Safer at Home Doesn’t Mean Stuck at Home

Wisconsinites find respite in the outdoors

Written by Holly Anderson

The last thing Zach Roberts expected to do this summer was to camp in the middle of a canyon in Utah.

However, through a set of chance circumstances — largely driven by the coronavirus crisis — Roberts, a Madison resident and college student currently on a gap semester, found himself embarking on the backpacking adventure of a lifetime with two friends during the final weeks of summer. They invited him on a road trip departing from Madison, during which they would backpack and camp in seven national parks.

Deciding to join them was a relatively spontaneous decision for Roberts. 

“My friend planned the whole thing and another one of their friends couldn’t make it — two weeks before, they were like, ‘Do you want to do this with us?’ And I’d never backpacked in my life before, or even been out West, so it was really split second — in the moment, I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go,’” Roberts says.

The three friends drove 11 hours from Madison, stayed one night with a friend in Denver and then began their 11-day camping and hiking adventure. They visited the “Mighty Five” national parks in Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches. The group also stopped at Great Sand Dunes at the beginning of the trip and Rocky Mountain, both in Colorado, at the conclusion of the trip. 

Roberts, left, and UW–Madison students Daniel Ledin and Margaret Nilsen at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Photo submitted by Margaret Nilsen

Roberts is not alone in pursuing outdoor adventures in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. The outdoors provide an ideal pandemic-friendly slate of activities. Many Wisconsinites have opted to go outside, engaging in everything from hour-long rooftop yoga classes to hopping on the golf cart to renting a boat or Jet Ski. While there are seasoned veterans, there are also plenty of people like Roberts who are either trying new things or increasing their activity level overall. Many can be done with a small group of friends and/or family, and the non-indoor aspect allows the opportunity to physically distance while still being in-person.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s department of natural resources sold about 55,000 conservation patron licenses — which provide privileges for hunting, fishing, trails and more — to state parks by May 12. Weekend attendance at Wisconsin state parks was up 44% compared to 2019 for the weekend of May 16-17, and up 52% by June 14 as camping began to open. In addition, there were 11% more campsites reserved in July and a 14% increase in fishing licenses and stamps since 2019.

These new and different encounters would prove to be life-changing for some people, like Roberts. 

“I was anxious. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life,” he says. 

Jamie Christianson is the head golf professional at Horseshoe Bay Golf Club in Egg Harbor, located in Door County in northeastern Wisconsin. He oversees the entire golf operation at the club, including marketing, member and guest care, and member and employee safety. 

Back in March, Christianson was apprehensive about how summer amid a pandemic would look for the club. However, he was in for a nice surprise. 

“When the summer kicked in, we saw a lot of people stay in Door County that typically wouldn’t,” Christianson says. 

Members of the club come from 30 states, including Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Texas, California and Arizona. Christianson noticed that these people used the pandemic to their advantage to be able to spend more time at their properties in Door County. 

“They feel safer, they feel like there’s less risk being in Door County than there is being in a big city,” Christianson says. 

In addition, working from home allowed Door County golfers even more location-based freedom. Christianson knows some members personally who used remote work to allow themselves more time away from home. 

“We have members who own businesses in Chicago, and this is the first year they kind of realized they can work abroad, they can work via computer or by phone,” Christianson says. 

Thor Johnson, the owner of Sister Bay Boat Rentals and Fish Creek Boat Rentals, both also located in Door County, noticed a similar uptick in the number of people taking advantage of the summer there.

Like Christianson, Johnson was not sure at the beginning of the pandemic how the summer was going to go for his business, but it ended up being busier than ever.

“When everything went down in March, it was just like, ‘Okay, now what’s gonna happen?’” Johnson says. “And it was all kind of up in the air … you just could only stay positive and hope that there was going to be a summer.” 

In addition to an uptick in customers in general, both Christianson and Johnson noticed an increase in novices in their respective activities.

“We saw a huge spike in golf … novice golfers, junior golfers, lapsed golfers, women golfers, beginning golfers,” Christianson says. “We’re surpassing and setting new [budget] records.” 

