Another lap around the lake

Bill Brice is a fixture around Lake Harriet

As neighbors Molly Falk and Leni de Mik began their usual early morning walk along the tree-lined streets of the Linden Hills neighborhood, their four-legged walking companion needed a little coaxing to brave an overcast sky that threatened rain. They made their way toward the walking path that circles Lake Harriet, with Ebba — a two-and-a-half-year-old Labradoodle — plodding along next to them. But when the trio rounded a corner in the path, Ebba’s melancholy was suddenly wiped away at the sight of a tall man leaning over a small black dog.

As Ebba eagerly approached, he warmly greeted her by name and handed her a treat. After she sat and shook his hand, he rewarded her with another treat.

As it is for plenty of other dogs that walk the Lake Harriet trail, meeting Bill Brice along the way is one of the highlights of Ebba’s day.

“Sometimes the dogs just line up. They all look for Bill,” Falk said.

Brice is a well-known figure among dog owners who frequent Lake Harriet. The 82-year-old Armatage resident walks around the lake almost every day, rain or shine, with a pouch tied around his waist filled with dog treats. Wearing a blue cap, green jacket and walking shoes, he could blend in with any of the other walkers who pack the trail early each morning — except that he’s often surrounded by several dogs waiting patiently for a treat.

The roughly three-mile walk takes Brice quite a while to complete, because he makes a stop for every person with a dog. With a warm smile and a friendly greeting, Brice offers a treat and is often rewarded with a wag of the tail or a funny antic that provokes a laugh.

“It’s become so much of my enjoyment,” said Brice, a retired pastor who’s owned several dogs over the years but doesn’t currently have one.

For more than 30 years, Brice jogged around the lake. Six years ago, he quit running and started walking. It was a change that wasn’t all that significant until one day a sheepdog ran up to him and wanted to make friends. Brice began bringing treats along on his walk and soon was making four-legged friends all along the path.

He now has plenty of avid “customers,” as he jokingly refers to them. Elizabeth Grande’s dog, Whitney, starts pulling half a mile away from where the pair usually meet Brice.

“He’s a celebrity. The day isn’t complete without seeing Bill,” said Grande, a resident of the Fulton neighborhood who met Brice after she started walking Whitney around the lake about a year and a half ago.

Kristi Anderson has to work to keep her white standard poodle, Darcy, calm at the sight of Brice.

“It’s the high point of Darcy’s day,” Anderson said, noting that once in awhile the dog doesn’t want to go on a walk until she mentions that “Bill’s going to be there.”

Frances Wise said her dogs, Fina and Juno, recognize Brice even when he’s not walking toward them.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s facing us or the other way,” Wise said, as Brice offered his treats and rubbed one of the dog’s bellies.

Likewise, Brice recognizes many of the dogs he sees each day. He also remembers names, tricks the dogs can perform, behavioral issues they’re working on, and an assortment of other information.

“He’ll tell you who’s had surgery and how they’re doing,” de Mik said.

What Brice won’t tell you is if he has a favorite dog that he sees along the trail. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, he said, noting that all the dogs are special.

In the process of getting to know all of the dogs that walk around Lake Harriet early each morning, Brice has gotten to know their owners as well. Many of them are just as pleased to see Brice as their dogs are, and they chat about what’s happening with the dogs or each other.

“A lot of times you get to be friends with the owner,” Brice said.

Several of the “regulars” Brice meets along the trail organize an annual get-together in his name. Grande attended the most recent one in June, and she said many people brought dog treats as a way to thank Brice.

Although Brice couldn’t pinpoint how many dog treats he goes through in a week — or even a day — he keeps the black pouch at his waist full of them. Some of the dogs know that and begin sniffing at the pouch if it takes Brice a little too long to retrieve a treat.

“The memory that some of them have is incredible,” Brice said.

Several weeks ago, Brice met a man on the trail whose dog stopped and waited for a treat. Although he couldn’t remember the dog or owner, Brice asked if they had met. The man said they had, but it had been almost a year since he and his dog had been out at the lake. Yet the man’s dog still remembered Brice — and the treats he carried.

And Brice is always looking to make new friends. As he approached one walker, he didn’t immediately recognize the dog and mused, “I’m not sure about this one.”

But Maggie, a spaniel owned by Tangletown resident Greg Bartel, didn’t hesitate to stop for a treat being offered. Bartel said he frequently sees Brice on the trail. Although Maggie didn’t recognize him before she received a treat, Bartel said next time will likely be different.

“Now she will,” he said.

That’s something Brice likes to hear.

“More customers,” he said with a smile.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.