How to Name Over 1000 Different Lakes: Part 2

Last year, we published an article about Boundary Waters lake names, their inspirations, their backgrounds, and which themes and names are common or often repeated. Among 1100 different lakes in the BWCAW alone, there are quite a variety of names! In this sequel article, we are visiting the BWCAW, Quetico, and Voyageurs National Park to celebrate the wonderful assortment of lake chains to be found there. For the sake of this article, we are adopting the definition of a lake chain not as the hydrological or geological definitions but as an assortment of water bodies in close proximity to eachother with a shared naming theme. In many historical cases, this involves the time and place they were encountered. Perhaps some surveyor, trapper, voyageur, or native person paddled up a creek and named the lakes they travelled through based on what was on their mind that day. Some tell the stories of events or adventures. Others tell of the landscape or of the lake themselves. For this article, we assembled a list of almost every chain of lakes to be found in Canoe Country. Here are some of the highlights.

Relative Size:

One of the more common lake naming themes is relative size. Many a time in canoe country, a lake can be found with the moniker “little” leading the name indicating a likeness and scale to a larger water body. This is far and away the most common of the chain themes. Some classic examples are Jean/Little Jean, Shoepack/Little Shoepack, Johnson/Little Johnson, Beartrack/Little Beartrack, Shell/Little Shell, Crab/Little Crab, Gabbro/Little Garbgro, Roland/Middle Roland/Little Roland, Newt/Little Newt, Rush/Little Rush, or John/Little John. Little Saganaga is not included in this list since it is not in close proximity to its namesake. Other than the littles, there is the title “big” such as Big Rice/Rice. Big Rice is also part of the “big” chain of lakes starting with the word “big” including Big Rice/Big Moose/Big Lake. There’s lakes compared in size to each other such as Slim/Fat. Others infer size through name abbreviation such as Kekekabic Lake/Kek Lake/Kek Ponds. It is also interesting to note that sometimes “little” is not used to infer size but rather a lack of something. Rarely is this used in chain form (more often in individual lakes) but it is used in Little Copper/Copper where Little Copper lake is actually the larger water body simply with fewer Copper deposits.


Many chains of lakes are named based on direction. These often include the cardinal directions such North/South Lakes (multiple options), North/South Hegman, Farm/South Farm, North/South Wilder, Java/North Java, Dawkins/East Dawkins, South/East/West Otto, North/South Temperance, East/West Pike, or North/South Fowl. In one semi-confusing instance, the American and Canadian naming seem to come at odds as the North Bay of Basswood sits south of South Lake (backwards of what seems correct.) Thankfully, East Lake does sit to the east! Sometimes, instead of cardinal directions, chains of lakes are named in relation to their directions of each other such as Upper/Lower Pauness, Upper/Middle/Lower Arrow, Upper/Middle/Lower Cone, or George/Lower George. Another fun anomaly in this category is Bower Trout, long ago miswritten as such instead of the intended “Lower Trout.”


Many chains of lakes are dedicated to particular people. It’s hard without knowing ALL of the stories which lakes with people’s names are connected and which simply were named for someone somewhere by coincidence. Some lakes though have specific people’s names that can’t help but be connected such as the Howard Lakes, the “Names of the Old Country” chain (Ole/Maxine/Geraldine), Annie/Jenny/Eddy, the Paulson Chain (Paulson/Jimmy), the Lady Chain (Beth/Ella/Grace/June/Magie/Phoebe/Hazel/Polly), Morgan/Lux/Carl/Jake, Baker/Peterson/Kelly/Jack, Marie/Helen, and the Kerfoot Lakes, among others. There’s “body part” chains of lakes such as Finger/Thumb, Toe/Lady Boot/Arch, and Hand/Belly. There’s the “scandinavian chain” with Swede Lake and Dane Lake while the “sharing chain” includes My Lake and Your Lake. The “calling chain” has Trader, Explorer, and Missionary while a chain near Cherokee has Guard and Ranger. There are two sibling chains next to eachother with Siamese Lakes and Triplet Lakes. And perhaps the most famous people chain of all is the “man chain” with This Man Lake, That Man Lake, Other Man Lake, and No Man Lake.


