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).

The Loneliest Christmas

Christmas, whether you celebrate Christ’s birth or not, is a time of the getting together of family and friends.

Encouraged, even demanded by the retail sector, it is a time of gift giving and gift giving is always portrayed as a family event with people arriving at someone’s front door laden with gifts or in someone’s living room with a room full of beloved and loving people.

Television is guilty of creating a feeling of everyone else is happy, everyone can afford to give and receive expensive gifts in houses that have huge rooms and fireplaces. These imaginary houses are perfect from both the outside and the inside. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wealthy.

I walked through the toy section of Walmart yesterday. Part way through the tour, I thought this is insane. No one needs all this, or any of this. Out of the glittery boxes, the toys are nothing more than brightly painted bits of plastic. I then went to an exclusive Victoria store. Just inside the door there was a coffee table for seven thousand dollars. The perfect gift for one of those perfect houses in the advertisements. Who, I asked myself, buys seven thousand dollar coffee tables?

Since I don’t know, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. Maybe I need to upscale myself.

There is no power more powerful than television to make people feel inferior. Show after show has apartments and houses that the characters in the show, in real life, couldn’t possibly afford. In Vancouver where tear-downs are being bought for 1.2 million and over, yup, you have to pay 1.2 million, tear down the current house and then build a new one, people are buying condos the size of walk-in closets. They are buying lane houses no bigger than a one car garage.

Wages have not kept up with prices. Mortgages in Vancouver are taking as much as eighty percent of the combined salaries of a husband and wife. Then there are car payments and food and clothes and dental work and one thousand dollar baby carriages. Credit card companies are charging over nineteen percent and people are taking out HELOCS so they can buy groceries.

“I saw it on TV. Not once but many times. People our age, driving a new car, going on exotic holidays, buying each other enormous gifts. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a loser?” If this is how you feel, give your head a shake. Drowning in debt doesn’t make anyone a winner. The Magi may have brought expensive gifts for Christ but they were kings. They weren’t using a credit card to buy the frankincense, myrrh and gold. You don’t prove you love someone with your gifts.

Instead of buying like a king of ancient times, how about attending a Christmas service? There are free concerts. Christmas pot lucks work just fine. If the spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting, one can have a busy, productive Christmas, especially if the giving is the gift of including people so they aren’t lonely.

Times of celebration can be the loneliest times for people who are left out of the celebrating. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have family, who will be spending Christmas alone. For them an invitation to share Christmas dinner or to go look at Christmas lights with you or attend a concert, even if it is a school concert, will go a long way to making their Christmas a happy one. There is no joy like the joy of being included, to be part of someone’s festivities, to share a meal, to not be alone while everyone around you celebrates. You can give that to someone. Without maxing out your credit card.

When I was young, all my friends seemed to get married at the same time and, in a while, to have children at the same time. Now that I am old, many of those same friends are widows or widowers at the same time and not all of them have children nearby. Some are divorced. Some have a wife or husband in an institution. An invitation to share part of your Christmas can make the season joyful for them.

I always admired my father for what he did one Christmas. One of his seasonal working men was a terrible alcoholic. He got his pay cheque and drank it away. His temporary friends at the beer parlour helped him with that. He hadn’t saved anything to pay for room and board before the fishing began again and he took up residence in a caboose (a one room shack covered with building paper and tar paper, sometimes plywood) that sat on an old sled. The caboose was some distance outside of town at the back of the beach among a copse of poplar trees. There was always a large amount of drifting snow in that area. My father drove until the snow drifts stopped him, then walked over the drifts, carrying a bag of food and a twenty-six of whiskey.

He couldn’t find the caboose until he saw a chimney pipe sticking up through the snow. He then discovered a beaten down track and followed it to the caboose. He knocked and was let in. It was one room, one chair, one bunk, some wooden fish boxes for cupboards, a tin stove, some firewood, a lamp. There was a small window that let in light and when it wasn’t covered in frost, a view of the vast surface of ice that went all the way to the horizon. It would have been hard to have found a lonelier place

My mother had packed up some butter tarts, some shortbread cookies, some Christmas cake, a meal of turkey and vegetables.

Gunnar wouldn’t leave his lonely snow driven place. My father and he talked for a while, then my father left and Gunnar, we’ll say he was called Gunnar, spent the night alone with the snow and wind and his thoughts.

Some people asked my father, why did you take a bottle of whiskey along with the food. My father’s reply was that it was the gift Gunnar wanted. It wasn’t up to my father to judge what he should or shouldn’t have.

I’ve thought of Gunnar often when I’ve felt lonely, when, for a period of time, because of circumstances, fate, ill luck, I found myself alone when others joined together to celebrate. I’ve comforted myself by thinking of that cold winter night with the wind blowing, the snow drifting, a man alone in a caboose and saying to myself this temporary moment I’m going through isn’t so bad.

