Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer: Those Guy Never Skated on No River Ice – Just About Goners in the Icy Water near Bakka
Published in Icelandic Connection Vol 71 #2
Feature image: The Icelandic River ice melting in spring – Photo Courtesy Kim Erickson Sigurdson and is on the cover of Icelandic Connection Vol 71 #2
This story is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Dr. Martin Nevile, a quiet and thoughtful man of many talents. He went on from this icy boyhood drama to become a wonderful husband to Maryann and father to Ben, Jill and Roey. He was a very prominent and respected pediatric dentist. His life was tragically cut short abruptly by pancreatic cancer in 1991.
Marty spent several years in Riverton where we became close friends. His dad had been posted to the community as the manager of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Lister and Jean became important members of the community. They remained in close touch with their Riverton friends throughout life. Subsequently the family would be relocated to Gimli with his dad’s move to the Gimli branch.
January 15, 1959
Dear Thor and Bobby,
Thanks for coming to visit us this Christmas. Mom was so happy to see Aunt Thora and Uncle William. We hope you had a good trip home.
We are planning on coming to St. Louis next year to see you for Christmas.
I hope you can show me the Mississippi River where those guys Huck and Tom were floating on that raft and having those adventures. I promise not to get mad about that again.
Mom told me to send my own letter explaining how I will not do that.
Your cousin, Glenn
Mom dictated that letter. She sent me down to the post office right away to mail it. I pretended to lick the envelope but didn’t, so I could put my own letter in my own envelope inside hers.
You city kids are all the same. It really pisses me off. We’re not some country bozos. All that stuff you kept talking about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and their big adventures on the Mississippi River. You never wanted to listen to anything I told you, so I’m writing it to you. Us kids in Riverton are real river men. And our adventures are real – not some made-up stuff.
Yes, that’s right. So maybe my river is not as big as the Mississippi. But the Icelandic River is one mighty river. I know lots of you city kids won’t believe me, but it’s the gospel truth. If any word here is not true, I will kiss a fish. You guys are too big sissies and would never do that. I know my mom would back me up, but you probably wouldn’t trust her either. So ask your mom. She was a Riverton kid too. But you would probably be too scared to ask her because you know she would say that every word I’m saying here is the truth and nothing but the truth.
Huck and Tom never saw no ice – just muddy, yucky water. On my river, you go to bed one night, and it’s all water. The next morning, it’s all ice. Magic. Huck and Tom never saw no water turn to ice. Soon after it turns to ice you can walk on it. Play on it. My Afi (grandfather in Icelandic) can go on his tractor to drill holes and set his nets on it. You can ski on it when it gets covered with snow. You can downhill ski on the steeper banks up the river. And best of all you can skate on it, but only when it freezes clean and clear and snow stays away for days. Those are the best days because you could skate for miles. Then the river is like a long skating rink with its banks on each side, not walls in every direction. Every turn of the river there was something different. You feel like you are flying.
