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”)

Coming back to Gimli

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I come to Gimli. That’s probably because my father died three years ago and my mother died last December.  My family is out at the Coast, my sister-in-law, my niece, my nephew. My daughter is on the island with her family and my son and his family are just across the border in the States. A ferry ride and an hour’s drive and I’m at their front door. Now that my parents are gone, will I come back every summer as I have done for fifty-one years?
I was brought up in Gimli. Did all those Gimli things. The Christmas concert at the Lutheran church, the orange and the bag of hard candy. Skating on the edge of Skorbahutch’s land where the railway spur and the track made a Y. Hunting rabbits in the brush piles. It took two of you. One to kick the brush pile, the other to shoot the rabbit that came running out. Skating on the outdoor rink, then indoors once the new rink was built. Curling. Lots of shouting by the skip and the sharp sound of the granite rocks hitting each other.
Hanging around Mary’s restaurant. Sitting in the booths eating hamburgers and chips, not those things in bags but home made French fries drenched in vinegar and salt. Playing the pinball machine beside the front door, trying to get an edge by lifting it a little only to have it flash TILT. Later, sneaking into the pool room through the back door to shoot pea pool and snooker.
Struggling through snow up to my knees to deliver The Winnipeg Free Press. I hated collection day because every time I went into a house to collect the money and give out the ticket that proved the subscriber had paid, my glasses fogged up. Solid white. It was like going from a freezer into a sauna at some places, then back into the freezer.
I went to all the hockey games I could afford and when I had an extra quarter, I watched cartoons and News of the World and feature films in Greenberg’s theatre on Second Avenue.
Fished on the outside of the dock for perch and swam in the harbour. There weren’t a lot of boats in those days and the water was still clean. I didn’t swim much because I was afraid of the water. Sometimes we went to the little dock and the other guys, the ones who loved the water, would dive all the way to the bottom and bring up stones to prove they’d been there.
But what is it that brings us back from far places? When we left school there weren’t many opportunities in Gimli. Some already had a plan, a goal or, like me, no plan, no goal, but grandparents in the city who wanted me to be something other than a laborer on the highway or a fisherman. Nowadays, it’s okay to be a fisherman but in those days my father would often fish for two months and come home owing more money than when he started. A lot of fishermen lived in shanties. Now, they live in mansions.
We went off to learn how to dress different, talk different, have different manners, think different, sneak our way into being pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, that sort of thing. I say sneak because a friend of mine told me that even though he had a Phd. and was the head of a university department, he kept waiting for someone to turn up and reveal that he was a fraud. I know how he felt. When I was at the university, I kept waiting for someone to stop me in the hallway and say “What are you doing here?”
We were all imposters of one kind or another, pretending we weren’t just small town kids who snuck in the back door.
Maybe that’s partly why we come back to Gimli every summer. To be ourselves. To be the kid in the third seat in the window row in Miss Greenberg’s class. Or the best forward on the PeeWee hockey team or the best goalie for the Midgets. Or, maybe, just to be the kid who, after a good day’s fishing, goes home with fifteen golden perch on his string.
When I got married and had a couple of kids, we used to go once a summer to have tea with Miss Stefansson. Miss Stefansson was very special. She was educated, sophisticated, and completely and totally dedicated to her students. She never married. We told each other stories about why that was. Given the kind of person she was, it had to be some tragedy in her past. We thought maybe it was a fiancée killed in WWI. I and my wife and kids went there and she made tea and we told her about ourselves, what we were doing, what we hoped for. Her house is gone now but when I walk past there, it is still there in my mind’s eye and I can still see us standing at the door and she is letting us in for our annual cup of tea and I’m going to tell her about my successes so she’ll know that the trouble she took with me was worthwhile.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the memories. When I was in Iceland the first time, my host took me on a two day journey. He frequently stopped to point out places and explain why they were important. Sometimes it was just a rock but it was important because something important had happened there. Maybe Gimli is a bit like that. When I walk on the dock, a thousand earlier ghosts of myself walk with me. When I sit on the sand, I sit with endless overlapping memories of having sat there before.
I sat there as a small child with my mother. I sat there later when I was old enough to come with boys my own age. I sat there as an adolescent with adolescent friends. I sat there with my wife. Then we sat there with our kids. A later, much later, I sat there with my grandkids.
Sometimes, I say to people, “This happened here.” Or “That happened there.” But often I don’t tell anyone except myself. This is where I kissed a girl for the first time. Here is where we had our dances and we wore drapes and the girls wore poodle skirts and a scarf around their neck and we danced slow dances close together. The guys who were cool popped their collars and, if they could afford it, wore leather jackets. Here is where we spent lazy summer afternoons playing baseball. Here….
The community hall is gone now but it was there that we danced to music made for teenagers, music that scared some adults but not my parents. They were so young they thought the beat was great. Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Here is where we rocked and rolled. It was in Harold Bjarnason’s parent’s living room lying on the floor, watching TV that we saw Elvis sing with his hips cut off at the waist so we wouldn’t be driven into a sexual frenzy by his moving hips.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. The memories are sharp, there are so many of them. The ages of the memories are all mixed up. The sound of a machine gun firing at the Gimli airbase when they had air force day. The hard, metallic, brutal sound of it. The sand around the target kicking up in spurts, the brass casings flying away from the gun, glinting in the sunlight. Being helped into a cockpit of a plane and sitting there imagining myself flying through the sky. Stopping a game of tin can cricket to watch a Harvard trainer diving down, straight down until it disappeared behind some trees. The game was on this piece of boulevard.It’s here we watched someone die.
Maybe a life is more than the present or maybe it can be more than the present. If you are lucky, that is. There are, after all, those who disappear. They never come back or they come back for a day or two if someone dies, then they’re gone again. They live in the two dimensional world of the present. History makes life three dimensional, a world of overlapping sights and sounds and smells and feelings. If you’re lucky. If you walk down the street where you lived and it is all right for the remembered past and the present to become one.

