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Longtime Rainy Lake islanders prepare to leave their pioneer life
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Seventy-one year old Norbert Goulet steers a boat away from his island home. Goulet and his wife, Etta Jean, 79, have lived the past 40 years on the small island on Rainy Lake. They were forced to sell the island to Voyageurs National Park. Their 25-year lease on the property ends in September. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
When Voyageurs National Park was created in 1975, there were still thousands of acres of private land within park boundaries. Voyaguers is in far nothern Minnesota nestled along some of the largest border lakes. 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. Some sold their property outright. Many more purchased 25-year leases so they could stay longer. 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.

International Falls, Minn. — 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.

Goulet is no stranger to wilderness life. He grew up in Minnesota's rugged Northwest Angle. His great-great-great grandfather was a voyageur 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,'" said Goulet. "I call it freedom, elbow room, 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."

It's 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. You get a lump in your throat when you think that our dream is over with.
- Norbert Goulet

The island is small, about an acre and a half. 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 guest house and a few outbuildings connected by decks and stone pathways.

For some years, Norbert and Etta Jean commuted daily to jobs in International Falls. Norbert was an engineering draftsman, Etta Jean a nurses aid. In the 70s, they decided to find jobs closer to home. Their second careers let them spend more time enjoying their island. Etta Jean, 79, took to cleaning resort cabins. Norbert is a tour boat captain.

They still had to make the three-mile trip across Rainy Lake in all seasons. They made the trip by boat in the summer and by snow shoe 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. Norbert says the hard work and isolation never bothered them.

"When you're in a situation where there's just two of you, and you have to depend on the other person, you seem to take care of each other more than taking it for granted when your living with a group of people," Goulet said. "And I think it's a great feeling, myself, just to have each other."

Etta Jean says she never tired of the wilderness life. She never longed for modern conveniences. When she used to work the late shift in town, she'd find her way across the lake by the light of the moon.

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Image The Goulets with great-granddaughter, Stori

"Only one time my boat broke down," said Etta Jean. "And I was out there paddling and I didn't come home, so he came out looking for me, and there I was, paddling my way home."

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, Norbert and Etta Jean were paid $42,000 for the island. They gave back $10,000 for a 25-year lease, which runs out Sept. 23. Norbert 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 like giving up your dream, your homestead, turning your back on a way of life," he said. "I don't really want to think about that last trip. You get a lump in your throat when you think that our dream is over with."

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

"We knew it was coming," said Etta Jean. "It's just sad. I mean, you know it's coming, but still, when the time comes, I never thought it would come, but it's here."

Voyageurs National Park officials say there's still about 1,100 acres 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 might be saved for historic or architectural reasons. Barbara West is park superintendent. She says she's shed a few tears with park dwellers as their departure times near.

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Image Voyageurs National Park Superintendent Barbara West

"We try to be as sensitive as we can and we try to be understanding about the experiences they've had and the connections they have with this place," said West. "But finally, it comes down to the property belongs to the people of the United States and they're going to have to go. And it's not easy. It's not easy for them and it's not easy for us."

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

"I don't think... the younger generation is much interested in that type of life anymore as far as just being able to survive in comfort," said Goulet. "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 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.

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