The Mighty Beaver


Many years ago when I taught high school in Snow Lake, Manitoba, I was invited to go dip-fishing for whitefish. We travelled by boat to the mouth of a creek, hiked up along the creek until we reached a beaver dam. We lined up along the top of the dam, played our flashlights over the water and tried to dip fish from the base of the beaver dam. That was the closest I ever got to Castor Canadensis, the Canadian beaver. The images of that evening came flooding back as I read a book called Once They Were Hats, a book exploring and explaining the past and current role of beaver, their tree cutting, their dam building and their saving of our land.

I’d seen notices of Frances Backhouse’s latest book subtitled “In search of the Mighty Beaver”. When I had a chance to attend a reading and Question and Answer period put on by The Professional Writers of Canada and hosted by Rosemary Neering, I immediately marked it down as a must-go-to evening. Fran started the evening by reading selections from the book and telling us about how it came about.

She’d wanted to write a book about animals but a publisher had said no, that is too broad. You need to focus on one animal. She really likes woodpeckers so she thought she’d do a book about woodpeckers but the truth be told, there isn’t a lot important Canadian history to go with woodpeckers. She settled, wisely, on the life and history of the beaver.

That, it turns out, was the easy part. It took her six years to research and write the book. Part of the drag was created by the fact that she was writing the book as a thesis for her MFA degree in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. Those members of the audience who had experience with doing research associated with a university rolled their eyes in sympathy. However, that wasn’t the only anchor. The other was that the beaver and native history and folklore are inextricably intertwined. That meant a lot of permission forms being filled out before material could be collected and used. Like the industrious beaver, Fran kept at the task until, at last, she had written a book that I enjoyed immensely.

I may be biased, of course. I’ve known Fran for a long time but, more importantly, many decades ago, a book that had a tremendous impact on me was Ring of Bright Water. It was about the adopting and living with two otters. I am, I admit, a sucker for books about animals.

Fran said in her comments that her classmates, when she first presented the material she was writing in a good, objective, journalistic manner, told her that she should forget about the objective manner and tell the story in the first person. They were right. The first person gives a personal, casual touch to a narrative that could be distant and dry.

Her opening sentence in the introduction says “The beaver has a major image problem. A chubby rodent with goofy buckteeth and a tail that looks like it was run over by a tractor tire”. We learn that in 1851, our first postage stamp was the Three-Pence Beaver. That didn’t stop Senator Nicole Eaton calling the beaver “a dentally defective rat”. That may be because they were chomping on the dock at her summer cottage.

Fran tells about her travels across North America searching out beaver and beaver experts but also tells us about Jacques Cartier stopping :at an Iroquoian town called Hochelaga” which may mean “beaver path”. In Ancient Antecedents we learn about beaver the size of bears and get to meet Natalia Rybcyznski at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research collection. Yes, there are people who spend their lives learning about beaver and their impact on our planet.

There are the native legends including the one of the beaver that can be killed and eaten but is constantly resurrected and we hear of Ida Calmegane’s Tlingit songs. And, of course, no book on the beaver would be complete without a chapter on Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (Grey Owl). Fran describes her hike in to visit his cabin. She then tells us that it wasn’t just Grey Owl who domesticated beaver. They enjoy, it would seem, lying in front of the fireplace as much as any dog.

Of course, we have to get to hats because it is hats that nearly drove the beaver to extinction. Beaver pelts were so valuable for making hats that pelts were treated as money. As part of understanding how beaver pelts provide the materials for felts to make hats, we get to visit Smithbilt and get to see how those fancy hats are made. However, at the end of that chapter, we follow Fran out of the store without a 20X beaver hat because it costs 895.0.00 dollars.

There are still a lot of chapters to go that are filled with surprising facts such as discovering, along with Fran, that there are beaver who live on the salt flats, beaver that build dams of stone when there is no wood available, beaver that travel great distances over land to find suitable streams and ponds. We meet fascinating people, trappers, traders, scientists, and pest removers (not all people think beaver are great guests).

