Mark Porter first heard about Mazo Beach in the early 1990s. Wisconsin’s famous nude beach, located on the Wisconsin River in northwest Dane County, held an immediate attraction for him.
“At that time, it was considered a mysterious place. You had to have someone tell you how to get there,” says the out IT professional, now 52, who lives just outside of Madison. “I had never been to a nude beach before, and it seemed like a way to possibly meet gay men outside of the bar environment.”
Porter may have had ulterior motives, but it was the area’s natural beauty and the beach’s comfortable ambience that kept him returning, mostly on Monday afternoons when the crowd was sparse. The 800-yard strip of sand fronting the slow-moving river looks out over a series of sandstone bluffs. Above the bluffs numerous birds, including red-tailed hawks and sandhill cranes, seem to float effortlessly in the azure sky.
Mazo Beach was an accepting place, Porter says, attracting men, women and, yes, children of all ages and sexual orientations. Individuals and groups would swim, sun, play volleyball and carry on just like they would at any other beach.
“I learned the rules of the beach,” he says. “Clean up after yourself, maintain the place as if it was your own, and be polite and respectful to all people.”
Porter also came to understand the rules of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which owns the beach and the surrounding 60-plus acres f wooded land. No drugs, no public sex, no lewd and lascivious behavior.
“I had a friend who was fined last year for applying sunscreen too vigorously to himself, in the DNR warden’s opinion,” says Porter. “I don’t recall seeing anyone engage in activities that might make others uncomfortable, but I’m sure they took place.”
In the past five to six years, such activities and the resulting enforcement procedures have started to change the bucolic nature of Mazo Beach. Visitors like Porter, who hasn’t been to the beach in fie years, might be surprised at what one of their favorite former recreational spots has become.
The DNR first purchased the parcel that contains Mazo Beach in 1949 as way to expand public lands for hunting, fishing and camping. By the mid-1950s, word had gotten out about the pristine beach on a secluded bend of the state’s largest recreational river and groups of naturists – as nudists call themselves – began descending on the property. It wasn’t long before the clothing-optionals had claimed the beach as their own.
Mazo Beach was recently named one of the top five nude beaches in the United States. The beach hosts up to an estimated 70,000 visitors from across the country during its summer season. On a given weekend day it’s not unusual to see the adjacent parking lot full and as many as 100 cars parked along Conservation Drive, the main access road to the beach. The crowds come despite the somewhat ill-defined rules involving public nudity.
Technically, Wisconsin statutes prohibit the exposure of genitalia by either sex in public, but the Dane County district attorney’s office has chosen not to pursue violators of what is considered a misdemeanor under state law providing the naturists adhere to strict boundaries as defined by the beach. Nudity at Mazo Beach, while not technically legal, is apparently legal enough.
In 1999, lawmakers introduced legislation in Madison that would have made public nudity on state-owned land illegal. However, nothing ever came of the motion and no bill has been introduced since that time.
The issue of legality is further muddied by the fact that the beach, located between the communities of Sauk City and Mazomanie, rests on a part of the river that separates Dane County from neighboring Sauk County. The beach, which is on the river’s eastern shore, is technically part of Dane County, where the precedent for nudity had been
established and is tolerated. Naturists who go beyond the islands in the center of the river venture into nearby Sauk County and run the risk of arrest.
The issue causing greatest concern to officials, residents and beachgoers themselves, however, has less to do with how much you show, but what you do with it after you’ve shown it. In recent years, DNR enforcement of state statutes involving lewd and lascivious behavior has netted a growing number of perpetrators who have taken the beach’s relaxed approach to socialization one step too far.
Although there have been some arrests for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, mostly involving marijuana, by far the majority of arrests have involved instances of public sexual acts, not only in the confines of the nearby woods, but sometimes on the beach itself or its nearby sandbars.
On this point, the law is very clear. Those arrested for sex in the woods will likely be charged with disorderly conduct and a civil forfeiture of $263.50. And sex on the beach? While that may make a fine cocktail, sex anywhere within easy view of nonparticipants is considered a criminal misdemeanor. The penalties for such acts will be set in courtrooms, but chronic offenders can expect to pay as much as a $10,000 find and/or spend nine months in prison.
Last year DNR wardens arrested a Florida man who admitted that he came to Mazo Beach for no other reason than to find a sexual encounter. There also have been advertisements on Craigslist and other social media sites seeking sexual trysts at the beach.
“The number one concern of those we arrest for a sexual encounter is, ‘Will this become public information because I have a wife and kids at home,’” says Nate Kroeplin, one of a number of DNR wardens assigned to northern Dane County, an area that includes Mazo Beach. “Most of our arrests are for sexual disorderly conduct, and I would say there are slightly more arrests for homosexual activity than for heterosexual.”
