The Finns have a word for her: sisu, which translates roughly to mean strong will, determination or perseverance.
For more than 50 years, from 1928 into the 1980s, Finnish émigré Lydia Torry made her year-round home on Kubel Island — one of the countless rocky outcrops dotting the lakes way Up North along the Canadian border in what became Voyageurs National Park.
Unschooled, she taught herself English by scouring her decades-thick collection of National Geographic magazines. She moved moss and dirt to somehow grow potatoes, carrots and rutabaga from her rocky garden. Standing 4-feet-10, she typically wore a dress and tennis shoes — crocheting bedspreads, curtains, you name it.
“It’s simply amazing that she could live self-sufficiently that way for all those years,” said Karen Keenan, 75, whose late husband, Jim, got to know Torry as a fishing guide in the area back in the 1950s.
Catherine Crawford, the collections manager at Voyageurs National Park, said: “Lydia had sisu and the way she lived and survived on her island has become a story of fascination.”
Born to a poor farming family on Dec. 5, 1891, Lydia Kotiranda sailed from Finland as a young woman in the 1920s — joining her brother on his way to the mines near Virginia, Minn. She spent some time in New York, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, where a friend convinced her to write letters to a bachelor fisherman named Emil Torry, who lived on Kubel Island.
Exchanging letters for a year, Emil finally invited Lydia to Kubel Island on Lake Namakan (an Ojibwe word for sturgeon), where he worked as a commercial fisherman. She instantly felt connected to the rocky islands and pine-rimmed lakes.
“It almost looked like my old country,” she said in a 1976 oral history when she was 84. “He asked me if I really liked this all, and then I said, ‘Yes, I guess I like this.’ ” They were married in 1928 and had no children.
Together, they cut and stored ice blocks when Emil wasn’t out hauling whitefish, walleyes and northern pike out of his V-shaped fishing traps and nets and into his old Army boat. Emil gave Lydia a painting of cows for their wedding and once surprised her by hauling a Hammond organ over the winter ice to their shack, which stood on 109 acres and cost them $700 back in the 1920s.
In 1954, with Emil’s health failing at 59, he went out to deliver his fish and never came home — drowning on a stormy day.
“Five weeks of waiting for him, and no word, and I wait and wait and wait … finally they found him on the lakeshore,” she said through her thick accent in 1976, adding there wasn’t much left to the remains of her husband of 26 years.
Emil was buried in International Falls and Lydia stayed on the island, where she “continued to live year-round … hauling her own water, cutting wood for her stove, growing her own food, and playing a one-string harp that Emil had made for her,” according to the Voyageurs National Park website, which says she lived alone on the island until the 1980s. “Interviewed later in her life she stated that the only unhappy times she could recall were the few times that she was away from her island.”
That included a 19-day hospital stay after she stepped on a piece of glass in high water, cutting her to the bone and causing an infection that would curtail her skiing in later years.
She’d greet the fishermen and snowmobilers who stopped to visit with plates of blueberries and sturgeon, sometimes requesting things she needed. She ordered other supplies in the fall before the wicked winters set in, augmenting her diet with fresh meat from rabbits she raised.
Lydia died Feb. 23, 1987, at 95 — spending her later years in a nursing home. In the three decades since her death, Keenan and Crawford have helped keep her story alive.
Keenan, who lives in Virginia, Minn., and her husband had found Lydia’s cabin ransacked after she left for the mainland. They gathered some old photographs, letters, negatives and hats and put them in a box. They had some of the negatives printed and, nearly 25 years later, the Keenans donated the items to Voyageurs National Park.
“We have her skis, Emil’s passport, hand-knit socks and the photos and hats the Keenans contributed,” said Crawford, the collections historian at Voyageurs National Park. “It’s really a wealth of items.”
The site of their old cabin and fishing camp on Kubel Island is now a camping area at the national park, while most of their personal items are being saved in a storage facility at the park.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.