The Boundary Waters have seemingly endless lakes bearing names from Ojibwe, French, English, or English mistranslations, misspellings, or honest translations of the Ojibwe. Many have fascinating backstories of how they came by their names. Some lakes have seemingly had the same name as long as time can remember while others have switched multiple times. This article will not, however, be covering the interesting backstories or the histories behind the names but instead the fascinating variety of names we can find in this one marvelous wilderness area.
Many BWCA lakes have names inspired by local plants such as Acorn, Basswood, Briar, Brush, Bullrush, Cherry, Clove, Elm, Rice, Fern, Frond, Gijikiki (Cedar Swamp), Grassy, Hazel, Iris, Juniper, Larch, Lily, Manomin (Wild Rice), Moss, Orchid, Pine, Poplar, Rice, Rose, Rush, Seed, Sprig, Trillium, and Wood. These point to characteristics of the lakes themselves and the ecosystem which surrounds them.
Many are name for the animals which call the wild shores and waters home: Andek (Crow), Abinodji (fish from the sunfish family), Bald Eagle, Bat, Bear, Beaver, Bingshick (misspelling of Pingoshag or Sand Fly), Blue Wing, Bruin, Buck, Bug, Bullfrog, Caribou (historically present), Crow, Cuckoo, Deer, Dogfish, Duck, Eagle, Elk, Fantail, Fawn, Ferret, Finch, Fish, Fisher, Flicker, Fool Hen, Fox, Frog, Fur, Goose, Gogebic (where trout rising to the surface make rings in the water.), Grub, Gull, Jay, Kawishiwi (the river full of Beaver houses), Kekekabic (Hawk-Cliff), Kingfisher, Loon, Lynx, Maingan (ma’iingan wolf) Makwa (Black Bear), Marabouf (Marsh Buffalo approximately Moose), Moose, Mosquito, Moth, Muskrat, Nabek (supposed to be Naabek, Male Bear), Night Hawk, No-See-Um, Ogishkemuncie (Kingfisher), Oriole, Otter, Owl, Partridge, Pelt, Pickerel, Pup, Ptarmigan (very rarely found in Minnesota), Rabbit, Raven, Redfin, Redpoll, Robin, Sawbill, Sea Gull, Shrike, Sora, Spider, Sucker, Swallow, Swan, Tern, Three Eagle, Tick, Trout, Turkey (very rarely seen in the north part of the state), Turtle, Warbler, Weasel, Whiskey Jack, Wolf Pack, Wolverine (historically present), and Wren.
There are also plenty of lakes named for animals who have never been to the BWCA (or were brought by people) but happen to have lakes named for them either because of a lake’s shape or a surveyor’s sense of humor: Auk (large extinct bird), Bronco, Bull, Calf, Carp (though some argument could be made that the old word for Carp actually meant Trout), Clam, Coon (not native to St Louis, Lake, or Cook counties), Cow, Crab, Crocodile, Horse, Horsefish, Jackal, Jackfish, Lamb, Lizard, Mule, Nightingale, Octopus, Oyster, Pointer, Puffer, Ram, Ramshead, Rat, Seahorse, Seal, and Whale.
Some are named for geologic features or precious gemstones and minerals people hoped to find: Boulder, Cave (never have found a cave there), Cleft, Cliff, Copper, Crag, Deposit, Diamond, Flint, Gabbro, Granite, Hilly, Iron, Little Copper (actually larger than Copper, but has less of said metal), Magnetic, Marble, Misquah (Red, named for the red granite), Mountain, Phosphor, Quartz, Red Rock, and Rock.
Some are named for characteristics of the lake themselves: : Azure, Bog, Clear, Clearwater, Dark, Emerald, Green, Insula, Kawasachong (foam or mist), Mirror, Mist, Mud, Mudhole, Muskeg, One Island, Reflection, River, Rocky,Rock Island Saganaga (lake of many islands), Sandpit, and Swamp.
Some lakes are named for the tools that native peoples, voyageurs, trappers, miners, loggers, or settlers might use in their daily existence: Bag, Beam, Bear Trap, Bowstring, Bulb, Bunggee, Cam, Cap, Cargo, Clevise, Club, Cup, Fan, Fetters, Fishhook, Flint, Gasket, Grubstake, Gunstock, Handle, Hatchet, Hoe, Hook, Horn, Jig, Knife, Lantern, Magnet, Pan, Pipe, Pitcher, Rug, Spigot, Tool, Trap, Warclub, and Warpaint.
Some lakes are named for food (either that which people had or perhaps wished they had): Bannick, Bologna, Brunch, Drumstick, Flap, Flapper, Flour, Herb, Jam, Java, Jerky, Meat, Nibble, Pear, Pekan, Pemmican, Pie, Porridge, and Steak.
