The last families of Isle Royale: What does future hold for historic cabins — and families

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He liked what he saw so much he ended up buying land and building a cabin on the the tip of Scoville Point, a long and skinny stretch of land on Isle Royale’s northeast side separating Tobin Harbor from Lake Superior.

It would remain in his family for nearly a century, with his descendants continuing to use the cabin under life leases and special-use permits after Isle Royale became a national park in 1940.

Lee Dasler, his great-granddaughter, remembers spending her summers as a child raising frogs in the cove next to the cabin where she’d watch tadpoles grow into frogs within the puddles in the basalt.

Lee Dassler lowers a solar shower outside the Snell cabin Aug. 6, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Lee Dassler lowers a solar shower outside the Snell cabin Aug. 6, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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But her family’s use of the historic structure ended when her father, Dale, the special-use permit holder, died in 1990.

After his death, one of the first calls the family received was from the federal government expressing condolences, but also telling the family they needed to pack up their belongings and leave the cabin the next summer.

For Dassler, the hardest part was seeing her family’s wooden boats lifted on the Ranger III, the ferry that connects Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor to Houghton, Michigan.

“Just watching them being lifted from the island onto the deck of the Ranger was just a very, very difficult thing,” Dassler said. “(The boats) lived here their whole lives.”

But other cabin families were on the dock that day and saw the pain. It’s a moment Dassler said helped galvanize an effort among families to preserve the cabins.

It stuck with John Snell, whose family cabin is further in Tobin Harbor than the Dasslers’. Though he and Dassler are in their 60s and spent summers growing up on the island, they were never up at the same time and didn’t meet until the Dasslers were packing up their cabin. The two reconnected decades later and are in a relationship today.

Robert and Jennifer Pahre follow their son, Jay, past one of the two cabins that make up the Dassler Camp near Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor available to the park’s artists in residence Aug. 7, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Robert and Jennifer Pahre follow their son, Jay, past one of the two cabins that make up the Dassler Camp near Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor available to the park’s artists in residence Aug. 7, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In a letter to the park’s superintendent the following spring, Snell wrote about seeing the Dasslers leave, urging him to explore possibilities for a long-term preservation plan for the cabins.

“I was deeply saddened to watch the Dassler descendants bid farewell to (their cabin). I do not relish the time when my cousins and I will have to vacate my grandfather’s,” Snell wrote. “Almost more painful, however, will be the slow death of the Tobin Harbor community that has remained virtually unchanged for more than 50 years.”

Today, only six cabins remain under special-use permits throughout Isle Royale, and while the structure’s preservation may be more certain, the families are still wondering what, if any, role they might have on the island after the permit-holder dies.

A federal “No Trespassing” sign sits affixed to a cabin at Isle Royale’s Crystal Cove on Aug. 3, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A federal “No Trespassing” sign sits affixed to a cabin at Isle Royale’s Crystal Cove on Aug. 3, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In the decade leading up to the establishment of Isle Royale National Park in 1940, families were presented with the choice to either sell their cabins or keep using them in exchange for a life lease for the owner and their children (special-use permits were later created to include children who were minors at the time and left off the life lease).

The park service often destroyed property that was sold, but had no lease, or the leaseholder died early on. The park was to be a wilderness, after all.

Solar charging panels sit propped up against an old boat at the Snell cabin above Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor on Aug. 6, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Solar charging panels sit propped up against an old boat at the Snell cabin above Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor on Aug. 6, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Sally Orsborn, the special-use permit holder for the cabins on the park’s Captain Kidd island, said her dad saw the cabins being destroyed and got permission to move two cabins from elsewhere in the park to their island where they remain today.

She saw other structures not survive. The family of her late husband, who she met when they were both working at the resort in Rock Harbor, also had a cabin on Isle Royale, near the present-day Rock Harbor Visitor Center. When her in-laws died, the cabin was destroyed.

“Soon after they died, their cabin was pulled out on the ice and burned, as were so many cottages during those early years after the national park took over,” Orsborn said.

Those days are long gone, said Seth DePasqual, a cultural resource manager for the National Park Service on Isle Royale.

“Back in the 1950s, that definitely happened, but these buildings weren’t historic at the time. Some of them were only 30, 40 years old and nor did we even have a National Historic Preservation Act, which would obligate us to kind of think about saving them in the first place at the time,” he said.

Isle Royale National Park archaeologist Seth DePasqual

Isle Royale National Park archaeologist Seth DePasqual

In 2019, the cabins within Tobin Harbor were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring a level of protection and preservation into the future.

Additionally, DePasqual said, the “vast majority” of historic structures and cabins throughout the park have been determined eligible for the registry, which also offers protection, though some of them may be too far gone.

“It takes planning efforts like this to determine which ones we’re ultimately going to keep, which is pretty much all of them, or at least we’re trying to propose this in some of these wilderness locations,” DePasqual said. “But you know, we have to admit that maybe that one where the roof is collapsing, falling in, and the floor is all rotted out in the middle, well, maybe we’re going to have to let that one go, which is what some would call a compromise.”

An old cabin slowly returns to the woods near Tobin Harbor. 
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

An old cabin slowly returns to the woods near Tobin Harbor.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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