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Tornado damages trees on Whitefish Chain island's unique old-growth forest

A member of a volunteer cleanup crew surveys trees damaged by a tornado along a trail Monday, June 17, 2024, on Big Island in Upper Whitefish Lake in Ideal Township.
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Jim Brandt
A member of a volunteer cleanup crew surveys trees damaged by a tornado along a trail Monday, June 17, 2024, on Big Island in Upper Whitefish Lake in Ideal Township.

The island was never logged, and the forest is a rare surviving example of an undisturbed old-growth forest of maple and basswood with a rich variety of flowering plants.

UPPER WHITEFISH LAKE — Volunteers and foresters spent Monday, June 17, cleaning up tornado damage on Big Island and Little Island on Upper Whitefish Lake.

The two islands are part of the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area, offering rustic camping and nature trails that are free to the public with a suggested donation.

Jim Brandt has watched over the islands — literally — for decades. He and his wife Jackie can see them from the window of their lake home. As a member of the joint powers board overseeing the islands, Brandt visits them regularly to deliver firewood and ensure the sites are maintained.

More tornado coverage
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Two of the tornadoes measured at EF-2, with winds reaching 120 mph. One traveled 13 miles on the ground, from north of Crosby to south of Aitkin. Crow Wing County declared a local emergency.
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Late Wednesday, June 12, 2024, Crow Wing County Sheriff Eric Klang said responders continued to assess storm damage in a narrow swath stretching from the Pine River-Backus area through Crosslake and into Aitkin.
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The National Weather Service in Duluth confirmed the sighting was also reported by 911 dispatchers, and a second video shows the tornado between Aitkin and Glen.

He said he’s never seen damage this extensive, wrought by one of four tornadoes spawned by supercell thunderstorms last week. One of those tornadoes, rated EF-2, was estimated to have touched down close to Big Island in the middle of the lake. But Monday's crew made quick work with chain saws in hand, he said.

"We went over to Little Island, which was devastated," Brandt said shortly after returning home. "And I mean, there was a lot of trees down, a lot of trees hanging up trees in the water. And the privy was on its side again, just like the Big Island.

"And everybody — I'm telling you that we I think we took one break for about 10 minutes at the most ... and everybody worked so doggone hard and got so much work done. I never dreamt we'd get this much work done, in fact."

Big Island is a special place, not only for Brandt, but because of its forest. It’s a rare surviving example of an undisturbed old-growth forest of maple and basswood trees, because it was never logged. These 150-year-old giants tower up to 100 feet above the forest floor of a rich assortment of flowering plants, also unusual this far north.

Brandt said it’s tough to know the full impact of the tornado’s estimated 120 mph winds, because the trail became impassable in a maze of downed and broken trees.

"That was total destruction. It had to be by a tornado. I mean, you can't walk through it," he said. "I think what we’re gonna have to do is probably reorient the trail around it.

"I mean, there's just trees down, trees uprooted. I mean it looks like an atom bomb hit the damn thing."

Brandt said the damage seems confined to a narrow path, noting nearby Steamboat Island — also part of the Rollie Johnson island chain — is untouched. And from what he could see on Monday, the oldest, biggest trees looked to be in relatively good shape. He hopes to learn more with the help of drone footage in the coming days.

A map shows designated hiking trails on Big Island on Upper Whitefish Lake, one of three islands that together make up the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area. The islands are jointly managed by Ideal Township, Crow Wing County and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
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Crow Wing County
A map shows designated hiking trails on Big Island on Upper Whitefish Lake, one of three islands that together make up the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area. The islands are jointly managed by Ideal Township, Crow Wing County and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

But it’s a close call with a natural disaster for the unique island ecosystem that Brandt shows he loves so much.

We're proud of Big Island. We've done a lot of work out there. A lot of people have put time and effort into it, he said. "And we really consider it, you know, very special and fortunate for the community to have such an area."

Find a map of hiking trails and more information on the islands at Crow Wing County’s website.

Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. In February 2023, she accepted a role as News Director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building a new local newsroom at the station.