The Legend of Hidden Beach

The Twin Cities' most infamous party spot has undergone a makeover—but try telling that to the regulars

In the end, the board decided to make Hidden Beach a semi-authorized beach. The new designation took effect last summer. Lifeguards now patrol full-time, Friday through Sunday. The board poured in sand, in addition to buying a wooden lifeguard chair, three picnic tables on cement slabs, and a park bench.

But the biggest change has been the near constant police presence at the beach, much to the chagrin of beach regulars.

"It was never as crazy as they made it out to be," says Maija Varda, 22, who frequents the beach regularly and lives nearby. "People come down here to relax and take what we call a 'poor man's vacation.' There's people smoking and drinking and whatever, but there's no violence. No one feels unsafe."

Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek


See the photo slideshow of the Twin Cities' most infamous party spot.

The regulars didn't take the changes lying down. The first night the lifeguard chair went up, vandals tore it down and set it ablaze in the center of the beach. They proceeded to methodically remove a few planks from the charred stand and construct a makeshift "smoke shack," hidden amid the dozens of soaring reeds adjacent to the beach. It stood for nearly two months before authorities discovered it and tore it down.

Other acts of protest were more conspicuous. After the cement slabs were first laid, to be used as foundations for the picnic tables, regulars promptly spray-painted them with "Leave our beach alone!" in bold letters.

"I guess it was the counterculture protesting the Man," says Nordstrom. "I got a few complaints at first: anonymous emails and phone calls, saying we're trying to kick out the alternative element. But since we've implemented the changes, we've heard nothing but good things."

The park board transformed the modest dirt trail leading to the beach— not five feet wide—into a twelve-foot-wide gravel road, complete with "Emergency Vehicles Only" sign. It also authorized the removal of dozens of mid-sized trees and mounds of buckthorn. The official reason for clearing the buckthorn was that it's an invasive species detrimental to the plant life around it. But there's another motivation for the purging.

In a document penned by the Park and Recreation Board in 2002, a slew of "ecological restoration" goals and guidelines are set forth. Among them: "Identify[ing] restoration goals, if any, that pertain to social and cultural values." It goes on to note that "access into the area is difficult because of the condition of the main path, and surveillance and enforcement are difficult because of the heavy buckthorn undergrowth and a myriad of additional paths and trails there."

An official placard just outside the winding entrance now welcomes visitors to East Cedar Lake Beach.

• • • • •

"JOHNNY LOVE?" asks park agent Alex Johnson while taking a smoke break at Hidden Beach. "Oh, you won't be seeing him around. He's banned from here—lifetime ban. Too many tickets."

Welcome to the new Hidden Beach. The bums are blacklisted, replaced with men in uniform.

A ripple of apprehension flows through the crowd every time an officer pulls up. It's very subtle, but you can feel it. People are afraid to let their guards down. When the cops leave, it's as if a collective sigh is breathed, and people turn human again.

The beach still retains a friendly, artistic vibe. It's that rare urban meeting spot where strangers frequently engage one another in conversation. And now, more than ever, it's become a family-friendly destination.

"It's kind of like the '90s Uptown crowd all grown up," says Lakes District planner Zachery, himself just 32. "I live in the Camden neighborhood, and I'll see young families who live there at the beach."

The general consensus among Hidden Beach diehards is that, in the end, there's nothing outside forces can do to improve the beach that they can't do themselves. They consider it a self-regulating, self-policing mini-society with its own etiquette—bring a positive attitude and share your stash—and even its own bouncer (Tim, a heavily tattooed gent who sits in scary silence at the picnic table).

Mostly this is due to the sense of communal ownership shared among regulars. They keep the ground clear of shards of glass for the same reason one keeps the entryway to one's house clear of shards of glass.

There is no man or animal at Hidden Beach who embodies this ethos more precisely than Stephen Vausseur. Though nobody calls him that. Around here, he's known simply as Mud Man.

At first glance, Mud Man looks like a recently retired CPA visiting from Lakeville. The gray-haired Minneapolis resident is the self-appointed groundskeeper of the Mud Pit, which lies just north of the beach itself. On this particular day, he's wearing a long maroon T-shirt over short, teal swim shorts.

Mud Man doesn't so much talk as spout a chain of ideas in rapid succession with an excited, almost pissed-off zeal.

"Mud Pit's this way!" he says, as he walks floppy-armed across the beach. "In fact!" He pauses and turns. "We might have one or two! Down there already!"

A father and son are just leaving the pit. The kid, no older than six, is wearing clothes caked in mud. He looks up, raises his hands, and declares, "I'm a mud monster!"

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