With climate change drying out parts of North America, with water running off too quickly, beaver are now being recognized as a natural way to keep water in the ground. They’re thought of as eco-system engineers. There were between 60 and 400 million beaver in North America before people started killing them to make hats. There were “At least 25 million dams.” Belatedly, it is being recognized that they were a major part of creating a sustainable environment.

I said to Fran that over the years beaver have re-established themselves in a local creek outside of my hometown. There are aspen trees and willow for dam building and food. There’s water. And maybe, just maybe, we’ve grown up enough as a society that we don’t have to kill everything in order to make a few dollars.

Book reviews: Fires of the Earth and Island On Fire


Fires of the Earth
The Laki Eruption 1783-84
By the Rev. Jón Steingrimsson (trans. by Keneva Kunz)

As I read Fires of the Earth, the translation of Jón´s account of the Laki eruption and its aftermath, I thought Keneva Kunze´s translation easy to read, although I know that given Jon´s religious position and the times, that the original must have presented serious problems to a translator. This book is only ninety-five pages. It attempts nothing beyond sharing the observations of Jón Steingrimsson in English..

Many North American Icelandic readers are unlikely to recognize Jón by his name but they would know who he was the moment his Fire Sermon was mentioned. We all have images of him defiantly preaching in his church as lava from Laki flowed toward it. Before this climactic moment, at least two other churches had been destroyed so everyone knew that the house of God alone was not enough to bring the calamity of the lava to a halt.
“on the fifth Sunday after Trinity…I proceeded to the church, along with all of those people then in the Siða area who could manage to do so. I was filled with sorrow at the thought that this might well be the last service to be held in the church, as the terror which now threatened and approached ever nearer appeared likely to destroy it as it had the other two.

“As we approached, the clouds of hot vapours and fog coming from the fire farther down the river channel were so thick that the church could hardly be seen, or its outline could only be hazily seen…Claps of thunder were followed by such great flashes of lightning, in series after series, that they lit up the inside of the church and the bells echoed the sound, while the earth tremors continued unabated.“

He makes his sermon longer than usual, keeping everyone in the church. When he, at last, finishes his sermon, he and others went to see how close the lava was to them. They discovered that it had not advanced at all. “The rivers Holsá and Fjaðará poured over the dams which the new lava had made them, and with great torrents and splashing smothered the fire”.

Jón´s chronicle of this time doesn´t stop with the eruption but goes on to describe the aftermath. Not many were killed by the eruption. The dying came because the feed for the sheep and cattle had been destroyed. To add to the misery, the animals suffer from some terrible disease, from rain that poisons everything and burns the leaves of plants and the skin of people and animals. Jón´s observations are detailed, his analysis intelligent. His bravery unquestioned.

Iceland had a population of around fifty thousand people at the time of the eruption. Ten thousand died. That is one in every five. Jón reports on the desperation of people dying of hunger, dying from eating the flesh of the animals poisoned by the water and grass. The effects on the animals are grotesque.

Jón names the farms that are destroyed, names how much each was worth before the eruption. These were prosperous farms. The owners were wealthy. After the eruption they became paupers. For people who don´t know Icelandic history, the term pauper isn´t terrifying. For those who do know, the word encapsulates forced removal, being sold to the person who will take the least amount from the sysla to keep them, to the loss of all rights until the debt is paid.

Jón begins by describing the years of plenty before the eruption. Times were good. They were so good that people became greedy, uncaring, vain, proud. The abuse of alcohol became wide spread. By the end of 1784, they had all been chastised. Being reduced to eating your leather clothes does that to people.

It is a shame that Fires of the Earth is out of print. It is a book that everyone of Icelandic background should read in order to understand their Icelandic ancestors and their current Icelandic relatives.

island on fire

In conjunction with Fires of the Earth, I read Island on Fire (Pegasus Books) by Alexandra Witze & Jeff Kanipe. The authors make good use of their ability to look back in time and to use modern research to create a context for the Laki eruption.

The authors are able to educate the reader by naming and explaining various eruptions around the world with their impact.

