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The last families of Isle Royale: Island life in 21st century full of restoration work, sharing history

In Part 2 of our series on families that have cabins in Isle Royale National Park, 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.

Carla Anderson, right, with Nancy Ousley, tells passing sea kayakers a brief history of her family’s connection to Johnson Island in Isle Royale National Park on Aug. 3, 2021. Anderson sees informing visitors of the island’s history as important. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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JOHNSON ISLAND, Mich. — When Carla Anderson, a Duluth native now living in Seattle, makes the trek to the island where her family has maintained cabins for more than a century in Isle Royale National Park, her time is spent relaxing with friends and family and tending to the aging structures.

Johnson Island, on the north side of Isle Royale, is one of only six sets of cabins in the park that remain under special-use permits — held by Anderson’s aunt — which allow the families that predate the national park continued use of what was once their private property as long as that permit holder is alive. Prior to Isle Royale’s establishment in 1940, private property owners sold their land to the park service in exchange for lifetime leases for the owners and their adult children. They were later amended to special-use permits to allow for children who were minors at the time to have lifetime access to the island.

So in addition to the refuge provided by the island and restoration work it requires, Anderson sees herself as an interpreter of the island’s history and a link to her family’s more than century-long history on the island.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune


When boaters float by and stare at the cabins, she and her wife, Nancy Ousley, don’t mind walking down to the dock to speak with them or invite them up for a tour.

“These are not just empty structures, right? People can canoe up or kayak up here, and they can come ashore and they can hear about the history as opposed to just seeing a plaque on the outside of it and nothing inside,” Anderson told the News Tribune on Johnson Island in early August.

Five minutes later, a group of women circumnavigating Isle Royale in kayaks paddled beside the only remaining Johnson Island dock. They floated above what remains of the cribs that once supported fish and boat houses as Anderson gave them a rundown of her family's history on the island and the other cabins that still dot Isle Royale’s shoreline.

Her great-grandfather, John Anderson, and his fishing partner, Herman Johnson, based their fishery out of the 5-acre Johnson Island on the north side of Isle Royale. Her great-uncle even spent a winter on the island in 1915 to satisfy the 12-month residency requirement to make it theirs.

Commercial fishing took place there until the late 1950s and restoration work by the Andersons began in 1980.



Restoration work ongoing

There was no shortage of work that summer for Anderson and her late father, Jim, who grew up helping his father fish on the island.

A cabin was used to store the fishing nets, which were rotting the floors. Other cabins needed to be jacked up and leveled. Roofs were failing.

Patty and Paul Stariha cover a Johnson Island cabin with plastic at the end of a day during a reroofing project Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We came back up here for the first time and there was just tons of overgrowth, and leaking roofs and damages to the floors and stuff,” Anderson said. “And I just really felt this was such a special place that we needed to put some work into saving this because it’s very unique, unlike anything else on Lake Superior or the other Great Lakes.”

By the late 1980s, Paul and Patty Stariha, of Superior, began joining the Andersons in lending a hand. Patty’s mother was best friends with Anderson's mom, and Anderson's dad hired Paul at the Superior refinery.

Paul Stariha scoops water from Lake Superior to filter it into a sack on Johnson Island on Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune


The couple continues to come up every summer to help. Paul remembers his first time to the island.

“The place was pretty rundown, and I just looked at the projects and thought it’d be fun,” Stariha said.

“There was no roof, no floor — the only thing standing was the walls,” Paul said, pointing to the cabin he and Patty stay in. “And we took the walls apart, laid ‘em down, put floor and the roof in and I think we got that pretty much done in one year.”

For the work they can’t do themselves, Anderson has hired a contractor to repair a rotting wall of the main log cabin on the island.

Patty Stariha takes the plunge into Lake Superior at the end of the day Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

If getting a contractor and materials out to a remote island national park by boat wasn’t challenging enough, the Johnson Island cabins — and nearly all cabins on the island still used by families — sit in an area the park service considers “potential wilderness." Therefore, power tools are banned — everything must be done by hand and use period materials. It’s a sore spot among some families who question whether the noise from a drill or chainsaw would take away from other Isle Royale guests’ wilderness experience, especially when motorboats can be used on the water just a few feet away and seaplanes bring guests to the island.

But after two years and more than $30,000 later, the contractor managed to shore up the cabin, which is now used as a gathering place for everyone on Johnson Island — a place where they can prepare food or escape the bugs and weather.

Carla Anderson, left, and Nancy Ousley prepare supper on Johnson Island on Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

It’s worth it for Anderson, who also serves as the president of Isle Royale Families and Friends Association , a nonprofit that works to ensure their history and cabins remain part of the national park.

“You make the decision to do it because you have a deep commitment to these buildings that were built by your ancestors and you have a sense of obligation that you want to make sure that they're kept in good condition,” Anderson said.

Carla Anderson and Paul Stariha fish near Johnson Island the evening of Aug. 3, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

On Amygdaloid Island, one of the outermost islands on the north side of Isle Royale, an inlet carved into its northeast side Crystal Cove is home to an old lodge and cabins built by an Omaha mining executive as a retreat. Later, Milford and Myrtle Johnson based their commercial fishery out of the island.

RELATED: Family heritage — and the last privately held commercial license — keep Northland couples on Isle Royale each October

There, Milford’s nephew, Steve Johnson, of Gillette, Wyoming, spends a few weeks each summer doing extensive work on the structures with his friend, Paul Dapra, also of Gillette. He’s one of several families that no longer have a life lease or special-use permit, but is allowed to stay at their family’s cabins in exchange for volunteer work for the park service. Their applications are processed each winter and are considered on a yearly basis.

