Carli-Rae Manjorin can’t quite believe that she’s using a lake as a parking lot.
After moving to northern Minnesota from North Carolina, the freshman at Bemidji State University wouldn’t have dreamed of driving on a frozen lake, much less entrusting its layer of ice to hold her Nissan Xterra while she goes to class.
“I thought it was, like, crazy,” she said. “Just completely ridiculous.”
But this winter, she learned to embrace what has long been a tradition at the school: free winter parking right on top of Lake Bemidji.
When the lake freezes each year, dozens of school commuters drive through Diamond Point Park and onto the approximately 6,500-acre lake’s southwestern shore, making paths atop its thick and often snow-covered ice. They form loose rows in a makeshift parking lot — no spray-painted lines required.
“It’s kind of a point of pride I think,” said political science senior Sean Murphy, who parks his Dodge Ram pickup there. “We call it the largest free parking space of any college campus.”
Most park close together, Murphy said, estimating that during the busiest times, about 100 vehicles might be lined up in rows on the lake.
They head there “especially during late January, early February when the weather is the coldest. People feel a lot more confident at that time of year parking on the ice, too,” Murphy said. “It’s quite a sight to see.”
Parking availability isn’t a problem on campus, officials there say. Bemidji State has two large lots at the north and south ends of campus that typically aren’t full. A few other lots are sprinkled throughout campus.
But those lots require walking a ways to some classroom buildings, and they cost money — the charge for parking starts at $120 an academic year for campus residents and $172 for commuters.
Some commuters also park in neighborhoods near the west side of campus. But on especially cold days, or on days when a student is running late, it’s hard to beat the convenience of pulling up to wide open spaces on the lake near their classroom building.
Murphy sometimes drives there from his place just off campus. Manjorin drives there from her residence on campus.
For those coming into town from the south, the lake offers a shortcut to school, too. Cars can access the lake through a boat launch near the iconic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and drive on a cleared path toward campus, avoiding a few stoplights and stop signs, Murphy said.
The school doesn’t advertise the lake parking, though its alumni association has included it in some of the materials it sends out.
“It’s one of those weird, quirky North Woods things,” said Andy Bartlett, the school’s associate director of communications and marketing. “It’s just one of those goofy traditions that has sprung up completely as a result of our location.”
Just how long the lake parking lasts is up to Mother Nature.
Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said his office doesn’t typically need to cut off parking out there; many students at Bemidji State grew up around frozen lakes and are good at deciphering when it’s time to stop driving on them, he said. Other students follow their lead.
“The ice will start to turn gray and get soft on the shoreline so people will stop driving on the ice when they see that,” Hodapp said.
Once in a while, he said, a driver will test his or her luck and get stuck on the edge. Those drivers are responsible for retrieving their own vehicles.
“We don’t always hear about it because they’re scrambling to get their car out of the water as quickly as they can,” Hodapp said. “They’ll have a friend pull them out or something.”
In general, the lake parking is “kind of a handy thing for the students and it’s not a problem,” he added.
Manjorin said she plans to stop parking on the ice soon, not taking any chances. In the meantime, she’s been sharing photos of her parked SUV atop the vast open lake.
“It’s pretty nice,” Manjorin added. “It’s free.”