by Ken Kristjanson

My grandson Ben age 11 years and I were making a “Whatzit” or whatever a Grandfather and Grand son make in the workshop on a lazy afternoon at the cottage.We had used some scrap lumber,some long ago metal items stored in a Blue Ribbon coffee can and an assortment of nuts and bolts.We admired our creation briefly. Then Grampa said put the tools back where you found them so you will know where to look for them the next time they are needed. As I was about to throw away the rest of the long forgotten assortment of metal junk I was gently reminded that they may come in handy for some future project.

I laughed as my mind harkened back to my pre school days. In the late 30’s and early 40’s every August our whole family would empty the rain barrel and put the key under the mat.We would walk the 4 blocks to the Gimli harbor and leave Gimli on the boat the Roddy S.or the Barney-Thomas. We would travel the 7 hours around Hecla Island to our fishing station at Albert’s Point on Humbuck Bay .This was to be my brother Robert’s and cousins Beverley and Eddie’s home until Winter fishing was over in the first week in April.A wondrous free wheeling adventurous place which could easily double as Tom Sawyers second home.

Fall fishing in those days was labour intensive. A fisherman would row his flat bottomed skiff as far as he could. Set his nets them row back. The process would be repeated each day come wind,rain,sleet or gale the nets had to be lifted. The catch would be brought ashore, dressed and packed in ice awaiting the freight boats next visit.Early in the century Ole Evinrude invented a Mix Master of sorts that you attached to the stern of a skiff . No need for oars just put in gasoline. The idea of using such a contraption commercially quickly caught on with the Great Lakes fishermen. Not so on Lake Winnipeg. The enterprising Kristjanson Brothers (Hannes & Ted)tired of rowing bought a used 2 1/2 horse power Champion outboard motor. it proved to be a winner. They were fondly called screw tops because they were started by wrapping a cord around the fly wheel .The cord was pulled in a strong fashion thus starting the motor. .The use of this motor allowed the fisherman to go out further with more nets.If the wind or current was against you no problem.All went smoothly until one day.

One October day while travelling back to the station the Screw tops propeller hit a dead head. This is a submerged water logged log. One blade of the outboard broke off. This forced the fisherman to row ashore. Immediately the other fishermen gathered around to see what happened. As 10 or 12 weather beaten men gathered as if at a viewing of a corpse my grandfather pushed into the circle. He studied the problem for a moment. Then went out back of the cook shack where an old Findlay stove had been discarded. He took one of the cast iron lids of the stove. The men like pall bearers at a funeral awaiting the ministers instructions were still there. He took the damaged propeller of the out board. He traced with a sharp nail the good blade onto the cast iron stove link.

He handed the lid to the hired man along with the only a hacksaw. There were no power tools in those days. Between them and others they laborously cut out a new blade. Many hours with a bastard file produced a passable and balanced blade. More labor was required to hand drill a hole in the blade.Foraging thru some old tobacco tins produced a useable bolt This was used to attach the new blade to the spot where the old blade had broken off. The propeller was reattached to the out board. Now the moment of truth.A cord was wound around the fly wheel. The motor started. After a couple of coughs it was put in gear. The machine ran like a top with very little vibrations all fall. The outboard has long been retired. For many years it was proudly displayed in my Fathers back yard museum.

Robert Kristjanson

When we used to talk about “those tough old buggers” fishing on Lake Winnipeg, we were talking about my father’s generation. They were the kind of guys who fished before there were power augers. They chiseled holes through four feet of ice with a needle bar. And did it again and again as they cut holes for nets. They went out on Lake Winnipeg when it was -30 and no one had heard of wind chill. It was just bloody cold.

They pulled nets out of those holes with mittened hands and when the mittens froze solid, they went into their caboose, threw the mittens into a pan of hot water simmering on a tin stove, pulled them out and put them on and went back to taking fish out of the mesh. Tough, tough as they come.

They pulled nets, they set nets, they rode back to shore with boxes of fish frozen solid, let them warm up, then cleaned them, packed them, got them ready to ship. Somewhere in there, they ate breakfasts that would kill office workers, ate loaves of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pie, cake, anything with lots of calories, wolfed down supper and swirled down everything with pots of coffee. Some of them were legendary.

