INLReads: Background notes for Wendigo

Something I’ve always appreciated about people of Icelandic background’s is their ability to laugh at themselves. Sharp witted poetry that deflates egos and reveals less than stellar behaviours have a long history. Vanity and foolishness have always been frequent targets.
Story telling about community absurdities and individual idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to Icelandic society or culture. However, in my experience, such anecdotes, usually verbal, seem exceptionally common.
When the settlers came to New Iceland, they were a homogeneous group. Until they got onto ships to go to England or Scotland, many people had never met someone who was not Icelandic. The port cities in the UK were a great shock. Letters written about the experience are well known. The large horses, the stone buildings, the travel by train, everything, everything was foreign.
Quebec City must have been as strange to people who had spent their lives on isolated farms as some crazed fantasy. Always travelling, trusting to the agents you weren’t sure could be trusted, and sometimes were untrustworthy, by ship to England or Scotland, by train to the  next port, by ship to Amerika, by more ships along the Great Lakes, up rivers, into endless wilderness. With people dying on the way, dying on ships, dying in ports, dying on ships travelling westward, dying on rivers, on barges, on wilderness beaches, in lonely cabins.
In Iceland there were the trolls, the huldafolk, the ghosts, the witches and here, in the wilderness were the people they’d been warned about, the Indians, and with them came stories of Wendigo. There were violent, dangerous gods in the forests that were already terrifying, life threatening.
And Wendigo. Who was Wendigo? He was more than one. They roamed the forest. They were humanlike dogs, evil, practicing cannibalism. If a person ate human flesh, he became a Wendigo. They knew no limits but were driven by gluttony, greed and excess. As part of the transformation caused by eating human flesh, they grew in size and, like a troll, became large.
It is not hard to imagine in those early dark winters, huddled in crowded cabins, ill fed, hungry, surrounded by freezing temperatures, howling storms, people believing in Wendigo. A new country, new terrors. Even in a place called New Iceland, the integration has begun. Guttumor Guttormsson says in one of his essays that it was a joyous day when he got his first moccasins to replace his Icelandic shoes. Terror and comfort from a new culture.
The story, though, is not about Wendigo tearing anyone to shreds and eating him. It’s about the foolishness of the community in squabbling over petty issues instead of working together. The early religious conflicts come to mind but there were other conflicts as well. Perhaps the amount of community conflict that existed was because in Iceland people lived on isolated farms instead of in villages. Each farm was its own community. As one farm owner in Iceland said, “I’m Emperor here.”, comparing himself to Napoleon. If farm owners were self-important little Napoleans, it’s no wonder that they were notorious for being in constant conflict. Visitors to Iceland commented on the amount of conflict between and among the farmers.  Perhaps, it had to do with conditions further back in time with a society that could charge, arrest, convict but had no way of enforcing a sentence. That was left to whoever had reason to enforce it. Gunnar is not executed by a government executioner but is brought down by a vigilante posse.
When I went to university, I did not know the difference between a discussion and an argument. What I had experienced was argument. When people had different opinions, I was used to hearing adults arguing and the arguing often, especially if fueled by alcohol, turned to shouting and shouting to violence. Instead of reasoned discussion there was opinion, opinion often based on no facts. Instead of a sharing of opinion and information, there were entrenched positions which, if challenged, made the person with a different opinion, the enemy.  It took some time before I realized the difference and that people could, with good reason, hold opinions different from mine and that, if I knew my subject matter, I might get them to modify their positions and vice versa. I learned that I didn’t have to be “right” all the time and that there was nothing sacred about my opinions. I also learned that I could work with people who had many different opinions than me: religious, political, social. In a larger way, this was the same struggle that the community in a multi-ethnic society  was having to learn.
This story has as a protagonist a young boy who is, in a dishonest and cowardly fashion, chosen by the men in the community to seek out Wendigo, to steal his cache of furs, furs that the community hopes will relieve them of their poverty. The choice of a young boy allows for his naiveté, for his bravery, for his innocence, for his being able to honestly report on what it is that he has learned. Innocence often reveals foolishness.
It is a child who says the Emperor has no clothes.
The community, in spite of its poverty, retains its pretensions, its vanities and its petty conflicts. The sheep farmers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly don’t move to a better, drier place to raise sheep but build rafts. The settlers away from the village are filled with fears and transfer them onto an imaginary villain. Through all these adult fears and weaknesses, the young boy has to search until he reaches an understanding of the community.
The protagonist, Jon Litla (Little Jon), doesn’t find Wendigo or his furs but he does find truth.   (“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”)

