Oasis on the Prairie

Brush LakeCool and clear water, sandy beaches, picnic facilities, and More—the new Brush Lake State Park may be the greatest thing to hit northeastern Montana since the invention of air conditioning. By Andrew McKean. Photos by Matt Long

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
September–October 2005

From the air, Brush Lake looks like a piece of turquoise tossed on a sand dune. The intense blue of the lake is entirely out of place in the caramel-colored monotony of wheat stubble that marches to all horizons in this northeastern corner of Montana.

From the ground, 280-acre Brush Lake is no less striking. In an area of the state where the glaciated landscape is pocked with shallow, alkaline prairie potholes, Brush is a deep, clear lake with white, sandy beaches surrounded by grass fields and linear stands of spring wheat.

Recently Brush Lake became Montana’s 50th state park (and the only one in the state’s northeastern region), providing public access to what Elliott Jensen of nearby Dagmar calls “Montana’s best swimming hole east of the mountains.”

Jensen likely knows this swimming hole better than anyone. His family once owned the entire lake and last year sold the northern two-thirds to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to develop as a state park. The Jensens have long worked to sell the property to a public agency with the hope the site would be preserved for public use.

Two bits a suite
Jensen’s first paying job was renting towels and bathing suits to swimmers in the 1930s who flocked to Brush Lake on summer afternoons. They came from prairie homesteads and clapboard communities across northeastern Montana during a time when spare change and recreation were luxuries few families could afford. Still, Jensen can recall collecting “two bits” for a swimming suit and use of a tiny changing room in a bathhouse on the shore of the lake, which is located in a fold of the prairie about 4 miles east of Dagmar and just 2 miles from the North Dakota state line.

“On summer weekends, there would be hundreds of people out here swimming and boating and having picnics,” says Jensen. “Brush Lake was where people from different communities gathered. There were no good roads back then, just prairie trails, but you’d have people driving 75 miles—three hours each way—from as far away as Scobey just to swim and get together.”

The initial attractions of Brush Lake, says Jensen, were its natural assets. More than 60 feet deep and fed by cold springs, the lake stays cool and clear all summer. Unlike the nearby pothole lakes, it doesn’t choke with algae or stink of sulphur (locally called “soda”) and stagnant water. Because it’s located in a depression of the prairie, Brush Lake is partially sheltered from the winds that strafe the surrounding hilltops and ridges. Ringing the shore, the chokecherry and buffaloberry bushes that gave the lake its name provide shade and wild fruit. In the early 1900s prairie homesteaders, many of them first-generation Scandinavian immigrants, found in Brush Lake a gathering place that reminded them of the neighborhood lakes left behind in northern Europe. They got together for open-air revivals, picnics, baseball games, bake sales, and fiery political debates (at the time, far northeastern Montana was strongly influenced by the socialist prairie populism movement.)

It didn’t take long for the lake to become a hotspot for nighttime entertainment, too. A huge dance hall was thrown up on the south shore of the lake in 1920. Bootleg-gers from nearby farmhouses lubricated the social scene with homemade beer and gin smuggled across the Canadian border, just 25 miles to the north.

As many homesteaders went broke and the remaining farms consolidated, the population of northeastern Montana declined, on average about 10 percent for every decade after 1920. Brush Lake’s refreshingly cool swimming water continued to draw some visitors. But use of the lake and its facilities (lakeside cabins, a small restaurant, and a group-use pavilion) was limited mainly to summer Bible camps run by a local church, 4-H clubs, and Boy Scout troops. After the church sold the property, public use declined further.

Several groups tried to buy the lake for public use, but none of them were willing to assume the liability risks, says Doug Smith, a Brush Lake booster who grew up nearby on his family’s farm.

“Brush Lake is a unique gem,” says Smith, a local county planner. “It’s been a community gathering place for a century, and many of us felt it should be placed in the public domain. But we didn’t have a tool to do that until Fish, Wildlife & Parks came onto the scene.”

Finally, a park
For years Woody Baxter, FWP’s state parks manager for northeastern Montana, was in charge of a region with no state parks but plenty of natural, recreational, and cultural assets. In 2001, he convened
a volunteer search committee to identify areas suitable as state parks in the northeastern region. Smith was one of a dozen members of the committee, and he helped boost Brush Lake from one of 25 properties under consideration to the group’s top pick.

The lake’s prospects were further enhanced by a legislative resolution in 2003, sponsored by another local resident, Montana Senator Linda Nelson. Her resolution mandated Brush Lake as FWP’s first state park in the northeastern region.

