Tiny lake, new look

When’s the last time you visited Brownie Lake?

BRYN MAWR — Earlier this spring, a few weeks before 90-plus-degree high temperatures and near-60 miles-per-hour gusts of wind, the northernmost and tiniest link in the Chain of Lakes got two canoe racks and 12 canoes for rental.

A small amenity, to be sure. But take note of the location: Brownie Lake.

While changes aren’t unusual at the Chain of Lakes — Lake Calhoun is set for a newly paved parking lot; Lake Harriet is at the center of concession food discussions — Brownie has stayed largely untouched. That’s because Brownie is different.

Every year, tens of millions of people head for the Chain. They come from Minneapolis’ neighborhoods, the suburbs, the outskirts of the state, outside the state and outside the country. Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet: In the summer, each is constantly bustling with activity.

Brownie Lake: not so much.

Hidden beneath a brush of trees at the edge of a dipped prairie, the lake is one you have to look for to find. Its shoreline is a mere 0.18 miles all around and can be easily walked in less than 15 minutes. It’s notable for what it is — peaceful, rustic, a great outdoor escape from the sun — but more notable for what it isn’t — surrounded by parkways, traffic or people.

The tranquility makes it hard to believe its location, one bordered by a major highway (Interstate 394), a busy office tower (one of Target Corp.’s) and railroad tracks. It’s also what leads some to say it’s Minneapolis’ best-kept secret.

“I’m not sure it should be written about,” joked Park Board Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom.

The board doesn’t have grand goals for the place. A 1997 Chain of Lakes master plan doesn’t propose any alterations. That doesn’t mean that before the canoe racks’ installation nothing has been done over there. It’s just that instead of being driven by aesthetic, revenue or development interests, its changes have been almost entirely environmental in nature.

“Sometimes, the best improvements you never see,” said Alexander Zachary, Lakes District planner.

Just a few years ago, a stormwater drain led runoff from the Target Corp. parking lot directly into the west side of the lake, Zachary said. In 2007, Target fixed that, reworking the pipe and replacing about 50 parking spots with a rain garden.

“All the phosphorus and the salt — most of that’s not going into the lake anymore,” Zachary said.

The same went for a city pipe located on the lake’s east side. It was day-lighting, Lakes District Manager Paul Hokeness said, pushing water above ground and eroding the land around it. That was fixed last summer.

The largest of any project in the past decade, though, was a massive buckthorn removal in 2006. In the early half of this decade, Brownie Lake had a more swamp-like than edge-of-prairie look. Thick patches of buckthorn obscured the actual lake in both visibility and accessibility. The invasive species so much defined the area that when the Park Board and neighborhood volunteers began to chop it up three years ago, the remaining land was nearly unrecognizable.

Combined with the removal of numerous dead trees, “it looked like a bomb went off,” Zachary said. “That sparked a lot of response.”

The efforts left a different Brownie Lake in their wake. In a way, it was a revitalized lake. Followed by a two-year effort to cover its surrounding trail with woodchips and, this spring, with the canoe racks, it’s become a renewed destination.

“It was a sort-of wasteland at the end of Chain of Lakes,” said Rick Carter, a Bryn Mawr resident. “Now, it’s one of the lakes.”

Take that as an invitation.

“If you haven’t been there in a couple of years — it looks dramatically different,” Zachary said.

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or on Twitter at @sctraudes.

Brownie Lake facts
• Length of shoreline: 0.18 miles
• Size: 18 acres
• Maximum depth: 53 feet
• Known former names: Hillside Harbor, Horseshoe Lake
• Origin of name Brownie Lake: Brownie McNair, the daughter of a nearby property owner
• Is the northernmost and smallest of the Chain of Lakes
(Source: Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Hennepin County Library)