Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

 Ice boats at the start of a race at a regatta held on Green Lake in 1964. © Dean Tvedt

Ice boats at the start of a race at a regatta held on Green Lake in 1964.
© Dean Tvedt

February 2015

Back in the day

Wisconsinís deep–freeze winters are perfect for sports powered by varying sources — from wind and muscle to petroleum.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Wisconsin's deep–freeze winters are perfect for sports powered by varying sources — from wind and muscle to petroleum.

Some winter recreational pursuits haven't changed much over the years. Wisconsinites still lace up skates, link arms and "shoot–the–duck" over frozen lakes and ponds. Most women these days, though, are more into warmth than fashion than this member of the University of Wisconsin figure skating team, shown below gliding arm–in–arm with her companions across a Madison lake in February 1941.

The need–for–speed pursuit of iceboating looks much the same today as it did when the photo on the right was taken on Green Lake in January 1964. Though made of more lightweight materials, modern ice craft still rely on sail shape, ice quality, the derring–do of its pilot and, of course, wind speed.

Wisconsin has the distinction — albeit dubious in some peoples' minds — of being situated in the "ice belt," between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees north, where it gets cold enough to freeze several inches of ice for several months in duration. That makes large lakes like Lake Winnebago, Lake Geneva, Green Lake and the Madison area lakes — Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa and Waubesa — world class venues for iceboating aficionados.

University figure skating team members in 1941. © Staber W. Reese
University figure skating team members in 1941.
© Staber W. Reese

Iceboating has several classes but the most popular in North America is the International DN class because the craft are small, light and relatively inexpensive. Two classes — the Skeeter and the Nite — were developed in Wisconsin. Walter Beauvois of Williams Bay is credited with building the first front–steering Skeeter in the 1930s, and Dick Slates of Pewaukee with the first Nite prototype in 1968. Regattas have been held by local clubs or international associations almost annually for more than a century. The Northwest Ice Yachting Association held its 100th anniversary regatta in 2013 on Green Lake. Because conditions have to be just right, regatta dates aren't set in stone and are almost impromptu affairs. Depending on the design and class, racers can reach speeds up to 100 mph, or five times the speed of the wind.

Regatta racers get points — one for first place, two for second, and so on — for each race over a three–day weekend, and whoever ends up with the lowest score wins their class.

One winter sport that has seen dramatic change over the years is snowmobiling. We had to laugh when we came across the photo below of three men on a "snow sled," taken in January 1940 in Sayner, the birthplace of the snowmobile. Not much other information is available for the photo, but it appears to be an Eliason Motor Toboggan built by Carl Eliason of Sayner.

Spurred by a desire to join his sportsmen friends in the deep snow areas of the Northwoods, and to overcome a foot deformity, Eliason used his mechanical ingenuity to design the first snowmobile, which he patented in 1927. Eliason built his first model using bicycle parts, a liquid–cooled 2.5 horsepower outboard engine, rope –controlled steering skis, downhill skis to act as running boards and a modified Ford Model T radiator to cool the engine. You can find Eliason's story online at Sayner Star Lake Sayner History.

Kathryn A. Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.