Minnesota can be divided into roughly three distinct ecosystems - the deciduous forest of the southeast, the prairie of the west, and the coniferous forests of the north and northeast. When the White settlers first came to the state, these ecosystems were vast and pristine - millions of bison roamed the delicate tallgrass prairie, oaks and maples hundreds of years old grew in the deep shade of what was known as the Big Woods, and towering white pines stretched from central Minnesota hundreds of miles north into Canada.
Only tiny pockets of these ecosystems remain today and those largely by accident. There are groves of the original maples in valleys too inaccessible for farming or virgin prairies on slopes too steep for the plow. The Lost 40 is one such place. During the early 20th century, loggers efficiently clearcut the extremely valuable old growth white pines - destroying an ecosystem that for many native people was synonymous with "the good life". If these trees were replaces at all, it was with fast growing jack or red pine, leaving the majestic white pine as the exception rather than the rule for northern Minnesota. Luckily for us, one section had a couple of apparently incompetent surveyors, and in what is now Chippewa National Forest, they marked a 40 acre stand of old growth pines as a lake. Logging companies, closely following the surveyors reports, skipped over this section, leaving us the benefit of getting a sample of what the entire north used to look like.
The trail through the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) winds around red and white pines that are between 300 and 400 years old - trees that were seedlings when the pilgrims first arrived in America. These trees are massive and provide wide open space on the forest floor. Lumberjacks used to say that they could drive a team of horses and a cart easily between the natural gaps between trees. It is easy to see how different the state looked just 150 years ago. The back section of the 40 acres area succumbed to wildfire in the early 20th century, so those trees are only about 100 years old, but any white pine forest of that age still has the old growth feel to it. While a little bit out of the way, this is definitely a pitstop worth making.