But for the month or two each year when it’s cold enough that social conventions begin to break, Lake Bemidji is as good a place as any to leave your car if you have classes along the shore.
BSU students have been doing it for years, taking advantage of the free parking and short walk, joining the fish houses in a place where parking tickets can’t reach, where bass and walleye silently swim the cold waters underfoot.
“I wait till you see the really big trucks,” said sophomore Sara Janssen, who drives a Mazda6, “because if the guys want to risk their really big trucks, I’m fine.”
Now, for as long as it stays cold, “I just walk right up to class,” she said.
On a Thursday afternoon, about 100 cars fan out across the lake’s west side. There are no lines, no curb to mark your place, so the rows of cars and trucks and snowmobiles tend to stagger a bit. Students come and go using entries at Diamond Point Park or the Paul and Babe statues, plowing through the lake’s foot-deep snow on tire tracks made by their classmates.
“It’s such an interesting phenomenon,” said Scott Faust, director of communications at the school. “It’s one of the most talked about things when alums share their stories, what makes BSU unique. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe.”
Faust notes the university has plenty of open spots on dry land. It’s just hard to beat free parking that’s so close to both U.S. History and Macroeconomics.
Juniors Xavier Lopez and Jenna Kaiser like the predictability of bringing their two cars here. “There’s always a guaranteed spot,” she said.
The couple did their first ice-parking of the season when spring semester began a few weeks ago. Kaiser’s dad does maintenance in Sagg-Hauer Hall, and even he parks here.
“I was telling my cousin about it,” Lopez said. “I sent him a Snapchat when we got here.
“They think we’re crazy, but I don’t think it’s that bad.”
Janssen saves a couple hundred bucks by not buying a parking permit. She slices several hundred feet off her walk to school during the weeks she parks on the lake. She meets her friend, Samantha Meyer, at their cars between classes to decompress a little.
“We pull some U-turns,” Janssen said.
“We whip (expletive),” Meyer said.
We’ll call them donuts.
Campus parking enforcement has no authority here, because school ground stops at lake’s edge.
Even with jurisdiction, it’s unlikely the university would consider squashing it. They might as well tell fans to quiet down at hockey games, please and thank you.
“It’s a revered tradition,” said Faust, who suspects it dates back decades.
But not all students park on the lake, nowhere near a majority. Faust said it’s mostly students who spend a lot of time on the ice anyway, fishing or skating. That makes an inherently risky tradition a little less so, he said.
Most students say they start parking on the lake when they see the big trucks lining up on the ice. Most say they stop when the fish houses start to disappear. And if your car happens to fall in:
“That’s what insurance is for, right?” Janssen said.
People who park here, she said, look out for one another. Janssen and a friend last year got stuck out on the lake, “and a bunch of people who were parked here came over and pulled us out.”
“That was pretty cool,” she said.
And while Meyer, the donut partner, does a few tricks with her friend on the lake, she’s still careful with her 1997 Lincoln Continental.
“I park it close to shore, so if it does break, my car’s still somewhat out of the water,” she said.