In the shadow of Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island, Peter Kinn of Excelsior and his party of seven floated in the shallow cove Friday evening, holding their beers above the water.

They had the quintessential Minnesota summer view: a shimmering lake with water lapping at the shoreline and sunshine beating down from a bright blue sky smudged with clouds. For years, they’ve flocked to Cruiser’s Cove not just for the scenery, but for the people-watching and to be part of the floating parties of up to a couple of hundred boats jammed together like vehicles tailgating at a football game.

And while the illegal activities of the cove’s infamous past have died down some, it remains a weekend hot spot, Kinn said. “Lake Minnetonka is no doubt special,” he said. “It’s a big party scene.”

Every weekend, people congregate in a haven of heavy drinking and booming music as boats hook up — as do some of their occupants — in the bay.

But since boaters blocked emergency personnel from getting to a man who died on Cruiser’s Cove in 2003, Minnesota’s most heavily used lake has tried to shake its reputation as an uncontrolled party place, balancing keeping the public safe with maintaining the coveted carefree boating tradition that Minnesotans cherish.

“It’s a spring break finale,” said Denys Cerny of Chanhassen as she sipped a glass of white wine on a boat in the cove. “It’s fun. I call it controlled chaos.”

Added Bob Beutler of Minnetonka Beach: “I think the reputation is worse than reality.”

Over the past decade, patrols have been ramped up, buoy lanes have been installed, and arrests and citations have declined. Although the weekend party scene still is strong, “the severity of the problem isn’t as bad,” said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Lt. Adam Block, who patrols the lake and others in the metro.

In eight years on the job, he said, the parties have simmered down from those with smoke machines and disco balls. “I don’t think it’s thought of as the wild west and that it’s a free-for-all,” he said.

While some residents say the congested cove is an accepted part of life on the lake, other residents of the lake’s 14 cities are increasingly frustrated with it, especially after incidents like last month’s rash of E. coli infections from water near Big Island on the July 4th weekend — a reminder of the latrine-lacking partyers.

“Sometimes, it’s like having a rock concert in your back yard,” said Cheryl Uran, one of about 50 people with a seasonal cabin on Big Island. “We’ve kind of resigned to it.”

Once remote, now a suburb

Lake Minnetonka has long been a destination.

In the early 1900s, city dwellers flocked to the grand hotels lining the lake and a short-lived amusement park on Big Island. Over the years, the hotels and amusement parks closed. Big Island became a veterans campground. And homes sprouted up along the 125-mile shoreline.

Now, the 14,000-acre lake attracts crowds of anglers and jet skiers, as well as pontoon boats and cruises for fishing, swimming or just soaking up the sun and gawking at shoreline mansions. A third of Big Island, which still has some seasonal cabins, became a tranquil, densely wooded nature park in 2006.

“Lake Minnetonka used to be a remote site, and now it is a suburb,” said Gabriel Jabbour, 64, a longtime resident and marina owner.

Round the bend of the island and enter northern Cruiser’s Cove, where white and orange buoys bob in the bay, restricting anchoring and forming lanes like an airport runway. The lanes were first installed in 2000, a controversial move that the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District opted for instead of restricting rafting — the tying-together of dozens of boats so partyers can easily hop between them. Since then, more buoys have been added and lanes modified after an intoxicated 31-year-old man fell in the water and died in 2003, an incident in which some boaters refused to move for medics.

“It became unmanageable,” Jabbour said. “You couldn’t get a toothpick through the boats.”

Jabbour, a former Orono mayor, might as well be the unofficial mayor of Big Island. He works to preserve and clean the island, to undo shoreline erosion damage from the wake of large boats. From his marina across the bay, he said the noise isn’t a major problem, just “an annoyance” that he likens to Minneapolis’ Warehouse District erupting with crowds on weekend nights.

Loud and plowed

For some Big Island cabin residents, however, the club-like cove has worn their patience.

Uran and her husband, John, avoid going to their cabin on weekends because the bass thumping about 500 feet away rattles their windows and makes sitting in their back yard unbearable, she said. The Excelsior couple told the Orono City Council in 2008 that they were trying to sell the cabin but that the noisy cove scared off prospective buyers.

“It’s unbelievable,” John Uran said. “The noise, the people taking a leak over the side … every year it just gets worse. You wouldn’t believe what goes on.”

His daughter, Jody Laughlin, 54, of Excelsior, also has a cabin on the island and says that after officers respond to noise complaints, noise just ramps back up. The lines of buoys, she argues, form a “welcome mat” for rowdy partyers.

“Everyone knows that’s a party zone,” she said. “You come out here to put your feet up … it’s heaven. And then all of a sudden, bam, bam, bam. [The bass music and noise] doesn’t stop. … It wears on you.”

Accepted way of life

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said his department has increased enforcement and training over the years, patrolling the county’s waters aggressively with 35 volunteer deputies and 10 licensed personnel. The DNR also has two boats on the lake.

“It’s like policing a little city,” Stanek said. “There’s nonstop people — everyone wants to enjoy the water.”

The county started patrolling the lake in 1955 after 18 people died there, part of a grim trend of double-digit water-related deaths. Since then, yearly drownings have remained in the single digits and boating accidents have declined.

In 1988, 190 boating accidents were reported. By 2002, that was down to 39 and last year, it was eight. Over the past five years, accidents, BWIs and boating citations have all remained relatively stable, according to the county.

And while boats have gotten bigger, the number of boats has dropped. At the DNR’s last count in 2009, the average number of boats on Lake Minnetonka on weekends fell to fewer than 1,000, down from about 1,400 in 1986.

Noise remains an issue, but “it’s part of lake living,” said Dick Osgood, executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Association. “It’s improved over 10 years ago.”

On the other side of Big Island, Bonnie Menigo of Pine City is annoyed by the trash partyers leave — she’s spent years snorkeling the cove to collect garbage bags full of beer cans, shoes, even underwear — but she prefers that parties stay concentrated there instead of across the lake. If not for Cruiser’s Cove, the partyers would be on the island or elsewhere on the lake, she said.

“People have to have a place to party,” said Menigo, whose family has had a cabin on Big Island since 1900. And “it’s only at night it turns into a party place.”

Added Block, the DNR officer, “Everyone who visits the lake knows what’s happening out there.”

“It’s going to be a problem,” he said, “that will be around forever.”