Car loaded and canoe strapped firmly to the roof, I paced around the house waiting for my three-year old to wake up from an epic nap. “It figures,” I muttered to my husband, “Most days he won’t nap at all, but the one time I want to go canoeing he’s still asleep at 6pm!” Loudly, I clomped up the stairs to the bedroom and stood staring at Charlie until his eyes finally cracked open. “Oh good – you’re awake!” I exclaimed, as I scooped him up, hustled downstairs and stuffed a banana in his mouth on the way out the door.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to Big Marine Regional Park, unloaded the canoe at the boat launch, and set our sights on shallow, lily-covered water at the south end of the lake. Though the lake was busy with pontoons and motor boats that evening, we had peace and solitude as soon as we crossed the channel into the southern bay. “It’s hard to believe we’re so close to home,” I said to my husband. “It feels like we’re up in the Boundary Waters.” Up ahead, a great blue heron balanced carefully on a log rising out of the water. An egret floated gracefully overhead, and beneath the canoe we could see fish and turtles swimming by.
Big Marine Lake is one of about a dozen lakes in Washington County known for exceptionally clear and clean water. On the Metropolitan Council’s report card, it has earned ‘A’ grades for clear water and low phosphorus levels most years since the early 1990’s. Other area lakes that consistently score high include Sylvan/Halfbreed (Forest Lake/Scandia); Big and Little Carnelian, Square, and East and West Boot (May Twp.); Sunset (Hugo); Pine Tree (Grant); Demontreville, Elmo, Jane and Olson (Lake Elmo); and Edith (Afton).
In addition to good water quality, long stretches of natural shoreline, shallow bays with emergent vegetation, and acres of undeveloped wetland and upland areas surrounding Big Marine ensure good fishing and superior wildlife habitat as well. Big Marine Lake is known as one of the best places in the metro area to catch largemouth bass and there are several rare and endangered species like the Blanding’s turtle living near its shores.
Blessed as the lake may seem, it has weathered its share of challenges over the years. Before the Carnelian-Marine Watershed District installed a three-mile gravity pipe in the 1980’s to outlet water from Big Marine, Big Carnelian, and Little Carnelian Lakes, flood waters would frequently swamp houses and cabins in the area and bury individual septic systems underwater. Historic records document that the surface area of Big Marine Lake has been as large as 2,300 acres in 1847, and as small as 890 acres in 1938 – a difference in lake-level elevation of about 11 feet. Homes built during dry decades flooded when lake levels rose and the Watershed District decided to build a new, lower outlet to protect personal property and lake water quality. In 2007, the Carnelian-Marine Watershed District merged with the Marine Watershed Management Organization to form the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District, which continues to work actively today to protect and improve Big Marine Lake and other local water resources.
In recent years, the two biggest challenges facing Big Marine have been development of shoreline property and the introduction of invasive species. In 1998, the Watershed District conducted an aerial analysis of lakeshore areas and began several new programs to protect the lake from degradation. The District worked with landowners to stabilize shoreline areas with native plantings, increased permitting efforts including review and comment on shoreline setback variance requests, educated landowners about the damaging impacts suburban style lawns can have on lakes, and investigated areas where wetlands and lakebed had been filled. They also began working with the Big Marine Lake Association to manage invasive purple loosestrife and Eurasian water milfoil, efforts which continue today.
As my husband, son and I paddled leisurely around Big Marine Lake, thoughts of natural and manmade outlets and aquatic invasive species were far from our minds. The sun was just beginning to set as we returned to the boat launch and we paused to watch a loon glide silently across the water. One by one, other boaters began returning to shore as well, unloading fishing poles, coolers and suntans. We smiled at each other, glad to have this treasure so close to home.
To learn more about the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District and grants available for lake and river friendly landscaping projects, go to www.cmscwd.org.