It wasn’t a big lake as some of Minnesota’s Ten Thousand Plus lakes go..... but it was our lake. Me and my buddies. It was about a mile, as a young boy bicycles, from his home on St. Paul’s East Side. A.K.A. - the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The Minnesota DNR describes it with just the facts.
"LAKE PHALEN: ON THE EASTSIDE OF ST. PAUL, BORDERING WITH MAPLEWOOD. • Main fish: Bluegill, perch, sunfish and northern pike • Size: 198-acre • Max. depth: 91 ft. Clarity: 17 ft. Source: Minnesota DNR."
I have many fond memories of that place. Each summer we traveled the short distance with our fishing poles and swimming suits. Well, there was one summer when I wasn’t allowed to go. My mom was terrified of me catching polio. Something about staying away from crowded beaches, I guess. In spring time the little creek connecting Phalen with several other lakes was full of crappies. We just filled our buckets with them. In summer, the beach was crowded with swimmers of all ages. I loved to swim and dive though one awful memory remains of a young girl pulled from the water not breathing. Then watching the lifeguards try to revive her.
My dad was a 2nd generation German/American who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did. In those days canoeing was a popular activity on Lake Phalen and I’m quite certain he took a certain girl (my mom) from North St. Paul there as well. They both told me stories of the fabulous Ice Palace that had been built on the lake sometime in the thirties.
The lake is still there, of course, but different and yet the same. A recent article in the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press best describes it.
"The crush of urban life sometimes bumps up against nature at Lake Phalen, enveloped over time by St. Paul's blue-collar East Side. In many ways, Phalen is where old St. Paul and new St. Paul meet, where the bustling city gives way to a green, watery oasis. Swimmers flock to the sandy beach, and the playground pulses with wriggling kids and babies in bucket swings. Families picnic at rustic wooden tables in the shadow of a giant pavilion. But wander down the walking path encircling the lake and surprisingly tranquil stretches await beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks.
Lake Phalen is popular with fishermen and boaters, but of the quiet, old-school variety. Canoes, kayaks and sailboats slice through the water, while motors are restricted to electric trolling models. Anglers cluster at the pier and dot the shore, casting for panfish and filling plastic buckets with sunnies and crappies.
Next weekend, that gentle scene from St. Paul's past gives way to more recent traditions: a two-day Dragon Festival, a free and popular Pan-Asian expo of food, crafts, music, dancers, martial arts and dragon boat races."