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.

Gypsy Clothes

In Iceland, turf houses
This story probably has a thousand variants. It has been told by many people over a long period of time.
Like many folk tales it is about good and bad, about reward and punishment. It very definitely does not adhere to the belief that was current a while ago that “greed is good”.  Folk tales often have about them an element of teaching the listener or reader correct behaviour. This story does not end with a stated moral. In that way, it is not a fable. Rather, it is more like an episode out of the sagas. Perhaps, its theme could be found in Havamal. 
Conditions in Iceland, with the beginning of the Little Ice Age in 1350, began to deteriorate. It only takes a difference of a few degrees to keep grain from ripening. Icelanders had been able to grow hardy crops and some records appear to show, even grow a surplus that could be exported. That changed with the drop in temperature. What had been a multi-crop economy became a one crop economy, hay. Although hay could grow and be harvested, a further drop in temperature created by unusually cold weather or by ice filling the fjords, meant that hay would not grow that particular summer.
The weather, the volcanic eruptions, the earthquakes, were so unpredictable that every effort had to be made to accumulate food for people and fodder for the animals during the growing months. Every bit as serious was the lack of fuel. Brown coal was used wherever it could be found, peat cut and dried, sheep manure pressed and dried, dwarf birch sticks. Icelandic farms didn’t have stoves. Stoves require wood or coal and lots of it.
The turf and rock houses of most of the people are described as wretched. There was nothing romantic about living in a house made of lava rock and turf.
Is it any wonder that people fantasized about better lives, about people like themselves except better dressed, better fed, better housed, with gold and jewels and warm fires? Why wouldn’t they? Dreams give us solace when life disappoints us. 
 The dream in Canada. Free land and houses like this.
In this version of “Gypsy Clothes” what has changed is the location. The setting is still a farm but the farm is now in New Iceland. The time is, as always, Christmas. The virtue of the main character, Kristin, is that she is generous and kind to people who look like beggars. The sin of the evil mother is her lack of generosity to people she considers inferior to herself.
A reader can easily see how daughter and mother would be judged in Iceland where hunger always threatened and was often present. Not just hunger but starvation. People, through no fault of their own, bad weather, natural disasters, were driven onto the mountain paths seeking food. Their lives depended on the generosity of others.
In New Iceland on Gisli’s farm, there is no threat of hunger. The mother acts out of selfishness and self-importance. The revenge is swift and brutal. The good are rewarded and the bad punished.
However, the story goes beyond the simple retelling of the tale to raise questions about the transference of the folk figures from Iceland to New Iceland. The local people in the story speculate that the farm visitors must have been foreigners. One woman says it was the huldfolk but she is hushed. Instead, the actions of the visitors are transferred onto other possible immigrant groups. Other immigrant groups are exotic, strange, mysterious, capable, in our fantasies, of anything.

Selkirk settlers, 1817.

