Isle Royale in the News 

How do we honor both the wilderness-based isolation that Isle Royale represents, and the human connection associated with Isle Royale?

On July 13, 2022, Bridge Michigan, an online nonprofit news organization, published an article entitled “On Isle Royale, fate of summer cabins pits nature against family history”.  In preparation for the article, Kelly House, Bridge Michigan’s environmental reporter, spent extensive time talking with several IRFFA board members including a one-day island tour of Tobin’s Harbor conducted by islander and board member Chris Gale.

The article’s title summarizes its thesis: that nature and history, preservationists and environmentalists, are pitted against each other in a “debate”, implying that one side will ultimately win, and that preservationists are against environmentalists. Yet, omitted from the article was IRFFA’s goal to work with the NPS and other stakeholders in preserving, not diminishing these important resources collaboratively. In fact, the Wilderness Act of 1964 and National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 both recognize the historic value of cultural resources in federal wilderness. And it is this intersection that should frame discussions around preservation and wilderness.

Recently, the National Park Service itself designated many of Isle Royale’s cultural resources as nationally significant including the Tobin Harbor Historic District.  Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act states that nationally significant resources rise to the highest level of protection. The historic wilderness camps on Isle Royale therefore are elevated to this standard. It is IRFFA’s goal to continue to aid in the preservation of these historic resources, to preserve a slice of history that reveals a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature as part of a long historic continuum.

In putting our collective minds together, IRFFA hopes to build on its current preservation activities, partnerships, and the seeds of an emerging hybrid model, to preserve and maintain these invaluable cultural resources located in a wild, remote waterborne landscape, for the public.  

We appreciate the attention that Bridge Michigan has brought to the discussion on how to manage important cultural resources in National Park Service wilderness areas. Our hope is that the stakeholders and the public seek to develop a park management strategy that honors both the wilderness-based isolation that Isle Royale represents, and the human connection associated with Isle Royale that has existed on Isle Royale for hundreds and thousands of years.

How long has copper been mined around Lake Superior?

This fascinating story includes evidence from researchers that Native Americans were processing copper around Lake Superior and on Isle Royale as far back as 9,500 years ago, thousands of years earlier than once thought.

The Last Families of Isle Royale

The Duluth News Tribune ran a three-part series about the last families of Isle Royale this fall. You can read the whole series on the website, watch the three-part video series, or read clips from the articles shared below.

The first part in a three-part series about the last of the cabin families of Isle Royale. In this part, we take a look at the past and discover how these families came to the island, what life was like for them and why they stayed. (Samantha Erkkila / Duluth News Tribune)

Isle Royale evokes strong memories for cabin families from Samantha Erkkila on Vimeo.

In part two of our series on the last cabin families of Isle Royale, we look at what life is like on the island today — the restoration work needed to maintain the cabins and the volunteer work some families do to keep using their cabins. (Samantha Erkkila / Duluth News Tribune)

Isle Royale cabin families spend summers roofing, sharing history with visitors from Samantha Erkkila on Vimeo.

We look at how the park service and historic families grapple with what the future could look like on Isle Royale as an era winds down in the third and final part in the News Tribune’s series on families that have cabins in Isle Royale National Park.

Future uncertain for Isle Royale cabin families from Samantha Erkkila on Vimeo.

The structures are simple wood or log construction with no electricity or running water (though some have the luxury of hand pumps that bring in water from Tobin Harbor) and were built throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s by people who arrived on the island to mine, fish or vacation.

But between the authorization to turn the island into a national park in 1931 and the park’s establishment in 1940, the Park Service began buying the remaining private property within the soon-to-be national park.

Some families opted to sell their properties and leave entirely. Many of those cabins were destroyed and the parcels reclaimed by wilderness. But other families negotiated lifetime leases, which allowed the former cabin owners and their children the exclusive right to use the cabins in the summer for the remainder of their lives.

Duluth News Tribune

The second part in the series is here and the third part is here. In addition to the DNT series, Duluth television station WDIO explored the reporting and interviewed reporter Jimmy Lovrien about the series and his trip to Isle Royale.