Another common theme for naming chains of lakes in canoe country is animals. There are chains for animals found in the forests and lakes here including the furbearer chain (Quetico) with Beaver/Fisher/Mink/Martin Lakes and the furbearer chain (BWCAW) Beaver/Fisher Lakes. There’s Owl Lake and Hooter Lake, Kingfisher and Ogishkemuncie (Ojibwe for Kingfisher), and Doe/Fawn. There’s the “pest chain” of Tick Lake and Noseeum Lake, and there’s two different livestock chains with Ramshead/Lamb and Bull/Cow/Calf. The “waterfowl chain” in the central BW has Rail Lake, Coot Lake, Shoveller Lake, Redstart Lake, and Blue Wing Lake. And finally, the bird-named lakes surrounding Eagle Mountain which include Virio, Goose, Crow, Eagle, and Shrike.


There are chains of lakes named for plants, though perhaps not as many as animals. In the Quetico, three “pine” lakes can be found in close proximity including Bent Pine, Little Pine, and Red Pine lakes. And, of course, the most famous example is the “veggie chain” with a produce aisle full of lake names including Onion, Cucumber, Peanut, Turnip, Squash, Celery, Potato, Carrot, South Bean, Bean, Parsnip, Melon, Kraut, Strawberry, Pea, and Tomato.


Many chains of lakes are dedicated to collections of objects. Some of these were pieces of everyday life like Table/Bench, Canoe/Paddle, East Pipe/Pipe/West Pipe/Tobacco, or Cam/Gasket/Headlight. There’s the “hiking chain” with Trail Lake and March Lake. There’s also a “painters chain” with Warpaint Lake, Ruby Lake, and Emerald Lake. Some chains are named for their shape such as Pan and Panhandle Lakes. And some seem to be made as an “add-on” to previously named lakes such as the chain of lakes south of Knife Lake with names like Spoon Lake, Dipper Lake, and Kettle Lake.

Letters and Numbers

There are chains of lakes where each name starts with the same letter of the alphabet. There’s two strings of “B” lakes in the Quetico with Brown, Bee, and Badwater in the west and Bisk, Beg, and Bud in the east. There’s the “S” chain in the southern Quetico with Silence, Sultry, Summer, and Shade. There’s also a two “S” chains on the BWCAW side from Skull, Spree, Splash, Sucker, and Spigot near Moose Lake and Sitka, Snub, Sniff, and Snip near Cherokee. There’s the “T” chain with some of the steeper portages in canoe country including Takumich, Trigg, Trillium, and Tesaker. And in the central BWCAW there’s the “3-letter chain”: Hoe, Fee, Vee, Roe, and Cap with a misfit named Ledge in the middle. There are numbers too of course with One, Two, Three, and Four and Neewin, Niswi, Neesh, Bezhik (the Ojibwe numbers.)

Story to Tell

There are chains of lakes that seem as if they are begging to tell a story. Tent, No Sleep, and Violation seem one of these. Sunhigh, Sunlow, Gobetween, and Sundown are definitely another. Bearpelt and West Cub seem to tell the story of an orphaned bear cub. And the “crime chain” seem to have quite the story of their own with Hustler, Posse, Lucky Finn, and Brigand.

The Others

The remaining chains of lakes do not so easily fit into categories, but nevertheless demonstrate a naming trend between them. There’s Mud/Muskeg, Found/Newfound, Hop/Jump, Kivaniva/Kivandiba, Famine/Poverty, Fool/Jester, and Faith/Trust to name a few. There’s the “fire chain” with Smoke, Flame, and Burnt Lakes. The “greek chain” has Alpha, Beta, and Omega lakes. The “look forward chain” with Hope, South Hope, and Promise sits just below the opposing chain of Lethe and Screamer. There’s the “deceivers chain” with Serpent and Loki. And finally, in a remote stretch of the central BWCAW, we have a unique chain of lakes that could all be interpreted as verbs. Interestingly, most of the verbs chosen mean to irritate, annoy, or otherwise burden or disrupt. Many of the words could also be interpreted differently to infer a trip with horse packing. Do they alll fit together? You decide! Some of the lakes in the vicinity include Saddle, Tool, Edge, Lean, Trail, Snort, Grunt, Stew, Nibble, Steam, Dent, Needle, Pat, Bug, Chaser, and Squirm.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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