Today, it is easier and safer. Better equipment, warmer clothes. But it is neither safe, nor warm. They go out on thin ice to get that best first catch. Cracks open up. Blizzards appear from nowhere. Guts and brains. They have to have guts or they’d go find something else to do. Brains because without them, they’d lose limbs and lives.

One of the best known of those tough old buggers is Robert Kristjanson. He’s a bit of a showman, a good talker, a dedicated champion of Lake Winnipeg, a terrific fisherman. He got some recognition for all that lately. Here’s a copy from the Interlake Enterprise.

Robert T. Kristjanson still going strong at age 80


Written by Bill Buckels, Lake Winnipeg Commercial Fisher

By the time most people reach their 80s, they usually have long retired. But retiring seems to be the last thing on Gimli fisherman Robert Kristjanson’s mind as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday.

This past year on the lake hasn’t been much different than most other years for Robert T., (known as “Bobby” by his family and fellow commercial fishermen). After fishing on the ice all last winter, Robert T. (again) fished every day through both the spring and fall open water seasons still in his boat by himself.

As the fall fishing season reached its end this year, the weather turned bitter cold, and the snow storms started north of Hecla in the Kristjanson family’s fishing grounds. His son Chris and his grandsons Trevor and Devon had “pulled-up” the day before; Robert T. was the last to leave.

We had one clear day, so “Bobby” decided it was time for his whitefish boat (the Lady Roberta) to return to Gimli Harbour for the winter (he sleeps on the boat and not back in Gimli when fishing is on).
(read more by going on line to the Interlake Enterprise).

Book Review: Historical Images of New Iceland Settlements

Ben Holyk’s new book of historic photographs arrived today. It is called “Historical Images Lake Winnipeg New Iceland Settlements”. It covers more communities than usual: Arborg, Poplarfield, Fisher branch, Geysir, Gimli, Hecla Island, Hnausa, Ledwyn, Riverton, Winnipeg Beach. As well, it has a section on Lake Winnipeg Boats and Fishing. It is 376 pages and is crammed with pictures, many of which I have not previously seen.

I have read a fair amount about New Iceland, its people and places, the boats of Lake Winnipeg, the buildings, the farms but I’ve had to imagine what they looked like. Now, I have images for many of those people and places.

I’m happy to have a picture of the S.S.Colville, the ship that brought Icelanders to New Iceland but also a picture of an oxen team that was used in Arborg.

Pictures of Ragnheidur and Oscar Einarsson on their wedding day in 1914 and Sveinbjorg and Nikulas Halldorson provide a good idea of how people dressed. Dr. J. P. Palsson and his wife Sigudur in 1910, are fashion plates and one cannot help but wonder how their clothes were kept clean. No automatic washing machines. As far as I know, tubs and scrub boards and, if you could afford it, hired help were required to keep a person presentable.

Logging camps had bad reputations for the way they treated the men who worked for them. The work was hard, the pay low, the isolation complete and accommodation? Well, the picture of the logging camp north of Arborg provides a good idea of how loggers lived.

Wood, in the early days, was used for heating and cooking plus fueling the steam ships. It created a cordwood economy. It’s hard to imagine the amount of wood needed to fuel the local houses and the houses and businesses of Winnipeg. A sense of that can be seen in the picture of Chapil’s horse team hauling logs to the Arborg railway station, 1940.

One of the surprises in the book is provided by the pictures of Fisher Branch. There’s a general view taken in 1907 and a picture of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church that was built in 1913. The Fisher Branch Creamery’s fleet of delivery vehicles is impressive. I count six nice looking cars. The Ukrainian Farmer’s Co-op store with its employees outside (I count 34) gives a sense of a thriving community. Trains arrived in 1914 and continued until 1980.

Geysir has always had a reputation many times its actually size. My impression of it has been of a dance hall (picture included), a church and a graveyard but Ben’s pictures show pictures of quite elaborate churches, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church (1913), Immaculate Conception RC church (1912) and Geysir Evangelical Lutheran Church (1928). There are pictures of the Geysir school, the students and staff, the men’s baseball team (baseball, when I was a boy in the 1940s was taken quite seriously), a threshing outfit and a rather amazing picture of J.K.B. Jonson hauling hay from Fisher Bay for Baldi Halldorson.

