Beachgoers in the Buff Better Behave
By Judy Keen
Some visitors spoiling it for those patrons who just want an all-over tan
MAZOMANIE, Wis. — It’s a warm weekday afternoon at Mazo Beach. The sky is cloudless, the Wisconsin River sparkles, and every sunbather on the white sand is nude.
For about 50 years, this secluded beach in a state wildlife area has attracted people who prefer to catch the sun’s rays on every part of their bodies. The tradition has withstood protests by a local church, unsuccessful attempts to change state laws that don’t prohibit public nudity and objections from some of Mazomanie’s (pronounced may-zoh-MAY-nee) 1,485 residents.
This summer, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is increasing patrols and taking other steps to curtail sex and illegal drug use at the beach. Two stands of willow trees at the edges of the beach were cut down to stop people from using them to shield illicit activities. Nearby woods have been made off limits. The fine for entering the closed area is $160.80.
Since Memorial Day, 10 people have been charged with public sex and three were charged with drug possession, says Jeremy Plautz, a DNR warden supervisor who patrols the beach several times a week. A ranger also visits regularly.
‘This place polices itself’
Plautz says some of the problems are caused by websites that call Mazo Beach a destination for open-air sex. Daniel Ruland, 27, who grew up in Mazomanie, agrees. “The nude beach used to be for normal people,” he says. “It was very much accepted. Then along came the Internet, and with the Internet, along came the perverts and sexual predators.”
Ruland, a former Marine who recently returned home after two tours in Iraq, says, “It’s better just to pretend it’s not even there.”
Mazo Beach regulars disagree. “I think a lot of this is blown out of proportion,” says Steve Schmitt, who lives in the Green Bay area and has been coming to the beach for 15 years. “This place polices itself.”
Michael McGreevy, 66, a retired real estate broker who first visited the beach 18 years ago and often spends afternoons here with friends, says they alert rangers when they see banned behavior.
“We seldom saw it,” he says. “The mainstream people are not affected” by tougher enforcement.
He and his beach friends, McGreevy says, do charitable work and are like “a family, a fraternity.” Those who believe there’s something ominous going on, he says, should “try it and get a life.”
There are dozens of well-known nude beaches such as Mazo Beach and hundreds of smaller, unmanaged ones across the country, says Bob Morton, executive director of the Naturist Action Committee, the political arm of the 27,000-member Naturist Society. The organization has a lobbyist in Wisconsin and fights bills in other states that would make public nudity a crime.
“It’s an American tradition to go down to the river or the lake and go skinny-dipping,” Morton says, “but there are always fights going on.”
In Santa Barbara County, Calif., he says, naturists are trying to overturn a nudity ban at Bates Beach. In Austin, some patrons of Hippie Hollow want to end a ban on anyone under 18 at the decades-old nude beach. “We really don’t have a lot of problems,” says Hippie Hollow manager Dan Perry, but there are occasional complaints about public sex.
For some Mazo Beach patrons, being nude is about more than getting an all-over tan. Christopher Cronin, who grew up in the area and works as a nude art model in San Francisco, says the human body is “a sacred, beautiful work of art. … Being ashamed of one’s body is a form of self-hatred.”
Rick Mellentine, 43, a factory worker, plays nude volleyball on the beach on weekends and likes to read and practice juggling here. His nudity isn’t a political statement, he says. “I don’t have to wear anything, so I don’t,” he says.
Nudity restrictions fail
Cars from Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa are alongside Wisconsin vehicles in Mazo Beach’s parking lot one recent afternoon. It’s a 1-mile walk from the lot to the beach. A road that allowed visitors to drive all the way to the beach was closed in 2000 to end cruising for sexual activity, Plautz says.
In 1999, the Wisconsin Legislature considered closing Mazo Beach from April to September. The measure did not pass. The same year, an attempt to ban public nudity at all DNR recreation areas also failed. In 2003, legislation that would have created fines for anyone nude on public land also failed. Under state law, anyone who “publicly and indecently exposes” themselves is guilty of a misdemeanor, but the statute doesn’t define “publicly” or “indecently.”
Ralph Ovadal, pastor of Pilgrims Covenant Church in nearby Monroe, organized a blockade of the road, protests at the Mazo Beach parking lot and a petition drive beginning in 1998. He and his parishioners haven’t been at the beach for a couple of years, he says, and probably won’t protest here this summer.
“We gave it all we had,” Ovadal says, “but we’re going to step back for a while. … The local people are just beside themselves.”
Not Richard Rahn, 75, who runs an antique coin and jewelry shop in Mazomanie. “They don’t bother me any,” he says. “As long as they don’t run around naked on my front lawn, I couldn’t care less.” (c) Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.