The book is packed with interesting facts. For example, while I had heard of Krakatau, I’d never heard of disaster in Cameroon at Lake Nyos. There, volcanic carbon dioxide “slithered down the valley bottoms and suffocated at least 1,700 people in a single night.” It is because of gases like this that the authorities in Iceland keep warning people to stay well away from Barðabunga.

The book begins with a description of the eruption of Heimaey in 1973. It is a well known eruption because the struggle to save the town and harbour were filmed. The authors make an interesting link between the people who struggled against the lava at Heimaey, using water to divert its flow and the observations Jón made about the effects of water on lava in 1783. Jón´s fire sermon and the stopping of the lava from Laki stopped before it reached him is known by every Icelandic person, young and old. Therefore, it wouldn´t be surprising if the firemen who decided to try to direct the lava flow got their idea from Jón.

Island On Fire goes on to plate tectonics and Alfred Wegener and explains about how Wegener’s theories were ignored until Harry Hess of Princeton revived them in 1962. They touch on Hawaii and then back to Iceland and the mid-Atlantic rift where many of us have stood with one foot in Europe and one foot in America. We get brief descriptions of Hekla , Katla and Eyjafjallajökull and end with Grimsvötn.

The authors tell us that Jón records cases of “Painful cramps contracted the tendons, particularly at the back of the knee, and there was painful swelling in the hands and feet, as well as the neck and head. Hair fell out. Teeth became loose…the victim suffered putrid sores inside and outside the neck and throat”. The authors, writing from today’s perspective, are able to say that these effects were “probably due to fluorine poisoning.”

.In Chapter Six, “The Big Chill Laki’s global fallout”, we begin with Benjamin Franklin in France, suffering an unpleasant, foggy winter. He thought it might have something to do with the eruption in Iceland. It is noted that other scholars also noticed a connection between the winter weather and the eruption of Laki. From there we travel in the present  to Denver, Colorado and visit the National Ice Core Laboratory. There the authors get to see an ice core with the volcanic dust from Laki.

The authors treat us to a visit to the craters of Laki and we learn that to travel over the sharp lava, you need to let the air out of your tires. From there to the graves of Jón and his wife, Thórunn, and in spite of the book jacket saying that the Laki eruption has been forgotten, the authors admit that “The memory of the Fire Mass runs deep even here (Klaustur).“

Chapter Nine is about how worried we should or shouldn´t be, although I can´t imagine what good worrying would do. If Yellowstone blows up, we´re all done. In the final chapter, the authors return to Heimaey and end by telling us the obvious. There´s no spiritual figure out there who is going to keep volcanoes from exploding.

In spite of my grumpiness about some aspects of the book (I felt, at times, that it had taken its narrative strategy from TV specials or was hoping to become one),I‘d still recommend it for the general reader. It‘s well worth the price. However, if you can find a copy of Fires of the Earth read that, too, so you get a sense of the both the time and the terror.

Islendingadagurinn 125

viking ship

Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Celebration, The Icelandic Festival, The Gimli Pickerel Party

There’s Christmas. There’s Easter. There’s Thanksgiving. However, none of those days, for those of us who grew up in Gimli, Manitoba, are as important as the first weekend in August. That’s when the holiday with the unpronounceable name, Islendingadagurinn happens. Part of the charm of this celebration has been its wickedly long Icelandic name. An Icelandic Celebration, an Icelandic Festival, a Gimli Pickerel Party don’t have the same cachet. I mean, how do you beat answering the question what are you doing on the long weekend with “I’m going to Islendingadagurinn.”?

This year is going to be the 125th anniversary of Islendingadagurinn. My great grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my father went to Islendingadagurinn and I went to Islendingadagurinn. Not calling this celebration Islendingadagurinn is like sawing the horns off the Viking statue that stands on guard over Gimli. His helmet may not be authentic because of the horns but so what, no real Vikings landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. Our ancestors did. They were sheep farmers, fishermen, indentured servants, people driven out of Iceland by weather, politics and poverty. However, a statue of a sheep farmer doesn’t have the same impact as a Viking with a horned helmet. If the Viking had any sense of branding they’d have put horns on their helmets.