Gimli, as usual, takes up a good part of the book, mostly because people came there On holidays and took pictures. I see that at least one of them is credited to my great aunt Stina Johnson but others that I believe she took, are not. The picture of a Manitoba steam side paddler docking at Gimli in the 1910s gives me an image of what life was like in the 1910s that I never expected. My great grandfather’s store at the corner of Main & Centre in 1905 is displayed. It’s an often used photo and will be familiar to many. There’s a picture of the H.P. Tergesen house in 1906 when it sat on open land waiting for the town to be built around it. I was happy to see a picture of the Lutheran church with its spire. There’s a picture of “Beaver House, the Lake View hotel and Lyric Theatre taken sometime in the 1900s.

There are some fine pictures of campers’ cottages. I just wish that the locations were included. Many of the early cottages have been torn down and replaced with permanent houses. I was pleased to see a picture of Bjarnason’s grocery and dry goods store because no one except me seems to remember it. There’s a picture of the original Johnson Memorial Hospital that opened in January 28, 1939, just a few months too late for me to be born there. I’ve always regretted that and thought my mother could have waited or they could have finished the hospital sooner.

Hecla has been a storied place mostly because it is an island. Before the bridge was built from the mainland, access was by boat or ferry (picture included) and, during break up and freeze up, the people were isolated and left on their own to survive as best they could. As harsh as conditions were in the beginning, the local people built Hecla’s first school in 1890 and there is a picture of it.

What are amazing are the pictures of Reynistaour and the Tomasson Boarding house. There’s a picture of the Sigurgeirsson log house that served as a store and post office. There are pictures of a cat bringing logs from the north on five sleighs.

Hnausa often gets short shrift in articles about New Iceland. That is unfortunate because it played a major role in the prosperity of the early settlement. It was “a prosperous community, having a school postal office, store, saw mill, community hall, and a gas station.” It was here that “a trading and shipping centre was founded by Stefan and Johannes Sigurdson in 1890.”

Since I’ve read Glenn Sigurdson’s manuscript about his family’s role in the fishing industry, I know about the house and store that Stefan Sigurdsson built. However, I’d never seen a picture of them. Fortunately, there is such a picture and it fills me with amazement for who would think such elaborate and large buildings would be built in a small community on the shore of Lake Winnipeg?

Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, but Hnausa held its own Islendingadagurinn in competition with Gimli. There are pictures of the celebration at Hnausa Park in 1932 and of the Fjallkona. There’s an excellent picture of winter freighting with a list of the men in the picture. Some are sitting on top of a sleigh of fish boxes and others lined up in front. There’s even a picture of their mobile home being pulled by two horses.

If Hnausa has been ignored in articles about New Iceland, Ledwyn has been cast into outer darkness. It’s wonderful that Ben has included Ledwyn. While there are Andersons and Arnasons among the pictures of the first settlers of Ledwyn, most of them are of Andrushankos, Bachynskis, Bonkowskis, Dziadykewiczs, Furgalas. These people don’t fit into the normal myth of New Iceland. However, they were every bit as much a part of New Iceland as the Icelanders. There are pictures of the catholic churches, of the Zinkowski store, of the Polish Hall, the community hall (where I had wonderful, memorable times) of the Ledwyn Band. There is a picture of school students that were taught by Peter and Mary Onysko. In 1961, Peter was the principal at Riverton and I was in my first year of teaching.

Riverton was supposed to be the capital of New Iceland but bad weather meant the barges carrying the settlers were cut loose and drifted to shore at Willow Point. Settlers moved north to settle along the lake shore. I found Ben’s description of the settlement of what was called Lundi, then Icelandic River and, finally, Riverton, unclear. I know the story, or at least some of it, but if I didn’t, I’d be confused.

