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Jimmy Lovrien column: After two years of planning, an Isle Royale reporting trip comes to fruition

Getting a team of journalists out on a remote island isn't easy, but we made it happen.

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Reporter Jimmy Lovrien and digital content producer Sam Erkkila of the Duluth News Tribune look at a map of Isle Royale National Parks en route to the island via the Voyageur II on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / News Tribune

On a backpacking trip in the summer of 2019, I brought along a copy of Grant Merritt's autobiography "Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota's Environment."

As an energy and mining reporter and Minnesota history buff, I figured it would be a worthwhile read.

While Merritt's grandfather Alfred and great uncles were the famed “Seven Iron Men'' who discovered iron ore on the Mesabi Range and formed the Mountain Iron Mine in 1890, Merritt spent his career as an environmental lawyer fighting Reserve Mining in Silver Bay to get them to stop dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior.

It was fitting, too, because I'd be hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail through Silver Bay, where Reserve's old pellet plant now operates as Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining, and through the Bear and Bean Lake section where, from cliffs above the lakes, you can see a sliver of the massive tailings basin the company was forced to build in lieu of dumping them into the lake.

And for those reasons, it was a worthwhile and fitting book. But what stuck out to me most was in the book's final pages.

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Merritt wrote about how much his family cabin in Isle Royale National Park means to him and the unique arrangements that allow he and other families to continue using them even though they are part of a national park.

He wrote about the community of families' rich history and their challenges in making sure their cabins and family history's remain part of the park.

I had just been to Isle Royale for the first time earlier that spring with my dad and brother, backpacking the Feldtmann Lake Loop — retracing the steps of a life-changing trip my dad took 40 years earlier — and grew up with a map of the island and a photo my dad took from his tent of a couple moose — a cow and calf — swimming cross Washington Creek.

But I had no idea the families that had fished or vacationed on Isle Royale prior to it becoming a national park were still there.

Back home and connected to the internet, I went down a rabbit hole of research on the cabins. All the while, I thought to myself "this would make a great feature story."

I just figured the logistical hurdles of getting to and around the island would deter any reporting trip from happening.

But I brought it up to a photographer and videographer and they were on board.

We pitched it to our editors and got the OK to start planning.

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I reached out to the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association, the group of cabin families, and they were open to us poking around while they were there.

The original plan was to make the trip during summer 2020, but just as we started to nail down some specifics, the pandemic started and the trip again seemed like it might not ever happen.

And by winter, the COVID-19 vaccine was rolling out and a summer 2021 trip looked doable.

Throughout the pandemic, we stayed in touch with the families and the delay worked in our favor. During that time, we got to know the families better.

Finally, in early August, we made it to the island for a weeklong reporting trip.

Ellie Connolly, who helped make sure we'd visit when families were on the island, let us stay at Cliff Crest, her family's 1914 cabin overlooking the entrance of Tobin Harbor, for four nights and let us use her family's motorboat to get around the Harbor.

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Photographer Steve Kuchera, reporter Jimmy Lovrien and digital content producer Samantha Erkkila, all of the Duluth News Tribune, pose for a photo after arriving on the beach of Edwards Island In Isle Royale National Park in August 2021. Contributed / John Snell

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Carla Anderson hosted us at Johnson Island for two nights where we explored the islands and cabins on Isle Royale's north side.

John Snell guided us through Tobin Harbor.

The Gales hosted us for dinner on their island.

Many others have made time to hop on a phone or Zoom call to help plan logistics or be interviewed.

The challenges of reaching an island only accessible by boat or seaplane were daunting, made more challenging by no cellphone service, a limited ability to charge camera equipment and the need for us to pack enough food for three of us for a week.

But as the Voyageur II ferry brought videographer Samantha Erkkila, photographer Steve Kuchera and I around the circumference of Isle Royale, the sources we expected to meet were always waiting for us on the dock at each planned stop.

As the trip went on, we filled notebooks and camera memory cards with stories and images from the island and its families.

Early on, it was clear this trip was working.

My hope is you, the reader, can find this as interesting as I did when I first read about it in Merritt's book, and that the photos, videos and words, at least for a few minutes, transport you to Isle Royale.

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