American Rustic: Isle Royale National Park
Balancing historic and wilderness preservation on Lake Superior’s remote and majestic Isle Royale
One of the least visited of America’s national parks, Isle Royale isn’t easy to reach. My trip to the remote and wild island park begins before sunrise on a Monday morning: a flight to Chicago, and then on to a cramped regional jet to Hancock, a town of 4,600 people on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Tuesday morning, I board the Ranger III for a six-hour ferry ride on the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Thirty-four hours elapse between leaving home and setting foot on Isle Royale, but my journey to the park actually started four years ago, when I received an email describing a threatened way of life centered around historic recreational cottages and commercial fishing camps located on remote islands in northern Lake Superior.
Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these rustic camp complexes became threatened during the 1930s, as Isle Royale National Park was being established. At that time, the National Park Service (NPS) acquired private property within parks either by direct purchase or through life leases, which set up properties (known as “inholdings”) where occupancy was permitted until the death of the lease holder. Because the life leases on the now-historic inholdings within Isle Royale have expired, the Park Service must make plans to maintain these properties in accordance with the NPS Organic Act of 1916 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966—adding to the agency’s staggering $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
The situation at Isle Royale is similar to those in parks as varied as Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cumberland Island, the Apostle Islands, and Cuyahoga Valley, where life-estate inholdings were set up as the parks were created. Unlike most of these places, though, many of the historic structures on Isle Royale are located in designated wilderness areas. This requires NPS to follow the Wilderness Act of 1964, legislation that protects places where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Of course, that mandate would seem hard to follow in areas already “trammeled” by the construction of buildings prior to wilderness designation.
Because there’s an apparent tension between preserving natural qualities and historic places co-located in wilderness, Isle Royale Chief of Interpretation and Cultural Resources Liz Valencia is leading a process to develop a Cultural Resources Management Plan (CRMP) and a Wilderness Stewardship Plan. The goal is to structure plans in the best interest of both wilder-ness and historic preservation. The challenge, says Valencia, is that “we can do historic preservation work in wilderness, but we can’t use the buildings in any permanent way.” Adding to her challenge, Isle Royale’s rustic fisheries and cottages represent only half of the park’s historic places. The other half includes Native American mining sites, archaeological sites, abandoned commercial mines, lighthouses, lookout towers, and other structures built by the federal government.
While a CRMP draft offering comprehensive planning options for Isle Royale’s historic places should be ready for public review and comment this fall, for special-use permit holder Lou Mattson and other seasonal residents, it comes years too late. Mattson, the son of Isle Royale’s last working commercial fisherman, has seen too many of the places built by the early fishing families demolished or lost to neglect. He’s been voyaging out to his family fish camp in Tobin Harbor for 80 years. In that span of time he’s counted the loss of 23 historic structures in Tobin Harbor alone.
On my visit to the park, I spend time with Mattson and fellow members of a nonprofit organization created to maintain Isle Royale’s 100-plus-year-old tradition of seasonal culture and to ensure the preservation of historic family dwellings. The Isle Royale Families and Friends Association (IRFFA) comprises mostly people whose families have been part of Isle Royale’s history for generations, in some cases decades before the place became a national park.
I am struck by the strong bond connecting IRFFA members. Some, like Mattson, are descended from generations of Swede-Finn fishing families, who came to Isle Royale in the 19th century and established extensive fisheries, scraping out a livelihood from small wooden boats navigating some of the world’s most treacherous inland waters. Chris Gale, John Snell, Missy McDonald, and others represent families who have been making annual pilgrimages to Isle Royale for generations, seeking the respite only wild places can offer. Common among all the IRFFA members is their passion for Isle Royale and the history symbolized by its rustic structures.
Older IRFFA members recall the park’s early days, a time before the commercial fisheries, recreational cottages, and guest resorts had become historic. It was also a time when these places were destroyed by NPS personnel, because they weren’t compatible with the purposes of the park. Snell, Gale, and McDonald share stories passed down by parents and grandparents, but everyone focuses on the same grim reality—the time they spend at their family properties is limited. “We come back each season under special-use permits or as volunteers in the park,” says Gale. “But those agreements are made on an annual basis. At the end of each season when we leave, we don’t know whether or not it will have been our last.”
During my stay on Isle Royale, I visit as many different places as time, weather, and lake conditions allow. Home base is Gale Island and an eclectically appointed cabin built by Lou Mattson’s father, Art, with the help and guidance of Chris Gale’s father and uncle. Because Gale Island is located in designated wilderness, modern utilities are taboo, and I learn firsthand what it’s like to live and work without electricity, running water, phones, and WiFi. The cabin’s large main room is a dining, living, and bedroom portmanteau with two competing focal points: a grand, hand-built stone fireplace and a large picture window framing the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. From Gale Island, I ferry out each day visiting lighthouses, historic fisheries, recreational camps, and abandoned resorts, all in varying states of repair. Unlike most park visitors, who come to hike on the main island or kayak calm waters in protected coves and harbors, I have access to a private, seaworthy boat, which gets me out over open water for visits to remote outer islands.