Gimli, when I grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s, was Icelandic to the core. Yes, there were other ethnic groups represented: Ukrainian, German, Polish, Aboriginal, Scots, English, Irish, the odd Dane but the town was Icelandic. They dominated the local politics. They dominated the business community. They were the social elite. Even small Manitoba towns have social elites. Icelandic was spoken in stores, in church, in homes. The Viking with horns hadn’t been built yet. He wasn’t yet needed to remind us of who we were.

In the 40s, Islendingadagurinn was mostly a family affair. It was mostly about those local people who had moved away, coming back to touch base with coffee and kleiner and vinarterta. And mom and dad and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins. People of Icelandic descent are big on family relationships. They can drink four pots of coffee while discussing how they’re all related to everyone else at the kitchen table.

Islendingadagurinn grew. People used to come down on the train, then cars became more available and people drove from near and far. Like from Winnipeg and Brandon and even Edmonton and Calgary. They came from other small communities in Manitoba’s Interlake. The parade which, at first, was some cars decorated with colored ribbon and signs announcing local politicians as passengers added the Shriners. The Shriners brought color, music, entertainment, turned the parade into a spectacle worthy of a city instead of a small Manitoba town. That, in turn, attracted bigger and better floats. The parade now is an event not to be missed.

As more people came to share in the Icelandic experience, more events needed to be created for them. The visitors were no longer just relatives enjoying a visit and a beer. There were the usual races, the speeches by the Fjallkona (the queen of the mountain), by distinguished visitors from Iceland but when people pour into town by the thousands, you’ve got to find something for them to do. That meant beer gardens, fish filleting competitions, knocking each other off poles over the water in the harbour, making sand castles, hosting a Viking village (I love the Viking village), creating a heritage display and sale at the local park, having pancake breakfasts, supplying Icelandic dainties. It all takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers work all year long to put on a four day festival. If they get any reward at all, it might be having lunch en mass with some Icelandic dignitary.

Along with the volunteers, local businesses pony up money to pay for musical concerts. They often pony up a lot of money because the concerts are by top notch professionals.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the year of Islendingadagurinn’s 125 anniversary, there is a problem with financing. I guess there’s always been a problem because there’s no way of charging all those thousands of people who come to have an Icelandic experience. Here, on Vancouver Island, we have the Saanichton Fair. It’s a knockout agricultural fair. However, it takes place in the country on fenced in grounds. You pay at the gate for the day or for the weekend. No one minds. We all line up and push our money through the ticket seller’s window and get our hand stamped. We all know that events have to be financed.

To me, although I left Gimli in 1957 to go to university and have lived away ever since, coming back in the summers, Islendingadagurinn is Gimli. It’s Gimli’s heart. It’s Gimli’s identity. But it is more than that, otherwise, it would just be a small town festival. It’s at the heart of the Icelandic North American community. It’s a public expression of who we are.

I write from half a continent away at a time when the Gimli park is deep in snow, the temperature hovers around -35, the choice of Gimli as a place to create New Iceland, is highly questionable, but the snow will melt, the air will warm, summer will come.

Many of us will travel great distances to participate in Islendingadagurinn, even though it may be called something else. For those of us raised in Gimli, the celebration will always be Islendingadagurinn. The Icelandic flags and the Fjallkona in her robes representing the Icelandic landscape will always be with us.

It has taken tremendous dedication and hard work to preserve this celebration of our history and culture for 125 years. I hope that those who have taken on the task today find a way to finance Islendingadagurinn for another 125.

The Persimmon Tree

Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

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:

New books from Iceland: Björn G. Björnsson


The doorbell rang and when I went to see who was there, I found a package that said, “Iceland Post”. When I opened it, there were four books that I am happily adding to my library. The photographs, text and design for all four books are by Björn G. Björnsson.

