Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Day 52 - Governor's Island

I have never been to Governor’s Island. Although this statement also applies to the more familiar Governor’s Island in New York, let me be clear I’m referring to the little known place on the north shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Despite the fact I have lived in Madison for years, I only first became aware of Governor’s Island about a year ago. Given the island (now a peninsula after the water between the shore and the island was filled in some years ago) has been kept intact as a natural area since Madison’s earliest days, I had a strong desire to explore the space after I first learned of its existence. That desire grew when I recently became aware the space is also open to the public. In turn, I tacked the objective of exploring Governor’s Island to my “I have never...” list, ultimately setting time aside to visit the island late this afternoon.

My visit to Governor’s Island began immediately after my workday was complete. After leaving my office for the day, I hopped in my car and headed toward the north side of Lake Mendota. My route took me past the sights of crowds celebrating the forthcoming Independence Day holiday and gathering around Warner Park for the evening’s Rhythm and Booms fireworks display. As I drove down the street, groups of people moved randomly over the wide expanse of green space in the park, with patriotic displays and high spirits the only consistent characteristics among them.

Just beyond the gate...
Eventually moving past the park, the stirring crowd began to taper into silent neighborhoods left vacant by the coming Independence Day events. My path wound through the quiet scenery for several minutes before I found the turn leading along the lake’s north shore. A short drive later, I was upon the narrow stretch of asphalt leading to Governor’s Island. Turning on the road I was immediately surrounded by dense forest on both sides. I crept along the road taking in the sight of the forest until I came upon a wide gravel space with a small yellow gate resting on it far side. Realizing the gate must be the entrance to Governor’s Island, I pulled my car up as close to the gate as possible and exited the vehicle. As I approached the gate I struggled to see past it. Dense, old growth forest climbed high above the gate, casting an omnipresent shadow over the space beyond the yellow bars. With a few more steps toward the gate I took in the sight of a narrow strip of land with water on either side. Piles of concrete and bricks rested nearest the water with a dirt path running straight between them. Knowing I was clearly in the right place, I walked around the yellow gate and began walking down the path.

I was no more than 30 seconds into my walk down the path before the sights and sounds around me made me stop abruptly. The foliage around me nearly blocked out what sunlight was seeping through the clouds, and the swelling sounds of birds drown out any other sound that could be heard. It was as though I had been plucked out of my place in Madison and dropped into the middle of a pristine forest somewhere far away. Forcing my feet back into action I continued down the path, periodically taking time to take in the sight of the massive trees shooting out of the earth around me. In a perpetual state of awe, I walked until I came upon a fork in the road in the path. With each path winding into the walls of green that lined them, I paused briefly to consider my choices. Unaware of where it may lead, I ultimately decided to take the path on the right. My decision made, I continued down the path, heading deeper into blanketed terrain.

Walking further down the path I became more aware of the broadening swath of land around me. Periodic views of the lake on my right indicated I was walking near the water, but the increasing presence of small, twisted paths branching from the main trail made it obvious I was walking into an expanding tract. Without hesitation, I crossed onto one of the smaller, winding trails at the first opportunity. Leaving the main trail behind, I moved past overgrow plants and ducked under fallen trees. Although less than a mile from the communities of Madison, I was far away from tamed land and I wasn’t turning back.
The abandoned building
Several minutes after entering one of the smaller trails I met the lakeshore abruptly. Standing before the water, I looked back at the path I had just walked. The thick forest surrounded me, leaving me few choices for continuing my trek. In turn, I walked back down the narrow path that guided me to the water until I found another arm of the path crossing through the woods on my right. Pressing on, I took the turn, bending beneath overgrowth before emerging into an area darkened by an overwhelming canopy high above my head. The density continued the further I went, moving along the lakeshore past massive trees and rolling plumes of leaves. For the next 30 minutes these scenes remained as I followed small trails through the forest, periodically crisscrossing the main trail I had previously left behind. After stumbling upon a crumbling abandoned building in the thick of the woods, I wondered what else the forest had in store.

The sykline
In time I found myself following a long path near the shoreline, but the periodic sight of the water had been replaced with views of open air. Confused at first, I quickly realized the land had climbed high above the water. Just as I came to terms with that fact, the trail opened up to the lake, revealing a scenic view from atop a sandstone cliff falling straight into the water. I took in the view for a few moments before noticing a trail leading down to a break in the rock. Approaching slowly, I noticed a line in the cliff that offered a climbing path to the water level. My adventurous spirit overriding sensibility, I immediately began the climb down, ultimately planting my feet firmly on a large rock at water level. As I raised my head and looked toward the lake the Madison skyline stood in the overcast haze on the opposite shore, offering a view I had only previously seen from a boat. For several minutes I stood beneath the awning of leafs far above me and listened to the waves lapping against the stone surface as I soaked in the cool evening air. With such beauty around me, there was nothing else I could do.

The cliffs
With dusk beginning to set it I finally decided to climb back up the cliff face and make my way through the rest of the island trails. Shortly after getting back into the woods I came across a small pyramid of stones. Little pieces of fabric and other trinkets signifying the marks of other passersby lined the stone, indicating it had been standing for some time. I looked over the various pieces left by visitors before continuing on the trail wrapping through the woods. Moments later I reemerged on the main trail, which presented another fork similar to the one I encountered when I first began my trek into the woods. Thinking I had some time left before I made it back to the island entrance, I took the left fork assuming it would take me west. About 50 yards later I surprised to see the familiar sight of a bright yellow gate resting in the middle of a darkened space. In a state of disbelief, I approached the gate. Realizing it was the entrance to the island, I turned around and saw the same fork I encountered at the start of my journey. I was baffled. The density of the forest had tricked my senses causing my usually reliable internal compass to fail for the first time in years. Turning back to the gate, I started my way off of the island stunned by what had just occurred.

The pyramid

As I passed through the gate I turned around one more time to look upon the dense green space and reflected on my journey through the forests of Governor’s Island. I recalled on the intricate details of what I encountered in my exploration and thought about the island’s ability to act as an escape from the city around me. Still struggling to fully absorb the experience, I got in my car and started heading home to get ready for the evening fireworks display. Driving down the road, I left the island behind and drove back through the city, but my mind remained on the island. In that moment I realized Governor’s Island is a special place, one I fully intend on revisiting in the near future.

Heading out

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