THIS CANADA

A maritime jewel in a western lake

PETER CARLYLE-GORDGE December 7 1981
THIS CANADA

A maritime jewel in a western lake

PETER CARLYLE-GORDGE December 7 1981

A maritime jewel in a western lake

THIS CANADA

In the summer of 1876, a small flatboat loaded with Icelandic immigrants drifted uncertainly up Lake Winnipeg. The 150 settlers had fled their homeland because of volcanic eruptions on Mount Hecla that had spewed lava eight centimetres deep over 2,500 square miles. Following an earlier wave of Icelanders who had settled on the shores of the lake the year before, they were looking for a new start, but where? As it happened, a cow helped them decide. It jumped over the side of the boat, thrashing fiercely toward a nearby island and wandered off into the thick stands of aspen, birch, jackpine and spruce, joining the moose, deer, bobcats, foxes and squirrels. The pur suit of the valued cow led the settlers to their new Icelandic republic, which they named Mikley Island, later Hecla.

Known as the “jewel” of Lake Winnipeg, the island, 25 km long and nine kilometres wide, seems oddly out of place in the Prairies. With its lighthouse, bobbing fishing boats, screeching gulls and rich flora and fauna, Hecla seems to belong more to the north Atlantic coast than to Manitoba. Its atypical maritime beauty and remote location help explain its appeal to the Icelanders. Until a causeway was built to the mainland in 1972, Hecla existed in splendid isolation, so much so that Icelanders are amazed by the purity of the language still spoken by the few remaining descendents of those early cow-chasers.

At its peak in the 1930s, the island had 500 residents, but today the village on the south shore is silent, the houses weather-beaten and mostly boarded up,

and fewer than 20 full-time islanders remain. Among them is Helgi Tommason, 65, still fishing and determined to stay on the island as long as his health holds out. “That cow that jumped overboard was my grandfather’s,” he says, remembering the days when docks bustled and the shouts of blond-haired children filled the air. “I began fishing in 1932 with my father, Gunmar. We had no motors then and we got two cents a pound for pickerel and three-quarters of a cent for a pound of sauger. Times were tough, but we had a good time. We never lacked food or clothes.”

That the settlers had survived at all was a miracle. No sooner had they ar rived than a smallpox outbreak killed

30, and the entire area was quarantined for eight months. The first crops of grain and peas also failed. But for the fishing, they would have starved. In dians taught them how to fish through ice holes in the winter. Huskies, horses and finally automobiles hauled the fish ing huts across the lake. "We were gone in the old days for a month at a time," says Helgi. "The worst time was in the freeze-up and spring breakup, when you couldn't cross the lake by boat or sled. Then we'd walk single file."

Before the ferry came in 1954, a jour ney to the mainland meant a nine-hour steamer trip to Selkirk, or a four-hour trip round the north of the island to Riverton. With improvements in com munications, young people began to leave. As home after home was boarded up, the Tommasons and the few survi vors feared the island would soon revert entirely to the moose, geese, pelicans, muskrats and rabbits. So they were pleased when, in 1969, the island and surrounding water were declared a pro vincial marine park. Federal and pro vincial funds went into developing a park and camping grounds and into the building of a luxury resort hotel at Gull Harbour, on the northeast shore. Opened in 1977, the 59-room hotel in cludes tennis courts, a pool, saunas and borders on an 18-hole golf course. For a government-run operation, the hotel has been so unusually successful that there is talk of doubling its capacity in the next three years. Hecla's unspoilt beauty is its chief attraction. The ves tiges of Icelandic culture lend it an otherworldly air, and wildlife is abun

dant. Moose tend to wander onto the golf course, and golf balls land in mooseprints. Snowy owls leave their claw marks on some of the island’s signposts. “Once we had a mink in the dining room,” says Doug Stratton, the front desk manager. “Walked in the front door just like a guest, and they chased him all over.”

Back along the winding coast road leading to the umbilical causeway, the visitor passes the Lutheran churchyard-portal to Valhalla for so many long-gone fishermen and their families—and the island’s only remaining store. Owner Richard Williams, 36, counts his stock and ponders: should he cart these crates of summer soft drinks into town for a refund, with interest rates so high, or is it worth the bother? Williams was born a Sigurgierson, but changed his name to suit modern ways and tastes. It seems a lonely post, but Williams doesn’t seem to mind. He also acts as mailman, taking letters to Riverton twice a week. Icelanders and isolation have long been on friendly terms. Fishing on the lake in winter, with the thermometer at -40°, is not an occupation suited to the habitually gregarious. Besides, the giant TV antenna that pierces the skyline ensures that no one need feel totally isolated. “Why should we feel cut off here?” Mrs. Tommason is asking in her cosy living room. “We know what’s happening in Winnipeg or the rest of the world as soon as anyone else,” she says, nodding at the TV.

The hard fishing times, at least, are over. A marketing board, established in 1969, has improved prices for fishermen. In 1970 the overfished lake was closed because of mercury contamination scares and the need for restocking. The fishermen were paid $1.9 million compensation until the lake recovered in 1971. “The fisherman has never been more independent or had more money,” says Helgi.

The days of poverty are behind, but what they cannot forget is the sense of community. “We never had babysitters because the kids went everywhere with us,” says Mrs. Tommason. “At concerts or socials, we’d just wrap them up and lie them on the stage.” “We relied only on ourselves in the old days,” adds her husband. “We had no doctor, and we always made our own caskets. That feeling of togetherness, of being one big family, is what’s gone.”

At the Gull Harbour Resort and Hotel, new guests have arrived to frolic in the pool, watch TV and try their luck on the games machines before strolling into the “Hall of the Gods” for Salmon Steak Mikley ($12), followed perhaps by a liqueur-laden Gull Harbour Coffee ($3.95). The settlers of 1876 would doubtless be amazed.

PETER CARLYLE-GORDGE