Transformed by Burntside Islands SNA

By Bill Teftt. Photography by Ruthanne Fenske, Amb

The Burntside Islands Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) consists of land on four relatively small islands on one relatively large lake. A look at these islands from a map with names attached makes easy identification based on the location and shape of each among the array of islands at the southwestern end of the lake. <BR><BR>The Ely Field Naturalists conducted a recent field trip to the islands. How small islands and people are in relation to the broad expanse of Burntside Lake and the even larger Burntside Watershed. If these maps could come to life with 16 people cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and occasional snowmobilers passing them, they would seem so much smaller than ants.<BR><BR>The Burntside Islands SNA was established in 1991 with the signature of the Commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. <BR><BR>Pine Island and Snellman Island had previously become State land and would fall under the management oversight of the Division of Ecological Services. Reorganization has since established the Division of Ecological and Water Resources with local staff of Steve Wilson and AmberBeth VanNingen overseeing the SNAs of northeastern Minnesota. <BR><BR>Recently, Misty Island and part of another privately owned island have been placed in a conservation easement for addition to the Burntside Islands SNA.<BR><BR>Every small island appears large when you travel across the lake trying to convert your former map perspective into a snow and ice perspective. Familiarity and/or hand held GPS coordinates were shared among the participants. It seemed that those who lived the closest know the most about the name and story behind the islands in the area. <BR><BR>Most of the islands in this part of the lake are privately owned and several cabins verified an owner presence. Both Pine Island and Snellman Island boundaries are marked with SNA signs, but otherwise most all of the islands are forested with pines and look similar.<BR><BR>When a large person who seems small on a large lake approaches a small island that appears large up close, that person can seek out some small rocks or plants and then feel large again. That approach works at the SNA until you reach some of the 150 to 300 year old pines that grow on Pine Island. Those trees that stand out a bit above the others when seen from a distance are found to be 2 to 3 feet in diameter at the base. The large person is back to being small.<BR><BR>Snowshoeing and skiing enables the traveler to make these size transformations at a gradual speed. Some of the landowners of nearby islands told of the very large trees on their land. They have derived a firsthand appreciation for the ecology of these islands. But they shared in the transformative results from traveling, stopping, photographing, traveling, feeling light snowflakes, watching others reactions, sharing thoughts, climbing, looking up at an island, looking down at an island, seeing clouds open to blue sky. <BR><BR>What is known about this place? What questions could be answered by the group? When will a return trip be planned to locate, measure and age the oldest trees, to search for the alleged presence of hemlock trees, to determine what birds nest on the islands, to how much the lake's water level will rise this year, to learn more from each other, and to volunteer in helping care for this SNA.<BR><BR>There are many activities that are not allowed in SNAs which "preserve natural features and rare resources of exceptional scientific and educational value". Go to the webpage for Burntside Islands SNA at and you can see the description but it is a visit that transforms virtual impression into an appreciation of "exceptional." Prepare to visit by clinking on the link to "Visiting SNAs" and discover all that you can do and some can't dos. <BR><BR>At the Burntside website the plant list contains common trees and shrubs. A future trip could provide the opportunity to work on building a more complete list. The polypody ferns that were still green in midwinter on this trip, need to join the other ferns and plants of the islands on a representative list of the plant life of these northern islands. <BR><BR>The red crossbills heard on this trip can be combined with other birds that use these islands at various times. <BR><BR>There are so many small aspects that are wrapped up in these large/small island packages. Without a doubt the small date on the calendar will turn into another large/small event. Hope to see you there.<BR><BR> If you have questions, observations, reports or requests for this column, contact the Ely Field Naturalists at If you would like to join in the postings or get information about group events contact Bill Tefft by email at or phone at 235-8078. View more of Ken Hupila's pictures at <BR><BR>