We need others, we need community. Condo towers, suburbia, cities, apartments, poverty, illness, old age, death of a partner, a host of things work against community. Small acts of kindness, especially at special times like Christmas help restore it.

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 Lesson of Lawns

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

I’m guilty. I admit it. Although cutting grass when I was a teenager kept me in spending money in the summer, I have abandoned having a yard that looked like a putting green.

In Gimli, Manitoba, where I grew up, the summer campers/cottagers were a source of pocket money for movies, hamburgers and fries, candy, comic books and, later, dates with local heartthrobs. Sometimes, I got jobs painting cottages but, most of the time, the market was for lawn cutting.

Most of the cottage husbands were Friday to Sunday night men. They came down to the beach after work on Friday and went back to Winnipeg Sunday evening. Winnipeg, in high summer, is sweltering, humid, oppressive, and, in those days, there was little, if any, air conditioning. Every summer one of the papers would have a picture of someone frying an egg on the hood of a car or on a sidewalk.

Meanwhile, wives and children were ensconced in Gimli cottages, either owned or rented. The cottages, shaded by large, old growth spruce trees, made of wood with lots of windows and screens so the night air could flow inside and cool breezes from Lake Winnipeg could blow through, didn’t absorb the heat the way that city buildings, built of stone and brick, did.

The husbands, coming down by train or car, were much like the fried eggs by the time they arrived. The cooler air perked them up. They lay in hammocks and napped or had a beer while their bodies cooled off. They were in no mood to mow lawns or cut down weeds. Instead, they hired local kids.

My first lawns were cut with a push mower. This was hard labour, the kind of hard labour that should only be handed to hardened criminals. Gimli was cooler than Winnipeg but when you are twelve, pushing a lawnmower on a lot two chains (66 feet) wide, the sun beats down on you until your shirt is soaking wet and you have to keep going to the artesian well and its ice cold water. The water was so cold that we believed it could crack your teeth.

I can still hear that hand pushed lawn mower. Whirrr, Whirrr. The trick was to get up some momentum. That way you could overcome the resistance of the grass. I didn’t have a grass catcher on the back. That meant when I’d finished cutting the grass, I had to rake it and deposit it at the edge of the back lane. Then, with a pair of hand shears, trim the grass from the sides of the wooden sidewalks and along the edge of the property, from around trees, and along the perimeter of the cottage. Standing, waiting to be paid, I felt like a red twister licorice stick left in the sun.

Payment? One dollar. However, if memory serves me correctly, a movie was twenty-five cents. That was four movies. A hamburger was twenty-five cents and chips (French fries) were a dime. Ice cream cones were a nickel. That lawn was worth twenty ice cream cones or ten comic books.

I went up and down the nearby streets knocking on cottage doors offering my services. Men in shorts and bottles of iced beer in their hands said, “Okay, kid. A buck. Do a good job.” They’d put in their time and come Sunday night would board the train back to the hell of Portage and Main.

Some people wanted their yard kept up but others, whether they didn’t care how the yard looked or didn’t want to spend the money, let their grass grow quite long before hiring me. I quickly learned that those lawns needed negotiating. Pushing the lawnmower through the grass was hard, slow work. Sometimes, the grass, if it was damp, jammed the mower and I had to stop to clear the blades. A dollar fifty.

Life and capitalism became easier when my father bought one of the new gasoline power mowers. The price stayed the same but I could cut more lawns per day. In those days no adult male would have been caught dead cutting lawns as a job. It was kid’s work. Today, grown men arrive in trucks, towing trailers filled with equipment.

Spruce trees were a mixed blessing. In those days Gimli had a forest of large spruce trees. Yards with a lot of spruce trees often had untidy grass in patches that were easy to cut. However, spruce tree roots lie on the surface of the ground and I had to bump my mower over them.

Occasionally, I’d get someone asking me to cut knee high grass and I’d have to go at it with a scythe. I liked that work. There were two types of scythe, the S shaped one and the straight handled one. I preferred the S shape. I learned to be wary of the blade, treating it with respect. I learned to sharpen it and to keep the point up and not jam it into the ground. I loved the rhythm of the work, the way the grass fell as I swept the blade ahead of me. I sharpened the blade with a whetstone and watched that I never brought my hand against the gleaming edge.

Maybe because cutting grass was, for me, paid work, I’ve never had any great desire to create a putting green lawn. I see them as some sort of mental aberration and think uptight, controlling, type A owner. However, that may just be an excuse for my indolence.

I’ve owned three houses in Victoria, BC. The first had hardly any front yard, a bit of side yard and a grassed back yard. However, I was busy writing and teaching and, sad to say, out of despair, my neighbour, a great air force guy from Gimli, when he couldn’t stand my back yard messiness anymore, would cut my grass when I wasn’t home.