This is a story with new possibilities, with not just the joining of an invisible person (which is also told in Icelandic folk tales) and a visible person but of choices, of new places. This is why people shouldn’t refer to the huldafolk as elves. Not that there are not elvish names for them in Icelandic but because the term has been taken over by Disney, Hollywood, etc. The huldafolk are God’s childen just as we are. They are not gnomes or dwarves or monsters. This is why it is a travesty to see, in Iceland, people making small elve’s houses for the tourists, as if the huldafolk were Irish gnomes. Remember, the huldafolk are Eve’s children, made invisible not because they had sinned but because Eve lied to God. Because they are human, just as we are, is why, from time to time, those who are invisible marry with the visible. As our ancestors lives became better, became more like the imagined world of the huldafolk why shouldn’t they join together? 
Is it not because our ancestors were able to imagine, through their beliefs in the huldafolk, a better life, that your ancestors and mine risked their lives to come to this new world? If they could not imagine the possibility of a better life, a life like that of the huldafolk, why risk the ocean voyage, why die and be buried in a lonely cemetery at Quebec City or Gimli or Grund or a thousand other places. It was their desire, their dream, to live like the huldafolk.
This story is about more than just folk beliefs. It is about our reaction to “others”, those people different from us, it is about kindness and self-importance, about dreams of a possible better life. Today, the food we eat, the houses we live in, the luxury that surrounds us, is the life envisioned for the huldfolk. Food everywhere, vast amounts of it. Warm, dry houses. Good clothes. Medicine to treat our diseases. Jobs, no matter how much we grouse about them, that are beyond compare better than being an indentured servant.
Some people, having read WTBS, have told me that there was never any mention of ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, magical creatures in their families, just as some have told me that there was no religion in their families. Their parents often said, “We are in a new country. We don’t need any of that anymore.”
 However, others have told me about all sorts of “others” who came with their families: trolls, ghosts, fylgjas, huldafolk, the devil himself. As for my family, we had a troll who lived in the basement cistern. I was terrified of him. I have known people who took and take fylgjas for granted.
Perhaps these others have faded away in this scientific age or, perhaps, when nothing works, when the internet becomes a mystery, when people behave in untypical ways, when accidents happen, we might have reason to believe that “others” are still around.
Sometimes, no matter what one does, everything goes wrong but, equally, I have often felt that when I’ve been in difficult and dangerous conditions that it’s more than just me who got me out of them.


By Ken Kristjanson

The year was 1950.The month, May. The winter had been long and the spring wet. Manitoba and Winnipeg were experiencing the worst flood in history due to the lack of planning by all levels of Government. Consequently, Gimli and District were crammed to the rafters with people escaping their flooded homes.
For paper boys it was “Boom Times.” Summer residents had by necessity opened their cottages and they wanted to be kept abreast of the happenings. The Red River continued to spill its banks in all directions. It was nationwide news and it was beginning to look like the legendary Lake Agassiz would be born again.
Of course to a fourteen year old this was news that was happening far away. Our minds were on the upcoming  “May Long Weekend” when the rides and concessions at Winnipeg Beach would open for the season. In the days before television, the attractions at The Beach were greatly anticipated by people of all ages.  
My pal, Raymond Solmundson, and I had inherited our paper routes from our older brothers. Raymond delivered the Free Press and I the Tribune – still the best paper I ever read. My paper route covered roughly two miles in winter and it took me about an hour to finish my deliveries. Double that in the summer when I delivered to South Beach. The Free Press was the bigger paper but my brother Robert and I managed to convince 15 various relatives and friends to take the Trib. So six evenings a week I would trudge or ride my bike the four blocks to the CPR station located on Centre & Seventh to meet the train which arrived promptly at 7:10 p.m.
The paper cost 25 cents a week.  The Trib got 13 cents (remitted weekly) and I got 12 cents. My earnings were $1.80 a week. In addition, all Gimli paper boys had two bags – one for the papers and one to pick up pop and beer bottles. The pop bottles were turned in for a 2 cent refund. The beer bottles did better at 2.5 cents.
Any paper boy worth his salt had to have a bike. A new C.C.M. at Lakesides Trading cost a king’s ransom – the grand sum of $52.50. Out of the money I earned, I first put 50 cents away in a locked bank that my Mother guarded absolutely. “The Bike Fund”. I still had money left over…Harry Greenberg ran three movies a week and I went to three shows a week. The movie started at 8:30 p.m. at a cost of 18 cents and a big Wynola Cola cost 7 cents. I made sure that there was money set aside to use for the concessions and rides at the Beach. This type of money management stayed with me my whole life.
The Saturday of May Long 1950 dawned clear and beautiful. Raymond and I set off early on our bikes for the 10 mile pedal to The Beach. Bike and rider became one as we sped down the gravel road. Two fourteen year olds on a great adventure, prepared for anything. We had with us tools, tire repair kit and lunch. Thankfully nothing happened and we made the trip in good time, enjoying the spring air as we pedaled.
We parked our bikes at the C.P.R. Station, pre-paying the 25 cent return fare from our saved hoard for the trip back to Gimli. We planned to ride every ride and visit every concession until we dropped or spent all our money. We did both. We went on the bumper cars, the carousal, the airplanes and the roller coaster (our hands down favorite). What a marvelous, care-free time we had. I even won a box of Lowney’s chocolates to bring home to Mother!
At 4:10 we boarded the train with our bikes for the ten mile ride back to Gimli.  We were totally exhausted but armed with yards of stories to regale our friends back in school. We noted the train with its many stops made poorer time then we did. Next year we would bike both ways and save the 25 cent fare.
Our papers were waiting for us when we de-trained. It was raining again and the streets were muddy. I would get wet but the papers would be dry. As I biked to my first customer I was re-energized!  We had had a great time at The Beach. Looking ahead to the end of June, I knew I would be boarding the M.S.Goldfield for a trip to Georges Island. Perhaps more adventures would be encountered there.