Why all the passion and support for a remote prairie lake nearly in North Dakota? “There just aren’t many 60-foot-deep, spring-fed lakes in eastern Montana,” says Smith, who has long studied the unique geological treasure. “From a hydraulic perspective, Brush Lake is more like Yellowstone National Park’s Morning Glory Pool than anything. Its source is a huge spring that emanates from an underground aquifer. There is no inlet or outlet, so water leaves the lake either through evaporation or by [seeping] into adjacent White Lake. The evaporation concentrates minerals in the lake, so it’s high in the sorts of mineral salts—manganese, calcium carbonate, and sodium sulfate—often found in healing hot springs.”

The minerals make Brush Lake inhospitable to fish, which suffocate from calcium deposits on their gills.
“Often, on lakes this size, we see conflicts between anglers and other water recreationists, but that won’t be a problem here because of the lack of a fishery,” says Baxter.

“I think the park will become a destination for divers,” he adds. “Unlike most waters in eastern Montana, Brush Lake stays clear throughout the summer.”

Divers may even discover clues to the area’s geologic history on the lake bottom. Thousands of years ago, the area surrounding Brush Lake was the ancestral valley of the Missouri River. The great river flowed north into Hudson Bay before a series of glaciers scoured the prairie and pushed the Missouri south to its current route. Roughly 13,000 years ago, one of the last glaciers receded and left behind, imbedded on the plain, a chunk of ice the size of a shopping mall. As the ice melted, it formed a bowl that became Brush Lake. In time, a spruce forest grew around the lake. The trees eventually fell into the water, drifted to the bottom, and were covered by thousands of years of wind-blown pollen and dust. Smith says researchers studying core samples have detected spruce trees dating back thousands of years at the base of the lake’s silt bottom.

Public amenity
While scientists study Brush Lake’s fascinating past, citizen advocates such as Smith work to preserve its future. “There is almost no public land in this corner of Montana,” he says. “If you don’t have public land, it’s hard to develop public amenities. And without amenities, it’s hard to reverse our depopulation trend. I’m not saying Brush Lake State Park is the cure for economic development in this part of the state, but it’s a good start.”

He may be right. According to Larry Swanson, a University of Montana economist, western Montana’s recent population explosion and resulting economic growth are partly due to that region’s abundant public lands and waters. Many people in eastern Montana are now looking at their plentiful natural resources and thinking about how public lands and waters might attract newcomers or convince existing residents to stay. Brush Lake may become one of many amenities—including grand vistas, wildlife recreation, and safe surroundings—that keep people from leaving the economically depressed northeastern region.

“Though we definitely hope to attract visitors from all over, we expect the park will be mainly used by folks from around northeastern Montana and western North Dakota who have relatively few nearby public parks,” says Baxter. “I think it will be attractive for afternoon swimming and weekend camp-outs, and for people with boats who don’t want to drive to Fort Peck Lake. In the fall, I expect to see bird hunters from throughout the state camping there.”

Currently, FWP owns only the northern portion of Brush Lake. The southern part is owned by a private trust. Baxter says FWP hopes to eventually have the opportunity to acquire the rest of the lake. “If we don’t have a willing seller at the south end, we still plan to build tent and RV camping facilities, day-use and picnic areas, boat ramps, and boat docks within the property we own,” says Baxter. “What I’m anticipating most is construction of
a group-use shelter, which I see being used for family reunions, wedding receptions, and meetings of church groups and civic organizations.”

Baxter also hopes to eventually add rental cottages, a bathhouse, and a shower facility. Currently, FWP is upgrading the existing road, putting in picnic tables and a gravel parking area, and installing a toilet, a boat ramp, and a boat dock.

FWP’s plans for the park extend far beyond the shoreline. The department aims to restore the highlands above the lake’s north and west shores to native prairie. A proposed interpretive trail would detail the area’s geology, human history, and unique natural history, including the diverse prairie birds and plants.

The diverse local people, however, are what most interest Elliott Jensen. He hopes the state park can again make the site a community gathering place. “Dagmar will celebrate its centennial in 2006. I can’t think of a better birthday present than an old-fashioned community party,” says Jensen. “In the past, Brush Lake was the place for people to get together. I hope it will once again be such a place.”

Andrew McKean is the FWP regional information and education officer in Glasgow. Photographer Matt Long lives in Livingston.