Breakwaters in Gimli

Op Ed – Ken Kristjanson July 2019

The original settlers of Gimli came from Iceland in October 1875. They landed or were pushed off the M.S. Colville because the Captain of the contracted Hudsons Bay Company vessel was fearful of the lake going to freeze up. Their original destination was the Icelandic River 28 miles further North. In the Spring after a brutally cold winter spent in tents the new colony moved to present day Gimli.

As most of the colonists had been fisher folk in Iceland they set about pursuing this occupation. They built an ice house and a small pier to land and ultimately preserve their catch. This pier was to have consequences for those south of the pier. By blocking the natural movement of the sand the residents started to experience erosion. My father who was born in 1912 at 135 Third Ave well remembered the 4 different breakwaters built behind their home to combat the lake in wet years. They were wooden piles driven into the shoreline. They did the trick until they rotted out. I well remember with other kids walking on the old structure. Successive Governments did little to repair the damage as the lake appeared to level off.

With the coming of the CPR to Winnipeg Beach and finally to Gimli in 1906 many Winnipeg residents bought property and built summer cottages, mainly to escape the heat of the City and enjoy the beautiful lake beaches. The non-residents were always called Campers not Cottagers. At this time Church groups started building Fresh Air Camps.

Locations of the fresh air camps on Lake Winnipeg and their approximate periods of operation. Source: Manitoba Historical Society

The Methodist Church built Camp Sparling in South Beach around this time. I wrote a story about these Camps. It can be found here. The Church group realized the shifting sands and built groins in an effort to halt the sand movement.

Breakwater appearing in front of Camp Sparling (foreground), ca. 1930’s

As Lake Winnipeg is the watershed for all the water from the Rockies to Northern Ontario and parts of the United States it rises or falls depending on the amount of precipitation it receives. In what became known as the Dirty Thirties the lake was very low. This prompted real estate developers to buy land owned by Benedict Jonasson and sell cottage lots with a lake view. The map gives an over view.

The setting was idyllic. My brother Robert and I delivered the Tribune “best newspaper ever” to cottages east of ours during the War and after.

The Lake during the 40’s entered a wet cycle culminating with the 1950 flood. This brought a lot of moisture and problems to South Beach. The stone breakwater was constructed in the 1950’s starting at Betel Home. (For more on this The Gimli Breakwater).

Camp Sparling spent considerable funds at this time trying to defend their property with a high rock breakwater. The lake was unrelenting. They eventually abandoned the property and sold the land and buildings. Cottagers tried to build breakwaters. Most were frustrated by lack of Government and local support.

Broken Breakwater ca. 1952

Most, as the Carters and others did, was simply to move their cottages to higher ground. Thus letting the next Cottager to deal with the rising water.

We bought our property in 1972. The same year Hydro decided that the Lake was to be the future reservoir for the dams on the Nelson River. The former owner had decided to fight the mighty lake with a breakwater. This proved too much mentally and financially. The crunch came in 1974 with high water. (See Winnipeg Free Press.)

Hydro disclaimed any responsibility for the high water even though they had built Jenpeg to keep the lake high. Their answer was to build an earthen dike on Third Avenue. Those east of the dike were to be sacrificed at the alter of economy. Hydro hauled in limited sandbags to those properties east of Third as they deemed them salvageable. I had 18 volunteers from my office come at this time along with my wife, my kids and we put down 5000 sandbags. That night the lake peaked. The sandbags held. Dave McNabb and I put down an additional 2000 bags over the coming weeks and this did the trick. Paul Couture, I and about 20 other Cottagers requested and received a meeting with Hydro. They claimed the flooding was an Act of Nature, not their fault.

Over the next 40 years I with no financial or neighbourly support continued to strengthen the dike. Other lakefront owners at their own expense did the same. We in effect at our expense protected the other Cottagers of South Beach. Then Councillors Lynn Greenberg and Danny Luprypa attempted to help but were powerless. Now the Lake has settled into a dry cycle and all is forgotten. As is evidenced by the high water on the Great Lakes this year history might well repeat itself.

Note: The author neglects to mention the earthen dike which was erected by Emergency Measures Organization in 2007 all the way from Matlock to Arnes.

2007 Earthen Dike, EMO

Isfeld Family of South Beach

This speech was given by Lawrence Frantz, great grandson of Sigurjon Isfeld, at the launch of the book Gimli Harbour & Fishery: An Illustrated History, 2017

Sigurjon Eirksson Isfeld was born in 1874 on a farm called Fjaroarkot at the end of Mjoifjordur Inlet on the east coast of Iceland to Eirikur Palsson Isfeld and Ingibjorg Einarsdottir. In 1881 Eirikur drown while fishing leaving Ingibjourg with nine children. In 1884 Ingibjorg married Thorsteinn Jonsson, a farm hand she had hired to help out on the farm. We was 9 years younger than her. They had one son, Olafur (Oli) Thorsteinsson. In 1886 Sigurjon, his mother, step-father and most of his siblings left Iceland ending up in Akra (now Cavalier) North Dakota. 