In addition to novices, “lapsed” golfers in Door County are taking the game back up with the extra time given to them due to the pandemic.

“We call them lapsed golfers — golfers who kind of quit the game for business reasons or personal reasons … they come back to the game and start golfing again,” Christianson says. “We were fortunate to see such a large gain with the lapsed or beginning golfers.” 

Johnson worked with first-time and beginning boaters as well.

“[We had] a lot of first-time boaters — a lot of people over the phone saying they’d never boated before [asking], ‘How hard is this?’” Johnson says. 

In addition, the pandemic led many people to choose boating over other activities, since being on a boat provides an easy way for a group to physically distance themselves. 

“We had a lot of first-timers doing boat rental because they didn’t want to be with other crowds … they’re looking for activities to do away from other groups,” Johnson says. 

Nicole King manages Dragonfly Hot Yoga, a studio in downtown Madison with additional locations in the Madison suburbs of Fitchburg, Middleton and Sun Prairie. She quickly modified her operations for customer safety when the pandemic hit, which included moving certain classes outdoors. 

“We opened for maybe like three weeks in the summer before the mask mandate went into effect,” King says. “At that point, we realized that people are not going to want to come inside in 95 degrees with a mask.” 

King and the other studio staff worked with their landlords to ensure that they could properly use their outdoor space at the downtown Madison location. At their other locations, they blocked off ample space in the parking lots. Instructors also designed classes that could be done with no equipment in order to minimize contact. 

In addition to the COVID-19 friendly classes, Dragonfly also developed a mobile app that allowed people anywhere in the world to access yoga classes virtually. While the studio had wanted to create an online platform for a while, it was the pandemic that finally provided the push — and the time — to develop the app.

“Especially with students on campus, we get a lot of people that are from New York or from all over the United States, and they’re like, ‘I love Dragonfly, and I wish I could go to a Dragonfly back in my hometown,’” King says. 

King noted that adaptability played a big part, both for in-person yoga classes and in increasing the reach of remote sessions via the app. 

“We had to think quick on our feet — what are we going to be able to do not only for our clients, but for ourselves?” King says. “Our ‘new normal’ has been shaken … we need to figure out what to do, and we need to figure it out quickly.” 

A Pause for the Earth

In addition to indirectly encouraging people to take advantage of nature to the fullest, the pandemic has, in a basic sense, had a positive impact on air quality in Wisconsin. 

According to Alicia Hoffman, a UW–Madison doctoral student in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, recently published papers have shown that the lockdown caused a significant reduction in air pollution. 

So how can we all work together to ensure that we continue this positive impact on the environment — throughout the pandemic and beyond? 

Some steps to take are simpler than one may think. 

“One huge thing is be considerate of whether or not you actually need to go somewhere. A huge part of reduction in air pollution is because fewer people are driving places — and flying places,” Hoffman says.  

These considerations can be as small as an additional trip to the store during any given week.

“Be considerate of … ‘Do I really need to make three trips to the grocery store in three days because I keep forgetting things?’” Hoffman says. 

It is also important to note that although there has been a reduction in air quality due to lockdowns, there are also negative environmental impacts of pandemic-related behaviors, such as the increase in food delivery orders that have resulted from people staying at home. 

Getting into a habit as simple as not asking for a plastic fork with your meal can potentially have an impact in the long run. 

“Currently, a lot of people are ordering delivery for food or groceries — and I think that actually has a huge impact. The cost of transportation, but also the production of plastics to transport your food and then the plastic pollution that’s produced afterwards — when you throw away your disposable fork, it doesn’t always end up in a landfill, sometimes it ends up washing into the ocean, and then you have microplastics and they’re a type of pollution,” Hoffman says. 

