Below, Stephanie reflects on both her childhood in Racine on the shores of Lake Michigan, as well as her collegiate career in Madison on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona. She poignantly frames her reflections with her imminent move away from Wisconsin and its beautiful waters.
Thomas will take you on a journey into the past of his hometown of Portage. He shares what he remembers learning about the history of the infamous Portage Canal as a child and its continuing impact on the city today.
I invite you to read these pieces and reflect on your own stories that have been shaped by the waters of Wisconsin.
—Meredith Keller, Initiatives Director
Raised by Water: Stephanie Dresen in Racine, WI
I have always lived alongside water—but I never really sat down to think about what that meant to me until now.
I am currently a senior in my final semester at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After graduation I will be moving out west to Omaha, Nebraska where I have accepted a full-time job. The thought of leaving Wisconsin is bittersweet. As I plan for the move, I have realized that having access to the state’s beautiful freshwater lakes will be among what I will miss most.
I was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, a city south of Milwaukee along the shores of Lake Michigan. Growing up, the lake was a central part of my life. My mom used to babysit her friends’ children, and, during the summer, I remember her loading us all in the car and taking us down to North Beach for the day. It was something I remember wishing we could do more often (although I now understand why taking five children, all under the age of six, to play in Lake Michigan might have been a stressful experience for my mother!).
Throughout my childhood, my extended family often took summer trips up to Door County. While the adults shopped, my cousins and I spent our afternoons playing on the beaches and in the water along the coast of the peninsula. These remain some of my fondest childhood memories.
As I grew older, my friends and I continued to spend time on Lake Michigan—albeit in different capacities. In both middle school and high school, it was customary to take lakeside pictures before every school dance.
During the summers of my high school years, Racine played host to the Great Midwest Dragon Boat Festival along the lake at Pershing Park. People came from all over the country to participate in and watch the dragon boats race on Lake Michigan. For two summers I joined my good friends as a member of the Death Rowers dragon boat team. Teams picked names and dressed up in costumes. Local vendors sold goods and food, and bands played shows. The festival was a fun and wonderful way to bring people to Racine’s beautiful lakefront.
There’s no denying Lake Michigan’s presence in Racine. The harbor is active from the minute it thaws until it freezes over again. The city’s downtown—the center of the shopping district, art community, and vibrant nightlife—is located right along the lake.
It truly is difficult to separate growing up in Racine from Lake Michigan.
The same can be said about separating the experience of attending school at UW-Madison from Lake Mendota.
Before enrolling at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I did not realize what a big role the lakes play around campus—particularly Lake Mendota. Located on its shores, Memorial Union Terrace is a social gathering place, a study spot, and the home of one of the campus’ oldest student organizations, the Hoofer Sailing Club.
As an Environmental Studies student interested in water quality and protection, UW-Madison is a great place to be. Lake Mendota is one of the most studied lakes in the nation, partially due to the university and particularly due to the Center for Limnology on campus. I have taken multiple biology classes that have made use of Lake Mendota for class activities, including a class solely focused on limnology–one of the only in the country at an undergraduate level.
As I look ahead to my future in Omaha, it is difficult to not become nostalgic about the time I’ve spent on the lakes here in Wisconsin. This fall, some of my closest college girlfriends and I took a weekend trip up to Door County for one last vacation together. We spent the weekend shopping and visiting the peninsula’s many wineries. We also made time to sit along the shores of Green Bay and simply enjoy the sunsets and natural beauty of our home state. This trip will always be one of my favorite college memories. As I prepare to make my next move, I need to remember that while I will miss much of what Wisconsin has given me, I will always be able to make the trip back home. My love for the unique and beautiful freshwater bodies I’ve grown up around assures me that I will be back. Nebraska has nothing on the Waters of Wisconsin.
Raised by Water: Thomas Foellmi in Portage, WI
I grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, a city founded between the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers. The name Portage means to carry boats or goods over land from one body of water to another–a definition that points to the city’s past and present. Growing up in Portage I was always aware of the historical significance of the city and the two rivers that surrounded it, particularly the creation and debate around the legendary Portage Canal.
The Portage Canal, ca. 1908
The area that would become the City of Portage was important to early European explorers searching for crossings between the Wisconsin and Fox. Louis Jolliett and Father Jacques Marquette’s ‘portaging’ the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers would lead French fur traders to establish a trading network, all of which precipitated the creation of the city. As the portage expanded, its founders determined that a canal could help create a transportation link with the Gulf of Mexico.
Workers originally dug the canal by hand between the years 1849 and 1851, leading the Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade its infrastructure following the Civil War. While the City and Army Corps of Engineers completed the Portage Canal project in 1876, the link to the Gulf of Mexico was never realized because of problems downriver.
Portage Canal Lock, ca. 1911
Even though the canal was never used for its designed purpose, it was utilized for local commerce and recreational boating. But by the 1960s the northern and southern locks were closed.
Less than 10 years after the locks were welded shut, local politicians convinced the State Legislature and the Governor to pass a bill allowing the State Historical Society of Wisconsin to fund the reclamation of the canal. Regrettably, the DNR stopped the canal project after the death of a young boy in the Portage Lock. Throughout the 1970s concerned citizens attempted to rejuvenate the canal. After a series of clean-up projects, the Portage Canal Society won a big victory when the canal was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1979. This allowed the canal to be preserved and have legal protection from any outside groups.
Still there were heated disagreements for years between the Wisconsin DNR and the City of Portage over the ownership of the canal. The DNR wanted to return ownership to the city except that they had neglected their responsibility of maintaining the canal. The city did not want to take over the canal until the state honored its obligation of preserving the canal’s environmental integrity. This back and forth continued for years. Neither side wanted to spend money on the restoration of the canal without the other’s cooperation. Finally, the DNR decided to put money towards the canal in the early 2000s. After decades of debate, the city, the DNR, and even the Department of Transportation have allocated sizeable funds to the project.
Thom and friend on the banks of the Wisconsin River, early 1990's
The Portage Canal has had a long and turbulent history as anyone raised in Portage will know. Despite and because of its tumultuous past, the canal has always been an important part of the city and its people. It has provided my hometown with a means to grow itself even to this day. The canal restoration project showed that the city was making an effort to embrace its history. These waterways have given me an appreciation for nature and a chance to experience it in ways that some kids can only dream of.