Background notes: The Troll Wife

Folk tale collections often include stories of wishes gone wrong.
Many cultures have stories about the danger of making wishes based on greed or pride.
Sometimes, though, they are about wishes gone right. Those are usually about rewards for those whose behaviour is exemplary.
“The Troll Wife” is about both of these: first, a wish that is granted but not with positive consequences and second, goodness being rewarded.
Such tales often include a challenge or test that requires kindness or an act of faith. That test is usually issued by a woman or a woman disguised or hidden by a curse or spell and it is made to a man. In cultures with royal figures such a young man is often a prince, wealthy, handsome and the troll or ugly figure turns out to be a beautiful maiden worthy of a prince.
You can make much or little of such a tale. It can be seen as a story about the need to test the true love of young men and/or a statement about the relationship of men and women in a given culture. It was not long ago that there was no birth control and folk music and folk stories are filled with sorrow and lamentations caused by young men who seduce maidens, then abandon them.
The most popular song of servant’s maids was “Early One Morning”. “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a young maid sing in the valley below, Oh, don’t deceive me, Oh, never leave me. How could you use a poor maiden so.”
It is no wonder that tests of a young man’s faithfulness are a quite common theme. However, it is also not surprising that the emotions of love, jealousy, the desire to be beautiful, are frequent subjects.
In “The Beauty and the Beast” it is love that turns a beast into a human. It is love that rescues Ragnheiður from the curse placed upon her.
“The Troll Wife” goes beyond that to a statement about the difference in substance and appearance.
“The Troll Wife” has a lot to say about values. The values of Eva, the wife, who puts beauty above everything, wants nothing more than popularity, and seeks materialistic fulfillment from other people. The values of Ragnheiður who sees in Eva’s husband, Svein, not a man with a physical deformity but a man with many virtues. The values of Svein who is practical, hard working, kind and loyal.
Ragnheiður is a night troll. If she is touched by daylight, she will turn to stone. She has magical powers for she knows what Eva has wished and she can grant the wish. She is ethical, moral, for she makes no effort to undermine the situation between the husband and wife. She helps Eva with untangling the nets and she offers a warning to Eva about her future life and wishes her well.
Night trolls were usually considered dangerous and terrifying. But Ragnheiður is only a night troll because of a curse. She is actually, under her outward appearance, a beautiful woman. She implies that the curse was the result of jealousy brought about by her beauty. Certainly, beauty is two-edged. It can bring popularity but also jealousy and envy. Ragnheiður, from her experience, grants beauty to Eva but, based on her own experience, doubts it will bring her happiness.
Ragnheiður and Svein prosper because they love each other and work as one, expecting nothing from each other but giving much to each other.
The story also might have something to say about the power of love to transform people.

Death by drowning

There have been in our family since it arrived in New Iceland, three drownings. Alfred and Herbert Bristow, sons of Fredrikka Gottskalksdottir and William Bristow, drowned with three other young people when they were returning on a sailboat from a berry picking expedition. My father, in an old tradition, was named after them. My brother drowned when his front end loader went off the side of a barge into the Mackenzie River.
These drownings, while tragic, were part of an old tradition. Can we call it that? When something is done repeatedly over a very long time?
To drown was the fate of many men in Iceland. According to Richard Burton, in Iceland there was an “unusual loss of adult males, which is said to average forty per cent drowned.”
Every year, in a land where only one crop, hay, could grow, where arctic ice filling the bays, could lower the temperature enough that the ground would not thaw and the hay would not grow, producing enough food to last the coming winter was a struggle. Hay and sheep and cattle alone would not provide the food necessary. 
Fishing was essential. It provided the second part of the people’s diet but it also provided something to trade for the many products that could not be produced in Iceland.
To produce boats, a builder needs wood. Iceland, in the 1800s, had long ceased to have wood. What had been there had been used for building and fuel and, perhaps, more importantly, for charcoal. Iceland has little in the way of minerals but it does have bog iron and bog iron, to be smelted, requires charcoal.

What was available was driftwood.

