Whitefish's Big Island may see big changes

Volunteers must step up to keep islands open to recreationists

Weekend Volunteers3. Jim Brandt.jpg
Volunteers - both younger and older - helped move firewood from the Little Island and Steamboat Island shorelines to a better location the weekend of May 20-21, 2023, on Upper Whitefish Lake.
Contributed / Jim Brandt

IDEAL TOWNSHIP — Volunteers are desperately needed to keep three popular islands on the Whitefish Chain open for campers and recreationists as they have been for the past 20-plus years.

If nothing works out, we’re going to have to close the islands.
Dave Topinka, Big Island volunteer

“The ones who do most of the work are in our 80s,” said Dave Topinka, a longtime Big Island volunteer.

“If nothing works out, we’re going to have to close the islands,” he said.

To that end, “younger” volunteers in their 60s and 70s — or younger — are being asked to step up and volunteer to keep the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area — better known for its biggest island, Big Island — open.

The recreational area consists of Big Island, Steamboat Island and Little Island, located in the middle of Upper Whitefish Lake.


The state and Crow Wing County each own parts of the islands. A land transfer from the federal government to the state required it not to be logged or developed.

A joint powers board made up of representatives from Ideal Township, Crow Wing County and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources governs the islands.

... the board decided we need at least 10 to 12 good, dependable, local volunteers to continue the same operation we’re doing now.
Jim Brandt, joint powers board chair

It’s the all-important volunteers who coordinate and do the work necessary to keep the islands open to the public to use for camping, hiking, picnicking and other recreational activities.

The joint powers board made an important decision at its April meeting.

“After two and a half hours of discussion, the board decided we need at least 10 to 12 good, dependable, local volunteers to continue the same operation we’re doing now,” said Jim Brandt, chair of the joint powers board.

We’d really, really like to keep it going but it’s come to the point where we really need more good help.
Jim Brandt

If not enough volunteers come forward, big changes could be in store, including no longer providing firewood for campsites, eliminating overnight camping and/or fire pits and not having monitors visit the islands during the summer.

Or the islands could close to public use.

“We’d really, really like to keep it going but it’s come to the point where we really need more good help,” Brandt said.


“We’re not looking for a bunch of new campers. We’re looking for volunteers,” he said, noting the islands’ popularity among campers from all over.

Volunteer responsibilities

Big Island volunteer monitors take shifts to go to the islands every day from June to September to educate campers.

“So the people know we’re out there, that we’re watching them,” Topinka said.

Cleanup2. Jim Brandt.jpg
A volunteer does cleanup work on Big Island on Upper Whitefish Lake.
Contributed / Jim Brandt

Volunteer crews help maintain the islands weekly and clean up after big storms that may knock down trees over trails or after ice-out that sometimes causes damage.

“They go out there every week of summer and clean up the sites, mow the grass, check the trails,” Topinka said.

Splitting Wood3.Jim Brandt.jpg
Volunteers split 12-15 cords of wood to be hauled out to the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area islands on the Whitefish Chain when the ice is thick enough.
Contributed / Jim Brandt

Volunteers provide all firewood for the islands, cutting and splitting 12-15 cords of the wood in the fall. They load and haul the wood to the islands during the winter when the ice is thick enough and a road’s been plowed. Then they unload all the wood by hand and haul it to designated areas on each island.

There’s a few that do a lot of the work. They’re getting older. They’re getting white hair and sore backs.
Jim Brandt

Once a year, restoration work may take place on shorelines and steep, sandy slopes, so volunteers are needed to transport Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa crews to the islands.

“There’s a few that do a lot of the work. They’re getting older. They’re getting white hair and sore backs,” Brandt said.


Topinka said a lot of the same people have been doing all the work since the islands opened to the public.

Unloading Wood.Jim Brandt.jpg
Volunteers unload wood at the islands on the Whitefish Chain for recreationists to use in the summer.
Contributed / Jim Brandt

“When we retired, we started (volunteering) at age 60. In our view, someone who is 60 years old is a young person,” he said.

Brandt said the volunteers are a wonderful group of people.

“It’s really great for the community to have an asset like that,” he said of Big Island.

Big Island history

In the late 1980s, the DNR owned the islands and wanted to sell them. Resorters and others realized the islands were a big asset to the Whitefish Chain and wanted to keep them.

The joint powers board formed in 1990.

The late Rollie Johnson, a resort owner, was instrumental in taking care of the islands in the 1980s and early 1990s, up until the joint powers board was formed, so the recreational area is named for him.

In the last 20 years, the board became more aggressive in its efforts to maintain the islands.


The islands offer 12 campsites, each with a fire pit, on a first-come first served basis; no reservations are taken. There’s no running water or electricity. There are five privies.

Volunteers1. Jim Brandt.jpg
People hike a trail on Big Island on the Whitefish Chain.
Contributed / Jim Brandt

Big Island boasts 1.5 miles of hiking trails.

People can use the islands for free, though there are donation boxes, as well as bulletin boards with information and rules.

Literature says: “Big Island is a rare surviving example of an undisturbed old-growth maple-basswood forest. Trees 150 years old tower up to 100 feet above the forest floor, sheltering a rich assortment of flowering plants unusual this far north in MInnesota. The butternut tree found here is the north-westerly-most record for this species.”

To volunteer

Anyone interested in becoming a Big Island volunteer should contact Jim Brandt at 612-716-7840 or ; or Judy Topinka at 612-202-7585 or .

There is enough help for this summer. The joint powers board will decide this fall whether enough volunteers step up to continue to provide the current services.

Nancy Vogt, editor, may be reached at 218-855-5877 or Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at

Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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