Small lakes deliver a different Minnesota lake experience

The only sound in the chill morning air was the gentle whir of the drone’s propellers.

Patrick McNeil, my neighbor and certified drone pilot, started to back up from the orange launch pad as he directed the drone to lift itself into the sky, which was colored with pinks and orange as the sun started to peak out over the horizon. The colors were reflected on the quiet stillness of Horseleg Lake, a small lake located adjacent to the Irving and John Anderson County Park in Isanti County.

I had been to the area a few weeks before in the company of staff from the Isanti Soil and Water Conservation District. Tiffany Determan, district manager, and Lydia Godfrey, outreach coordinator, wanted to show me and fellow educator Angie Hong the beauty of the natural environment lakes in Oxford Township, which is included in the small sliver of the Lower St. Croix watershed in the county (most of the county’s rivers drain to the Rum River, a tributary of the Mississippi River). We spent the morning driving around seven lakes that the Isanti SWCD regularly monitors, with Tiffany proudly reciting metric after metric reflecting consistent lake health, intact ecosystems, and thriving wildlife.

And truly, it was magical – the greenery, the stillness around the lakes, the minimally disturbed shorelines, the frequent wildlife sightings – I had a hard time believing we were less than a half hour drive from the metro (much less about 10 minutes from Interstate 35). The lakes are all small (less than 150 acres) and shallow (less than 15 feet deep) – fitting the size range of the Minnesota DNR’s natural environment lake classification.

Horseleg Lake. Photo Credit: Isanti SWCD

Natural environment lakes offer a different experience than what one might picture as the ‘classic’ Minnesota lake adventure. Due to their small, shallow nature, you won’t find large swimming beaches, motorboats, or extensive fishing opportunities. Natural environment lakes are largely undeveloped, with few tourism opportunities. The extent of recreational activities on these lakes are generally canoeing, kayaking, birdwatching, and waterfowl hunting for local landowners. Well, and don’t forget appreciating the views, privacy, and local native flora and fauna.

Those aren’t weeds! The intricate web of submerged vegetation play a huge role in helping keep natural environment lakes healthy. Photo Credit: Patrick McNeil

Still, officials in Isanti County and Oxford Township know that development around these lakes is inevitable – in the last year alone, several residential plots were sold around Upper Birch Lake. That means officials want to do what they can to be proactive with providing potential landowners with information about what they can do to help be stewards of their lakeshore property to and keep the lakes healthy.

“Because they are small and shallow, there’s that much more concern about disrupting the health of these natural environment lakes because they have little ability to absorb disturbance,’ says Tiffany. “We want to do whatever we can to help future landowners appreciate these lakes for what they are and what they currently offer versus trying to turn their shoreline into what you would hope to find on larger lakes.”

One part of that outreach involves showing people how beautiful and unique natural environment lakes can be…which is how I ended up in Oxford Township on a Saturday morning at 7 am to collect drone footage with a neighbor who wanted to test his new drone. Patrick, Lydia and I traveled to several lakes that morning, capturing footage of shorelines, clear water, and wildlife including otters, swans, and ducks.

Check out the video below and let us know how we did!

Learn more about the natural environment lake classification in Minnesota.

Featured top image: Drone photo of Horseshoe Lake and surrounding area of Oxford Township. Many thanks to Patrick McNeil ( for his time and expertise.

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