Not on my river
Public perception differs from DNR statistics, however, and gay beachgoers more often than not tend to be stereotyped as less discrete in their public sex activities than their straight counterparts.
“As with any nude beach or resort, it’s mostly male,” says an extensive Mazo Beach post on The Academic Naturist, a blog for public nudists. “There are gay males that go, but they congregate at the south end of the beach. Don’t worry about the ‘south-enders’ though. They’re far enough away to be out of sight, and the trouble they cause (a majority of the legal violations) is generally very rare.”
In the past few years, wardens have made a more concerted effort to stop lewd and lascivious behavior, patrolling in groups of six or seven officers through the woods and surrounding areas. They know the area well and catch most if not all violators. Some beachgoers even make it a sport to spot the officers and warn others of their presence.
Despite the increase in enforcement, the rate of illegal activity has not changed, Kroeplin says. Last year DNR wardens made 42 arrests, and this year appears to be on track to hit the same number.
“If you sit in a car and watch the foot traffic to the beach, it’s clear that 75 percent of those walking are middle-aged males who have arrived alone,” Kroeplin says.
The warden would not venture a guess as to the intent of those single male beachgoers, but the agency in recent years has taken steps to make easy sexual trysts or drug deals difficult if not impossible.
The DNR banned beach camping, a popular activity on sand dunes all along the river, in the late 1990s. The agency also enacted a curfew that limits beach hours from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. to reduce the opportunity for sexual activity.
Last year, the DNR went further, clearing trees surrounding the beach to reduce the cover for sexual encounters. The agency cleared even more land this year.
There is a parking lot for beachgoers, but the road has been gated. Access to the beach requires walking or biking roughly a mile down a designated pathway. Bright yellow signs warn that the woods are closed to the public from April to September.
A place to be nude … and natural
“The greatest downside to the beach now may be the mile-long walk through the mosquito tunnel,” says Waukesha resident Pete Schell, 43, a sales assistant at a Milwaukee-area car dealership and frequent beach visitor. “I started visiting Mazo Beach six or seven years ago. This was my first nude beach.”
Schell is part of GAMMA, a 30-year-old gay Milwaukee-area social group that plans outings, including those to Mazo Beach. He made his first beach visit on a GAMMA outing and has returned 12 times since.
“It’s a pretty friendly and welcoming place,” says Schell, “I think that people need to be a little less puritanical about their bodies.”
Mazo Beach is largely a place to relax with a cross-section of people most of whom, he is quick to point out, do not look like they just stepped off a model runway.
“It’s not an orgy or a modeling show,” he says. “You may find some beefcake if that’s what you are looking for, but most of them are just plain folks and Wisconsin is, after all, a heavier state.”
But that may be the point, Schell says, and what makes Mazo Beach not only an attractive place to visit, but one that also is socially necessary.
“Public nudity is not some deep, dark monster, but something as natural and regular as walking down the street in a suit of clothes,” Schell says. “It’s good that there’s a place that people can be nude. After the first couple of visits, you start to wonder why there aren’t more places like this.”
Mazo Beach has attracted more than its share of attention from protesters, right-wing politicians and neighbors, including some who need binoculars to get a clear view of the nudity that so offends them.
In 2000, the Rev. Ralph Ovadal, pastor of Pilgrims Covenant Church in Monroe started leading protests against nudity and other implied sins in the beach parking lot. On May 28, 2001, his group of protesters singled out Nancy Jo Erickson, a naturist who in 1998 moved from her native Minneapolis to Mazomanie to be near the beach, as she was arriving for a visit.
The group called for Erickson to repent, to which she responded with an expletive and threats to raise her top and bare her breasts. Cries of “harlot,” “whore” and “Jezebel” ensued for the six minutes it took Erickson to unload her car. A DNR warden who was present asked the religious group to stand back and allow Erickson to proceed but the naturist was angry enough to file a complaint against Ovadal. The pastor was later charged with disorderly conduct and required to pay a $1,000 fine.
“We’ve spoken to religious groups and asked them to stop protesting,” says DNR warden Nate Kroeplin/ “they seemed satisfied once they knew that we were taking enforcement action here.”
Erickson has since married financial planner Wirth, and the couple has opened Wall Street Gallery and Bistro, 14 Broadhead St., in Mazomanie. Nancy Jo Wirth is still an avowed naturist, but she and her husband no longer visit the beach.
If you go
Interested in visiting one of the top five nude beaches in America? The Friends of Mazo Beach, a volunteer organization of frequent beachgoers who take care of the property provided directions: From Madison, take Hwy. 12 north to Cty. Y; turn left (west) to the second turn at Laws Drive; take a short right to Conservation Road (gravel). At the parking lot, walk or bike a mile to the handicap parking lot and beach. Do not disrobe before you reach the beach! No, no, no ... busted!
Visit friendsofmazobeach.wordpress.com for more information.