What The Bear Said (INl Reads)

The short story, What The Bear Said, takes place in New Iceland. The settlers have lived there long enough that they have spread out from the first settlement at Gimli and have built cabins. In Iceland, these people survived by raising sheep and dairy cows plus going cod fishing once the hay harvest was over.
Something that many people don’t understand is that the Icelandic settlers were not farmers. That cannot be stressed too strongly. They cultivated no land in Iceland. The home field, that precious island of grass, simply received a topping of dried and pulverized sheep manure once a year. Nothing was ploughed. No seed was planted. Land in Iceland that was productive was pasture for grazing by sheep and cows. The term bonder or farmer is, in a Canadian context, misleading. Icelanders were shepherds and/or dairymen. The land that did grow grass was often marginal, grass production scanty. No matter how hard anyone worked, sheep and cattle could not produce enough food for the population. Essential protein had to come from fishing.
This dual production of food led the settlers away from arable, farmable land in Canada. The settlers chose to settle along the shores of Lake Winnipeg even though the land close to the lake was often swampy. Those who were fortunate, like Gusti Axelsson, claimed higher ground.
The settlement at Gimli has been established, enough that Gusti can row there in his skiff to get supplies.
Gusti lives in what I call the In Between World. He was born and raised in Iceland, emigrated to Canada with his wife and one child. In New Iceland, they have had two more children, a son and a daughter. The daughter,  Ninna, is the apple of Gusti’s eye.
Gusti and his wife are clearing and planting the land. The children do whatever work they can and have the task of picking potato bugs off the potato plants. Survival requires that everyone help.
New Iceland is a truly foreign place. In Iceland, except for the occasional polar bear that arrives on an ice flow and is quickly killed because of its danger to both people and sheep, the Icelanders have no experience with large wild animals.
Bears in New Iceland were, in fact, a problem. Even at my father’s fish camp in the 1960s and 70s, they were a problem, tearing apart fishing camp kitchens, ripping open icehouses and stealing meat. Bears are powerful and fast. The bears of New Iceland must have seemed like mythical, mysterious creatures, lurking in the wilderness.
Folktales often include animals with extraordinary powers and relationships between people and animals that are magical.
The tradition goes back into the earliest Scandinavian mythology. There are Odin’s wolves, Geri and Freki, plus Huginn and Munnin,  his ravens. There are selkies who can transform themselves from seals into  humans and back again. There are troll fisks, eight legged horses, Fenris, the wolf, and the nykur or water horses. And many more. There is nothing strange about an Icelander having a special relationship to an animal.

Gusti, like the vast majority of Icelanders combines being a poet with superstition and a relationship to the natural world that goes beyond logic. When a starving bear with a cub appears, he doesn’t kill it. He shows it mercy. He feeds it and the cub with waste fish, maria, a fish he won’t eat because it doesn’t have scales. “Of all the marine animals, these are ones you may use for food. You may eat anything from the water if it has both fins and scales, whether taken from salt water or from streams. (Leviticus 11:19)

One of the great hardships for the Icelandic settlers was the weather. People with no experience of Iceland assume it is like the arctic. Instead, because of the Gulf Stream, the climate while wet and windy and highly unpredictable, doesn’t have the extreme temperatures of Manitoba. Everything for the settlers was new. The ways of securing food, the plants, the animals, the weather, the landscape. The long cold winters, the sudden blizzards that left deep drifts of snow that lasted sometimes from early fall until late spring were new.
Gusti, in befriending the sow and her cub goes against the general mores of the community. He’s advised to shoot the bear or to hire someone to shoot the bear. He tries to explain what happens to him when he communicates with the bear but is mocked.
His kindness is repaid when Ninna is lost? Or is it? Is it just a myth created by people who have come from a land filled with ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, and magical creatures such as sea cows?
When I was a boy, someone shot and killed a sow with two cubs. The cubs adopted our fish camp and the people in it. They were “wild” animals but they threatened no harm. They were quite curious about what people did. Any danger from them would have been something done on our part that startled or threatened them. However, people often kill other species not because they pose any great danger but because people are afraid. The logic seems to be, “I’m afraid of you so I will kill you.” The same rule appears to be regularly acted out in human relations. At the moment, there’s a tragic case in Florida with a  young man being shot because someone was afraid of him. Also, some years ago a Japanese student (in Florida again) went out on Halloween trick or treating. He was wearing a mask. A homeowner shot and killed him.
Perhaps this story is not just about a different way that the early settlers could (and sometimes did) relate to t heir environment but might be seen as a way of approaching all that is not us.