On my first afternoon, I ask Gale how we should fill the balance of our day. He tunes a battery-operated radio to the local marine forecast. After confirming calm waves and good weather, he suggests we “blast out to Menagerie Island to have a look at Isle Royale Light,” a place few park visitors get to see. About a mile south of the main island, Menagerie is virtually inaccessible, surrounded by sharp rock shoals that can tear a boat’s hull to ribbons. We circle the island for a 360-degree view, and even in his rugged C-Dory, a boat known for durability and a shallow draft, Gale’s nerves begin to fray when I ask him to edge closer for a better look.
An expert mariner who knows Isle Royale’s hazardous waters as well as anyone, Gale spends part of his summers as captain of the park’s MV Sandy tour boat. After he decides we’ve put his C-Dory and ourselves at enough risk, we cruise back to Gale Island, and he describes the area’s unique geology, which consists of ancient lava flows pushed into the shape of a shallow U. Isle Royale is the northern edge of that U, a series of jagged vertical ridges of volcanic rock that makes the archipelago’s surrounding waters notorious for shipwrecks. It’s this geology that also brought billion-year-old copper bands and greenstone deposits to the surface—drawing Native Americans and, later, commercial mining endeavors to Isle Royale.
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“We could be setting a real precedent for how parks manage historic places in wilderness areas.”Liz Valencia
Over the next few days we use the C-Dory to tour Isle Royale’s history, with stops at Amygdaloid Island; Captain Kidd Island; Johnson Island; Merritt Island; Edwards Island; and Scoville Point. In Rock Harbor, we check out Cemetery Island, where miners were buried in the 1850s; Edisen Fishery; Rock Harbor Light; and the Bangsund Cabin, headquarters for an ongoing wolf and moose study.
We visit five families who maintain ancestral properties, sometimes investing tens of thousands of dollars to repair federally owned assets, all without the benefit of modern tools and other conveniences. On my visit with the Snells, for example, I interrupt John Snell as he swings a sledgehammer into a heavy log. He’s replacing the wood foundation of a boathouse. Because it’s historic and in designated wilderness, all work must be done without power tools, using traditional methods, and according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation.
Though one might assume the purpose of summers at Isle Royale is a healthy dose of R&R, for many who return to their family properties each year, the trip is structured around work—at least four hours a day per person. The reason for this is partly necessity: Wooden cabins on islands in northern Lake Superior need considerable maintenance. But work is also the reason Snell and others are permitted to visit their family complexes at all. Because the life leases have expired, many families today continue visits to Isle Royale as VIPs, or Volunteers in the Park. At least until the park’s CRMP is complete, the VIP program allows these visitors exclusive access to and use of their family properties in exchange for doing volunteer work in the park.
Fortunately for the volunteers, they propose the nature of their work, which typically includes maintaining their family complexes. The bonds of island heritage make them perhaps the most well-positioned people to maintain these cottages and fisheries. At a minimum, the work relies on an understanding of traditional building, but sometimes projects are impossible to complete without help. Lacking modern tools and equipment, this traditionally associated community of summer residents collaborates frequently to assist each other with the sort of heavy lifting one family couldn’t possibly achieve on its own.
Resting his sledgehammer for a few minutes to give a tour, Snell shows me his well-preserved main cottage and bunkhouse, but also a collapsed shed up the hill. “This is where my grandfather would come to write,” says Snell. Though Isle Royale’s historic structures are all relatively secluded, Roy J. Snell, who wrote 76 children’s books, desired an even more isolated place for writing. “We call the shed ‘Grandpa’s Study.’ It was nothing fancy, but it had a bed, stove, and table, with a great view of the harbor,” says Snell. “In 2014, when my family asked the park if we could repair it, we were told that it is too far gone. A tree fell on it several years ago. It’s in rough shape, but I don’t think it would take much to patch it back together.”
While IRFFA members like Snell are justifiably sentimental about their family properties, NPS staff need to consider historic preservation in the context of limited resources and, perhaps more pressingly, the location of historic places in designated wilderness. To understand the agency’s preservation decision making, I talk with Seth DePasqual, Isle Royale’s cultural resource manager. I ask about Grandpa’s Study, and DePasqual immediately references its wilderness setting. “Grandpa’s Study would be a complete reconstruction, … [which] is a hot-button issue, and I am trying to be mindful of what is happening in the courts as well as with wilderness advocates’ perspectives.”
