Crossing Mighty Lake Mendota

In the summer, Lake Mendota, the largest of Madison’s four lakes, is a mecca of speed boats, often pulling innertubes of screaming children and water skiers, fishermen scattered in various hot fishing spots and sailboats slicing through the choppy waters. Along its south side, students from the University of Wisconsin sun themselves on the docks, balance atop paddleboards and share pedal boats and kayaks with their friends. Hundreds of people crowd the Memorial Union Terrace and walk along the Lakeshore Path from the Union to the UW-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve and Picnic Point.

With several easy access points and gorgeous views of downtown Madison and the UW campus, it’s no wonder that Lake Mendota is a popular destination. Like many others, I am attracted to Lake Mendota and it’s a favorite place to put in my two orange kayaks. My daughter and I launch often from the northside and stay close to the shorelines, safe from the fast boats and turbulent wakes.

Thankfully, the Madison lakes become much quieter after Labor Day when the cool nights put a chill in the water, and subsequently an end to water sports, and weekend boaters begin preparations to store their boats away for the season. Yet as autumn approaches, the ever-changing Wisconsin weather sometimes treats us to an unexpected, sublime Indian summer day and what feels like one last chance to enjoy summer-like activities before the snow and cold arrive for the winter.

It was such a day in October that my husband and I left behind our weekend to-do list, loaded up our kayaks and headed to Lake Mendota. Sunny and in the 60s, we entered from Westport on the northside where the Yahara River feeds into Lake Mendota and navigated 30 minutes through the bay where we then quietly bobbed in the water directly opposite downtown Madison and the UW campus.

“Do you want to go right or left?” I asked my husband, considering the routes I’d traveled on other excursions.  

“Why don’t we go across to the Memorial Union,” he said. “It’s right there.”

As an incentive, he said he’d buy me some Babcock ice cream. The temptation of orange chocolate chip ice cream made my mouth water.

Kayak across the middle of Lake Mendota? I’d never considered it before because of the heavy summer boat traffic. As I scanned the lake, I saw no boats. This huge lake was ours alone, the wind was gentle—and I could see the Memorial Union in the distance. Perhaps it was the promise of Babcock ice cream that swayed me. I said, “okay.”

Let me pause here to tell you that my husband likes to paddle for an hour here and there, not several hours at a time like my daughter and I, and he had not previously kayaked on Lake Mendota to realize its enormity. It’s funny, or perhaps not, how different distance looks on the water.

Not ignoring the dangers of open waters, we secured all loose items in the storage hatches, fastened our lifejackets and began to paddle across Lake Mendota along an imaginary line from north to south, directly through the middle of the lake.

“Let’s do this,” I thought, and I paddled long, strong strokes, over and over, over and over. We continued working toward the opposite shore, paddling furiously, waiting for campus to appear closer. Forty-five minutes of hard paddling later, the Memorial Union remained in the far distance. I stopped paddling and curiously looked behind me. We were definitely a long way from where we’d started, but still far from our destination. What had we done? We had put ourselves smack in the middle of the lake, far from any shore—a lake that is noted to be 15 square miles and 9,740 acres with depths up to 83 feet. The Memorial Union was in fact NOT “right there” as my husband had commented earlier. We seemed too far in to turn around so continued forward.

The middle of Lake Mendota was a wonder of large, rolling waves. We tried to stay within the other’s sightline but began to lose view of each other as the waves took us high and low at opposite times. We couldn’t slow our paddling against the force of the waves, staying on high alert as the waves carried us along their own path. I’m not a strong swimmer and couldn’t afford to roll my kayak. Sweating and focused, we paddled on, solo yet together.

Two hours after we entered the water, we pulled up to dock at the Memorial Union Terrace.

“I’m not paddling back across the lake,” I declared.

As I rested and ate my lunch, cooling off in the October air, I desperately considered my options and whether an Uber could transport my kayak home. My husband said not likely. I called my daughter, a student at UW-Madison, and asked if she’d like to come and get me. She kindly declined. Left with no choice and a long paddle ahead, and duly noting the shortened daylight hours in mid-October, we climbed back into our kayaks just 30 minutes later. If you know Lake Mendota, you understand that it’s much too large to kayak around the edge of the lake in one day; our only option was to cut through the middle again, heading back the way we’d come.

No talking and strong, rhythmic paddling, we glided across the water, pushing hard toward the opposite shore. I wondered if anybody relaxing at the Terrace watched as our kayaks become smaller and smaller until we disappeared into the horizon. We paddled non-stop, not slowing down until we crossed into the bay, 90 minutes later. I breathed a little easier for the next 30 minutes and thought about what we’d just done as we slowly made our way back through the marina to our launch point.

Had I known the size and depth of Lake Mendota at the time, would I have accepted the quest to cross its middle? I’m not sure. I feel it was a rare opportunity to kayak on such a beautiful autumn day with Lake Mendota as our personal playground. It’s definitely one my greatest kayaking achievements. Would I do it again? I might have to—because I never did get my Babcock ice cream.

7 thoughts on “Crossing Mighty Lake Mendota

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  1. I’m excited and willing to make the trek again this year. We just need to allow a bit more time. Let us know if you would like to join us!

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      1. I would love to try and do this Shari. I volunteered to provide kayak/paddle support for a swimmer that is going to swim across Lake Mendota on Jun 28Th! ( there will a total of 15 swimmers/15 supporters surrounding them) So I need to practice going longer distances as he thinks it will take about 5 hours! gulp. I was really hoping to use my paddleboard for this, but now you have me rethinking that idea if it gets really choppy in the middle.

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