The Midwestern emergence of the 17-year cicadas didn't reach as far north as Madison, so Sunday afternoon we set out for Lake Geneva, about 90 minutes to the southeast, near the Illinois border, chasing rumors that there were still some stragglers to be found there. Last chance for 17 years to see one of nature's marvels, so off we went.
The cicada hunt proved to be a washout (literally, since the only cicada we saw was a dead one that had washed out of the lake onto a breakwater). But we did see lots of the holes in the ground where they had emerged, leading to concentrations said to be as high as 1.5 million per acre in some places. And the futile quest prompted an internet search for answers. We found some on this PBS News Hour segment with Ray Suarez.
Why do they do it? What's with the swarming thing? It seems that most creatures -- dogs, squirrels, birds -- find cicadas a tasty treat, and the little "flying shrimp" have no natural defenses. So they apparently evolved a "predator satiation" strategy -- swarming in such incredible numbers that the predators can't eat them all, and enough survive to reproduce and perpetuate their species.
How do they do it? How do they keep track of time? Burrowing underground for 17 years, the cicada grubs have no access to such natural time cues as night and day and the changing of the seasons. Scientists say they live in the roots of trees and their bodies seem to keep track of the seasonal flux in nutrients and/or plant hormones and use that as their clock. After 17 of these cycles, they're primed to emerge from the ground and seek a mate when the ground temperature reaches 65 degrees in late May.
What was a disappointment in one respect was a discovery in another -- the Geneva Lake Shore Path. The entire lake, officially named Geneva Lake to distinguish it from Lake Geneva the town, but often called Lake Geneva nevertheless, is circled by a 21-mile public access path that cuts right through the yards of elegant, century old mansions along the lake.
Wealthy Chicago industrialists and their families first began to come here just after the Civil War. Usually, the wives and children would head north for the summer when the city's heat began to get oppressive; on weekends the businessmen would take the train up from Chicago to join them. Families with such recognizable names as Wrigley (chewing gum), Schwinn (bikes), and Maytag (washing machines) all had estates on the lake, and in some cases still do. Many of the extensive plots, however, were sold and broken up plots during and after the Great Depression. Most of the estates that remain are generally on private roads; the best way to see them is either from a boat cruise or on a public footpath that surrounds all 21 mi of the lake.Homeowners cope with the easement that gives the public access to their land with varying degrees of grace. In some places the path is as welcoming as it is above, paved with flagstones, bricks or gravel. In some places there's a concrete sidewalk. On the other hand, a place like Stone Manor (officially Younglands), the Italianate palace built in 1900-1901 by Otto Young, who made his money in Chicago real estate following the fire, and which was recently renovated and subdivided into condos, only has a dirt path along the lake. In some sections the path is bumpy, steep, or scattered with roots or small stumps that can trip up the unwary. One enterprising homeowner simply put sod over the path on his property, figuring people's reluctance to walk on other people's grass would keep people off (it almost kept us off, until we noticed that other walkers were undeterred, figuring that public access means public access.) It's a great walk, and you can go as far as you want to walk. We did about five miles.
Although a lot has changed in Lake Geneva since the Gilded Age, when it earned the name "Newport West" for its many wealthy summer people, the town's main draw remains the same -- the lake itself. Technically called Geneva Lake to distinguish itself from the city that surrounds its northeast corner, this spring-fed body of water is the second deepest in Wisconsin -- 144 feet at its deepest point. Boating, water-skiing, parasailing, sailing, swimming, and fishing all continue to bring people to the lake. [...]
Geneva Lake Shore Path. One of the most popular tourist attractions in this area is a 20.6-mi path that winds around the lake. You can see mansions from the path, which is accessible through any public park on the lake. A map, called "Walk, Talk & Gawk" gives directions and points of interest. Shorter walks are also mapped out, including an easy 2-mi route. Maps are available free at the Lake Geneva Convention & Visitors Bureau at 201 Wrigley Drive, across from the pier. Lake Geneva, WI, USA. PHONE: 800/345-1020. COST: Free. OPEN: Daily.