Madison’s lakes grew eerily quiet after heavy rain swelled them to damaging heights last month.
“It’s spooky to see how quiet things have gotten all of a sudden,” said Don Sanford, a local historian who captains a cruise boat that is among the few lake-going vessels still plying the swollen waters.
Three weeks after the initial rain, the lakes remained well over their permitted high water marks — led by Lake Monona, which rose more than 3 feet over the state maximum and more than 8 inches above its previous record high.
Motorboat owners have been discouraged by the low speed limit imposed so wakes wouldn’t worsen erosion high water was already causing on shorelines.
Many bigger vessels were hurriedly removed from the lakes and placed in storage because piers were floating away after the initial Aug. 20 rain.
Boat launches and beaches were closed amid warnings about health risks from contact with floodwaters that may carry extra pollutants.
Some activity has continued, with concessions to the strange conditions
But summer ended early for hundreds of sailors, anglers and water-skiers in a region where the lakes are an integral part of the social fabric.
Sanford, who skippers his own sailboat when he’s not working for Betty Lou Cruises, said it has been hard to accept the sudden, early end of the sailing season,
“I suppose it’s the same as if somebody close to you drops dead and you didn’t have a chance to say good-bye,” said Sanford, author of “On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota.”
“It’s a sad time, especially when you look out at the water, and it’s waiting for you, but you just can’t get there,” Sanford said.
The Mendota Yacht Club was forced to cancel its annual Labor Day weekend regatta, and races that ordinarily continue every Sunday in September and October have also been canceled.
“None of us want to cancel racing,” said yacht club commodore Dave Gorwitz. “Our members are passionate about what they do, and to pull the plug on it is very disappointing.”
It is expected to take weeks for the lakes to begin approaching normal levels, as water from the biggest lake, Lake Mendota, is released downstream at slow rates meant to minimize additional flooding.
The Lake Monona Sailing Club also shortened its season, and the Mad-City Ski Team wasn’t able to stage its final shows at Law Park on Lake Monona.
The UW-Madison sailing team is in the strange position of being able to practice only when there’s little wind, said coach Dave Elsmo.
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If the wind is strong, Elsmo would risk violating the no-wake speed limit in the powerboat he uses to stay ahead of his team and ensure safety.
Rentals and lessons offered by the Hoofers club at the Memorial Union on Lake Mendota fell off sharply because of high water and the potential risk of pollutants, said Elsmo, who manages club sailing programs.
Portions of three of the club’s four piers rose with the water and floated to shore, he said.
The club has advised those who wanted to rent paddleboards to use kayaks instead to reduce the risk they would fall in and swallow water, Elsmo said.
“It’s pretty much the death sentence for the (Hoofers) season,” he said.
Elsmo said equipment was being pulled in last week. Even before the flood, sailing programs had been scheduled to close Oct. 1 — a month earlier than usual — to make way for a major renovation.
Hemmed in by high water
UW-Madison rowers were unable to participate in individual or small-group workouts on the water, said athletic department spokesman Justin Doherty.
But team practices on Lake Mendota were expected to begin on schedule in a few days, Doherty said.
Coaches for women’s, men’s and lightweight teams will monitor the teams from motorized launches that are specially designed not to create wakes, Doherty said. He said they will stay away from private shoreline by operating only along the roughly 3 miles between the Red Gym and Second Point.
Floodwaters have hemmed in the Camp Randall Rowing Club. Its shells are kept in the Brittingham Boathouse, which opens onto a sliver of Lake Monona bordered on one side by the John Nolen Drive causeway and by a railroad trestle on the other side.
The water is too high for boats to pass underneath either structure.
“Rowers have been making do by portaging boats over to Brittingham Beach and rowing around in circles in Monona Bay,” said club president Tom Anderson-Brown.
The club hopes to move its equipment to Lake Wingra soon and practice there. Its first regatta is scheduled in Milwaukee on Sept. 15, Anderson-Brown said.
The club’s new head coach, Brian Colgan, said he had been under the impression that there was an exception for coaches’ powerboats in the Dane County no-wake law that is put into effect when lake levels rise.
But it turns out the man who recently yelled at him from shore was right, Colgan said Friday after obtaining clarification from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
“We can take a launch out, but just pretty much stay in one place in case of an emergency,” Colgan said. “So (it’s) not ideal at all for now.”