historic documents tell us it was a kind of a savanna out there with scattered trees."
Madison's early white settlers camped there, too, and they believed there was a phantom woodsman in the area, the noise of his chopping the only evidence. In the lake itself, the Ho Chunk said, lived long-tailed Waak Tcexi, a spirit that overturned canoes. Similarly, in the summer of 1917 a fisherman on the Point supposedly glimpsed a lake monster from shore. It had "a large snake-like head, with large jaws and blazing eyes."
By 1865 the site was already called "Pic Nic Point" by the Wisconsin State Journal, and it featured a dance hall where could be enjoyed "the genuine red wine of Missouri and all other wholesome stimulants." Later it was farmed. Grazing cattle continued to keep down the underbrush. At one time, Picnic Point was even divided up into housing lots. The peninsula was privately owned until 1941, and as late as 1950 it served as Camp Greenwood for Girl Scouts.
To help reclaim the natural setting, in 2009 the Ebling Charitable Trust donated $750,000 to be used in improvements. To further help fight erosion, bikes were banned from Picnic Point starting last year.
"It's all turned out really well," says Brown. "We've had lots of compliments. People are actually able to use it now."
Particularly noteworthy is the new fire pit, which is capable of hosting as many as 80 visitors. It resembles a small amphitheater. "The acoustics are really good," says Brown. "We were actually surprised when we finished the stonework." It will be dedicated to Elsie Iwen Ebling this fall.
Design options were prepared by Ken Sakai Design Inc., of Madison. Other contractors include Terra Engineering and Construction and the Bruce Company.
Picnic Point is open daily from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Besides the recent improvements, staff and volunteers worked - and continue to work - to remove invasive species all along the area. For more information about the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, including how to volunteer, visit lakeshorepreserve.wisc.edu. For information on Picnic Point activities, including classes and night hikes, visit waa.uwalumni.com/lakeshorepreserve.