Naming All Those Lakes

On March 9, 2016 · 2 Comments

I mentioned finding lakes named Tin Can Mike and Hungry Jack in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCAW), when I posted the article called simply Mike. There were limitless lakes within that wilderness, so many that people naming them had to revert to linguistic gyrations to separate one from another. I’ll get to those in a moment. It would be best to start off by describing the topography of the area.

The glaciers left behind rugged cliffs and crags, canyons, gentle hills, towering rock formations, rocky shores, sandy beaches and several thousand lakes and streams, interspersed with islands and surrounded by forest. The BWCAW is a unique area located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota… The BWCAW contains over 1200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and over 2000 designated campsites… it allows visitors to canoe, portage and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.



The wilderness sat squarely within the "arrowhead" region of Minnesota, hugging its boundary with Canada. This formed a massive pristine conservation area — and even more so when combined with Canadian provincial parks adjacent to it — stretching some 150 miles (240 kilometers) on both sides of the border. Its abundant solitude and untouched natural beauty attracted canoeists, anglers and campers hoping to get away from the pressures of the outside world for a few days. People loved posting YouTube videos about their trips through the wilderness, too.

I found a complete list of Boundary Waters lakes that offered abundant entertainment. I wasn’t the first person to explore some of the more unusual naming conventions. Indeed, others before me had enjoyed their peculiarities and did their best to categorizing them: "The origin of some lake names are very obvious due to their shapes (Gun, Hatchet, LLC’s Lady Boot Bay). Or are descriptive (Boulder River, Hula, Moose River). Or named for area animals (Loon, Lynx, Beaver, Bald Eagle, Crocodile?)." Other names came from the Ojibwe language, which made perfect since because this was the final tribe of Native Americans living within this wilderness before they were pushed out by settlers of European ancestry.

Some of the more entertaining themes fell within sequential strings of closely aligned lakes.


The Lady Chain



The Lady Chain, for example, featured a string of women’s first names (map). This was a very popular canoe and portage route, either by themselves or when combined with others, such as the Lady Chain/Louse River Loop

Head west through Alton, Beth and Grace to Phoebe Lake. After July 1, small mouth are very easy to catch on Alton and Beth. Take the longer portage between Beth and Grace rather than the two shorter ones through Ella. Grace and Phoebe are two of the finest walleye lakes in the Boundary Waters. The little rapids between Grace and Phoebe are too small to be navigable. Be sure to hike into these streams off the portages, though, for some gorgeous scenery. Hazel and Polly complete the string of lakes named after ladies. The story is pioneer forest ranger Bill Mulligan named these lakes after his maiden aunts.

Whether true or not, Beth, Grace, Pheobe, Ella, Hazel and Polly did indeed sound like someone’s maiden aunts, born I’d suppose circa the turn of the last century. Many of these were popular names in the 1890’s: Beth (nickname for Elizabeth #5); Grace (#18); Ella (#32); Hazel (#23); Polly (nickname for Mary #1) My grandmother’s older sisters had names similar to these and they were all born right around that time too.


The Vegetable Chain



View Larger Map

I noticed another theme featuring raw edibles such as Tomato, Carrot, Bean, South Bean, Celery, Potato, Parsnip, Strawberry, Melon, Kraut, Cucumber, Onion, Turnip and Peanut. Kraut didn’t fit the mold exactly although I supposed that fermented cabbage came close enough, and I imagined the person naming those lakes thought the same. This set was often called the Vegetable Chain, abbreviated to Veggie Chain (map), even with the random fruits and prepared foods thrown in for good measure. There wasn’t much more information available though. Technically the chain fell just outside of the BWCAW and it was visited primarily "by locals who travel to the lakes via logging roads on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)."


JAP Lake



JAP Lake (map) offered an interesting conundrum. The name was actually an acronym, for "longtime local residents James & Ann Paulson." However, over time Jap became an offensive and derogatory ethnic slur referring to people of Japanese ancestry, especially during and after World War 2. The name of the lake changed to Paulson although many people continued to call it JAP. Come to think of it, Kraut might also fit within that same derogatory designation albeit for Germans of a similar period, although the name of the lake never changed.

There were plenty of other oddball names that I discovered, including:

  • Canthook
  • Caveman
  • Disappointment
  • Extortion
  • Fool Hen
  • Fungus
  • Ge-be-on-e-quet
  • Gobetween
  • Gossip
  • Grubstake
  • Hustler
  • Ima
  • Jerky
  • Lucky Finn
  • Mudhole
  • Neglige
  • Nine A.M.
  • No Sleep
  • No-See-Um
  • Pompous (+ SE of Pompous; + E of Pompous + NE of Pompous)
  • Rumpuss
  • Skindance
  • Thirtythree
  • Tidbit
  • Trump (+ Little Trump)
  • Wang
  • Weeny
  • Whack
  • Whiskey Jack
  • Wooden Leg

I’m sure each and every one had its own amusing story.

On March 9, 2016 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Naming All Those Lakes”

  1. Pfly says:

    Reminds me a bit of the WA Cascades, where there are a plethora of lakes with women first name, um, names. Apparently hundreds of them were given those names in the early 20th century, when USGS and Forest Service rangers/cartographers first made detailed topo maps and had a kind of mandate to give names to everything they could–to aid in fighting forest fires (helps to say *where* a wildfire is). The wives and girlfriends of FS rangers and such got peppered all over the Cascades. There’s at least a hundred of them.

    And there’s a bunch of odd or fun names too. There’s a Labyrinth Mountain, named by A.H. Sylvester because its topo map contour lines looked like a labyrinth. The two small lakes on it he named Minotaur Lake and Thesseus Lake. There’s Spark Plug Lake–no idea why it got that name. And of course Lake Twenty-two, which today is the end of a very popular hiking trail. Lots of people joke about how they ran out of names and had to start using numbers–but really it is just in survey section 22. Still, someone was running out of creativity.

    Of your curious list I particularly like Fool Hen Lake. I can just picture how it got that name……

  2. Fritz Keppler says:

    Not a lake, but one of my favorite watercourse names is in western Arizona, crossed by I-40 near the California line. Dry most of the year, it’s called Holy Moses Wash. I can just imagine the flash flood that gave rise to the name!

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