Gimli: 125th Anniversary

What has brought me back to Gimli, Manitoba every summer since 1961? What has brought me back from Iowa, Missouri, and British Columbia for 51 years?
 This year’s Fjallkona, Connie Magnusson Shiminowski and  her attendants.

There’s the place, of course. Small town, Manitoba, but there are lots of small towns. Most of them are in decline or have already disappeared as farms have become bigger, farming equipment has got bigger, fewer people are needed to farm larger and larger areas. The people in Barry Broadfoot’s book of memories, The Pioneer Years, talk about how many people it took to break the land, sow the crops, build the houses. Pictures of harvest crews show a line up of fifteen men and, behind them, out of the picture, are all the women and children preparing food to feed them. Bull work. Physical work.
My father, when he started fishing, rowed to his nets. Twice a day in summer. Bull work
Farming and fishing have needed fewer and fewer people to provide the harvests and the catches. Arnes, Hnausa, Finns, Camp Morton, have faded away. The local stores have shut down. The car is partly to blame. You used to have to have a store close by because a trip to town with a team and buggy or sleigh took a long time. Now, people think nothing of driving to Winnipeg for bargains at Costco, Superstore, the Shopping Malls.
Some towns have been fortunate. Stonewall. The nearby federal prison provides steady employment. Other people’s tragedies are someone else’s silver lining. The town is within easy commuting distance to Winnipeg. The car taketh away and the car giveth. Teulon. Selkirk has turned into a city and is sluburba-ing toward Winnipeg. It’s had the steel mills.
 My aunt, Florence Valgardson and Jack Fowler on their wedding day in Gimli.

Gimli has had it good. The WWII airbase. The Gimli girls didn’t have to go far for husbands, although once they married airmen, they began a lifetime of traveling. The airforce brought money into town. I got some of it as a pin boy at the bowling alley. Great beaches meant cottagers and cottagers meant grass needed cutting. I got some of that.
The airbase finally shut down but the government eased the situation by helping create an industrial park. Then Gimli’s pristine water brought Seagram’s distillery and wine bottling plant. The wine bottling plant didn’t last but the distillery is still in operation. Good wages and benefits.
Gimli started as an Icelandic settlement in 1875. The Ukrainians came later, around 1890.
Now, the town’s origins are fading away. The Icelandic conversation in the stores has turned into an Icelandic conversation group that meets at Amma’s café once a week. The fish boats have largely been replaced by expensive pleasure craft. The fish processing sheds at the harbour have disappeared. The fish is shipped to the Fresh Water Marketing Board or filleted and sold locally.
Nobody talks about it much but the Ukrainianness of Gimli has also faded away. Like the Icelanders, they’ve intermarried, the kids have left the farms and become doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers in the city.
A lot of culture is based on animosity. Us against them. It’s partly prejudice, fear, a need to feel exclusive, superior. However, it’s hard to keep up those feelings when your son in law or daughter in law is from some other ethnic, religious group, when your grandkids have married people from places you didn’t even know existed. You have to work hard at keeping the us in Us.
There is still a Roman Catholic church, a Greek Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a Unitarian church. I grew up Lutheran so that’s the church I know about. The Ladies Aide that my mother belonged to has given up making sandwiches and dainties and serving food at funerals. The members are too old. That probably says it all.
It’s not about being or not being Christian. It’s about the exclusivity of community, about origins, about the old country. That’s pretty well faded away with the dying of my parents’ generation. My kids don’t see themselves as Icelandic or Irish or English. The grandkids even have a little German and Russian thrown in. They see themselves as Canadian. Or American. They’re not hyphenated anything. They’ll leave the ranting and raving, the comedy and tragedy of ethnic identity to new immigrants.
New houses are going up regularly west of town. Strangers. Or not strangers, often people who had cottages and want to retire here. Or people who worked here for a time and want to come back. Gimli is a good place to retire. All the advantages of a small town but two good highways leading to Winnipeg and Walmart. If you’re that way inclined, you can go to see The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and drive home in the same evening. Or attend a hockey game.
The town is small, a mile by half a mile. The lake on the east, the railway track on the west, deep government ditches on the north and south. Winter houses are replacing the cottages to the north and south. Small developments are appearing where there used to be farms along the lake. An enclave of expensive houses have appeared beside a golf course at Pelican Beach north of town. Birds of a feather, or, in cases like this, birds of a chequebook. The local council makes them pay through the nose for the privilege. Taxes are shockingly high. A friend of mine pays double what I pay in Victoria, BC for a house of about the same value.
The Vikings believed a man had to have luck to succeed. Without it, intelligence and physical strength didn’t come to much. Gimli has luck. The first Icelandic celebrations were held in Winnipeg. They moved to Gimli. Hnausa, a small community to the north, also had an Icelandic celebration for a while but finally quit. Gimli was closer to Winnipeg on the rail line. Now, Islindingadagurinn is the event of the year. Figures vary about how many people come but the town is jammed with tourists looking for an Icelandic experience on the first long weekend in August. They bring money. Also, the Celebration provides a recognizable tourist identity.
Part of Gimli having the Icelandic celebration is luck but, for twelve months every year, local people work at making it a success.    
It’s a strange mix. Icelandic settlement, Ukrainian settlement, fishing village, cottage country, WWII airbase, industrial park, home of excellent whiskey, bedroom community for Winnipeg. Maybe all of those things, plus lifetime friendships, are what draw many of us back to Gimli every summer.
However, where other communities have disappeared or are just shadows of themselves, Gimli continues to prosper. Maybe it’s the sand beaches, the lake that reaches to the horizon, the history, the sunsets, the location. Maybe the Vikings were right. Maybe part of it is good luck.

Rite of Passage

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.

“In 1950 our family became the operators of the Booth Fisheries Whitefish Station on George Island, in the north basin of Lake Winnipeg. (Although the charts list it as ‘George’ Island, it was always called  “George’s Island”.) After high school was finished for the year, I was to board the M.S. Goldfield for the 200 mile trip to George’s to work as a junior shore-hand. My first time making the trip on my own.
“With a stop at Rabbit Point, it would normally take a day and a night to reach the island, so the trip was like a relaxing cruise. Captain Albertson and the crew of eight knew my family well and they weren’t above playing a little trick on me. Shortly after boarding, The Captain called me over and said very seriously that the “Key to the Keelson” was missing. As the crew was busy at their various tasks, would I help them find this important item? Being young and eager to please, I readily agreed.
“The Captain dead-panned that some member of the crew must have The Key. So off I went looking.  But the whole ship, save for me, was in on the game. They had played this stunt many times on ‘green horns’ before me and they had their acting parts down to a science.  One by one I dutifully searched out all the crew members, asking if they knew the whereabouts of this missing key. Each one shook their heads solemnly.
“Seeing my frustration and fearing I would give up after searching for so long, one of the crew said that the Engineer must have it. The problem was he was off watch and sleeping in his room. But on the ship, the Captain’s word was law and so I gingerly opened the door to the Engineer’s room. As quietly as possible, I explained my mission. Grumpily he arose from his bunk and with a stream of complaints about the frequent disappearance of the key, he searched his cabin while a 14 year old boy stood shaking at attention. Sadly no key could be found. In despair I made my way to the wheel house to report to the Captain my inability to find the elusive key. By now it was almost suppertime and the crew had gathered for the meal. The smiles on their faces should have tipped me off. As I approached, they all said in unison, “Gotcha!”
Ken  Kristjanson

Feb 2012

Good Men

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.