“Freezing Out” – The Fishermens’ Fishermen

As a boy when I heard that Afi Malli and Uncle Grimsi were “freezing out “it always sounded to my young ears as a mysterious adventure. I would soon learn that they were one of the lonely breeds of fishermen who would stay North in their camps waiting for the ice to freeze while others went South home after the fall fishing season.

They would wait expectantly testing the ice daily, and with two inches of ice beneath them, they would make the first sets. In the days before Christmas, they would load onto the first tractor trains,( in earlier days horse-drawn) the frozen gold of their labours. And make their way south first with their dog teams but by the 1950’s the small Alice Chalmer Model B tractors they had ingeniously outfitted for the ice with skis, tracks and a small housing over the driver seat and steering wheel to protect them from the icy winds. They would return as would many others in the New Year.

In the 1950s Catfish Creek would be their winter home. It was a lonely, rugged, windswept place on the East Shore of the Lake 20 miles south of Berens River. The waters there were prime fishing grounds. Sigurdson Fisheries had operated a fall fishing station there for many years. It Had been my Dad’s home each fall since his return from corvette service in the Second World War in 1945. Many years as they pulled out from the dock on October 31, he would wave goodbye to his father-in-law who would stay behind waiting for the ice to come. His home would be a small log cabin. “Next door” was Norman and Baldi Baldwinson. They busied themselves getting the nets and equipment ready. Each day the nights came sooner and the North winds blew harder, and colder. Bean soup was a staple. Meat and potatoes and other supplies had been stockpiled before the station closed. In the evenings they would play bridge and cribbage. ready, while dining on that master pie maker Baldi’s pies each night. To me these men were the fishermen’s ‘fishermen”, a breed apart.

My first introduction to all of this was Afi’s skates which I discovered as I poked around endlessly in his covi as a young boy. The warehouse was tall and gangly looking, built with two-by-fours, with rough lumber siding on the outside. I would climb up the ladder to the top floor and poke around exploring racks of nets hanging neatly across its expanse. And on the main floor the Model B waiting forfoing into service the next winter. Everywhere there endless nails and bolts, funny pieces of iron, tools and motors to fascinate a young boy. There were endless questions to ask, but nothing greater than what hung on the walls. This was not a place for insulation and drywall. Rusted nails—usually crooked, because they’d been pulled out of old boards—served as hooks. Coils of rope hung on one, an old saw blade on another. The dog harnesses on still another. And beside them were those skates. Well, “skates” is stretching it. They were just rusty blades with an even rustier foot-shaped metal platform above, and leather thongs over top. They were Afi’s skates. And when I pulled them down off the wall and planted my boots on top of them he never tired of reminding me what they could do under power. He assured me that if I had the courage to challenge him, he could twist and turn, zig and zag as I’d never seen in all my glory as a  rising young hockey star, as I envisioned myself in those days. My curiosity soon revealed a deeper purpose.

Afi had used the skates for many years to fly across the lake after first ice on his way to the prized first set of the nets (often the best catch of the season) when the ice was only a couple of inches thick… I would later learn that those skates carried with them a far bigger story Afi’s nephew Helgi Jones, recounted it at Afi and Amma’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration. Afi, his brother Beggi, and Beggi’s three sons, Allan, Helgi and Binnie, set off on their usual late fall routine with hope and excitement, as fishermen always did in anticipation of another season. They crossed open water before freeze-up to their fishing grounds at Deer Island, about eight miles northwest of Hecla Island. These were prime fishing grounds. When the lake first froze over they wouldn’t need to wait as long for that magic first lift.

It was 1938. The ice formed poorly that year and was unpredictable and weak. Allan became gravely ill and needed medical attention. His circumstances were dire. Afi knew they had there was no alternative but to make the extraordinarily dangerous trip across the ice. Afi, Binnie and Helgi put a skiff on a sleigh with good runners. They bundled Allan up as much as they could and put him in the bottom of the boat. Afi and his nephews donned their skates, and with all their strength pushed the skiff across the treacherous expanse to the mainland, where they were met by the doctor. Allan was rushed to Winnipeg, but the poison from a ruptured appendix had spread throughout his body. He died shortly thereafter. Tragedies on the water and ice had long been a fact of life on Hecla, but in the small tight community, each death took a heavy toll.