Those Mississippi boys never got to do any of that stuff. They just had rafts and currents and swamps. Funny things going on there – well, not funny. Funny like strange. But all made up stuff by that guy Mark Twain. He never got up north to see a real river. Like our mighty Icelandic River. Ice is tricky, let me tell you. You can drown if you fall through it. I will tell you about that later. In the spring, when the ice melts and breaks up, you can trap muskrats who come out of their houses in the riverbank through tunnels to nibble on fresh shoots of marsh grass. You can hope to catch a mink, and if you do there is big money. My buddies and I caught one once up the river toward the lake along the dyke. We brought it home. We thought it was an otter. When Dad saw us in action trying to skin it, he, Dad gave us proper hell for wrecking the pelt of a mink. Another time we caught a skunk. We only brought the smell home. Mom sniffed us out a hundred yards from the house, made us strip down in the field and leave our clothes. She poured tomato juice, yes, tomato juice, over us to clean us out. She did it at the creek that drained into the river beside us, which is where I also built dams like a beaver. If I was like Mark Twain, I could spin some story about how I built a beaver house to stay in and how I lived off gnarled wood. But I only tell true stuff, not made up things. Okay, I am getting to the drowning part. I didn’t have Huck and Tom to share a raft and talk philosophy, and stuff about coloured folks having to hide when all they were trying to do was live like white folks. But I had Brian and Marty, and we talked about lots of stuff. While we may not have hidden in swamps and rode deadly currents, we were busy. We did things like building huts in the bushes upriver by the rapids, past the bridge and catching crayfish that turned red like pictures of lobsters when we boiled them. We snuck menthol cigarettes while our hotdogs cooked on our fire. We even tried cooking pigs in a blanket, but you wouldn’t even know what we mean when we say that. Next time you come, I will cook some for you. In the summer, we water skied. In the spring, we tried to catch rats. In the winter, we skated and played hockey. Okay. Okay. Yeah, I was telling you about the ice. Sometimes the big ice jams would come, and a big backhoe had to sit on the two bridges to pound the ice and break it up so it could feed down the swollen rivers. In the spring, the air had a special smell – don’t really know how to describe it other than it was nature coming back to life after hibernating for the winter. You could see the marsh grass along the water starting to grow, and you could smell the river. It was the “Smell of Spring”.
Now, about that time when Brian, Marty and I faced off with death. Mark Twain could never have imagined that because, if he could, he would have put it in the book. Yeah, Huck and Tom had close calls on the Mississippi with big paddle wheelers, treacherous currents, hiding out from guys trying to catch Huck, but remember their story was imaginary and mine is real. I’m talking the real deal.
But I was telling you about ice. The damn thing about ice is it hides water, most of the time. I know you’re getting frustrated with how long this is taking. But now you know how I felt, and Mom kept telling me I couldn’t be rude to my cousins who had come so far to visit us. Not this time…
There’s nothing as exciting as waking up and seeing the river frozen over and hoping it will reach two inches before the snow covers it. This was one of those years. We stepped on the ice in front of the house, and it was perfect. Clear, crisp blue and smooth. It was made for skating. We set off right after school. Tying on our skates at my house, we walked across the field, down to the river and onto the ice.
Our skates were like wings. We turned south and flew down the river past Gunnar and Loa’s house on one side, and the graveyard on the other. Everybody in Riverton got put in that graveyard. I went there often to look around the gravestones. It was right along the river, with big shady trees. It was a peaceful place. A good place to be buried. Maybe I’ll be buried there one day.
We shot by Axel Eyolfson’s house in a blur. He was an old bachelor, that’s what people said, but his claim to fame was that he was also Doc Thompson’s brother-in-law. As we rounded the corner, we passed Steinni Erickson’s place with all his big construction tractors in the yard, rounding the big corner like race car drivers, and then onward past Bakka. That was the name of the farm. The Bakka farm. The old blacksmith who lived there was called Helgi Stefansson, also known as Helgi o Bakka, which I guess is like Lord Helgi of Bakka. He lived with his sister Gusta. Probably the Vikings got those lords and ladies over in England into this thing about naming their estates. We had names for every farm in New Iceland.
Soon we were at the mink ranch that Sam Gislason ran in partnership with Sigurdson Fisheries, the family company. The groundfish heads to feed the minks, which were damn miserable animals that would chew your mitt off if you touched a crate. And then it happened, just before Laxdal’s.
Dad put two and two together quickly. He knew all about rivers and lots of other stuff, like me he had lived all his life besides those guys river. A sewer pipe ran directly from the Laxdal’s toilet to the river. (Everybody had a pipe like that in those days, so I am not blaming the Laxdal’s.) The warmer water flowing from the pipe had weakened the ice and turned it into a hidden death trap.