Steve Johnson talks with visitors inside the main cabin at Crystal Cove on Aug. 3, 2021. Johnson was working as a volunteer to maintain the cabin, which is now controlled by the National Park Service. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“When we first came in a couple of years ago, it was wide open … you could see right through the roof,” Johnson said. “The water was just pouring in.”

The two closed that up, then replaced the flooring. The once-bowing log walls are held together by winches. The two have been working to evict all the squirrels that moved in.

Paul Dapra talks with visitors inside one of the cabins at Crystal Cove on Aug. 3, 2021. Dapra was working as a park volunteer to help maintain the cabins. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

They've repaired the grand stone fireplace, and although this summer’s fire ban prevented them from starting any fires in it this year, Johnson remembers his father and uncle sitting in front of the fire late into the night at the same table that’s there now.

“Many, many nights sitting in front of this fireplace … Milford sitting at the table, my dad over there. They’d unscrew the bottle of Christian Brothers brandy and when the bottle was gone they were done,” Johnson said.

Crystal Cove contains several cabins, the largest of which houses a large stone fireplace. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Volunteering in exchange for ‘bonus years’ at cabins

On the other side of Blake Point — Isle Royale’s northernmost tip — a community of cabins and cottages sit along the shore and on the islands of Tobin Harbor.

There, John Snell works on replacing the roofs of his neighbor Lou Mattson’s cabin.

John Snell works on a cabin roof in the Tobin Harbor area of Isle Royale on Aug. 5, 2021. Maintaining cabins is a constant task. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Like Steve Johnson, Snell has a Volunteer-in-Parks (VIP) permit to continue to stay at his family's cabin in exchange for volunteer work.

He and his family have been doing that at the simple cabin his grandpa, Roy Snell, a children’s author, took over in the 1930s. Snell’s dad, the cabin’s last life lease holder, died 10 years ago.

But he knows the arrangement could end at any time.

“We’re volunteers on a year-by-year basis, at whatever the superintendent feels like doing,” Snell said. “It’s a little tenuous.”

The families can stay at the cabins and volunteer — extended stays beyond the lifetime lease and special use permit holders die — because the park service has not yet finished its cultural resource management plan that will outline the future of the cabins.

And without occupants, the structures wouldn’t last long.

“Why they’re still standing? I don’t know. They’re two-by-four construction, and winters are pretty hard around here. They have no right to still be here, but because people continue to come out and live in the place, they seem to be doing OK. Unless you come out every single year, unless someone’s in the place, it’s going to fall apart.”

A cabin predating the formation of Isle Royale National Park returns to the land on Clay Island. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But the families in the VIP program aren’t all doing construction and restoration work.

Across Tobin Harbor from the Snells on Gale Island, the grandchildren of Alfreda Prince Gale, whose father purchased the island in 1935, just before the park service took over, help the park’s artist in residence when they are at Isle Royale.

It’s a good fit for Don Gale, a musician and one of Alfreda’s grandsons, and his wife, Amba, a poet and leadership coach.

Don and Amba Gale relax in their cabin Aug. 7, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Together, the couple pick up the artist, give them a tour of the area, show them to their cabin, host them for dinner and are available for any other needs they might have during the two-week residency.

But they also can continue enjoying the place they’ve made so many memories over the years. Their wedding was even held on Gale Island in 1981.

Because the Gale cabin is the largest in Tobin Harbor and has a screened-in porch, Gale Island continues its role as a gathering place for the Gale family and other Tobin Harbor families.

Lee Dassler, left, visits Amba and Don Gale in their cabin’s kitchen Aug. 6, 2021. The couple was preparing dinner for seven. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“It is a gift. It is amazing. I think actually I was about 30 years old before it dawned on me that not everybody had this kind of deal, and it just blew me away at that time … Oh my God, how fortunate we are and I have lived in gratitude for the arrangement my grandmother made all those years ago ever since,” Don said.

Like Snell, Don’s father died about a decade ago and the family was able to stay under the volunteer program. Don figured it would be a couple of extra years until the park finished its management plan.

Don and Amba Gale talk with visitors before supper Aug. 6, 2021. Amba’s hand rests on a copy of her book inspired by the island. Don has produced an album of songs inspired by Isle Royale. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But the park service is still wading through that.

“And we’re all very grateful for having a 10-year extra run here,” Don said.

The Gale brothers and cousins rotate through shifts lasting several weeks and spend time volunteering and enjoying the cabin. In early August, Jack Gale, Don’s cousin, was staying on his boat named “Nice Catch” and boating around the island ahead of his turn at the cabin.

Later in the month, when he was in the cabin, his volunteer responsibilities unexpectedly expanded to rescuer. The Horne Fire was bearing down on Tobin Harbor and threatening the cabins . Upon orders to evacuate, he picked up Grant and Marylin Merritt from their cabin and brought them to Rock Harbor Lodge.

A few days before, a lightning strike started a fire on the other side of the main island’s ridgeline, Jack told to the News Tribune from his boat as he gave a tour of Tobin Harbor.

Jack Gale gives visitors to Isle Royale a tour on his boat, “Nice Catch,” on Aug. 5, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I think, emotionally for me, this place is home … Gale Island is an emotional center for me,” he said.

But he understands the Gales might not always use it this way. The 10 extra years they’ve had as volunteers since the permit holder died are just a “bonus,” he said.

“It never was our island to start with, in the sense that when my grandmother bought the island, it was understood the national park was on the way,” he said. “And these are just bonus years as far as I’m concerned.”

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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