A day in the life of a Lake Winnipeg fisherman

Photo supplied by Ken Kristjanson
By Ken Kristjanson
My father’s father, Siggi, was born April 25, 1879 at Skagafjorður, Iceland. Shortly thereafter, his father, Kristjan, died from consumption (tuberculosis). Bad luck dogged the people of northern Iceland. The fjord ice remained longer than normal, preventing the fishermen from getting out to sea.
To make matters worse, the cold weather produced a poor hay crop. Unable to feed their animals through the coming winter, the farmers had to sell their sheep at distressed prices. Many in the area looked to North America as a place where they could start a new life.
Grandfather Siggi’s mother was having a desperate time caring for her family. When a local childless couple, Hannes and Ingiborg Jónsson, offered to adopt my grandfather and take him to Canada, my great-grandmother, with a heavy heart, gratefully agreed.
My grandfather was four years old when he was fostered out in this way. Fostering was common in Iceland.
The family sailed in a small sailboat to Rekjavik and waited for a coastal steamer to Scotland.
The wait was several weeks. This must have been a very difficult time for the emigres, considering that they had sold all their meagre possessions at giveaway prices. They had very little money to purchase necessities. What made the situation more difficult was that the local population was not at all pleased that the emigrants were leaving the country and were reluctant to help.
Fortuitously, the steamship company provided supplies until the coastal freighter arrived. The family eventually sailed for Scotland and boarded a Canadian Government subsidized steamship for the long voyage to Canada.
On the way, several of Siggi´s friends died and were buried at sea. Siggi related t his incident to my father, Ted Krsitjanson, years later, saying he had asked  his foster parents why one of his friends was wrapped in a bed sheet. He was told to be quiet.
They eventually arrived at Quebec City. The next part of their odyssey ws a 1,500 mile trip in a day coach to Winnipeg. Once in Winnipeg, they rested in the old immigration sheds. From there they travelled 60 miles by boat down the Red River and along Lake Winnipeg to Gimli, the capital of New Iceland.
Their trip wasn‘t finished. Ahead of them were three miles by oxen to their homestead north of Gimli. It was located on a small creek which they called Skipalak, Ship‘s Harbour. There the Jónssons kept a small flat-bottomed boat which they used to cautiously fish Lake Winnipeg.
Siggi, as he grew up, tried many occupations. He was a commercial fisherman at age 12 at Albert’s P:oint on Humpbuck Bay. He drove a hansom cab for Bardal and Sons Funeral Emporium in Winnipeg. He clerked at Tergesen’s general store in Gimli.
He was even a contract mail hauler. Twice a month, he walked or hauled by horse, the mail from Cavalier, ND to Icelandic River (present day Riverton). He bragged that he worked for both Queen Victoria and the President of the USA at the same time. I have a letter addressed S. Jonasson (Sigtryggur Jonasson, the “Father of New Iceland”) dated 1897. It could very well have been carried by my grandfather.
From these disparate beginnings, he began a lifelong love affair with Lake Winnipeg, graduating to fisherman, boat owner and fish station operator. Eventually, the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its rail line north from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli, Manitoba. This was partly to keep pace with the new Province of Manitoba’s expansion from its “postage stamp” configuration of 1870, but more important, it was a good business move—hauling freight and passengers was immediately profitable for the railroad.
The railway hauled in settlers and supplies and, on the return trip, took cord wood and fish to Winnipeg. The cord wood was to supply fuel for the stoves and furnaces of the people of Winnipeg. The fish was shipped to the USA.
In those years, the fishing was good with tens of thousands of pounds of pickerel, sturgeon, whitefish and goldeye shipped south. Fishing, however, was seasonal. My grandfather had a job between seasons as a bartender at the Lakeview Hotel in Gimli. Here, he met the hard-living, hard-drinking railroad workers. After hours, he participated in their nightly card games—he was a natural gambler, a born risk-taker.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was totally against this apparent career change. She was an early supporter of Nellie McClung and the suffragette movement, as well as being a strong supporter of the Good Templars. My grandfather returned to fishing. In those days, the summer whitefish season on the north end of Lake Winnipeg started June 1 and continued uninterrupted until Oct. 15.
The fishermen sailed in open sailboats with an overall length of 28 ft. They usually ranged about 30 miles from the fish station. There were no gas stoves to heat food or to make hot coffee. My grandfather related years later that towards the end of the season it was not uncommon for the sails to freeze solid.
This required them to beat the sails with boards so that they could haul them up the mast. In the summer of 1922,he and his crew were fishing at Warren’s Landing at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. A couple of Hudson Bay men were travelling to visit their post at Norway house.
As the Nelson River is not navigable at night, they were forced to stay over at Warren’s Landing. To pass the evening they asked the local RCMP officer if h e k new any card players. The Bay men whispered to each other that they would clean out the locals before proceeding downriver to Norway House. The Mountie contacted my grandfather and the game was on. Needless to say it was the Bay men who came up short in the morning. Their complaints to the RCMP about a fixed game were waved off.
At first light my grandfather cleared his throat, lit a cigar, took a swallow Gooderham &Worts, then assembled his crew and headed for the fishing grounds. Fishing was good that day. However, just as they were finishing lifting their nets, a major storm blew up from the northeast. To prevent their overloaded sailboat from sinking they tacked to the nearest shelter.
The Spider Islands didn’t offer much lee form the wind. They managed to get behind one of the bigger islands and beached their craft. Hungry, wet and totally exhausted, they built a fire and cooked some of their catch. In the morning, while the storm was still raging, Grampa Siggi took out of his pocked a huge roll of sodden bills. As one of the crew was later to relate, “There we were placing rocks on the wet bills to try and dry them out while the wind howled. We had all this money and couldn’t buy a cup of hot coffee.
 (Ken Kristjanson comes from a family with generations of experience of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.)