The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs

Remnants of A Former World

One of my favorite spring locations in the Lake Wingra watershed is the Council Spring, and the nearby Dancing Sands Spring on the north shore of Lake Wingra, above the Ho-Nee-Um pond in the UW-Madison Arboretum.  

This is where I go to reconnect with the Lake Wingra Watershed, to visualize what it used to be, and to imagine how the Native Americans interacted with and cared for their home. This spot has a long history of human habitation and by closely reading the landscape, one can notice the additions: the Ho-Nee-Um Pond dredged in the late 1930’s, the storm sewer pipes emptying into the pond, and the council ring itself.

The subtractions include the effigy mound complex that once overlooked Lake Wingra from where Wingra School now sits, and the springs that have dried up or been built over.

The Council Spring, flowing south towards Lake Wingra.

The Council Ring and its Springs

Located south and east of Arbor Drive and Monroe Street, the Council Spring flows out from the base of a rock outcrop just below the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring.  Nearby, just to the south west is Dancing Sands Spring (aka Ho-Nee-Um Spring).  As the name suggests this spring emerges directly onto the surface through a bed of marl and sand, causing the sand to appear to dance as it flows towards the lake, as it has done for millennia.  The two springs, which merge and flow into Ho-Nee-Um Pond before they enter the lake, are known collectively as Marston, Topp, or Lime Kiln Spring (Noland, 1950).   

The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs, are also known, more scientifically, as Spring #6 in the recent statewide survey of springs in Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.  Click here for the survey results.

The famed landscape architect Jen Jensen designed and built the council ring—for “intimate and reflective gatherings” (Birmingham, 2010)—to serve as a memorial for Jensen’s grandson, a landscape architect student at the UW who died on the eve of his graduation (Sache, 1965).

The Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring perched above the Council Spring. One of the large open-grown oaks that shaded the council ring recently topped in a storm.

The Council Spring flows magically to the surface from underneath the Council Ring, emerging from a crack in a rock outcrop which seems to be part of the Council Ring itself. Standing in the center of the Council Ring, one can almost hear and feel the upwelling groundwater beneath ones’ feet.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.Lake Wingra Hydrology

These are just two of the 13 or so Lake Wingra springs that remain from the over 30 that existed at the time of European settlement.  Lake Wingra was, at the time of European contact, a spring-fed lake with a year-round fairly-constant flow of clear, cold, hard water.  This spring-flow  provided the lake with the majority of its water; the remaining water coming from direct precipitation  (rain and snow) and some overland flow.  This was its hydrology; that is, the amount, timing, and duration of water flow.

Today, the hydrologic situation has been reversed, with Lake Wingra receiving only about one-third of its water from springs, the rest of its water coming from rainfall, snowmelt, and stormwater that enters the lake through the storm drains that ring its perimeter.  Or, as Noland said: the lake receives “an irregular flow of  . . . rain water containing the dissolved and suspended dirt and oil of city streets” (Noland, 1950.). However, the list of pollutants entering Lake Wingra and the other Madison lakes today is much longer and more toxic than in Noland’s day.  The contaminants include a variety of heavy metals, petroleum products, and herbicides and pesticides.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.

Lake of Sacred Springs

In addition to the large number of natural springs around Lake Wingra, the watershed also was home to a huge number of Native American effigy and burial mounds (Birmingham, 2010) which were chiefly associated with the springs, making the area unique in the world for its co-occurance  of springs and nearby effigy mounds.  Birmingham (2010) in his excellent book “Spirits of Earth, The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes (2010) describes Lake Wingra The Lake of Sacred Springs.” 

(Each of Madison’s four lakes, Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa, and Waubesa has their own mound groupings which are discussed by Birmingham but here we are just focused on the Wingra groupings.)

Like the springs, many effigy mounds were destroyed by European settlers, so the best remaining example of the mound/spring association is found in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum,  which preserves the Lake Forest #1 mound group in Wingra Woods atop a glacial moraine, and the associated West Spring, Big Spring, and White Clay Spring below near the lakeshore.

The former Wingra Mound Grouping, high above the Council and Dancing Sands Springs, where now sits the Wingra School on Monroe Street, once illustrated the close connection between springs and effigy mound groups (Birmingham, 2010).

Another former mound group once graced a section of the current Monroe Street business district where the University of Wisconsin Press has its offices.

Remnants of other mound groups can today be found at Forest Hill Cemetery, the Edgewood College Campus, Vilas Circle Park, with its Bear Mound, and in Vilas Park itself.

The springs are special, sacred, and quiet places. Most are protected on public land and those are being well cared for. They are worth a visit, especially in winter when, sometimes on a very cold morning, the steam from the warm ground water wafts across the snowy landscape.

The Council Spring flowing towards Lake Wingra.


Birmingham, Robert A.  2010.  Spirits of Earth, the effigy mound landscape of Madison and the four lakes.  University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI.

Noland, Wayland E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Madison, WI.

Sachse, Nancy D.  1965.  A Thousand Ages,  Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Council Spring, Effigy Mounds, Four Lakes Region, Jens Jensen, Lake Wingra Watershed, Springs. Bookmark the permalink.

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