Icelandic National League convention

The Kaffi Tima choir welcomes the multitude.
Embrace your heritage. That was the rallying cry of the 93rd Icelandic National League convention.
I drove for three days from Victoria, BC to Brandon, Manitoba. To embrace his heritage, Henry Bjornsson drove from Seattle. Claire Eckley was late coming from Minneapolis because she was caught in a storm. Joan Cadham Eyolfsson and friends came from Foam Lake. The gathering of the clan was taking place.
In Brandon, Harold and Norma Jonasson, along with Bob Isleifson and the club volunteers, were taking care of the last details, preparing for over 170 attendees.
Over a year in the making, the convention was coming together.

At conventions, food matters and the free breakfasts that had been arranged were outstanding. I was fed ham and cheese omelets, vegetable omelets, light breakfasts of peach yogurt with fruit. The coffee was good enough to please even Icelanders, the world‘s coffee connoisseurs.

There were coffee breaks with pönnukökur, rullupylsa, vinarterta. The skyr with cream and sugar was outstanding.
Entertainment is always important. The Kaffi Tima choir warmed up the crowd at the meet and greet. Entertainment is a way for a club to show off young talent and the young talent on show wowed the crowd, none more so than  Ari Jakobson who styles himself as a crooner.  Heather Jonasson presented a magical program on the flute. The three national anthems were sung by Heather Jordan, accompanied by Theresa Thordarson. That’s easy to say, national anthems sung by…, just try singing, Oh, Canada, The Star Spangled Banner and Ó Guð vors lands one after the other. And do it well.
Awards are always a big part of conventions. They´re the once a year opportunity for the Icelandic North American community to honour people who have worked for years as volunteers. I was pleased to see my friend Gunthora receive the Laurence Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gunthora (fourth from the left) receiving her award.

There are the lectures and speeches, of course. They provide the backbone, the justification for all this music and eating and talking and hugging and even kissing. Icelanders are notorious kissers.

The presentation that had me rapt was Ryan Eyford´s “It Seems So Far Away to Iceland: The Correspondence of the Taylor Sisters, 1880-1930.” Everyone knows about John Taylor, the minister that led the Icelanders from Kinmount to the promised land of New Iceland. He had three daughters. Susie married a Lutheran minister, Haldor Briem, and moved to Iceland. She never returned to Canada. Ryan is working with the letters from her correspondence with her sisters.

Alana Odegard gave a talk on her seven years in Iceland. She went through the things about Iceland she misses, and to much laughter, the oddities of Icelandic society. She never adjusted to svið. She discovered that Icelanders don´t believe in planning too far in advance. Everyone dresses well. She misses the ocean, the language, Icelandic candy and the swimming pools.
There was relief to hear that the Snorri program is fully booked. Nelson is continuing with his massive Silent Flashes project. Logberg-Heimskringla is doing well. Harley Jonasson laid out the ambitious Riverton Heritage project. Johann Sigurdson and David Collette are organizing the Fara Heim Expedition. They’re taking a sailboat around the northern seas searching for evidence of Viking landings. If anyone would like to join them, they can do so by paying a passenger’s fee. Peter Bjornson and Tammy Axelson reported on the Gimli Heritage museum and Peter is promoting a new project of collecting rocks in Iceland and Canada, shipping them to the opposite country and building cairns with them.
The heavyweights of the conference were Donald K. Johnson and Ambassador Þórður Ægir Óskarsson. Don, as he has so many times before, contributed financially to the conference. He explained the current financial situation in Iceland and spoke about the possibility of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar. This was Þórður Ægir Óskarsson’s first INL convention. He has a good sense of humour. Given the financial situation of Iceland and Europe, the effort needed to deal with our many desires and demands, he will need it.
The last day there was a highly successful bus tour to Bru and Grund.
As for me, I drove a long way, it cost quite a bit, six nights in hotels, gas, meals.  But I got to see a lot of friends, had a chance to make many more friends, caught up on community news, heard a lot of interesting talks, saw places I hadn’t seen before. I even gave a talk in which I got to expound on life in 19th C. Iceland, one of my favorite topics, and the major subject of my blog site, wdvalgardsonkaffihus. The convention flattered me by choosing my book of Lake Winnipeg folk tales, What The Bear Said, for their online reading club. Pretty hard to beat that.
Next year the INL convention is in Seattle. It’ll be a shorter drive from Victoria. A longer hike from Nova Scotia or Ottawa. It’ll be worth the trip. I’m sure of that. I’ll see you there.


