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Volunteer clean-up honors Isle Royale’s fishing history

Isle Royale Volunteer Clean-up. The volunteers leaving Wright Island by boat.
The volunteers leaving Wright Island by boat.

In August, NPLSF brought a team of volunteers to Isle Royale National Park’s Wright Island, located on the north end of Siskiwit Bay. The group battled high winds as they spent a grueling but invigorating day documenting and cleaning up the decayed contents of what was once part of the Johnson/Holte fishery operation.

Research by NPLSF board member Tim Cochrane and others paints a picture of Wright Island as a once-lively fishery, going back as far as the 1830s, with evidence of Ojibwe use going back much farther. “One of the reasons Wright Island was used for so long is that it is a tidy little harbor with deep water, but with protection from strong lake winds and yet offshore enough the bugs weren't that bad,” Cochrane said.

While there were once multiple fishery buildings on Wright Island, they fell into disrepair, reduced to a single log cabin filled with long-abandoned materials.

Visitors to Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are often surprised at how many structures remain on the land, given its remote location. Many landmarks from the island’s fishing and copper mining history are interpreted for the public. Life leases and special permits allowed continued private use at some structures long after the island became a National Park in 1940. Some, buildings, like the Johnson/Holte site, became degraded far past the possibility of preservation.

According to Seth DePasqual, Cultural Resource Manager at Isle Royale National Park, the Wright Island property has been among the most daunting areas in need of cleanup. “The park has struggled with situations like this, where related family members often leave behind a significant portion of their accreted island belongings,” he said.

For Wright Island, he noted that all immediate family have passed on and there are no Holte family descendants. Although some items will be considered for Park collections, most of the material was not suitable for such purpose. To exacerbate the issue, the building settled in such a way allowing island wildlife access to the interior through the flooring. NPLSF’s interest in assisting the park with the cleanup was the impetus we needed to pull this off,” DePasqual said. “There are a lot of logistics involved, but it boiled down to assembling a team willing to do a very dirty job.”

By the end of the volunteer workday, the entire contents of the cabin were documented and extracted for safe disposal. NPLSF is deeply grateful to our team members who rolled up their sleeves to tackle this task.

Volunteers left the whirlwind workday inspired—and with much to think about. Duluth-based writer Stephanie Pearson, a frequent contributor to National Geographic and Outside Magazine, observed, “That trip felt like a dream for many reasons…it is powerfully poignant that a way of life is almost forever lost on those islands and there are only a few people left who truly understand it.”

While the physical remnants on the land have passed into ruin, NPLSF Executive Director Tom Irvine, who led the trip, emphasizes that “the Johnson/Holte fishery is far from forgotten or lost.”

The Cook Country (MN) Historical Society removed historically significant artifacts from the site years ago including several watercolors by Ingeborg and Karen Holte. Separately, Tim Cochrane has written extensively about the Holte Family and Wright Island and has collected numerous oral histories about life on the island.

“We collectively tackled one of the most daunting cleanups among island fisheries and cottages,” DePasqual said, “but we did the work respectfully, with Holte family history hanging above us.”

More information on the Johnson/Holte fishery is available in this National Park Service article. To learn more about NPLSF and our volunteer programs, visit


About the NPLSF The National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation (NPLSF) exists to provide financial support for projects and programs that preserve the natural resources and cultural heritage of the five Lake Superior national parks: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Funded through grants and private donations, NPLSF projects and programs ensure that these great parks and historic sites are maintained for the enjoyment of all current and future visitors.


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