Minnesotans had 11,842 lakes to name. A few of those names were bound to be terrible.
Ask anyone who lives on the shores of Mud Lake. You won’t have to look far.
“There are seven Mud Lakes just in our township,” said Karen Wilson of Crosby.
The Mud Lake that sits just outside Wilson’s door is a lovely little spring-fed pool, too shallow for good fishing, but deep enough to attract osprey and the occasional frustrated angler from nearby Rabbit Lake.
Wilson and her neighbors spent the better part of a year trying to reduce the number of Mud Lakes in Crow Wing County by one. The process of renaming a lake is “long and arduous,” Wilson found as she followed a trail of paperwork and public hearings that stretched all the way to Washington, D.C.
This spring, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names agreed with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which agreed with the County Board, which agreed with the nearby city of Cuyuna: Mud Lake will be renamed Lake Cuyuna.
Lake Cuyuna draws its name from the nearby town, which draws its name from the nearby Iron Range, which draws its name from 19th-century homesteader Cuyler Adams, who discovered ore in those hills and split the naming rights between himself and his beloved St. Bernard, Una.
At any given moment, someone, somewhere in Minnesota, is trying to rename a lake, island or some other geographical feature.
The biggest battle right now centers on Minneapolis, where residents have argued for years that an antebellum slaveholder and segregationist might not the best namesake for a public landmark like Lake Calhoun. It takes 15 signatures on a petition to kick-start the lake renaming process. One online petition to rename Calhoun has almost 5,000 names on it.
The gatekeeper for all those name changes is state climatologist Pete Boulay.
“Mud Lake gets no love,” Boulay said in mock sympathy for the state’s most common lake name — and most common renaming target. In Hennepin County, one Mud Lake was renamed Lake Camelot; another was renamed Golden Pond. “Now, we’ve had enough Golden Ponds. I don’t think I’d approve any more of those.”
There are a few hard and fast rules for renaming a lake in Minnesota. No naming them after things still living. Any new name should have some close association with the area — which is why the state nixed the idea of renaming part of the Boundary Waters “Muppet Lake,” but signed off on “Lake Camelot,” since it took its name from a nearby neighborhood.
When a lake’s name is Mud, sometimes real estate interests get involved to push for a name that’s a bit more marketable, Boulay said.
“It doesn’t always work,” he noted. When a cabin owner in Becker County tried to change the name of Bullhead Lake to the more upscale, less catfishy, Bluebird Lake a few years ago, “the residents said no. That public hearing ended with Bullhead Lake staying in place.”
Sometimes a lake name is so terrible, it has to go. Until the 1970s, there were two lakes in Minnesota with the n-word in their names. It took five years to find less insulting names for all the Squaw lakes, creeks and islands in the state, replacing them with names like Nightengale, Wahbegon, Equay, Little Woman and Scout Camp Pond. Jap Lake in Cook County is now Lake Paulson, even though the original name was an acronym, not a slur — named after longtime residents James and Ann Paulson.
The DNR tracks the new names on its Public Waters Name Change site. Whang Lake in Crow Wing County is now Vang Lake. Beseau Lake in Becker County is now Bijou Lake. Tom Lake in Hennepin County switched to Lake Irene.
Changing a lake’s name means changing every map, globe, satellite image or Google search, and that means the government is going to get involved. Repeatedly.
Once local governments and the DNR have approved a new name, the proposal moves to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Only once in recent years can Boulay recall the board rejecting a name change — a plan to rename Kiehne Lake in Douglas County “Private Lake.” The feds thought the new name would be too confusing.