Manitoba mosquito

Mosquito sculpture by Marlene Hourd (nee Magnusson)
What a bunch of whiners Winnipegers have turned into. Headlines in the Winnipeg Free Press say Winnipeg expecting an early mosquito invasion. Mosquito invasion? Like, it’s Dunkirk or the Alamo or Vimy Ridge all over again?
When I was a kid, Gimli, Manitoba was mostly swamp. The lot beside us filled with water every spring. Two feet of water with holes so deep a kid could drown in them. One lot over, the people who lived in a shack marked the high water levels every year on their kitchen wall. When the water got passed their knees, they moved out until the flooding was over.
Water came from West. Out West, that is West of Gimli, there were gravel ridges and between the gravel ridges there were swamps, not little swamps, big swamps, swamps filled with cat tails, reeds and mosquitoes. There was little drainage and still water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Every spring Gimli flooded. My mother used to let me float myself around the basement in a wash tub. The sump pump went night and day. We poled ourselves along the ditches and through cottage yards, using wooden sidewalks for gondolas.
Mosquitoes bred in those yards by the millions. If you touched a caregana hedge or a fir tree, mosquitoes rose in black clouds. At night, funnels of mosquitoes formed in the sky like tornados.
We used to cut off poplar branches and make smudges in the back yard. We’d start a fire with dry wood, then throw on the green branches. We’d stand in the smoke because it kept off the mosquitoes. We smelled of smoke until after Halloween.
We learned to hope for light breezes from the lake. When there was a breeze there were no mosquitoes. They settled in areas protected from the wind.
There are gnats in Iceland but no mosquitoes. The Icelandic settlers had no immunity to mosquito bites. We can only imagine what they suffered. There was no DEET. Even now, Icelandic tourists who come to Gimli for Islindingadagurinn react so strongly to mosquito bites that they sometimes end up at the Gimli hospital. It’s a standard joke that after suffering mosquito bites, some visiting Icelanders saw dragon flies and panicked and fled into their host’s house. I don’t blame them. They were covered in large, itchy, sore lumps. The idea of being bitten by something as big as a dragonfly would have me hiding in a locked room. Some Icelandic visitors have had to have antibiotics because the bites infected.
When the Ukrainians followed the Icelanders into the Gimli area, they settled West of the town. Right smack in the middle of the swamps. Andrew Hutch says, “We hired a merchant to transfer us to Gimli. This cost us $25. He drove a team of horses and took us through bush and swamps. Although we suffered from mosquitoes when we were in the loft, when we were driving to Gimli we thought that we would be eaten alive. (Spruce, Swamp and Stone, Michael Ewanchuk)
How big were the mosquitoes? In Komarno, a village west of Gimli, there is a statue to the mosquito. It is fifteen feet high. Kamarno means mosquito in Ukrainian. If we can have statues of trolls and museums about witches, why can’t there be statues (this works like a weather vane, moving with the wind) to mosquitoes? This statue tells you how much a part of daily life the mosquito was.
Komarno mosquitoes, Frazerwood mosquitoes, Gimli mosquitoes were no ordinary mosquitoes, no wimpy little grey Winnipeg things. They were big, when they filled up with blood and you smacked them, they exploded like a blood filled bomb.
They drove people and horses mad.
Many a summer’s night, I fell asleep under a sheet (we had no mosquito netting), listening to the blood thirsty little buggers circling, looking for any opening so they could fill up with my blood and have more mosquitoes.
I’ve seen today’s Winnipeg mosquitoes. Urban mosquitoes. Wimpy mosquitoes. Pests. Nuisances. Mosquitoes bred in water filled tin cans or old tires. Mosquitoes with no pedigree. Not only that but Winnipeg will have the lowest number of mosquitoes this summer in thirty years. Yet the headlines trumpet, Winnipeg expecting early mosquitoes. In Victoria, we get the same kind of headlines during the winter except it’s Victoria expecting snow and reporters stand around on street corners watching for the occasional snowflake.
Even when they do appear, these Winnipeg mosquitoes won’t be those large, black, ferocious mosquitoes that bred in Interlake swamps, mosquitoes that left the drained husks of man and beast in the fields. They won’t be the mosquitoes that inspired the fifteen foot mosquito of Komarno.