It’s good that he adds in the Ukrainian settlers, the Hungarians, and the Mennonites but the local aboriginal people get short shrift even though they were very much part of the community. There are many pictures including some early ones of the bridges that joined the two sides of Riverton.

The Sigurdsson and Thorvaldson store gives a good example of prairie buildings. There are pictures of farm houses that became well known such as Bakka, Straumnee, Akri, Loni and Unaland. There’s a fine picture of Gunnsteinn Eyjolfsson’s threshing outfit at Unaland and a number of pictures of the freight trains that travelled over the lake in winter.

Riverton has always been known for its music and it is great that there is a picture of the Whiskey Jacks with an amazingly young group of musicians including my friend, Dennis Olson. There is a little bit of everything from Riverton Game & Fish Target Practise (people did shoot their dinner) and the Reggie Leach Night at the Riverton Hall (Reggie is called the Riverton Rifle but his rifle was his hockey stick and his bullet the puck).

I’ve never thought of Winnipeg Beach as being part of New Iceland but it was a big part of our life during the summer. We lived in anticipation of our parents taking us there for the day. It was the Coney Island of New Iceland, even of Manitoba.

Speculators saw a chance to make a lot of money selling lots at Winnipeg Beach for cottages. Therefore, the railway got pushed through to Winnipeg Beach. There’s a picture from 1903 with sailboats and tourists. The railway brought people by the thousands to ride on the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, to dance at the dance palace, to stay at the Empress Hotel. To buy lots and build cottages. The CPR wasn’t missing any tricks when it came to making a buck.

The astounding thing about these pictures and those in the book on the history of Winnipeg Beach is the contrast between the well to do who came to the Beach and the ordinary local people who were struggling to make a dollar. The Dance palace was one of the largest in Western Canada at 14,000 sq. ft. The picture that shows the boardwalk that fronted the beach and the shops where visitors could play games of chance makes clear just how fashionably dressed the visitors were.

I’m very pleased that Ben included the last section on Lake Winnipeg for while it was not a community in the sense of the towns and villages, it was still a community. It was spread all over the lake but it had its own identity. There are welcome pictures of the various freight boats plus pictures of how skiffs were towed out to the fishing grounds by the freighters. There are some pictures of the fishermen. However, the Lake Winnipeg fishery was large and has gone on for generations. It really deserves a book of its own.

This book would have benefited from an editor going over it for small details. There’s the occasional world spelled incorrectly and, in places, I thought some minor points were incorrect or, at least, confusing. However, this is not a book of text. It’s a book of pictures. It is a book that once bought, should be kept and if any corrections or additions are needed, the owner can put them in by hand. I wish this book had been published when my father was still alive. I’d have looked it over with him and added numerous notes in the margins about the places and people he knew. He spent a life time on Lake Winnipeg and in New Iceland and this book would have stirred many memories and stories.

If you grew up in New Iceland, this is a must book for your book shelf. It’s a book to share with friends and family. It can be ordered from Ben W. Holyk, Box 1316, Stonewall, MB R0C A20 for 39.95 plus shipping. His web page is, email:

The Value of an Education

I was never meant to go to university. It was not something that had crossed my parent’s minds. My mother finished grade ten. My father left school mid-way through grade eight.

My father never wanted anything except to be a successful commercial fisherman. He had no capital. He also had a wife and child (me) when he was twenty. He took a barber’s course and cut hair in Gimli, Manitoba, a small rural fishing village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. He was up before dawn, out on the lake lifting nets, would ice the fish, then get cleaned up and go to the barber shop. My mother said that he needed to make enough money from the summer cottagers and tourists to get them through the winter when the only customers were local people. It took him a long time but, eventually, he reached the point where he was able to stop barbering and earn a living from fishing. However, he worked two jobs for many years, neither of which provided enough money to support our family.

The normal path for someone like me, the son of someone seasonally employed, was to go fishing. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was hopeless as a fisherman. I didn’t share my father’s passion, had no desire to set nets, lift them in weather both fair and foul, suffer the vagaries of a catch that might or might not appear; in winter, chop through four to six feet of ice, lift and set nets in thirty and forty degree below weather.

