For Madison picnic, stop by Governor Nelson State Park
Southern Wisconsin has both a Governor Nelson State Park and a Nelson Dewey State Park, the latter was also named for a governor. Apparently it’s easy to get the two confused – especially for my kids.
“Do we have to? Do we? Do we?” was the refrain as we headed to Governor Nelson, on the shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, this past Saturday. Despite the beautiful weather, the youngsters were none too keen on an outdoor experience.
Normally I don’t compel such a visit, but as we had already been sucked into the black hole of bad legislation (even if it was just for an airport trip), I decided to pay homage to one of the great governors, along with good grub.
If you’re feeling bleu, this park is no turkey
Governor Nelson is just off of Dane County Highway M, fairly convenient to Dane County Airport. It’s a handy wayside stop, especially if we have to visit Clasen’s European Bakery in Middleton (yes, we HAVE TO).
We had found ourselves on a short-notice, early-Saturday airport run to drop off my wife. Rather than enlist a neighbor or friend to watch the two kids and require a rushed trip, I dragged them along, promising a good breakfast and a fun day.
I knew to be non-specific regarding fun, because both kids, as appreciative as they generally are of the outdoors, are more likely to request expensive indoor entertainment. Regardless, they were none too happy.
Temporarily appeased by their choice of breakfast – an iced cinnamon roll for Lorena, along with turkey-and-cheddar croissants and a “Savory Swirl” of bacon, bleu cheese and apricot jam rolled into a flaky pastry for Sam and me, we headed back toward Governor Nelson, which is about midway between Clasen’s to the southwest and the airport to the east.
It’s a day-use only park, one of the few in the state system where there’s no camping. There’s plenty of other activity, though – hiking, birdwatching, fishing (including a sheltered cleaning table), cross-country skiing and snowshoeing through forest, marsh and prairie. The park has a panther-effigy mound and several conical mounds.
Pets are welcome on trails and there’s even a special pet swimming area. It is, after all, in Madison.
We parked about 30 yards off the shore, near the boat ramp. Picnic tables just off the road provide a nice view southeast across Mendota to the downtown isthmus area, where the capitol dome was visible in the haze that was slowly burning off over the far shore.
The pastries and hot chocolate lightened the kids’ mood, but as soon as the meal was finished, they were ready to leave. Over my dead breakfast buns, I told them.
We headed north toward the Morningside Trail, the park’s longest and easiest, conveniently located just on the other side of a playground, picnic area and human swimming beach.
There was still plenty of fall color, near-shirt-sleeve temperatures and large flocks of waterfowl flapping like a thousand bedsheets in the wind out on the lake.
We spent a few minutes on swings and monkey bars, as well as a quick refresher course over Gaylord Nelson’s role as an environmentalist and a key figure in creation of the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and more. And, of course, Earth Day.
After the lesson, the kids were again ready to head back to Point. “Uh-uh,” I said – we’re walking through the prairie.
Well, that was a mistake.
Marshing through the prairie
Maps of the park show marsh to the north of the Morningside as it moves through the prairie making up most of the northwestern portion of the park. The marsh, however, apparently had decided to gerrymander the districts.
Like our legislative headquarters across the lake, the trail was squishy at best and a muddy quagmire at worst, with little sign of firm footing. It soaked through to our socks and threatened to ruin an otherwise beautiful place and time.
As I may have already noted, we were in the state capital.
Unsurprisingly, the kids’ complaints grew more kid-like. Why, it was almost like being in a Senate session.
To funnel their negative energy into a manageable package, I decided to play along and ask what things could possibly be better than slogging along the swampy trail.
“Getting exposed to too much ultraviolet radiation,” suggested Sam.
“Getting grasshopper vomit on my sleeve,” piped in Lorelee, who had captured one of the little jumpers and wouldn’t let it go despite the creature’s expectorations.
Even so, the dry, tall grasses and expansive view of the prairie were worthwhile. The kids managed to complete about a two-mile hike with a modicum of civilized behavior, disappointing me to no end, as I realized that disqualified them from many elected positions in Wisconsin.
After a two-hour visit, we were ready to dawdle our way back home. Interestingly enough, they turned down a jaunt over to Cabela’s outdoor megalopolis, but were willing to go check out the Costco warehouse store, perhaps sensing a chance of dad falling into a massive trap of consumerism.
Not a chance, although the orgy of free food samples kept them wildly happy.
It probably wasn’t quite what Gaylord Nelson would have encouraged, but we did get in a good couple of hours outdoors. Someday those kids will thank me for it.
Or else they’ll be buying ME breakfast.