The books are Large Turf Houses, Turf Churches, Writer´s Homes, 18th Century Stone Buildings. The books have minimal text but it is helpful in explaining the significance of the pictures. In 18th Century Stone Buildings, there is a quarter page description of VIÐEY HOUSE. It says, in part, “In 1752-5 the Danish authorities built a fine residence on Viðey Island off Reykjavík for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, known as the Father of Reykjavík. Desgned by Danish court architect Niclai Eigtved, Viðey House was the first stone building in Iceland.“

NES HOUSE is described as “Iceland‘s first Surgeon General was appointed in 1760, and in 1761-7 a residence was built for him at Nes on the Seltjarnarnes headland, and it remains little changed.“

In the book, Writer‘s Homes, there are pictures of Halldór Laxness´s home, GLJÚFRASTEINN.“Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík in 1902, and published his first book in 1919…from 1945 his home was at Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær).” There are pictures from the Culture House/Old National Library from SNORRSSTOFA, from Jónas Hallgrímsson’s Hraun, Oxnadalur.

The book, Turf Churches, is a delight. It brings together images of churches in a way that allows this viewer to bring together many disparate images seen over the years. Among others is the church Saurbær, Eyjafjörður and the Núpsstaður Chapel. As with all the books, the presenting of these buildings both from various views of the exterior and the interior gives the mood of the buildings. It is easy to imagine those hardy Icelandic families riding up to the Núpsstaður Chapel in the 1700s to worship, visit, gossip, court, chew some snuff and even have a drink or two. Nice details are included in these short descriptions. For examples ‘Hannes Jónsson of Núpsstaður was a renowned mail-carrier in the days before the nearby glacial rivers were bridged; he guided travellers across the perilous rivers on horseback.”

Large Turf Houses will be a favorite of visitors. It will be hard not to buy this book after visiting some of these houses. Icelandic North Americans frequently talk about the turf houses they have visited. They are fascinated in places that help them to see what living conditions were like for their ancestors before the great emigration. Admittedly, this collection of large turf houses is a bit misleading as to actual living conditions. Most of our ancestors didn’t live in places like Glaumbær or Laufás. Þvera, for example, “was built in the latter half of the 19th century. On either side of the entrance are two reception rooms.” However, as I write mostly about foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C and these visitors, being wealthy aristocrats or clergy of high social status, they did not stay with poor farmers and fishermen. They stayed with the upper class, the kind of people who lived in these large turf houses. These pictures give a real sense of what life could be like in Iceland if you had good land, some money and good political connections.

As a North American Icelander, if there is such a thing, I’m grateful to Björn, for these books. The exterior and, perhaps, more importantly, the interior shots of the various buildings provide a clear view of what life was like for some Icelanders during the 19th C. According to his biography, Björn has worked as a designer with RÚV national TV. He also has designed sets and costumes for theatre, TV and film. He designs exhibitions for museums and visitor centres. He has made 70 TV programmes on historic buildings and sites and Icelandic cultural heritage.

They are expecting 900,000 visitors in Iceland in 2015. I expect that the visitors to the turf churches, the large turf houses, the writer´s homes, the 18th Century stone buildings, will carry away a large number of these books. If you want to have copies, I´d suggest that when you are next in Iceland, you buy them before the visiting hordes appear.

A Sketch from Iceland in1862

I have a soft spot for A. J. Symington’s travel book on Iceland, Faroe and Iceland. One aspect of the original book that I enjoy is the numerous sketches of Icelandic places in 1862. A disappointment, though, is that the book is small and the sketches are small. However, with the magic of computer technology, it is possible to copy the pictures and enlarge them without losing the quality. Here is one picture of what Symington saw on his travels around Iceland ten years before our people began to leave for Amerika.

priest's house at thingvalla

“at five o’clock in the afternoon rode up to the priest’s house on the other side. It was simply a farm, like others we had seen, consisting of a group of separate erections with wooden gables, green sod on the roof and the whole surrounded with a low stone wall coped with turf. Beside it was the silent churchyard with its simple grassy graves of all sizes.

Immediately behind the house were piles of sawn timber, and several carpenters at work rebuilding the little church, which having become old and frail had been taken down. Its site was only about 25 feet by 10

“Zöga went in to tell the pastor of our arrival, leaving us to dismount in the deep, miry lane between two rough stone walls leading to the house. He had been busy with his hay, but speedily appeared and hospitably offered us what shelter he could afford.

