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Assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay

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My Minnesota: Meet the man in charge of Minnesota's lake names

  • September 7, 2013 - 7:37 PM

Folks living on the North Shore near Hovland, Minn., wanted to name a creek in the area after longtime sawmill operator Otis Anderson. After all, Otis donated the wood to build the local firehouse and a church, and the creek was nameless.

So they took their case to the man who Minnesotans must turn to if they want to name or rename a lake, creek, island, point or other geographical feature. Since 2007, assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay has been the state’s “geographic name guy,” overseeing an obscure process that includes petitions with neighbors’ signatures, county board meetings, DNR commissioner approvals and, ultimately, the blessings of a federal geographic naming authority.

In Otis Anderson’s case, Boulay told the folks from Hovland Township what he tells anyone who wants to name a lake or creek after someone: Come back five years after he dies.

Boulay says the five-year cooling-off period, similar to the rules to get into baseball’s Hall of Fame, traces back to the brouhaha that erupted when Cape Canaveral was renamed Cape Kennedy and then switched back after JFK’s assassination.

So five years after Anderson died on Sept. 7, 2004, at age 86, Boulay helped navigate the process that led to what’s now known as Otis Creek. It’s one of about 20 geographic christenings he’s overseen since adding the quirky job to his workload at the two-person state climatology office.

Boulay says there are hundreds of unnamed lakes amid the state’s inventory of 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or greater with a windswept shore. (Anything smaller, or so shallow that it contains only still water, is technically a pond.)

“Even Ramsey County, as populated as it is, has a lot of unnamed lakes,” he said.

Sometimes, the process gets controversial. In 1995, a state law required renaming 19 Squaw lakes, bays and creeks to something less offensive. That prompted some folks in Lake County to unsuccessfully push for renaming them “Politically Correct Creek and Bay.”

Other rechristenings were less charged. In 1999 and ’07, two Mud Lakes — the state’s most popular lake name — became Golden Ponds.

“It just sounds more pleasing than Mud Lake,” he said.

Not all attempts succeed. When Jim Henson died, someone lobbied for a Muppet Lake in the Boundary Waters. That didn’t fly.

Among Boulay’s favorite lake names: Ice Cracking Lake in Becker County and Jack the Horse Lake in Itasca County, named after a lumberjack who could haul as much lumber as a horse.

Some of his research can boggle the mind. Ponder this hall of mirrors: “Cotton Lake in Becker County has unnamed lakes on an unnamed island with additional unnamed lakes.”

Boulay lives in Maplewood with his wife, Nancy, and sons Charlie, 13, and Ben, 10, a mile from his childhood home. He wrote a book called the “Lost City of Gladstone,” which Maplewood was named until 1958 when the township incorporated.

He lives near Wakefield Lake, named after Sarah Wakefield, a pioneer hostage who supported the Dakota Indians in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. “There are several lakes named after women’s first names in Minnesota,” Boulay said. “But ask your readers if they can think of any other ones named after a woman’s last name.” (Send responses to curt.brown@startribune.com.)

CURT BROWN

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