Minnesota has 58 state forests, most of which are located in the northern third of the state. What’s unique about Beltrami Island State Forest is not only its size (it’s our second largest state forest covering 703,366 acres) but also its living history, with an inherent sense of isolation while still remaining easily accessible from the North and West. You’ll find miles and miles of gravel roads, making travel by car or truck relatively simple, as well unmarked logging trails that cut through the forest and offer some of the most pristine camping to be found in Minnesota. There are also three state-maintained rustic campgrounds and healthy wildlife population of black bear, porcupine and wolves. I heard wolves each night during my stay and saw a porcupine along Palsburg Forest Road that was so large that I initially thought it to be a bear cub.
Beltrami was settled in the early 1900s, but the sandy soil and lowland bogs proved unsuitable for farming and most of the homesteads were abandoned by 1940, since reclaimed by nature. The only remaining structures are the restored Winner Silo and Penturen Church. If you plan to visit, understand that there is no cell service and you’re unlikely to meet anyone else out there with any predictability. On my last visit in late August 2012 I only encountered a few people even though I put over 500 miles on my Jeep throughout the forest’s dusty roads. If you are not prepared it will be a very long wait or miles of walking in the event of a breakdown, so bring a map, compass and plenty of water, and keep in mind that ever year someone walks into these woods never to be seen again.
What brought me to Beltrami this year was the story of a lost hunter who’d chased a ruffed grouse into the woods near Penturen Church and didn’t find his way out until the next day. I wanted to understand how someone familiar with the area could become so uterlly lost in a matter of minutes. As a photographer, I wanted to see for myself and document what this vast and little-known forest has to offer in terms of scenery and wildlife. What I found was perfect solitude and an appreciation for what it must have taken for those who tried in vain to settle this land over 100 years ago.