“Zöga arranged for the grazing of the ponies; we were to dine in the largest room of the house, and he was to have the use of the kitchen fire to cook our dinner—the preserved meats, soups, &c.—which of course we had brought with us. The pastor provided a splendid trout from the river, to the great delectation of half a dozen travellers all as hungry as hawks.“

My Oldest Book: 1752-1757

Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson traveled through Iceland during 1752-1757 at the king’s bidding and recorded all that they observed. Their document is called Travels in Iceland.

It says, at the beginning, “Containing Observations on the manners and customs of the inhabitants, a description of the lakes, rivers, glaciers, hot-springs and volcanoes; of the various kinds of earths, stones, fossils and petrifications; as well as of the animals, insects, fishes, & c.”

It is this book that forms the basis for much that is later written by travelers. Travel writers read available sources and what they do not see with their own eye or hear with their own ear, they extract from the work of previous writers. Before Olafsson and Pálsson there were stories and poems written about Iceland but most were fantastical tales with little in them that was true. O & P actually did travel the quarters of Iceland to obtain information for the Danish king.

Travels In Iceland begins by saying, “In the month of July, 1752, Messrs. Ólafsson and Pálsson set off from Copenhagen and arrived at Laugarnes, in the district of Gullbringusýsla: they thence passed into that of Kjósarsýsla, but being desirous of entering the northern quarter before the approach of winter, by crossing the mountains via Kjölur, they at first went through a very small portion of this southern district. They however returned thither in the following year, and concluded their vast undertaking by completing their observations of the southern part of Iceland.“

How easy to say. One paragraph. It is 1752, more than a hundred years before our ancestors begin their journey to Amerika. Travelers accounts from the 1800s detail how difficult travel is. There are no roads, no bridges. Iceland is a vast tract of lava desert, volcanic rock, rushing rivers, vast bogs, treacherous mountains. There is nothing soft or easy about the landscape. This isn‘t the world of Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“.

There are no wheeled vehicles. Ólafsson and Pálsson, like the travelers who follow them, will travel the length and breadth of Iceland on horseback. They´ll trust in local guides to get them from one isolated place to another. They´ll trust locals to get them safely across dangerous rivers. They´ll stay in farmhouses. They´ll drink milk, eat skyr, dried fish, pudding made from Icelandic moss, smoked meat, bread when it is available. They´ll be wet a lot of the time. Time and again, they´ll hunker down and wait out storms.

Always, they´ll observe. Early in the book, they say this about turf (Humus bituminosus). “Beneath this swampy or putrid soil, is found a bituminous earth, which the inhabitants call Mór or Torf; its layers are from six to eight feet deep. It is dug up with a kind of spade, and being cut into cubes and dried, is used as fuel.

“This bituminous earth is here of great advantage as well as in the whole southern part of the island; because it is a substitute for wood. In digging it they meet with branches of trees, and sometimes even with lumps of wood of a considerable size; and the places where this bitumen is found, were, according to the accounts of the ancient historians, once covered with forests.”

“At low water, there is also obtained on the shore of Kjalarnes another kind of turf, which the inhabitants call Sjótorf; it burns well, but sparkles and emits a sulphurous smell. It is likewise remarkable, that this turf contains branches of trees, which proves that the place where it is found was formerly a part of the land”.

Remember, it is 1752. Think of the primitive travel conditions, the primitive accommodations, the sheer energy necessary to ride from place to place in Iceland’s constantly changing weather where, as other travelers report, you can be broiling in the sun, then drenched by rain, then freezing in winds from the glaciers or the North Sea, all in one day.

No one travels Hollywood style, galloping alone on a horse. Everything that is needed has to be brought on horseback, packed and unpacked. The horses have to be fed and, from the tales of other travelers, that can mean, along with supplies needed by the riders, hay for the horses.

Anyone who has traveled through Iceland’s lava deserts knows grass is seldom seen.