Instead, I wanted to read books. I was fortunate because we had a complete set of The Books of Knowledge. In those days, that is the 1940s and 50s, The Books of Knowledge were full of history and mythology rather than science. I reveled in stories of battles and bravery, in poetry and stories of the gods.

Every Christmas relatives gave me books. There was no one with an advanced education to guide my reading. Still, I got copies of the classics: Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, Swiss Family Robinson, The Man in the Iron Mask. I became a voracious reader. High school introduced The Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, Return of the Native, numerous plays by Shakespeare, poetry that was more than verse and, surprisingly, Canadian poets like Earl Birney and Anne Marriot. “David” and “The Wind Our Enemy” revealed that it was possible to write about Canadian subject matter from a Canadian point of view.

I was hired for a summer job at the United Grain Growers because a great uncle worked there. I was probably the only child of someone seasonally employed. The other summer employees were the sons of middle class parents. It was these summer co-workers who said since they were all going to university, why didn’t I also go?

To my parents’ credit, when I phoned and said I’d like to go to university, after some stunned silence and a consultation between my mother and father, they said yes. My grandparents said I could live with them, free room and board. I had enough money from my work to pay tuition and books.

The university was a strange and foreign place. Professors stood up in front of classes and lectured. There was no one checking home work. There were just suggestions about what we should read. No one was taking responsibility for me, for making sure I read my texts, read other sources, made notes, studied. At first, it seemed like a lark. Then the Christmas grades came out. The lark was over. I was, I realized, the only person rowing my boat. Lesson one. How to be responsible for myself. Lesson two. Learn how to learn. Lesson three. Learn discipline. Turn up for classes. Make choices, study or party. Understand consequences.

I don’t remember the periodic table or even what we studied in first year physics. The lesson I do remember is realizing the difference between arguing and discussing, arguing and debating, yelling louder than someone else or marshaling a group of facts to support a position. Pounding the table and shouting didn’t get you anywhere in a seminar.

I learned about things I never knew existed. I took Philosophy and along with learning about Aristotle and Plato, I took logic, formal and informal. Although I was the despair of my professor, Davey Owen, his course in logic opened up my mind, showed me how to dispel faulty arguments and to prove that they were faulty. In place of punching someone with whom I disagreed, I was able to analyze and identify the logic or lack of it in their argument. There is power in being able to say, “You are arguing in a circle.” And demonstrate it.

In Gimli, it seemed that there were few choices. Local people who had gone to university had become a doctor or lawyer, dentist, pharmacist. No one mentioned astrophysics or the multi types of geologist or economists or archeologists. No one ever mentioned becoming a plant pathologist. University was like a cornucopia with possibilities spilling from it. It presented possibilities I never knew existed.

I stumbled along taking courses because I was interested in them, not because they led in a coherent fashion to a job. After first year, I took political science, philosophy, economics, English, the sort of conglomeration that many who see university as a sort of trade school rail against. I wasn’t learning a trade. I was getting an education. I was learning to think and to understand. And gradually, my love of literature was turning into a desire to become a published writer.

When I look back, I wish I’d taken courses in history. They would have provided a framework for everything else I was taking. There were no courses in journalism but as a famous journalist once said to me, don’t worry about the specific techniques that go with a genre. You can teach yourself those or learn them on the job. Focus on learning to write. Once you can write, you can write anything and he was correct. I learned to write short stories, novels, children’s stories, poetry, plays, articles.

Lately, on the internet and sometimes in the media there have been attacks on higher education. It is, according to these writers, a waste of time. They use examples of someone with a university degree working as a barista or a waitress. They want universities to become trade schools. They equate training to education. The rail about all the student debt that is accumulated by the time someone graduates. They never talk about the opportunities that are created, the possibilities that now are known that were not known.

Something sinister, destructive has happened to our educational system. Going to university used to mean getting an education, becoming an educated person. However, over the years it became to mean getting a degree. Before I retired, it became common to hear students talk about getting a degree as quickly as possible, with as little effort as possible. All they were concerned about were getting credits. Some would even argue that it was their right to have a degree because having a degree would get them a job.

