Robert Kristjanson

When we used to talk about “those tough old buggers” fishing on Lake Winnipeg, we were talking about my father’s generation. They were the kind of guys who fished before there were power augers. They chiseled holes through four feet of ice with a needle bar. And did it again and again as they cut holes for nets. They went out on Lake Winnipeg when it was -30 and no one had heard of wind chill. It was just bloody cold.

They pulled nets out of those holes with mittened hands and when the mittens froze solid, they went into their caboose, threw the mittens into a pan of hot water simmering on a tin stove, pulled them out and put them on and went back to taking fish out of the mesh. Tough, tough as they come.

They pulled nets, they set nets, they rode back to shore with boxes of fish frozen solid, let them warm up, then cleaned them, packed them, got them ready to ship. Somewhere in there, they ate breakfasts that would kill office workers, ate loaves of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pie, cake, anything with lots of calories, wolfed down supper and swirled down everything with pots of coffee. Some of them were legendary.

Today, it is easier and safer. Better equipment, warmer clothes. But it is neither safe, nor warm. They go out on thin ice to get that best first catch. Cracks open up. Blizzards appear from nowhere. Guts and brains. They have to have guts or they’d go find something else to do. Brains because without them, they’d lose limbs and lives.

One of the best known of those tough old buggers is Robert Kristjanson. He’s a bit of a showman, a good talker, a dedicated champion of Lake Winnipeg, a terrific fisherman. He got some recognition for all that lately. Here’s a copy from the Interlake Enterprise.

Robert T. Kristjanson still going strong at age 80

 

Written by Bill Buckels, Lake Winnipeg Commercial Fisher

By the time most people reach their 80s, they usually have long retired. But retiring seems to be the last thing on Gimli fisherman Robert Kristjanson’s mind as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday.

This past year on the lake hasn’t been much different than most other years for Robert T., (known as “Bobby” by his family and fellow commercial fishermen). After fishing on the ice all last winter, Robert T. (again) fished every day through both the spring and fall open water seasons still in his boat by himself.

As the fall fishing season reached its end this year, the weather turned bitter cold, and the snow storms started north of Hecla in the Kristjanson family’s fishing grounds. His son Chris and his grandsons Trevor and Devon had “pulled-up” the day before; Robert T. was the last to leave.

We had one clear day, so “Bobby” decided it was time for his whitefish boat (the Lady Roberta) to return to Gimli Harbour for the winter (he sleeps on the boat and not back in Gimli when fishing is on).
(read more by going on line to the Interlake Enterprise).

Islendingadagurinn 125

viking ship

Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Celebration, The Icelandic Festival, The Gimli Pickerel Party

There’s Christmas. There’s Easter. There’s Thanksgiving. However, none of those days, for those of us who grew up in Gimli, Manitoba, are as important as the first weekend in August. That’s when the holiday with the unpronounceable name, Islendingadagurinn happens. Part of the charm of this celebration has been its wickedly long Icelandic name. An Icelandic Celebration, an Icelandic Festival, a Gimli Pickerel Party don’t have the same cachet. I mean, how do you beat answering the question what are you doing on the long weekend with “I’m going to Islendingadagurinn.”?

This year is going to be the 125th anniversary of Islendingadagurinn. My great grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my father went to Islendingadagurinn and I went to Islendingadagurinn. Not calling this celebration Islendingadagurinn is like sawing the horns off the Viking statue that stands on guard over Gimli. His helmet may not be authentic because of the horns but so what, no real Vikings landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. Our ancestors did. They were sheep farmers, fishermen, indentured servants, people driven out of Iceland by weather, politics and poverty. However, a statue of a sheep farmer doesn’t have the same impact as a Viking with a horned helmet. If the Viking had any sense of branding they’d have put horns on their helmets.

Gimli, when I grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s, was Icelandic to the core. Yes, there were other ethnic groups represented: Ukrainian, German, Polish, Aboriginal, Scots, English, Irish, the odd Dane but the town was Icelandic. They dominated the local politics. They dominated the business community. They were the social elite. Even small Manitoba towns have social elites. Icelandic was spoken in stores, in church, in homes. The Viking with horns hadn’t been built yet. He wasn’t yet needed to remind us of who we were.

In the 40s, Islendingadagurinn was mostly a family affair. It was mostly about those local people who had moved away, coming back to touch base with coffee and kleiner and vinarterta. And mom and dad and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins. People of Icelandic descent are big on family relationships. They can drink four pots of coffee while discussing how they’re all related to everyone else at the kitchen table.

Islendingadagurinn grew. People used to come down on the train, then cars became more available and people drove from near and far. Like from Winnipeg and Brandon and even Edmonton and Calgary. They came from other small communities in Manitoba’s Interlake. The parade which, at first, was some cars decorated with colored ribbon and signs announcing local politicians as passengers added the Shriners. The Shriners brought color, music, entertainment, turned the parade into a spectacle worthy of a city instead of a small Manitoba town. That, in turn, attracted bigger and better floats. The parade now is an event not to be missed.

As more people came to share in the Icelandic experience, more events needed to be created for them. The visitors were no longer just relatives enjoying a visit and a beer. There were the usual races, the speeches by the Fjallkona (the queen of the mountain), by distinguished visitors from Iceland but when people pour into town by the thousands, you’ve got to find something for them to do. That meant beer gardens, fish filleting competitions, knocking each other off poles over the water in the harbour, making sand castles, hosting a Viking village (I love the Viking village), creating a heritage display and sale at the local park, having pancake breakfasts, supplying Icelandic dainties. It all takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers work all year long to put on a four day festival. If they get any reward at all, it might be having lunch en mass with some Icelandic dignitary.

Along with the volunteers, local businesses pony up money to pay for musical concerts. They often pony up a lot of money because the concerts are by top notch professionals.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the year of Islendingadagurinn’s 125 anniversary, there is a problem with financing. I guess there’s always been a problem because there’s no way of charging all those thousands of people who come to have an Icelandic experience. Here, on Vancouver Island, we have the Saanichton Fair. It’s a knockout agricultural fair. However, it takes place in the country on fenced in grounds. You pay at the gate for the day or for the weekend. No one minds. We all line up and push our money through the ticket seller’s window and get our hand stamped. We all know that events have to be financed.

To me, although I left Gimli in 1957 to go to university and have lived away ever since, coming back in the summers, Islendingadagurinn is Gimli. It’s Gimli’s heart. It’s Gimli’s identity. But it is more than that, otherwise, it would just be a small town festival. It’s at the heart of the Icelandic North American community. It’s a public expression of who we are.

I write from half a continent away at a time when the Gimli park is deep in snow, the temperature hovers around -35, the choice of Gimli as a place to create New Iceland, is highly questionable, but the snow will melt, the air will warm, summer will come.

Many of us will travel great distances to participate in Islendingadagurinn, even though it may be called something else. For those of us raised in Gimli, the celebration will always be Islendingadagurinn. The Icelandic flags and the Fjallkona in her robes representing the Icelandic landscape will always be with us.

It has taken tremendous dedication and hard work to preserve this celebration of our history and culture for 125 years. I hope that those who have taken on the task today find a way to finance Islendingadagurinn for another 125.