House two had a double lot. It had gardens, gardens and more gardens but it still had a lot of lawn. I kept the lawn cut, in those days, in spite of the slope, running behind the gas powered mower. However, to the chagrin of some neighbours, I did my best to turn the lawn back into a Garry Oak meadow. One of my neighbours swept her lawn with a broom after cutting it. Random daffodils in the lawn, grape hyacinth by the thousands, tufts of this and that. I was rewarded by my attention to meadow and shrubs by three magnificent stages sleeping in my front yard one summer evening. They knew where they were welcome.

My latest house has no grass, except for some quack grass that I’m gradually pulling up by the roots. The yard is all granite with some soil dumped on top of it, enough to grow some trees and a variety of flowering bushes and plants. There’s not a flat spot anywhere and granite hogbacks with soil filled pockets doesn’t a putting green make.

I feel that I’ve betrayed my beginnings, those summer days spent cutting lawns, those quarters and fifty cent pieces and dollar bills. There lingers within me that boy laboring under the sun learning about lawns and earning a living and deciding, at some point, to be like the husbands lounging in the hammocks having a cold drink, napping, reading a book, rather than the hired help. Perhaps, I tell him, I benefited more from cutting those lawns and those long, hot days than just the few dollars that I earned.

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.

A Night to Remember On Lake Winnipeg

By Ken Kristjanson. Ken is writing a series of articles from  his experiences living in Gimli, Manitoba in a commercial fishing family and his experiences fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

Keenora at the locks.

The idyllic July weather of 1952 was about to dramatically change on this beautiful day during my third summer as a shore hand at Georges Island. The barometer just hit the roof and we knew an early summer storm was brewing. Storms are a part of the great lake but what we did not know was that a rare Arctic high was coming right at us with gale force winds. The Nor-wester hit in the evening after 9 o’clock coffee .It turned very cold. The momentum built as the sun set in an uncertain sky.

Georges Island occupies about 10 square miles and is situated approximately 60 miles from the west shore and 15 miles from the east shore. It’s roughly 50 miles to the north end of the lake. This is a big expanse of water with an average depth of about 60 feet and the relative shallowness encourages huge waves.

Dredging at George’s Island, Lake Winnipeg

We felt secure on our little island. We were, after all, located on one of the finest man made harbors on Lake Winnipeg. Our boats could ride out any storm as they were protected from the elements by high sand ridges on three sides. The south end had a man-made rock breakwater. This was all thanks to the Canadian Government who built the harbor in the 1920s.  In their wisdom and wishing to support the Fishing industry, they realized a safe harbor on the north basin was needed. They dredged out a swamp on the east end of the island. They then blasted and dredged a channel through granite rock into the former swamp. The result was a beautiful half mile square all weather harbor. Quite an engineering feat for the time and a harbor which is functional to this day.

Our temporary summer home was about to be the center of a real life drama.

By now it was 4 a.m. and the breakfast bell was ringing. Even though our boats could not go out to lift their nets due to the severity of the storm, the crews still wanted breakfast. The weather had by now turned even colder. During the night two other lake freighters: the J.R. Spear and the Luanna, had taken refuge in our snug harbor. Their captains decided to forgo their tight schedules for the comforts of our harbor.

Lake captains are like train conductors and they have a driving will to stay on schedule. Blow days mean that the crews perform other tasks such as mending or fixing equipment. I was assigned to man the store. The station manager and my father were going to spend the day working on the accounts. We had 32 fishermen plus 6 shore hands and 3 cooks on our station. Now we had an additional 15 crew from the two freighters. Armstong Gimli Fisheries had the same number of personnel as us. As our store was better stocked we right fully expected to do some business.

My father kept our 2 way radio activated all the time, even though it required that our lighting plant would constantly have to charge up the batteries. The radio was located in the store/office. On a good day ten people could squeeze inside the store but the transmissions were loud enough for everyone to hear outside on the board sidewalk. There was always a steady stream of messages and general banter. Our personnel liked to know what was going on around them so out of courtesy the volume was turned up.

At 8A.M. All hell broke loose.

A heavy Icelandic accented voice cut through the messages and in a calm voice said, “S.S. Keenora calling Georges Island. Do you read over?”

The store went as quiet as a graveyard. Before I could blurt out, “Why is the Keenora  calling us?”, my father calmly answered, “Georges Island to S.S. Keenora  Go ahead.”

The Captain said in a steady voice, “Ted, everyone on board is tired .The passengers are all seasick. The wind is abating a bit.  I am going to bring the Keenora into Georges harbor. Would you see that Armstong’s dock is clear as I will follow the range lights directly into their dock.” My father said out loud to no one in particular, “We better ready two boats just in case.” Two Boat Runners or Captains immediately jumped up to volunteer and rushed to ready their crew. In no time their motors were running and they were ready to castoff.

