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Pioneering Way of Life on Rainy Lake Ends for Elderly Couple - 2003-08-14


Voyageurs National Park, in northern Minnesota, nestles along some of the largest lakes on the U.S.-Canada border. When it was created in 1975, there were still hundreds of hectares of private land within park boundaries: forests, wilderness areas, hundreds of small islands. The federal government immediately began buying up the privately held land. Home and cabin owners were forced to sell. But they were given a choice: sell and move, or sell and stay, at least a bit longer, by purchasing a 25-year lease on their former property.

About 50 of those leases end this year. One of them is held by Norbert and Etta Jean Goulet. The elderly couple has been living alone on a small island on Rainy Lake for 40 years.

Norbert Goulet, 71, maneuvers a small boat to the rocky shore of the island he calls home. He's done it thousands of times since he first bought the island for $900 four decades ago.

Mr. Goulet is no stranger to wilderness life. He grew up in Minnesota's rugged Northwest Angle. His great-great-great grandfather was a voyageur [a woodsman who transported furs and supplies] for the Northwest Fur Company 200 years ago. Several generations of his family have lived off the land and waters.

"I came to International Falls and looked around and said, 'I'm going to live on an island, a place where I don't have to build a fence. I call it freedom, elbowroom," says Mr. Goulet. "Free from the noise, life in the rat race, factory noise, pollution and cars and trucks and trains and all that sound that we can live without. We'd rather listen to the waves on the shore and the bald eagles and the gulls."

The island is small, about half a hectare. Norbert Goulet and his future wife Etta Jean arrived there in the summer of 1963. They pitched a tent among the swaying pines and began building a life. There's now a rustic cabin, a guesthouse and a few outbuildings connected by decks and stone pathways.

For some years, the couple commuted daily to jobs in International Falls. Mr. Goulet was an engineering draftsman, his wife a nurse's aide. In the 70s, they decided to find jobs closer to home. Their second careers let them spend more time enjoying their island. At 79-years-old, Mrs. Goulet cleans resort cabins. Mr. Goulet is a tour boat captain. They still had to make the five-kilometer trip across Rainy Lake in all seasons - by boat in the summer and by snowshoe or snowmobile in the winter. During freeze-up and ice-out times, they were stuck on the island for weeks at a time. Survival chores kept them busy. There was wood to chop, water to haul and fish to catch. They had no electricity or running water. They used an electric generator only rarely. They don't own a TV.

The three-room cabin is mostly empty now. A battery-powered radio still sits atop an old Victrola in a corner. But decorations, pictures and other belongings have been packed up and taken off the island.

When Voyageurs National Park was created, the Goulets were paid $42,000 for the island. They gave back $10,000 for a 25-year lease, which runs out September 23. Mr. Goulet says at the time, 25 years sounded like forever. He says the last day will be hard.

"I try not to dwell on that, because it's, ah, like giving up your dream, your homestead, turning your back on a way of life. I don't really want to think about that last trip," he says. "You get a lump in your throat when you think that our dream is over with."

Etta Jean Goulet says she has only good memories of their years on the island. She recalls baking bread while her husband read by candlelight. And there were the sounds. A thunderstorm, the cry of the loons, the waves beating the shore. After four decades, she doesn't want to leave, but she holds no resentment.

"We knew it was coming. It's just sad," she says. "I mean, you know it's coming, but still, when the time comes, I never thought it would come, but it's here and we've gotta go."

Voyageurs National Park officials say there are still about 450 hectares of private land in the park. Fifty of the land leases are up this year. The nine remaining 25-year leases will expire next year. Most of the cabins will be torn down after the owners leave. A few may be saved for historic or architectural reasons.

Norbert Goulet says he always thought he was born too late. He would have made a good pioneer. In a way, he and his wife have been 20th century pioneers. He realizes there are few people like them anymore.

"I don't think people, the younger generation, is much interested in that type of life anymore as far as just being able to survive in comfort," he says. "They're more looking at living with their electronic gadgets and a faster way of life and being able to push a button when they want lights. Whether that's right or not, I can't say. But to me it isn't."

Norbert and Etta Jean Goulet plan to spend as much time as they can on their island between now and the end of September. They say once they leave for the last time, they have no intention of ever returning. They say it would be too painful. The Goulets plan to live in International Falls.