Photos by Luke Melchert
I’m sitting in a hotel room overlooking Lake Bemidji watching a steady stream of pickup trucks drive across the frozen lake. They form a makeshift parking lot across from a village of tiny ice houses, American and Canadian flags whipping in the frigid wind.
The current temperature is below zero with a negative 35-degree windchill. Luke and I came here to do the opposite of what most people choose to do in this kind of weather: spend the day outside hiking through a little known section of the Chippewa National Forest called “The Lost Forty.”
According to www.minnesotanorthwoods.com, The Lost Forty contains some of the last remaining virgin red and white pine trees in Minnesota. These trees are 300-400 years old and measure between 22 and 48 inches in diameter. But even more incredible than the age and size of the trees is their back story:
“In 1882, a land surveyor by the name of Josiah A. King, and his three-man crew, traveled 40 miles from the nearest settlement called “the Grand Rapids of the Mississippi.” For a month, canvas tents were their homes, and flour, pork, beans, and dried apples their rations. Josiah and his crew were finishing the last of three contracted townships in one of the first land surveys of Minnesota’s north woods.
As the November winds blew around the crew, they surveyed a six square mile area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. Perhaps it was the chilling weather, or all of the desolate swamps around them, but the crew became confused, and they ended up plotting Coddington Lake about a half mile further northwest than it was actually located. Josiah’s crew’s error is Minnesota’s great fortune.
As a result, these towering pines were mapped as a body of water, and the virgin pine in this area was overlooked by the hungry logging companies. After all, what logging company would want to pay for swampland? This parcel of land became known as “The Lost Forty” and went untouched by loggers. It is now managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources under their Scientific & Natural Areas Program.” – The Lost Forty: A Minnesota Forest Legacy, www.minnesotafunfacts.com.
We were finally brave enough to leave our hotel room when the temperature climbed just over the zero-degree mark, the windchill hovering around -10 degrees. The drive from Bemidji to The Lost Forty takes about an hour. It’s a good idea to print directions ahead of time because cell phone reception is not guaranteed as the roads get increasingly remote. Right around the time we were beginning to feel lost, we started seeing ‘Point of Interest’ signs leading us to The Lost Forty. We exited onto a snowy forest road and followed another vehicle’s tracks to a small roundabout. Two other cars had just pulled in ahead of us. The three of us would be the extent of the day’s visitors.
Encapsulated within our clothing like astronauts, we emerged from the warmth of our vehicle and made our way to the trailhead. The hike is short; the front quarter-mile loop weaves through the virgin pine. The back loop winds three-quarters of a mile along rolling hills, with pine that originated after a fire at the turn of the century.
I think about early settlers every time I pass through the Rockies and wonder what their reaction was to seeing the mountains for the first time. I now had a sense for what those early surveyors and loggers felt when they came to Minnesota in the mid-1800’s. They had just entered a big, craggy, ancient-looking world. And it was theirs for the taking.
For perhaps the first time, I was literally and figuratively seeing the forest for the trees. Each time we’d approach a particularly large tree, I’d stop to marvel at its thick trunk covered with huge chunks of craggy bark. Then, I’d slowly let my gaze go up, up, up to heights more commonly associated with something man-made rather than something that simply grew that large. The branches overhead looked big, old and alien in terms of their proportions. We repeated this exercise so often, the one-mile hike ended up taking over an hour to complete. Every once in a while, I felt compelled to throw my arms wide around the nearest tree trunk and thank it for being there. Luke managed to capture a few of these moments that I wrongly assumed were between the trees and me only.
While I think you should absolutely visit The Lost Forty at some point in the near future, I do have to warn you: spend some time wandering amongst these old growth trees and their magic will wear off on you. This will make you behave very belligerently toward the spindly, sub-par versions that we’re left with. Your trail runs and day hikes may never be the same. Because now you will know what you are missing.