The shock of the radio transmission now set in. Ten voices said at once where had the Keenora been? The Georges Island lighthouse keeper, Willard Olson, had joined the group and he spoke up. “Well I can tell you the Keenora passed Georges Light about midnight on her regularly scheduled run to Warren’s Landing.”

Keenora at the dock


Warren’s Landing is at the mouth of the Nelson River. The Nelson is not navigable in the dark so the Keenora would arrive at the outside buoys and proceed at day break. The weather was not determined to be a factor so the Captain opted to stay on course. She was low in the water –  loaded with cargo bound for Norway House 20 miles down the River. At this time of year, the Selkirk Navigation Company which owned the boat, started to haul in winter provisions to the Northern communities. She would off load at the Landing and the M.S.Chicama would make the final deliveries. The Keenora carried up to 61 passengers and a crew of approximately 15 men and women.

Word spread like wild fire. Some personnel rushed to the north side off the Island to catch a glimpse of the great boat. Our thoughts were with the passenger and crew. They would have spent a hellish night somewhere. But where?  We all knew the Keenora – she was the best known and best loved of all the lake boats.

The Keenora  was a soundly built craft. The Port Arthur Ship Building Company built her frames and deck beams. The iron hull was prefabricated in Clyde, Scotland and the rest of the boat was prefabricated at Sorel, Quebec and then shipped by flatcar to Rat Portage, Ontario for assembly. Rat Portage changed its name to Kenora shortly after. The Keenora served the communities of Fort Frances and other ports on Ontario’s Lake Of The Woods. Traffic was brisk until the railroad connected the communities around 1915 and the Keenora was sold to Winnipeg interests. She variously was a floating dance hall and cruise ship until in 1923, she became a general freight and passenger boat on Lake Winnipeg

All available personnel on the island were on Armstrong’s dock to greet the Keenora. We were all curious as to her mysterious appearance at our harbor. So with nerve born of curiosity my brother Robert and I boarded  the Keenora. A scene of destruction greeted us. Cargo was strewn everywhere. She had been in a battle with the great lake. But where? We sought out the Captain and the First Mate for a first hand accounting. Both were exhausted. They told us that the storm appeared to be manageable when they passed Georges Light. They proceeded approximately another 10 miles north when the full fury of the storm hit them. They were opposite Poplar Reefs – a very dangerous part of the Lake and it was pitch black. They could not go ahead or turn back because the waves were too great so the two men held onto the wheel all night.

The crew woke the passengers and assembled them in the dining room. Everyone was frightened. They had booked the state rooms on the upper deck and up until yesterday had been enjoying a relaxing cruise. They had never been on a lake this big before. The crew handed out life belts – not so much for the safety of the passengers, the crew confided to us, but to make it easier to find the bodies if the ship went down. The Keenora, with her huge cargo load, could have gone straight down.

But the Keenora was a superb sea boat and she had a veteran crew to run her. In talking to some of the passengers, who were mainly from the U.S. Midwest, we learned how they spent the night. In true Titanic fashion a piano player was recruited from the passengers and he pounded the piano all night while the rest huddled together and sang songs. No doubt “Abide with me” was one of them. At day break the Captain and First Mate timed a turn so they could head south for the safety of Georges Island.

Although the ship had made it to safe harbor, the excitement was not yet over. The ship was secured by the bow and the Captain wanted to make the ship tied parallel to Armstong Gimli Fisheries dock.  One of the over-tired deck hands started hauling the stern hawser to the front but the rope slipped out of his hand. From the dock we frantically yelled to attract the Captain’s attention as the 1 inch hawser sank into the water and wrapped itself around one of the propeller shafts.

Someone in the wheel house heard us and stopped the engine but the damage had been done. Now volunteers from the crew had to dive into the water with sharp butcher knives to cut through the rope so the propeller could be free. It took all day to finish the job.

The next morning the fishermen went out in a still blustery day to try and untangle their nets. Long hours would be spent on this unwanted make work project. While the crew was readying the big ship for travel, some of the passengers came to our store for a visit. They liked the quaintness of our little fishing village. They visited our processing plant, although those with still squeamish stomachs didn’t stay long. They all said they would have stories to tell their grandkids but there were some who were not all that keen on continuing the voyage.

The good ship S.S. Keenora continued on her journey, now temporarily behind schedule. She continued to serve the people of the great Lake for many years to come. She was wisely saved from the wrecker’s ball and today sits proudly in the Selkirk Maritime Museum in Selkirk, Manitoba. For a small fee visitors can explore her various state rooms, crew cabins, engine room and large hold. She sits quietly now – a proud reminder of an exciting period in the great lake’s passing parade.