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