Travels in Iceland. Could I have done it? I wonder. Somehow, I doubt it. Could you have done it? If the king had said to you, “Off to Iceland and bring me back a detailed report on these strange Icelanders.” Could you have done it? Faced the isolation, the weather, the accommodation, the food, the danger, the loneliness and then put together a report worthy of a king?

As much as I admire and am interested in the report, I find myself more interested in these two travelers, wish I could watch them as they make their way to the far corners of Iceland. They must have been exceptional individuals. I’d like to see them fording rivers, traveling over the hraun, heading into the horizontal rain, getting off their horses at some farmhouse that looked like it was part of the earth itself. It’s too bad they didn’t have their own Boswell to bring them alive for us.

Travels in Iceland, Ólafsson and Pálsson. 1752-1757. Jim Anderson found me this copy on the internet. This English copy was published in 1975. It’s a handsome book with many illustrations, some of them in color. There might be another one around. It’s worth taking a look.

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.

Brown: Song of the Vikings

I love books. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books.

My grandmother taught me to read by sitting beside me on the living room couch and reading the newspaper comics to me and getting me to recognize words and sound them out. Comics led to picture books and picture books led to novels and collections of short stories.

I love to read. Reading makes who worlds come alive. Reading takes me places I will never go physically.

Books are filled with details that inform and fascinate.

I’ve been enjoying my new book, Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown. It’s all about Snorri Sturlusson, one of the great figures of Icelandic history and literature. However, the author knows that she’s got to make the times she is writing about come alive. The way a writer does that is with concrete, specific detail. That details allows us to share the time and place. It does more than that, however. It also tells us that the writer knows what she is talking about, that her narrative voice can be believed. Added to that is that these concrete details inform, make this reader feel that he now knows something he didn’t know before.

I love to learn. To stop learning is to die. A good book leaves the reader knowing more than before he read it.

Brown’s Song of the Vikings is filled with concrete detail, with information, but there on page 31 there was a paragraph that to me was worth the entire price of the book.  I expect there will be many more of these paragraphs. I will, I think, be repaid many times as I read.

Here is the paragraph:

“Quill pens were cut from swan, goose, or raven feathers (also easily come by in Iceland); left-wing feathers were best for right-handed writers because they bent away from the eye. Ink was made by boiling whole bearberry plants with a clay commonly used to dye wool black. A few shavings of green willow twigs were added to the pot, and the mixture was simmered until it turned sticky. “Let a drop fall onto your fingernail,” says one recipe. “If it remains there like a little ball, then the ink is ready.” A little bit of gum from the first milk of a young ewe or heifer was added to the ink to make it shiny. The result was ink that was black, glossy, and impermeable to water—important to people who often traveled by ship.”

All those sagas, hand printed on vellum. Deposited in Reykjavik. National treasures. Ink on vellum.  And did you ever wonder where that ink came from in the land of fire and ice, the land of earthquakes and volcanoes, the land of long, dark winters, the land of huts made of turf and rock? Without ink, ink that would last through the centuries, there could be no written sagas. Snorri could not have written, could not have recorded the stories we still read today.

Simple questions. Obvious questions. But often unasked and so unanswered. Here is a saga. How could the pages be created? From where came the ink? From where came the pens to dip in the ink? Without knowing these things, how is one to appreciate what one sees when looking at a saga in a glass case, not created by God, not created by magic, but  by our ancestors on some isolated farm, read and re-read, surviving the vagaries of the weather, the conditions in the turf houses, the smoke, the dampness, the handling.

Quill pens. From swan, goose or raven. Knowing that being right-handed, we needed feathers from the left wing. Going shopping for pens meant hunting those swans, geese and ravens. You might stumble across a dead bird and be blessed with the wings for your winter’s printing. More likely, you had to hunt the birds or have the wealthy farm owner have his hired help hunt them for you. A winter’s supply of quill pens.

And having ink meant you had to know the bearberry plan. Know the right clay and where to collect it. Knew where to collect the green willow. Know when you could get the first milk from a young ewe. No going to an office supply store where all you need is a credit card.

Let us read this book together. You can post your discovered treasures, make your comments, on my blog site.