Finding the Lost 40
By Molly Brewer Hoeg
A bike ride is so much better when you have a destination. A sense of purpose turns a bike route into an adventure, like the day we cycled to the Lost 40. In the 26 years we have owned our cabin on North Star Lake north of Grand Rapids, we’ve done our share of exploring and hiking with our kids, but, somehow, we never made it to the Lost 40. We knew only vaguely of its history and fabled old growth forest in the Chippewa National Forest.
Why are the Lost 40 lost?
In 1882 intrepid surveyors camped in the November chill and swirling snow to survey the northern Minnesota forest. An error in their calculations placed Coddington Lake about one-half mile further northwest than it actually lies. As a result, maps produced using this wrong data showed a lake where there wasn’t one and the timber in that area was never logged. Today, these 144 acres of old growth red and white pine forest are protected as a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). It’s a Minnesota treasure that allows us a glimpse of what Minnesota looked like before the settlers arrived.
Armed with this overview, we set off to discover it for ourselves. It is little surprise that we chose to bike there. Upon our retirement my husband, Rich, and I took up bicycle touring, traveling for weeks at a time with limited belongings to see the countryside at a slow pace.
The area north of Marcell is ripe with low traffic roads that make ideal bike routes. We frequently take our bikes to Marcell or Bigfork to begin our rides, avoiding the beautiful but dangerously curvy Highway 38, the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway. Using Google Maps it’s easy to pick out circle routes or out-and-back rides of varying length.
For this outing, Rich chose the Bigfork River public access near Highway 6 and County Road 14 as our starting point. It had the advantage of a parking lot and a reasonable 36-mile round trip distance. Coming from the east was convenient for us but starting in the west, the city of Alvwood would be a 26-mile trip. Leaving from Blackduck requires a more ambitious 54 miles. Both of these are out-and-back routes.
Early September delivered a perfect cycling day. The heat of the summer had broken, giving us pleasant sunshine with temperatures in the 60s. It was a flat route, with easy cycling along roads with little traffic and good pavement. At our usual moderate pace of 12 miles an hour, it took less than 90 minutes to get there.
Our final approach took us along a short stretch of dirt road, which was easily navigable with our bikes. With no fanfare, we reached the simple Forest Service sign that marks the entrance to the Lost 40 SNA. “The primary goal of an SNA is to preserve Minnesota’s outdoor heritage. It’s especially focused on native plant communities and rare species. These old growth trees fit well into that designation”, said AmberBeth VanNingen, Northeast Regional SNA Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR). Visitors are encouraged to explore these natural areas, but recreation is limited to activities that will continue to protect the health of this fragile habitat. We parked our bikes at the entrance as they’re not allowed on the site.
I found that the simplicity and quiet nature of the Lost 40 greatly enhanced its appeal. The real stars were the trees. They were massive, up to 250 years old and up to four feet in diameter. The best way to see them was to walk the one-mile interpretive trail. It was easy to follow, with a wide flat surface carpeted with leaves and pine needles. There were just enough informational signs to be interesting without interrupting the flow of a leisurely walk.
In that short distance I learned plenty. I discovered how to distinguish the bark of a white pine that of a red pine. I tried in vain to find the fern-like seedlings of cedar trees. I could see the effects of the rust disease brought in by imported pine species. I hugged an enormous red pine, and admired a towering white pine.
Owing to a unique combination of ownership by the Chippewa National Forest and the MNDNR, the Lost 40 has the benefit of more amenities than most other SNAs. It’s easily accessible by car and includes a parking lot with a vault toilet. In winter, Itasca County keeps the road plowed and the un-groomed trail is open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Since our visit, new interpretive panels have been installed. They highlight not only the importance of old growth forest, but also the diverse plant and animal species, geology and fire history in the area. New directional signs include tree identification tips.
Karen Lessard, Blackduck District Ranger of the Chippewa National Forest, notes that their objectives are to keep the area accessible to the public, and to let it be. “Imagine all of Minnesota covered with these big, beautiful trees”, she said.
The quiet of the woods and the majesty of the trees remained with me after we had left. While biking back to the car I reflected on the good fortune that preserved those trees. No longer lost, the Lost 40 SNA is a site well worth visiting, no matter what your mode of transport.
Lost 40 SNA: Significance
● Less than 2 percent of Minnesota’s forests contain old growth timber
● The old growth white and red pine in the Lost 40 are considered the most significant in Minnesota outside of Itasca State Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
● The oldest white pine at the Lost 40 is about 194 years old. White pine can live up to 450 years, but most live to around 200 years.
● The oldest red pine there is about 250 years old. The oldest recorded red pine at the Lost 40 was 307 years old.
● Most of the mature red and white pine are between 22 and 48 inches in diameter.
● In other areas of the forest, trees are harvested at 80-150 years
Lost 40 SNA: Things to do
● Birding: The SNA has a recorded list of ninety species of birds.
● Wildlife watching: The old growth forest is home to many animals including bear, weasels, shrew, and red squirrels.
● Look for wildflowers: They’re in bloom from late spring to early autumn
● Cross-country skiing (not groomed) and snowshoeing
Molly Brewer Hoeg
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer and outdoor fitness enthusiast from Duluth Minnesota. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her outdoors, running, cycling and cross-country skiing, or pampering her five grandchildren. Since retiring, Molly and her husband, Rich, have taken up bicycle touring, spending about a month each year traveling on their own by bicycle and have pedaled over 11,000 miles together. Molly blogs about their trips at SuperiorFootprints.org and is writing a book about the ups and downs of constant togetherness at 12 miles an hour.