Boats pull up to Big Island on a wide, crescent-shaped sandy beach. Children play in the sand, loons swim not far from shore, herons fish in the island's marshes, and bald eagles hunt over the lake. Bordering the beach is a dense shroud of forest, colored in hundreds of hues of green and populated by trees that are, in many cases, more than 150 years old. A narrow nature trail winds through this old-growth maple-basswood forest, which escaped historically widespread logging. Here, spring ephemerals such as nodding trillium, bloodroot, and jack-in-the-pulpit bloom beneath trees that tower 100 feet tall.

Big Island is one of three islands that make up the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area, more often simply called Rollie Johnson islands. Located in Upper Whitefish Lake about 25 miles north of Brainerd, Big Island is around 100 acres, Steamboat is just over eight, and Little is about one acre. The two small islands have sandy bluffs that provide sweeping lake views.

While today the islands are idyllic examples of the north woods, this was not always the case. In the late 1980s, these islands were becoming party spots with lots of trash. Additionally, wave action was eroding shorelines. To bring the islands back to their natural state, prevent erosion, and maintain responsible public use, the DNR and Crow Wing County formed a joint powers board in 1992.

Board member Jim Brandt belongs to a group of volunteers who take turns visiting the islands daily during camping season. Designated campsites are available free on a first-come, first-served basis. Camper donations have made it possible for volunteers to purchase and place picnic tables at most of the 11 sites. Volunteers tally the number of visitors, collect donations from lockboxes, visit campers, and make sure the area is being kept clean. Because collecting firewood on the island is prohibited, volunteers haul approved firewood for camper use. This service also helps prevent campers from transporting invasive species in unapproved firewood.

With volunteer assistance, the joint powers board has also addressed shoreline erosion. The Whitefish lake chain is still adapting to water level changes caused by dam construction more than 100 years ago. Heather Baird, senior DNR aquatic habitat specialist and board member, explains that historically high water levels make the shoreline sensitive to wave and ice damage. And because the islands are six miles from the mainland shore, waves have time to build in size before they strike island shorelines. With funding from the DNR, local groups, and the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment's Outdoor Heritage Fund, Baird, Brandt, and volunteers seeded native plants and placed coconut-husk logs along shore. The logs help stabilize the shoreline until native plants can take root and secure the soil.

Improvements for campers include pit toilets and a self-guided nature tour on trails that were created in part by Rollie Johnson. The islands were named for Johnson after his death in 2002. A dedicated volunteer and passionate ecologist, he visited the islands frequently—sometimes to enjoy shore lunch with anglers he guided or to study plants for his next lesson as a high school biology teacher.

The islands are open to the public to enjoy nature walks, camping, fishing, and shore lunches.

Kate Perkins, freelance writer