Nestled near the small circus town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, is Devil’s Lake State Park, named for the large lake that sits at its center.
The lake is located in the middle of a deep chasm, with no visible inlet or outlet.
Its name comes from a misinterpretation of a term from the Ho-Chunk Nation, the region’s Indigenous inhabitants.
In any case, on a cool foggy day, it’s not too hard to imagine why, and imagination probably had a lot to do with it. At the time when white trappers, then settlers were moving into the area, they learned from the local Ho-Chunk people that their name of the lake was Tewakącąk which roughly translated, meant “Sacred lake”. Sometimes this was also interpreted as “spirit” or “holy” lake. So you can see how with a little misunderstanding, and most likely some prejudice as well, the name “Devil’s Lake” came to be. While the Ho-Chunk considered the lake sacred space, those early European turned toward something more sinister.
Later, when the area was becoming popular with tourists in the mid-1800s, the local business owners took another look at the name of the lake with an eye toward marketing and bringing in the tourists.
They played with a variety of names such as “Lake of the Two Hills”, “Wild Beauty Lake”, “Mystery Lake” and “Lake of the Red Mountain Shadows”. In the end though, “Devil’s Lake” still came out on top.
Eventually, nothing interesting: it all came down a misunderstanding and marketing, and there it is.
As far as those swimming serpents, spooky spirits, and ghostly echoes occasionally reported in and around the lake?
Well, People often ask if there are any ghost stories about Devil’s Lake, and the area has had a long history of lake monster lore going back to old stories supposedly passed on by Native Americans in the area.
It also seemed to harbor some form of Kraken or octopus type monster, and the Nakota Sioux also had a variety of stories of warriors being pulled down into the lake by a tentacled beast.
Looking back, lake spirits and “monsters” were thought to live in Devil’s Lake since the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the late 1800’s when the first settlers came to the area, the locals, whose ancestors had lived here since that last glaciation, told stories of a battle that ultimately created Devil’s Lake.
Also thunderbirds, strong, massive creatures large enough to lift humans right off of the ground and carry them away, are everywhere within the history and culture of Native Americans. While each story has some variation, generally they where the good guys who controlled the upper world and sometimes kept bad people in line.
Well, our story tells of a long-ago battle that had been fought right where Devil’s Lake is located today.
As story goes, the Thunderbirds led a full-on assault on water spirits who were inhabiting the depths of an unnamed body of water that existed here far back in history. They would fly high into the clouds and fire thunderbolts down into the water and surrounding shores. The water spirits fought back by throwing large stones into the air and creating waterspouts, swirling tempests from the depths of the water would rise to ensnare the Thunderbirds and pull them down. The pitched battle went on for days and days and, in the heat of the battle, trees were ripped from the ground. Even the stone cliffs were split, crushed and crumbled under the enormous firepower of the warring spirits. The land was laid waste and the lake created. And of course, now you know why the lake is surrounded by broken rocks and boulders.
Even when the first surveyors arrived at Devil’s Lake in the 1800s, they described a place that was hard to move through, and a lakeshore that took them a full day to navigate. If you pull out a photograph from the beginning of the last century, you can see the bluffs looked much different, and dare I say, more “war-scarred” than they do today.
This legendary battle is just one possible reason Devil’s Lake was named, “Sacred Lake” or Ta-wa-cun-chuk-dah,” by the Ho-Chunk people.
About ghosts, the most well-known story tells of a hitchhiker dressed in jeans and wearing an old army jacket walking along highway 12 on the south-west side of Baraboo. If you pass him along the highway, he’ll reappear somewhere further down the road. If you stop to offer him a lift, he’ll simply disappear. However, today we’re wondering how the ghostly hitchhiker will fair now that the old highway has been bypassed.
There is also the story of the apparition of a Native American who’s ghostly canoe has been seen floating on the lake at night.
In any case, stories apart, the lake sits between two quartzite-filled mountains that cover hundreds of miles of trails. One notable trail is the Balanced Rock Trail on the East Bluff. The out-and-back trail takes you up a series of panoramic points, with amazing rocks, caves, and deep wooded areas, until you reach the Balanced Rock. Immediately following that is a jaw-dropping rock formation known as the Devil’s Doorway.
You are not a hiker? No problem!
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put crews to work building and renovating state and federal parks. Their work of building steps, rails, pathways and pavilions help patrons and hikers access the entire park.
In any case, Devil’s Lake is definitely an amazing experience and may help you burn off some of the cheese curds and bratwurst you ate while watching the Green Bay Packers….
Images from web – Google Research