The family moved to Husavik, New Iceland (Manitoba) in 1889 settling on NW 20-18-4E. Sigurjon started to raise huskies at this time. He married Maria Tofhildur Jonasson in April 1903. He was 29, she was 18. They had 4 children; Aurora (1904), Stefan (Steve)(1906), John (my Avi)(1909) and Emily (1912). It was when Sigurjon and Maria married that they received three acres of land on South Colonization Road from Maria’s parents Benedikt Jonasson and Anna Torfadottir who at the time owned a large portion of what is now South Beach. On this property (which is still in the family), Sigurjon continued to raise and train sled dogs. And he fished. But I don’t think he did a lot of fishing with everything else he had going on. Using his dog teams he would transport other fishermen, prospectors, and fur traders all over the Interlake and beyond, even taking a prospector to Norway House. 

I have not been able to find out how Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer found out about my old Avi’s ability to train sled dogs, but obviously he did. Because in 1914 Sigurjon, JB Johnson and Jack Castleman transported 100 dogs in individual crates on 3 cattle cars to Montreal, Quebec. Three days later they put the dogs on the ship Montcalm and 16 days later delivered them to Shackleton in London, England. After 10 days of luxurious living, paid for by Shackleton, and with Germany invading Belgium, they thought it best to head home. Before they left Shackleton asked Sigurjon to accompany him to the South Pole to handle the dogs. Sigurjon wired home to Maria for her thoughts. She wired back, “Come home!” The three men received engraved pocket watches and expensive razors from Shackleton before they left Britain. They returned on the Empress of Britain. It took 6 days. Old Avi said that the Montcalm had nicer staterooms than the Empress. 

Shackleton’s intent was to walk across the South Pole, ‘Antartica’. He knew he couldn’t carry all his supplies from start to finish. So his plan was to take his ship Endurance and 70 dogs to one side and another ship, the Aurora with 30 dogs would be on the other side. A crew ventured inland and set up cashes for him to find and use to complete the crossing. Unfortunately Shackleton and his men never made it on to Antartica. Endurance got trapped in ice. After 15 months with the crew of 27 men hoping for the ice to break apart the boat broke apart and sank. Now the crew and dogs were on the ice flow with a couple of 22 foot life boats. Unfortunately all the dogs perished. There was not enough food for both men and dogs. The men were able to use the lifeboat to get to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and 5 men sailed one of the lifeboats 800 miles to South Georgia Island where there was a Norwegian whaling station. The station sent out a ship to Elephant Island to pick up all the rest of Shackleton’s crew. The 30 dogs from the Aurora were dispersed, some in New Zealand, some in England. Three dogs ended up at London Zoo.

Sigurjon and his son John also supplied dogs for Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1933 Antarctic expedition. How many of the 150 dogs that Byrd took with him came from Sigurjon I don’t know. But Sigurjon had an in. Allen Innes-Taylor, a pilot and the chief of operations for the Antarctic expedition was the older brother of Ian Innes-Taylor who was married to Aurora, Sigurjon’s daughter. 

Sigurjon was always doing something with his dogs. I’m not sure of the year but Sigurjon, Captain Baldi Anderson and Gudjon Arnason took teams of dogs to Chicago, Illinois for use in the filming of a movie called “The Golden Goose Chase”. The film was about a young girl in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. How they made Chicago look like the Yukon? Movie magic. Sigurjon and his son Steve would also take teams to Winnipeg during February bonspiels to give rides on the Red River for 25 cents. He would also go to The Pas, Manitoba to compete in the Trapper Festival. 

When I was a young kid visiting Avi and Amma, Sigurjon “Old Avi” was there living with them. He was in his 80’s and though he was going blind he moved about with stature. He was a big man. For about the last 10 years of his life he lived with his daughter Emily in Edmonton, Alberta. He died in 1973, 99 years old. Also when I was a youngster there were still sled dogs at the homestead. My mom’s brothers, Bobbie and Allen, would harness the dogs and take us kids for sleigh rides up and down Colonization Road and out onto the lake. 

The last husky, whose name was Glommer, was huge and passed away when I was 12. And so ended the relationship of Isfelds and huskies.

Submitted by L. Frantz, Howard Ave, South Beach

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