Exploring The Elkhart Way: Insights into a Sustainable Movement

February 27, 2024

The fact that Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin continues to be the place I call home no matter where I wander is an incredible gift. One of the luckiest things the stars above the lake have granted me. Growing up in a place that is deeply loved by locals and by visitors who continue to visit year after year has inspired me all my life. Although I love it during each season, there’s a quality of worldliness that the village takes on in the summertime. The vibrancy of Elkhart Lake’s local way of life grew a hunger within me long ago to explore and seek out exceptional natural beauty as well as deeply rooted communities outside of my hometown. Because my home village is little, I always had this sense that a huge part of the world was literally around the corner, or just past the four-way stop.

Exploring has brought me to another little town known for its freshwater shorelines. When I first arrived in Truckee, California I noticed it contained my favorite aspects of other places I had previously called home. I’m not the first one to migrate from Elkhart Lake to this little place nestled within the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’m part of a group of Wisconsinites that arrived to the forests and lakes here and thought “this feels like home with the addition of a little elevation and greater snow accumulation to play in.”

Immediately upon arriving I noticed the Keep Tahoe Blue stickers (the campaign that inspired Keep Elkhart Blue) stamped on the sea of Subarus and pickup trucks. A desire to preserve the lake’s quality and educate visitors about how to participate in that project is strong. Everyone appreciates the beauty of the water resources that places are named after. Not everyone is aware of how human activity impacts it and how they can play a role in upholding its quality.

Moving to Truckee has deepened my understanding and brewed more curiosity than ever about the opportunities and challenges that are unique to tourist communities. Stunning places are often home to steadfast communities. In Elkhart there’s a shop inspired by this exact feeling: Small Town Big Family. These special places are also home to a distinct set of tensions. While tourism in the Truckee/Tahoe area is on a different scale and calendar than Elkhart Lake there are some conversations that hit very close to home.

Concerns about natural resource access and the preservation of those natural resources, waste, noise, affordable long term housing, cohabitating with an increased population size during certain times of the year, increased traffic/parking issues, and the continuation of a pace of life that attracts visitors to the area in the first place are just a few of the conversations many tourist destinations around the country (and the world) are having.

In addition to the wide use of bumper stickers throughout the Tahoe basin there are also local programs that have provided educational signage at trailheads to promote stewardship and preserve wildlife as well as initiatives to reduce usage of single use plastics and styrofoam. Volunteer opportunities for visitors to get involved with trail maintenance and water quality improvement are also offered. Since moving to Truckee, I’ve increasingly witnessed printed materials and signage around town that guides visitors into the realm of stewardship and participation in celebrating and preserving the place’s natural landscapes.

I’ve only been here for a few years so there’s still a lot to learn about the work that local people here are doing to preserve their home while also educating and welcoming people who visit. There’s an attitude amongst locals all around the world that requires newcomers to earn their credibility and prove their commitment to the place. The word local and who and how that word is defined is something I will be fascinated by and questioning my whole life, even more so now that I am considered a newcomer to the area I currently live. Some days I still feel like a visitor gathering information about what it means to be a part of this place in a positive way.

Turns out in Tahoe, and in every other place I’ve found myself, having a Wisconsin license plate or accent makes a great first impression. But what really seals the deal when trying to break the ice is a Wisconsin attitude. After shoveling during last year’s historic snowfall, I think I’ve finally earned the badge of local from my older and wiser neighbors on the street. Helping them shovel while they were out of town and bringing them treats as well as borrowing snow tools and gathering wisdom during power outages during huge storms helped me become a part of my little street community in a deeper way. There’s nothing like the deepest snow you’ve ever seen to bond you to the others across the street snow-blowing their driveways. 

Once the snow finally melted, I found myself having conversations with seasoned fishermen at the public docks at Donner Lake, a small local spot for fishing, swimming, and boating. It’s much smaller than Lake Tahoe, but still receives droves of visitors during the summertime. One of the fishermen I met last summer encouraged me to go get a permit, a paddleboard, and drop a line to catch my own dinner. Although he shared his lament over witnessing his hometown change as a result of tourism and the huge shifts within the local housing market, he quickly pivoted the conversation and welcomed me into his beautiful perspective of the area with generosity and joy.