While the News Tribune reporters were on the Isle, they helped roof a cabin on Johnson Island and saw up close how the families who still have use of their historic cabins work to preserve the area’s cultural history.

Roofing work on Johnson Island during the summer of 2021. Photo credit: Carla Anderson.

Horne Fire burns in Tobin Harbor area of Isle Royale

Updated Sept. 1: The Horne Fire burned more than 200 acres on the Northeast end of Isle Royale. The fire on Hotel Island threatened historic structures in Tobin Harbor, but eventually the fire was controlled without any substantial loss of structure.

The Duluth News Tribune wrote about the fire’s impact on the Tobin Harbor area and spoke with several families who were either at the island as the fire grew or are monitoring the situation closely.

The News Tribune article is behind a paywall, but here is a short excerpt from the story that includes quotes from IRFFA members.

“It’s getting a little too close for comfort,” said (John) Snell, who can see Minong Island and its mail dock from the Snell Camp dock. “Especially hearing about the embers landing on the islands. There’s no reason why it couldn’t have been the Snell Camp versus Wolbrink versus Merritt Camp versus Gale.”

Chris Gale, who was also not on the island, has been relaying what he can learn about the fire from his home near Calumet, Michigan, to other families with cabins.

His cousin Jack Gale was forced to evacuate the cabin on Gale Island over the weekend and used his boat to help Grant Merritt and wife Marylin evacuate their family’s cabin. The families are now at Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor.

Chris said he’s heard reports of a fire that was put out on Gale Island, but has been unable to confirm whether that’s true. Just a few hundred feet of Tobin Harbor separate Gale Island from the Horne Fire.

“The Gale cabin is the closest to the fire right now,” Chris said.

Duluth News Tribune

WTIP also ran a story about the fire. The audio, which can be heard here, includes a chat with IRFFA board member Ellie Connolly.

For the latest on the Horne Fire, see the Current Conditions page on the NPS website.

Here’s an article from April on MLive with tips before heading to the island.

The Preservation Paradox from the International Journal of Wilderness

The spirit of Isle Royale (News 6 feature with Marina Anderson)

Here’s a podcast with Brian Bergson, who talked with TalkNorth about the Merritt Family history on Isle Royale

Included in this edition of The Greenstone is some information about a family’s history on the island.

Past Features

Here is a CBS News feature on Isle Royale from 2016

American Rustic: Isle Royale National Park 

This article about IRNP is in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s quarterly magazine marking the 100th anniversary of the national park service

The Rustic Cottages of Isle Royale

Another article from the Trust in 2016 with different photos

Most Endangered Places

The National Trust lists 11 Most Endangered Places each year to raise awareness about threatened historic places in the US.  The Isle Royale Families and Friends Association helps to preserve historic places at Isle Royale National Park by maintaining many of its historic fisheries and cottages and summer camps.     (Needs a photo of cabin maintenance)

11 Most Endangered Places

Isle Royale Stories with WTIP’s Rhonda Silence: 

Listen to Isle Royale stories and learn how families helped each other out while living in a remote island landscape.

Listen to Lou Mattson share stories of how he learned the family fishing trade and of the island place he calls home. 

“The people are definitely part of the story of Isle Royale.  I don’t know how often we run into [visitors] and they are just really interested in who we are… Who was there? The island to me is still home.   If I dream of someplace, I dream of Tobin’s Harbor. Yes, it’s home.”

Isle Royale Boaters Association


Grand Marais’ WTIP Radio 

Lake Superior Magazine

Sivertson Gallery

International Wolf Center

Relevant Research and Articles

The Wolf and Moose Study  

IRNP Webcams

Short Documentary This link represents the independent work of film maker Slade Kemmet in association with National Geographic Society.

Weather data from the Passage Island Buoy 

Steamship America: A North Shore Legend

The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronin

Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century

IRNP Cultural Resources Interactive Mapping Project at MTU