What had been a journey to being educated was becoming obtaining a piece of paper whose only purpose was getting hired. Somewhere, lost in this transition was the reason that people with degrees used to get jobs is because they were educated, that is they were knowledgeable, could think logically and could communicate effectively. They had learned to learn and any employer hiring them could be confident that they had the ability to learn the necessary specifics of any job.

I first taught high school, then college and, finally, university classes. I taught in the Fine Arts faculty, not in Engineering or computer science or Chemistry. Worse yet, I taught people how to write fiction. The ignorant clamor against such courses, such degrees. But our graduates made fine editors, used their writing skills for a wide variety of jobs. Every business needs people skilled in communication. Poets, with their attention to every word, every punctuation mark, make fine editors. Writers who understand narrative create everything from advertisements to television shows and computer games.

Part of the attack on higher education is coming as a backlash against the exposure of ignorance. Remember, I said that I took formal and informal logic. I learned to think critically, to analyze, to search for the truth. In the past year there have been reports of men in Africa who, out of ignorance, have shot and killed women who were inoculating children against serious diseases. In Texas recently a law was proposed that the teaching of critical thinking be banned. Critical thinking, after all, exposes nonsense, superstition, lack of logic. There is little distance between the murderers of women in Africa who are trying to protect children against disease and the banning of critical thinking. Both champion ignorance.

Education dissipates ignorance and superstition. It gives the most critical skill of all. It taught me how to learn. After a lifetime of learning and teaching, I can say that was worth every penny, every minute of effort, every sacrifice.

Lake Winnipeg in Winter

SONY DSCIt snowed last night. The morning was pristine white. The snow here is soft, fluffy, dry unlike the wet heavy snow of the West Coast.

The sky was white, fading into blue and everywhere there were blue and grey shadows and by early afternoon the low spot at third and centre was filled with water. Trucks and cars going through it went splash, splash and the water rushed away in little waves.

At the lake’s edge there was wind, cold enough to make me wish I’d brought a scarf. The reflection of the snow and the drifting  crystals turned the horizon white, made it endless as if there was nothing in the distance but infinity. The bare corrugated ice of the race track once free of snow,has drifts stretching across it.

There is no risk of being lost in a white out because the wind is gentle, sending the snow scurrying over the lake’s surface. On both sides of the track there are high ridges of snow that were ploughed to provide barriers for cars hurtling around the curves during the Ice Festival.

The dock is crusted with ice and frost. In the distance are poles marking fishing nets. There are three sports fishing huts, incongruous with their sharp edges in a world where the wind curves everything except the cast up blocks of ice that form ridges here and there.

Walking on the race track is easy, the surface dark and rough, not like the ice that has been polished smooth by the wind. The drifts are not yet deep. The point at the north side of the bay is blurred by the frost in the air.


As I trudge over ice and snow, I think of my father and his father and his father, all working on the ice as commercial fishermen. I think of the first settlers, confounded by ice like this, hard enough and deep enough to support cars and trucks, ice that had to be chopped and chiselled until four feet, sometimes six feet down until water appeared and nets could be set.

It is here that the local people, the Cree, the Saulteux, appear, faint figures in the crystal mist. Native people showing the Icelandic settlers how to push a net under the ice with a pole and to push that pole with another pole and another pole so as to get the net stretched out and then to painfully, slowly chisel away another hole so both ends of the net can be secured.

It is then some genius created the jigger, that simplest of tools that allowed nets to be run under the ice. On ice like this, trying out a new invention that would mean fish to eat in the dead of winter. And when it worked, men making more jiggers so more families could survive the hunger winters for the idea of easy hunting for meat is a city myth. My great grandfather went many times to hunt for deer and moose and came home empty handed. Fish was more dependable.

I stand with my back to the wind and I think of all the nets my father set and lifted in a lifetime, all the frozen fish we packed, shipped to market.

But also on the ice faintly in the haze are others not so fortunate. Those who were lost in blizzards and froze to death. Those who walked all night on frozen feet and had to have them amputated and spent the rest of their lives on their knees clearing land and doing chores.

Anyone brought up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg who goes out on the ice is never alone for a host of images surrounds with him. Even when it’s a fine day with a light wind and a blue sky.