Everything you need to know about the Rollie Johnson Islands

The northeast side of Big Island, one of the Rollie Johnson Islands, has a nice sandy beach for boats to land. Hiking trails allow visitors to explore the island. Photo by Kate Perkins

Out on the chain, between Upper and Lower Whitefish lakes, are three islands that make up the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area, often just called the Rollie Johnson Islands.

The islands include Big Island, Little Island and Steamboat Island, and each has campsites that are open to the public. But the islands are much more than a camping area.

Before the Whitefish Chain was discovered as a recreational playground, the area was largely supported by logging. While most of the area around the chain was logged, the islands were not. Today the islands are populated by trees that in some cases are well over 150 years old.

Additionally, the islands hold a unique ecosystem: a maple-basswood forest. It's one of the northernmost instances of such a forest in North America. This makes the islands very special.

The Trillium Trail is a great way to explore this forest. It's on Big Island, and if you head out to the island, beach your boat, kayak or canoe on the northeast side of the island on the sandy shore.

Pictured is the Trillium Trail, which explores Big Island, in midsummer. In the early spring, the trillium blooms and marks the start of what becomes a vibrant summer. Photo by Kate Perkins

From the beach, the start of the trail is to your right. You'll see, near the sign for the island, a pamphlet that will guide your walk and tell you about the plants you'll find there. The spring is a great time to check out the trillium trail, as the plant the trail is named for is an early bloomer that takes advantage of spring sunshine.

Many of the trees along the trail are marked, and your pamphlet will tell you more about them. There's about 1.5 miles of trails on the island. Please stick to the trail to help preserve this special forest.

The islands are named for a local ecologist and volunteer, Rollie Johnson. Johnson was a dependable member of a group of volunteers who take turns visiting the island and checking on it every day throughout the camping season. They pick up any trash, check donation boxes, and visit with campers.

Johnson was a science teacher for many years, spending his summers as a fishing guide at what was then his family's resort, Clamshell Beach. He would frequently cook up a shorelunch with his clients on the banks of the islands. It's said that Johnson could row the boat, bait your hooks, land your fish, clean it, and carry on a conversation at the same time.

When the islands were falling into disrepair- becoming popular for partiers who seldom cleaned up after themselves- a joint powers board was formed to maintain and preserve the islands. The board includes members of Ideal Township, the Crow Wing County Board, and the Minnesota DNR. Together they, along with a robust group of committed volunteers, maintain the islands. In addition to keeping an eye on the islands with regular visits, they also help perform shoreline maintenance and preservation.

When Johnson died in 2002, the joint powers board and volunteers all felt it was fitting that the islands be named for Johnson. Today the commemorate his passion for ecology.

On a visit to the islands, you'll find a wholesome slice of nature that is well-preserved, beautiful and unique. They are well worth the trip.

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