Jón Bjarman: Memories a Year Later

Hanna Katrín Pálsdóttir and Jon Bjarman with son Pall shortly after they came to Lundar in Nov. 1958

by Nina Lee Colwill

When Jón Bjarman died on March 17, 2011, his loss was keenly felt in many places. And today, a year later, his absence continues to arouse bittersweet memories. For Jón touched numerous lives in his 78 years.  As his longterm friend and fellow pastor, Ingthor Isfeld said, “I remember Jón as a good conversationalist, a patient and empathetic listener, and a trustworthy friend, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

It would be easy to write about Jón’s many accomplishments: author; pastor to congregations in Canada and Iceland; pastor in towns and hospitals and prisons; advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners worldwide; and a driving force behind and lifetime president of the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).  But Jón was far more than the sum of his achievements, and this is a tribute, not to his professional acumen, but to the love and admiration he engendered in others.

It’s difficult to think about Jón without thinking of Jóhanna Katrín Pálsdóttir—his Hanna. They were born less than a month apart; they fell in love at 16, married at 21, and spent the next 57 years together in Canada, USA, and Iceland. Their hospitality is legendary—a tradition that Hanna continues with joy.

The founding of the Lundar Luther League, March 1959 Back row: Chris Erlendson, Norman Johnson, Michael Danielson, Ken Sigurdson and Jón; Middle row: Donald Coldwell, Linda (Rafnkelsson) Williamson, Lorne Foster, Joan (Andrews) Proctor and Hope (Olson) McNeil; Front row: Bill Breckman, Ethel (Arnason) Desjarlais, Margaret Johnson and Judy (Danielson) Thorsteinson
One of Jón’s most telling characteristics was the affection he inspired in children and teenagers. He worked tirelessly for ICYE and with teenagers in Lundar Manitoba, Akureyri, and Reykjavík. As his granddaughter, Hanna, wrote in Morgunblaðið, Our grandfather had a way with children. He treated us all with respect, and we felt our opinions were always fully valid. We had long discussions on all kinds of topics, and when we were a bit older, he became our most important teacher… Our grandparents were tireless in taking us to see a play, a movie, an exhibition, or just out to dinner.”1

Jón and Hanna with their grandchildren 1997
Jón was a brilliant writer who switched languages with ease.  His ability to bring his love of language into conversation was a constant joy to everyone who knew him.  Johann Ulfar Sigurdsson lived with the family for awhile: “During my time with Jón and Hanna in Lundar,” he said, “I realized that Jón had a very carefree and fun side to his personality and a keen sense of humour. Language fascinated him—such as the frequently humorous outcome when Icelandic and English were mixed together. He then started to mix the languages deliberately, creating some humorous outcomes.

Some twenty years ago, Jón was faced with a situation that would challenge the magnanimous spirit of the strongest person.  He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But even here his equanimity prevailed.  As he wrote in his book, Af föngum og frjálsum mönnum (Of Free Men and Jailed): “It is better to make fun of oneself and not to take oneself too seriously … Hanna…has not shown me pity, but treated me the same as before, made the same demands of me, and never viewed me as a patient.  Nevertheless she is considerate of me, stands by my side, and follows me in joy and sorrow.”2

Jón’s work life and personal life were so inextricably intertwined that people like Conrad Sigurdson, a friend of Jón and Hanna’s for over half a century, could easily envision him in work situations: “He was intelligent, kind, patient, and generous. He lived and worked for others. I can imagine how patient he was in his affiliation with the prisons and in his dedication to his work with international students.” 

Hanna and Jón on a cruise in the Mediterranean, Sept.2000
Even in his routine professional tasks – like the conducting of marriage ceremonies – Jón brought his unique poetic touch. In 2000 he married our daughter Erla Louise Colwill Anderson and our son-in-law, Ármann Ingólfsson in Akureyri, and, like the rest of us, Ármann marvelled at the way Jón “wove the histories of our two families together, mentioning my afi’s work in growing Kjarni Forest and talking about Erla’s ancestors, some of whom lived on the Kjarni Farm. He drew an analogy between planting trees in a barren place and consoling and encouraging people in desperate situations.  It made me think of Jón’s work with prisoners and hospital patients.  I can’t think of a person I would rather have had presiding over our wedding.”

Conrad Sigurdson sums it up perfectly: “Over the years we shared in all that Jón was to others.  Thinking of Jón brings good memories of a beautiful friend and wonderful friendship.  Our world is a better place because Jón was a part of it.”


