Clear Lake, Happy Campers

Spring Lake near Akeley, MN

Olympians stormed the northwoods during the weekend before Labor Day. Starring Amber, who medaled in cane twirling, Katie, the champion thumb wrestler, Krista, the champion of hide and seek, Lynn, who competed in both low and high skipping events, and myself, a competitive guitar-athalon athlete, our three days in the woods near Akeley, Minnesota met all expectations for an eighth annual Girls Weekend Camping trip. There were mint Oreos, reduced fat Cheez-Its, cucumbers and hummus to eat. There were hand-crafted costumes, as well as matching medals and tank-tops for our promotional appearances. Most importantly, we had a scenic destination with a pristine lake on site.

When you spend your working days talking to people about how to clean up their waterways and how to fight problems like invasive species and algae blooms, it’s nice once in a while to visit a lake that seems to be perfect. There are only two docks on Spring Lake and both are far away from the cabins they serve. One of the cabins, site of our Olympic retreat, belongs to friend Katie’s grandparents, while another, about a mile away, is owned by her aunt and uncle who, it should be noted, cook an excellent fish dinner. Though we could see the lake from our campfire ring, it was a fifteen minute walk down to the water through the woods and once we were at the dock, both cabins were completely out of view.

Though the Spring Lake is small and fairly shallow, I was shocked to see crystal clear water when we first reached the dock. The water was so clear that, were it not for the reflection of sky and trees on its surface, one might walk straight into the lake, imagining it to be merely a meadow in the woods. The water was so clear that after we gathered and hauled two buckets to the cabin for dishwashing, we had to constantly remind one another which buckets were lake water and which were for drinking. The lake was so clear that we could see each and every fish that swam by, as well as copious amounts of native aquatic vegetation growing in the shallow water. For years I have heard it told that shallow lakes exist in one of two states, either clear and weedy, or murky and weed-free, but here in the metro area there are precious few examples of healthy and clear shallow lakes like the ones we see up north.

We spent one afternoon floating in the lake, using inflatable rafts and life-jackets to suspend ourselves safely above the weeds. A few lilies grew around the dock and insects and snails crawled across the surface of their over-sized leaves. On the far side of the lake a beaver voiced its displeasure about our presence by slapping its tail loudly against the water every few minutes. Bam bam. Bam bam. After swimming for a while, we lay down on the deck and dozed in the sun while dragonflies zipped about overhead.

There are many reasons why little Spring Lake near Akeley is clear while most of the shallow lakes near us are not. For one, there is no development within several hundred feet of Spring Lake’s shoreline, just two cabins set far from the water with no sandy beaches and no grassy lakesides. In fact, these two cabins and a network of grassy trails are just about the only development in the lake’s entire watershed. In contrast, the lakes in and around the metro are surrounded by houses, roads, driveways, parks, businesses and farms. Around many, natural vegetation has given way to lawns and retaining walls, which offer the lakes little protection from runoff pollution and contribute to erosion and other problems. Oftentimes lakeshore landowners have removed aquatic vegetation to make pathways for swimming and boating, unknowingly loosening sediment from the lake bottom and creating space for invasive aquatic plants to take hold. Little by little these changes eat away at our lakes, until one day everything flips and a clear but plant-filled lake is suddenly opaque and covered in algae.

It was wonderful to visit Spring Lake last weekend, but the truth is that not everyone can have a private lake surrounded by acres of untouched forest. There are roughly 5.3 million people in Minnesota and even with an abundance of nearly 15,000 lakes, it still works out to be at least 356 people per lake. It is important to protect the places in our state and in our greater river basins where the water is still clear, but at the same time, we can and should continue working to improve our local lakes for the enjoyment of all.