Many, many lakes are named for people. Some of these people’s stories are carried on while others have been lost to history: Adams, Adolf, Agnes, Alice, Allen, Amber, Annie, Beatty, Bedford, Beth, Bonnie, Brandt, Burt, Chad, Chase, Chip, Chuck, Clark, Cortes, Cummings, Daniels, Davis, Dawkins, Diana, Duncan, Dunn, Dutton, Eddy, Edith, Ella, Ella Hall, Ellquist, Ester, Eugene, Everett, Fraser, Frederick, Gadwall, Gaskin, George, Geraldine, Gerund, Gibson, Gillis, Glenmore, Gordon, Grandpa, Hag, Hanson, Hopkins, Howard, Isabella, Jack, Jacob, Jenny, Jimmy, John, John Ek, Jonathan, Jordan, Judd, Karl, Kelly, Kelsey, Kerfoot, Kroft, Larry, Larsen, Leah, Lizz, Loki, Lucky Finn, Malberg, Margaret, Marie, Marshall, Mauser, Mavis, Maxine, Mcfarland, Meeds, Merrit, Missionary, Morgan, Morris, Mueller, Niki, Ole, Ott, Otto, Paco, Parent, Paulson, Perent, Peter, Peterson, Pierz, Pietro, Princess, Ranger, Ruby, Squire, Stuart, Susana, Tarry, Tin Can Mike, Trader, Tucker, Vee, Venus, Vernon, Wally, Wench, and Winchell.
Some lake names feel like plain laziness in the naming: Lakes 1, 2, 3, 4 come to mind. There is also a lesser known Ojibwe numbers chain which few people had likely heard of until last year’s Bezhik fire: Bezhik, Neesh, Niswi, Neewin (1,2,3, and 4.) The Greek alphabet feels of a similar vein: Alpha, Beta, Omega. And a few seem just a little too on the nose like Lac Lake (Lake Lake.)
Along the way, a few lakes have picked up the name of their location: North, South, Cook County, Intersection, Range Line, Section Line, Section Sixteen, Section Twenty-Nine, and Thirty-Three.
Some lake names are incredibly pleasant and one can imagine a weary traveler finally making camp after a long, hard travel day and giving a favorable name to the lake they rested beside. The lake names themselves cast a beautiful scene in the mind. Some of my favorites are Blissful, Campfire, Contentment, Harmony, Lake of the Clouds, Nawakwa (in the midst of the forest), Poet, Rapture, Rock of Ages, Vista, and Wonder.
Other lake names are less pleasant and one can nearly imagine the type of day some surveyor or trapper was having when they decided to bestow some lake with such a name. Some stand alone in their naming: Cavity, Disappointment, Mudhole, and Muskeg. Others come in pairs or in a full chain of lakes even which seem to infer some misadventure of the past. Famine and Poverty are together in the middle of nowhere (the starting place of the Famine Lake fire.) Tick and No-See-Um also don’t sugarcoat the experience of visiting. Just southwest of Cherokee is one of the most bizarre chains of lake names. I can’t even imagine what happened. From east to west: Tent Lake (straightforward enough) but it progresses onto No Sleep Lake. From there, Violation Lake, Sneaker Lake, and Choker Lake. They culminate eventually in One Toe Lake and Soaked Lake. What was going on that day? By Long Island Lake sits Lucky Pay Lake, Fool Lake, Jester Lake, and Swollen Ankle Lake which also speak towards a story. Another of my favorite successions of lake names lies along a former route out the bottom of Fishdance. A long portage used to lead south to a small pond of a lake named Screamer. After a brief respite of likely only minutes of paddling, one would portage again to Maniwaki which to me always sounded like “man is walking” which after screaming through a couple tough portages is exactly what a person would be doing. Eventually though, one works north from there and finds hope again at Hope Lake. And another chain near Sawbill seems to tell of the time it took to cover the territory: Sunhigh and Sunlow, and (five miles to the west) Gobetween and Sundown.
Some lake names are just plain fun to say: Amimi, Auchagah, Bakekana, Baldpate, Ballyhoo, Gabimichigami, Ge-be-on-equat, Hubbub, Hummitch, Kawasachong, Kivandeba, Kinvandiva, Mugwump, Nahimana, Ogishkemuncie, Quagda, Shohola, Wabang, and Waksapiwi.
And there are plenty of names which leave a person scratching their heads at the backstory involved: Bootleg, Canuck, Cat Eyes, Caveman, Cuckoo, Glossy Squat, Hairy, Humpback, Ima (the joke is Ima = I AM A Lake), Missing Link, Neglige, Party, Skindance, Tidbit, Tin Can Mike (good story, but funny to see on a map), Weird, Wooden Leg, Yodeler, and the ever possessive My Lake/Your Lake.
Interestingly, out of the 1100 or so named Boundary Waters lakes, there are only 24 names (besides “unnamed) which are repeated : Boot, Caribou, Clam, Clearwater, Contest, Crab, Crooked, Drag, Duck, Dugout, Fungus, Green, Gull (there are three of these in or partially in the BWCA plus an additional Sea Gull), Horseshoe, John, Mug, Muskeg, North, Pine, Rocky, Slim, South, Thumb, and Toe.