Photograph provided by Ken Kristjanson
Lake Winnipeg is big. People who haven’t travelled on it don’t realize just how big. There 9,465 sq miles of water. It’s 300 miles long and, in places, 50 miles wide. It’s a lake of ferocious storms with winds from Hudson Bay combining with shallow water, creating dangerous waves. It’s a lake made for drowning. In winter, it’s a great plain of ice, driving winds, drifting snow, booming cracks.
It’s a lake filled with fish. The native population fed themselves on the fish. In 1875, the Icelandic settlers arrived. Flummoxed by fish that weren’t cod, by water that froze six feet thick, by having nets meant for the ocean but useless in fresh water, the best they could do was catch enough fish to stay alive. However, it didn’t take long for them to learn the skills that were needed, to build boats for the open water, to make nets that would catch whitefish, pickerel, sauger, jackfish, sunfish, goldeye, fish that could be eaten fresh, wind dried or smoked. Fish that could be transported to Winnipeg to be sold or traded.
The Icelandic settlers were mostly sheep farmers but, in Iceland, once the hay harvest was in, hired men and even the farm owners walked or rode to the coast to fish during the winter. Iceland’s was a survival economy. Each year it was a struggle to get through the winter. Many did not. For the unlucky, mutton, butter, milk, skyr, dried fish, lichen, ran out. The summers were spent taking care of the dairy cows and sheep, in harvesting the hay, in cutting turf, in collecting lichen and seaweed, the winters, in fishing. The ocean fishing skills were largely irrelevant to survival on Lake Winnipeg, but the attitude was not.
What, at first, was subsistence fishing, providing enough for a full belly, soon turned into an opportunity to trade for necessary goods or even to be paid in cash. It didn’t take long for an Icelandic fishery to be established and among the Icelanders some families began to create fishing stations, build boats, set up commercial enterprises and become what was known as fishing families.
Among these were the Kristjansons. Sigurdur T. Kristjansson was born in Skagafjordur, in 1879. He came to Canada with his foster parents in 1885. He became a fisherman and lake station operator. Two of his sons, Hannes and Ted, in turn, became fishermen. Although, of Ted’s two sons, it is Robert who continues the tradition of fishing, it is Ken who has been writing reminiscences of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.
The lake was a dangerous place. It was a world mostly of men who worked hard, faced danger on a daily basis, lived in isolation for long periods of time. Those who worked on the lake created a culture, shared a life, and when a boy first entered this world, there were initiations. But, it’s Ken’s story, and I’ll let him tell it.
Over the years my father hired many men to fish for him on Lake Winnipeg. Some years he had as many as thirty-five at his commercial fish camp.
Some of these men were married, dependable but many of them were single or temporarily “shacked up.” They weren’t often churched. There lives were too unpredictable for that. Many of them were hard drinkers. Not a drink or three too many on Friday night after work. These were often hard, hard drinkers. Falling down drunk hard drinkers.
They were seasonal workers, turning up for fall fishing and winter fishing. The rest of the time they lived on unemployment or found part time jobs. When they’d spent their wages and the unemployment money ran out they’d sometimes turn up at our back door.
“Somebody’s coming,” my mother would say, seeing a taxi pull up in the back lane. These weren’t social visits. The taxi would sit with its engine running while my father had a hurried conversation at the kitchen door.
“I need forty-five for the cab and another twenty for something to drink,” the visitor would say. The only variation on these conversations was how much was to go for the cab and how much for booze. They didn’t drink government liquor unless they had to or someone else was paying. Homebrew was cheaper and more potent. The fact that it might be laced with lye or battery acid didn’t deter them.
Money in hand they shambled back to the taxi. My father wasn’t handing out charity. He was ensuring a workforce when fishing season started. If he didn’t give them an advance on their wages, they would go to someone else and they’d work for someone else.
When it was time to head north, they’d straggle into town, hitchhiking in, walking, dumped off by family, taking a cab if they had any credit left. They seldom came sober. Faced with two months in isolation, they wanted to enjoy their last moments in civilization. As each appeared, my father would take him down to the boat. It sometimes was easier if they passed out on the boat. Being comotose kepthem him from wandering away and having to be found again. One hired man appeared then disappeared for a day and a night. We discovered him at noon asleep in an outhouse, his pants down and two empty twenty-fours of beer between on his feet.
We found Jon in a caboose. A caboose is a shack made of two by fours and building paper. It has a door and a tin stove. Before there were Bombadiers and Skidoos, a caboose was put on a sleigh bed and pulled onto the lake as shelter from the wind and cold. The fishermen would fire up the stove. When they were lifting nets, their woolen mittens would freeze. They’d have a pan of warm water on the stove so they could drop their mittens in to thaw them out. They’d make tea and ate their lunch in the caboose. When we arrived at Jon’s caboose, he was cooking a seagull he’d killed with his .410. When they were new, his clothes might have been many colours but now they were a uniform black.
“Whew!” I whispered. The smell of the boiling seagull and Jon brought tears to my eyes.
“He’s a good man with a needle bar,” my father said. “One of the best. Well get him cleaned up and he’ll be fine.”
Being good at one thing was all that was required. Jon didn’t have to be good at a hundred things or ten things. Just one thing. This was before there were power augers. To cut through three or four feet of ice, you needed someone who could take a long iron bar with a head that was shaped to a needle point and chisel holes in four feet of ice. Jon was all sinew and bone. He could chisel ice all day, making hole after hole so the nets could be set in gangs.
We collected Gusti from his shanty. There was a table and a chair. No bed. He was sleeping on the floor on piles of newspaper. He made the trip between the beer parlour and his shanty with such regularity people said you could set your watch by him.
“Good shore man,” my father said. “He can mend nets better than anyone.”
We gathered them up, one by one, pulling them out of kitchens and alleyways, out of some momentary lover’s arms, counting noses, wishing we could anchor the boat a mile from shore or put an armed guard on it. We loaded the boat with supplies. Food and clothes and anchors and nets and rope and barrels of gas, outboard motors, until there was hardly room left.The freight boat would bring the rest of the supplies and the cook.
Some of the hired men were sleeping, others were cradling bottles of whiskey.
“Leave the bottles alone,”my father said to me. “They’ll need something when they wake up. There’ll be some pretty bad hangovers tomorrow.”
A taxi pulled up. “This one yours?” the driver asked. My Dad nodded. He and the driver helped get Eugene on board. They propped him between some fish boxes. My Dad paid the fare, made a note of the cost on a scrap of paper.
“Thank God, he made it,” he said. “There isn’t a motor he can’t fix.”
I thought about the trip north. It wouldn’t be bad if the lake stayed calm but I wouldn’t have wanted to have been sobering up on the lake if the water was rough. There’d be more than one who would be lying with his head over the gunwales.
My father eyed the horizon. “Well, we’d better be going,” he said.
“I wish I was going with you,” I replied, listening to the deep throbbing of the boat’s motor.
“Why, what could you do?” he asked, surprised at the idea.
He was right, of course. I wouldn’t last fifteen minutes on a needle bar, I couldn’t mend nets, and I had no ability with motors. There was no use for a scribe in the camp. Me and my university education would be of absolutely no value.