1 Translation by Páll Jónsson, son of Hanna Pálsdóttir and Jón Bjarman

2 Translation by Ármann Ingólfsson, son of Hrefna Hjálmarsdóttir and Ingólfur Ármannsson
(This article was first published in Lögberg-Heimskringla, Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper. LH is published in English and on-line subscriptions are available.)

Our Hockey Dreams

Photo: the Gimli PeeWees. They were champs. Their dream was to play as Bantams, then Midgets, then as a member of the Gimli Wolves. There were dreams of being like our local heroes. That’s me in the goalie pads. That’s where they put you when you can’t skate, stick handle or shoot. You just  need to get in the way of the puck. If anyone has a picture from the 50s of the Gimli Wolves in action, and  you send it to me, I’ll add it to this post.
How can you separate out growing up in an Icelandic Canadian town like Gimli and growing up in a small town in rural Manitoba?
Take, for instance, hockey.
Hockey for Icelandic Canadians, particularly for Icelandic Winnipegers, was big for a while because of the Falcons winning the first Olympic competition but then it died down. By the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, no one talked about the Falcons. 
According to Red Magnusson–one of the best, if not the best and most dedicated of the hockey playes to come out of Gimli–the Gimli team was just called the Seniors until 1951 when they became the Gimli Wolves. 
What I heard about were the Gimli Wolves, the Teulon Tigers, the Riverton Lions. Our hot players were local boys, not the hired help and they were local heroes. We knew how many goals they scored, who was the best stick handler, whose slap shot would rip your head off.
The games were often noisy with a lot of yelling and screaming and pounding on the boards. We’d be on the North side of the rink where there was only room to stand. At the far end on this side, snow scraped off the ice reached as high as the top of the boards that edged the ice like a fence. You could stand up there for a great view but risked being hit by a wild shot on goal. 
We hungered for broken hockey sticks. When they were thrown over the boards, we scrambled for them, kept them as treasures. They were, to us, like broken gladiator swords, wielded by our heroes of the moment.
The noise of players hitting the boards, of hockey sticks clashing, of the fans yelling, of our pounding the broken sticks flat onto the boards, made a tremendous amount of noise because of the echo in the cavernous space. As we yelled and pounded, strings of frost dropped from the rafters.
The games were fast, the action moving back and forth, first around one goal and then, in seconds, around the other goal. Our triumph turned to fear in moments. The goalies guarded their creases with ferocity. 
Breakaways were often greeted with a moment’s stunned silence, then waves of yelling.
When a period was over, we streamed into the narrow, enclosed front of the rink to get warm and if we had twenty five cents, we got a hot dog plus a coke. To get an order taken, we had to cram into the crowd in front of the concession stand. There was no orderly line. We were an excited mob. The couple behind the counter were pulling wieners out of a pot of boiling water as fast as they could, slapping them on buns. We slathered mustard and green relish on them. Wolfed them down.
When the break was over, we went back to the north side of the rink. Only wimps stayed in the heated enclosed room that extended across the entire front of the rink. There was no real view there. The windows were covered with a thick wire mesh. These spectators were at the east end of the rink and couldn’t see the action at the far end. They were always craning their necks to try to see what was happening further down the ice. Somebody was always saying “What happened, what happened?” when the action was on the other side of the blue line.
On the south side of the rink there were wooden bleachers. People who sat there brought cushions to sit on and blankets to cover their laps and legs.  Grownups sat there in rows, their heads moving as if on a single string as the action moved up and down the ice. When there was a scramble in front of the net, people stood up, yelling and waving their arms.
We stood along the boards on the other side of the rink. There were no seats here. We were ready to jump back if a stick was swung high or a player was boarded in front of us. We kept warm by constantly moving up and down the alleyway made by the boards and the arched outside wall.
Here, also, we could crowd close to the team boxes and the penalty box.
Our players were lumpy heroes. Under their team stockings were leg pads, then their padded pants, their gloves, the jersey over their shoulder pads. No one wore a helmet.
When they stopped, their skates threw up waves of spray. When they dug in, their skates left holes in the ice.
Sometimes, when games were close, the RCMP had to be called to escort the visiting players to their vehicles. Sometimes it did no good and players and spectators mixed it up on the ice.
Nearly everyone worked for themselves in those days and businessmen could shut down the butcher shop or grocery store or barber shop and form a cavalcade to whatever out-of-town game was playing that night. Local farmers milked their cows early so they could get to the games.
There was no hockey in Iceland. Hockey was a Canadian game played by kids with Icelandic names but it was played all over the prairies, in towns like Winnipeg Beach and Petersfield and Clandeboye. And, yet, for me, those days and nights at the local rink are inextricably linked with Gimli and Icelandic, as much part of the mosaic created by Icelandic coffee made in a poki or by celebrating Islingdingadagurin.