When Richard Burton arrives in Iceland in 1872 he observes what he calls “the mosquito flotilla of fishing-boats”.
The largest of the fishing boats carry two masts, he says. They are clinker-built, high in the stem and stern with a high projection for the rudder. When the sun is hot, and the wood shrinks, the boats are exceptionally leaky. The boats are not well cared for and do not last very long.
He sees no decked boats. The decked boats that do exist, sixty-one or sixty-three, are nearly all used for shark fishing on the north coast. There are 3,092 open boats. These have two to twelve oars. These boats are preferred by the fishermen because they can hold a lot of fishermen. The problem is that when they sink and the crew drown, there are a lot of deaths.
The open row boats go out three to six miles to get to the fishing ground. Then they have to row back. Burton considers this arrangement a waste of both effort and time.
The crews have guts. If necessary, they’ll cross Faxa Fjörð which is around fifty miles broad.
Basalt blocks are used for ballast. The sails are just strips of cloth. He is amazed, even perplexed by how narrow the oars are. The locals say that narrow oars are necessary because of the strong currents. He doesn´t believe it and thinks it is just tradition and folklore. The oars fit into thwarts that are lined with hoop-iron or they are set between two wooden pins. 
Having rowed a skiff on Lake Winnipeg as a boy, I found the oarlocks we used that set into the thwarts worked very well. They would seem to have been more efficient than the hoop-iron or the wooden pins. Iron in Iceland was expensive and the wooden pins more readily available but without the equivalent of oar locks, oars are useless and I can’t imagine that wooden pins under the strain of the constant rowing did not often break. In a heavy sea, the loss of even one oar would be serious.
The Icelandic nets, he says, are ridiculously small. The floats are gourd-shaped bottles made in Denmark.
Burton compares the boats and fishermen he sees with the images of Viking long ships and Viking sailors and finds the current fishermen and their craft deficient. He thinks the crews perform well in good weather but in poor weather, they often do not work as a crew or team effectively but all want to be in charge with the result that no one is in charge.
The fishermen have given up the old way of dressing and now dress much like English fishermen. However, they wear three or four pair of coarse woolen socks and the socks retain water. Burton thinks Icelandic fishermen must enjoy having wet feet.
I found most interesting that the fishermen were using the Icelandic glove with two thumbs. When the palm gets wet or worn, the glove can be flipped over and the other side used. Many years ago when I was giving a reading at a school on an island in Ontario, I was shown such a pair of mittens with two thumbs, not gloves, and asked if they were Icelandic. Apparently, around the turn of the century there had been some Icelandic people living in the area and these mittens had been kept and now were in a local museum.
Burton mentions, as do many others, that the fishermen take little in the way of food with them even though they may be at sea for twelve hours doing strenuous labor, working in a cold wind, often soaking wet. They do take a mixture of whey and water to drink and lots of snuff.
The fishermen, he says, rarely live for long. Poor food, fatigue, the tremendous hardship of the work and environment, constant wet feet, poor hygiene. The fishermen suffer from chronic rheumatism that is so severe that the fingers bend backwards. Death often comes from lung infections, gout or paralysis.
Since What The Bear Said was published with its fourteen folk tales, many people have talked to me about their families. Time and again, people have said, my great great grandfather drowned. It is a constant refrain. If forty percent of male deaths were by drowning, what family could escape such a fate?
When men were not needed for hay harvest, they rode or walked to the coast and joined a fishing crew. They lived in rudely built huts near the shore. No stove. Sometimes not enough fuel to cook their food. They were wet all the time. There was no chance to sit before a blazing fire or even close to a wood stove.
Fall fishing in Manitoba was often brutal with winds from the north, ice freezing on both men and skiffs but, at the end of the day, there was a stove and an abundance of wood. Both men and clothes could dry out and get warm. There was hot food. The waterproof clothes, the rubber boots, most of the time, kept the fishermen dry.
That Icelandic fishermen survived at all seems like a miracle. Each year when they went to the coast, they knew the odds, they knew the living conditions, but they lived in a world with no choice because they fished or died of hunger. As dangerous and difficult was the fishing, the greater tragedy was when the harbours filled with drift ice and there could be no fishing. Then there wasn’t much left to be done except pray and, sometimes, those prayers were answered with the stranding of whales. They must have seemed like manna from heaven. A gift of meat and fat from God.
Embrace my heritage? Yes, I embrace these men on their trek through the mountains, their nights on hard beds made of sand and seaweed, of dark winter days spent in open boats hauling in fish. They may, as Burton says, no longer be Vikings and their boats may be poor craft but they went to sea day after day to put out a line and what could be braver than that?
(With notes and quotes from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule or A Summer In Iceland, 1875. Although the book was published in 1875, Burton was in Iceland in 1872 so he describes the Iceland of our immigrant ancestors.)

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.