For a broader policy perspective, I sit down with NPS Associate Director of Park Planning, Facilities and Lands Victor Knox, who highlights the options available for historic structures within parks. “To determine how we might use historic structures, we start by asking a series of questions,” says Knox. “Are these places part of the primary park story? What is their historical significance and relationship to the park history? What was the legislated intent of the park? Does keeping a historic resource conflict with park purpose or use?”
With those questions answered, Knox says, “we try to be creative about the options, which can include staff housing; adaptive reuse as a visitor center or administrative facility; or stabilization and interpretation as part of the park’s historical context.
“Of course,” he admits, “we’d then need to figure out how to pay for that reuse and future maintenance. If a park determines they don’t have a good reuse for a historic building, our historic leasing program becomes an option.”
A comprehensive leasing report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation advocates for leasing to private organizations or individuals whenever sites are not actively being used, asserting that it “provides opportunities for the National Park Service to leverage private resources to maintain public resources for future generations.” Highlighting leasing programs in 18 national parks, including Indiana Dunes, Cape Cod, and Hot Springs, the report also recommends methods for improving the leasing program. Knox agrees that leases are an excellent option, “but use of a leased building still needs to be compatible with the park experience.”
An alternative to reuse or leasing is some sort of creative partnership. Isle Royale’s Liz Valencia points to the nonprofit Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society, which works to restore the park’s 1908 lighthouse. Similarly, a partnership with the Isle Royale & Keweenaw Parks Association (IRKPA) focuses on Isle Royale’s historic recreational camps and commercial fisheries where the families have not remained involved. Each summer IRKPA coordinates an artists-in-residence program: Association member John Dunn organizes volunteer crews to maintain and repair historic buildings used by the artists, as well as some of the vacant, unused historic structures throughout the park.
Of the places I visit that are directly maintained by the park, it seems to me that the ones left out of designated wilderness and actively used are in the best condition. The Edisen Fishery and Rock Harbor Light, for example, are open to the public and represent key time periods and important themes in Isle Royale’s history. The extensive Edisen Fishery complex includes cabins and docks, along with the net house and the fish house, both built by Lou Mattson’s grandfather. A short hike from the fishery leads to Rock Harbor Light, a preserved 1855 structure with a small museum on the ground floor. These historic sites are well maintained today because they have a defined use, but they stand in contrast to the many, more isolated places that aren’t actively used. Just one example is the former resort complex I visited at Crystal Cove.
Located on Amygdaloid Island at Crystal Cove, which is only accessible by private boat, a collection of rustic log cabins from the early 1920s represents Isle Royale’s last surviving example of a private resort within the park. Acquired by the park in 1939, the buildings stand vacant, some stabilized with new roofs, and others with broken windows and rotting timbers in varying states of collapse. This place is remote even by Isle Royale standards—even so, the park makes an effort to stabilize and maintain it as best it can. “We’re considering a number of different stabilization and preservation alternatives for the site,” says Valencia, “but Crystal Cove is within wilderness, so we need to take that into account.”
The more I learn about the historic preservation challenges faced by NPS at Isle Royale, the more it becomes clear that the underlying issue is less whether historic buildings in wilderness are maintained, and more how they are used. A year after my visit, I still haven’t settled on a win-win-win solution: something that seems fair for families with local heritage, gives park visitors a wilderness experience and access to historic places, and allows NPS to, in the words of Victor Knox, “strike a balance between history and wilderness.”
I’d like the solution to be simple. By its own admission, NPS can’t maintain all of the places it already manages, so why not redraw Isle Royale’s wilderness boundaries and let the IRFAA folks continue using and maintaining their former family properties? Congress could act to remove wilderness designation from these historic properties, and thus provide for continued use and visitor access to the places that capture Isle Royale’s unique history. But the solution may not be that simple—taking that route could result in accusations of favoritism.
Barring legislative action, the solution lies with harmonizing the Organic Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Wilderness Act. The Cultural Resource Management and Wilderness Stewardship plans for Isle Royale, scheduled for publication this fall, are being drafted according to these three laws. They should provide a range of objective alternatives and will be open for comment, meaning anyone interested in the future of historic places in parks can weigh in.
We know historic buildings that get used will endure longer than those standing vacant—so resolving the tension over “use” in wilderness is central to maintaining connections between people and place. “Once the plans are out,” says Valencia, “we could be setting a real precedent for how parks manage historic places in wilderness areas.” Let’s hope so, because it’s time to abandon the notion that wilderness exists in some primeval state, bereft of human history. New development in wilderness is clearly offensive, but so is pretending that wild places lack history. Old buildings, abandoned mining sites, and historic cemeteries in wilderness areas represent the rare stories and fortitude of people who clawed out existences in America’s most remote, wildest places.