Marty and I were out front. Brian was a short distance behind. I heard the crack. I peeled around. As the ice broke away, I leapt ahead, beyond the cavity of water and ice that was opening. I was wet below the knees, but I was safe. Marty was not as good a skater. As I crawled onto the ice, I saw in terror Marty fully engulfed in the water. I lay flat on the ice reaching for him. Brian came up from behind. That Brian was awfully good in school. He had sized up the situation and lay flat behind me, grabbing onto my skates so we formed a human chain. My hands stretched over the ice into the water. Huck and Tom never felt no cold like that. Marty was thrashing around, trying to scramble out in any direction. With each movement, the darn ice kept breaking. And each time it did we came closer to being pulled in with Marty. We had to wiggle backwards and keep hanging onto Marty to try to pull him out. The big parka Marty wore was getting waterlogged. He was sinking. It was one desperate situation.
Suddenly, the ice around the hole quite yielding. Now, flat on our bellies, arms outstretched, we reached with a firm grasp and pulled Marty back onto the ice.
A bigger terror now was before us. Marty was starting to freeze solid, and I was starting to freeze from the knees down. We had to make it to warmth, to safety, quickly. We had to make it to the Bakka farm and Gusta’s warm kitchen.
Bakka was just down the road. Mom and Dad made a visit to Bakka once a year to get money for the Lutheran church. They were church people, well sort of, but not like the big holy types on the Mississippi, hooting and hollering and that stuff. Most years they also collected for the Red Cross. Dad didn’t like asking people for money. Last year he got into trouble with Mom. When they went to Bakka, Dad figured he’d be practical and also ask Gusta for money for the Red Cross at the same time, two birds with one stone kind of thing. Dad’s opening line was: “We are here for blood and money.” Dad meant nothing by it, just to get the conversation flowing as part of a job he didn’t have an appetite to do. Mom said this made Gusta turn white as a ghost, as she bustled about the kitchen getting coffee and vinarterta for them.
Back to Marty and the rescue. He was really a drowned rat. Soon to be a frozen rat. He was carrying a barrel of water around him. It was about 30 degrees below. It was approaching dusk, which comes early that time of year. It was blowing, not much but enough as it moved down the frozen river as if it was a wind tunnel. We had at least a quarter-mile to go. My legs were getting cold. Brian was the only one intact. We had to get to Gusta’s – that’s all I could think about.
The banks at Bakka slope to the river. When we got there, we scrambled up the bank. Brian and I dragged Marty. He wasn’t dripping any longer. We pulled the door of the back porch open, went up the stairs and banged on the door. There was Gusta, with her square frame on short legs, bustling to the door with her apron and her warm, broad face. She knew me and my shenanigans all too well. These included previous visits of salvation when I got too cold on my trap line in the bush and went to her place for some cookies and hot milk to warm up and get ready to complete the walk down the road. Whether Mom and Dad had come away with either blood or money after Dad’s abrupt opening in his visit with Gusta, I do not know. Mom had not been happy with Dad, but soon she realized how funny it was and started to giggle when she told me the story. Now a couple of weeks later I was at her door with my buddies, near drowned and frozen.
“Elskan,” Gusta exclaimed, using the term for my dear in Icelandic. She was clearly alarmed at the sight of us, and her round, warm face turned white as she brought us into her kitchen. Her hands went into action, pulling Marty’s clothes off him. Phone calls were made to our parents.
It gets blurry around then in my memory. No doubt she fortified us with cookies and something hot. We were safe. We had survived. Huck and that other guy, Tom Sawyer, would have been frozen stiff beside the hole in the ice. None of us even got sick. Safely at home that night, Mom reminded me of my first near encounter with death on the water. I was three and had wandered to the river, where I tumbled off a small dock behind Afi’s shed. A neighbour, a young Eyolfson girl, saw this scene unfolding and leapt into action, hauling me from the water. In a flash, the magnetism of the river cast its spell on me, that I could not resist whatever the season and the weather.
I have told you guys enough for now. Mom will be looking for me, so I’ve got to slip this letter in with the other letter and get it to the post office. There’s a lot more to tell you, like the muskrats killing in the spring. The smell of fresh green marsh lures them out of their dens, and I trap them along the river bank. Every step is dangerous since the ice is breaking. No way Huck and Tom ever did that. On my river, there’s new adventures and dangers every day.
In the winter immediately north of Bakka and the scene of the accident. Depending on the time of the year, the water conditions of the river vary quite considerably.