Sometimes education comes through a conversation on a public dock. Sometimes an invitation into one’s way of life and a little bit of in-person storytelling is as valuable as reading about local fish species, fishing permits, and water quality on a public sign. Every channel of communication holds wisdom. The longer I’ve been in Truckee the more I’ve realized that those who’ve been here a long time often embed stewardship and a strong desire for community care within their definition of who they trust and who they welcome into their home.

Growing up in Elkhart Lake provided a similar ethic to those raised there. From a young age I learned the importance of going beyond just passively passing through a beautiful place and trying to contribute to the beauty. This requires a lot of awareness built on paying close attention and asking a lot of questions from those with more experience. It’s humbling, and it takes time, and oftentimes there are really simple interactions that change everything for the better.

It’s one thing to be a consumer, it’s another much grander, purposeful thing to be a connector/contributor when visiting or moving to an area. We get to choose how we engage with the places we spend time in. I credit the village that raised me for teaching me how to do so wholeheartedly and with a mindset of respect and openness to learning what a community celebrates as well as what worries them.

At the heart of it, Elkhart Lake has taught me that to know a place is to know its people. To know a place is to know the businesses and to go beyond being a patron. This means your face is one that brings a smile and a sigh of relief to the owners and employees when they see you walk through the door on a busy night because they are confident you are also on their team, rooting for them and respecting their hard work. To know a place is to know its seasons and how the energy of the place ebbs and flows, to witness the freeze and the thaw, and also the shifting shoulder seasons in between the peak times. 

I realize some will never know the intricacies of what makes the village of Elkhart Lake’s heart beat when it’s covered in snow. Albeit small, the summer window is often the opportunity to let people see the glorious view. Sometimes a tiny window is all we get to show people a way of life and demonstrate to them how to participate in its creation.

Tourism is difficult work no matter the zip code. Each area of the map has a history with growing pains it has navigated and continues to navigate along the way. In the midst of trying to make sense of the delicate balance between the issues my new community faces and the overwhelming beauty I feel so lucky to experience every day, I often think about the community I grew up in and the parallel conversations taking place.

How can we all continue having conversations about the future of healthy waterways and trails, housing opportunities, waste, noise, a feeling of balance between high and low season, and most importantly – a connection to the place and the way of life that we all celebrate and hold onto because it gives us deep meaning? This meaningful lifestyle is the very reason people are drawn to places such as Elkhart Lake after all.

How do we welcome people to the village, beaches, and the boat launch while also educating them about stewardship and safety? How can we continue building bridges and fostering partnerships across different organizations within the community that share similar concerns and hopes? How can we be models in walking through businesses and natural landscapes to the rhythm that our special village hums?

I wish I had the answers to all these very important questions. While I don’t have all the answers, I do believe in the continued creation of long-lasting memories and natural beauty in Elkhart Lake that we can all enjoy. I will continue wading into these questions in the way that Elkhart Lake has taught me to do – with care and curiosity and an openness to the possibilities that small magical places offer us. I hope others will join me in reflecting on what it means to us to live out the Elkhart way.

Please stay tuned for ways to get involved with Elkhart Lake’s sustainable tourism initiatives. And if you find yourself sharing about how you enjoy the Elkhart Lake way of life on social media, please tag @elkhartlake and consider using #elkhartway. We’d love to follow along with how you embrace and share what makes this place exceptional.

Meet The Author

Kate Vollrath

Kate Vollrath was born and raised in Elkhart Lake. After several years of working and adventuring in Anchorage, Alaska and a year studying in Italy, she has returned to her favorite freshwater shoreline. Wisconsin will always be home. The incredible local culture, extraordinary community, and summer Sundays on the water are what keep her rooted and returning no matter where life takes her.