Upper left: Families gather at the start of the Seven Bridges Trail in South Milwaukee. Upper right: The sun sets over Lake Michigan as seen from Grant Park in South Milwaukee. Upper middle: Towering trees are pictured with their vibrant fall colored leaves on the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park in South Milwaukee. Lower left: A bicyclist rides along a walking path in Grant Park in south Milwaukee. Lower right: A person fishes as the sun rises over Lake Michigan near the Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee. Photos by Brian Huynh

Top 10: Wisconsin Spots for Outdoor Activities

1. Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo 

Whether you want to take a short hike or camp for the entire weekend, Devil’s Lake is for you. The park is located in Baraboo, about an hour northwest of Madison, and covers 9,000 acres. It is filled with various trails, rock formations and beaches. The iconic rock formations make for an exhilarating climb, not to mention a very Instagrammable adventure. The park receives its fair share of out-of-state visitors as well. “[Devil’s Lake is] on the level of more of a national park, so we do get a lot of people coming from Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota,” says Missy Vanlanduyt, a natural resources program manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

2. Madison Boats, Madison

Madison Boats is a boat-rental service located on three different lakes throughout the area — Wingra on Lake Wingra, Brittingham on Lake Monona and Marshall on Lake Mendota. This summer, the company quickly put a COVID-19-friendly operation plan into place. All boats and equipment were sanitized, all employees wore masks and all bookings were done online to reduce in-person interaction. “We decided to put all our energy into creating as safe and as low of a risk opportunity for people to be able to rent boats and get out on the water,” says Tyler Leeper, the owner and operator. During the warm months there are a wealth of rentals at all three locations, including kayaks, canoes, paddle boats and stand-up paddleboards. 

3. Governor Dodge State Park, Dodgeville 

Located in Dodgeville, about an hour west of Madison, Governor Dodge is one of Wisconsin’s largest state parks at over 5,000 acres. The park contains bluffs, a waterfall and lakes and is a hub for many activities including camping, hiking, canoeing, hunting and fishing. 

4. Parasail Door County, Sister Bay 

Located in Sister Bay, Parasail Door County offers an opportunity for riders to view the lakes, islands and boats from 500 feet up while riding on a parachute. Riders can go solo, with a friend or in a group of three.

5. Newport State Park Sky, Ellison Bay 

Also located in Door County, Newport State Park is on the northeast edge of the peninsula with a very low amount of light pollution. On a clear night, you’re able to take in a panoramic view of the entire Milky Way! 

6. Ice Age Trail (Gibraltar Rock Segment), Lodi 

The Ice Age Trail is a thousand-mile trail that is the result of a flow of glacial ice more than 12,000 years ago. The Gibraltar Rock Segment section of the trail, located near Lodi, about 30 minutes north of Madison, is 8.6 miles long and features various wildlife and high-up views of Baraboo and Lake Wisconsin. 

7. Interstate State Park, St. Croix Falls 

Located by the Minnesota-Wisconsin border on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River, Interstate features beautiful river views, a steep gorge and campsites. It is also Wisconsin’s oldest state park, established in 1900. 

8. Kayaking on the Apostle Islands, Lake Superior 

The Apostle Islands are a group of 21 islands in Lake Superior, located in northern Wisconsin in Ashland and Bayfield counties. Kayaking is a popular activity during the warmer months on the islands. Apostle Islands Kayaking, located in Bayfield, offers various kayak tours, including a three-hour tour in the Red Cliff Sea Caves, and a kayak and cruise adventure tour, where guests depart on a powerboat and later launch kayaks directly off of it. 

9. Cave of the Mounds, Blue Mounds 

Cave of the Mounds, located in Blue Mounds, about 30 minutes west of Madison, was a formation caused by a blasting explosion at a limestone quarry and farm that resulted in a cave opening in 1939. Nowadays, the cave is open to visitors looking to learn about Wisconsin geology and limestone cave formation. Available activities include daily tours and trails to learn more about Wisconsin’s geology over time.  These tours are available year-round. 

10.  Mirror Lake State Park, Baraboo 

Mirror Lake State Park, also located in Baraboo, is named for the lake in the middle. This lake gets its name from the fact that it is often so still that there aren’t even ripples visible. The park contains 50-foot-high cliffs, a beach, picnic areas, campsites and various rentals. It also contains an amphitheater that can hold up to 200 people.