Where Have All The Whitefish Gone… A Long Time Passing

This article was first published in Logberg Heimskringla.

Billy Valgardson, my longtime friend, once a teacher and often a mentor, has a gift for pressing hot buttons in my emotional library. Recently, on Facebook, he managed to do so again with a posting on the wonderful whitefish dinner he had just enjoyed with his Aunt Dilla and her family, baked and stuffed in the way that his Mother did, and all the other mothers connected to the Icelandic ways of what was once New Iceland.

Then he went on to describe the dismal situation in which the mighty whitefish, once the King of the Lake Winnipeg fishery, finds itself. The King is alive, very much alive swimming everywhere, but since our once powerful markets in New York and Chicago have shifted into the hands of others, we have abandoned it at home. Now when the fishermen find them in their nets, they are often left with no practical choice but to throw them on the shore as garbage. Why? To avoid using up the valuable quota designated to each license with a fish that has so much less value today then the other targeted species. And who can fault the fishermen for this commercial judgment?

My passions were aroused and I penned this reply:
“In the fish markets of New York, Long Island, Detroit, and Chicago, whitefish is still a premium product … but it is now whitefish from Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, not Lake Winnipeg. These were the historic Catholic and Jewish markets that powered the Lake Winnipeg fishery, in the days fish was eaten every Friday, and with it the self-sufficiency of New Iceland. Whitefish, as a scaled fish, was also a key ingredient in gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish dish, in great demand at Passover, that somewhat resembles meatloaf or meatballs. It is the now a food for memories of those who have spoken of its delicious wonders they well remember, as do I. The last box of fish packed by Dad as he was returning from the stations at the North End was always the best jumbo whites brought home for special summer barbecues of the family. The story of the whitefish is a tragedy of marketing, not quality. And it is has been forgetting the oldest adage of ‘play to your strengths’ … a particular favorite was the North End big-humped jumbo Selkirk whites, as they were known in the U.S. markets, with a high-grade fat quality that made them perfect for smoking, and the gourmet delicatessens. In the morning, if you are in Gimli, go to Smiths (Raymond was one of the legendary white fishermen of Lake Winnipeg), where the last stop I make heading up to the cottage between Pine Dock, and Matheson Island every summer is to stock up on smoked whitefish, which is the appetizer before every Leaside Beach meal in the bay just before the narrows as Little Dog Head. And I go by Billy’s Dad’s station at Frog Bay, and think of him every time I drive by the same gravel road I have travelled since the ’50s as a boy. And in Gimli, I walk across from the Lakeview on Festival weekend to the Marine Museum to see, once again, Afi Malli’s (Brynjolfson) whitefish boat there, donated by the family after his death. It is unbelievable to think, as Billy says, that this incredible protein, richer in omega oils than its ocean counterpart, the salmon, whose genetic origins are one, is treated as if it were garbage.”

That ignites Billy to issue a call to arms to raise attention to this dismal state of affairs. Billy’s Mom and Dad, Rae and Dempsey, were important people in my life. I knew them well. I could see their spirit coming alive again in Gimli through his passion and voice. This exchange was his birthday present to me in the mid-June weekend. Now he has written again to me in response to my post that I have a duty to share this story with the readers of L-H. I understand he has been issuing similar commands to others, including our mutual friend Kenny Kristjanson, whose family continues to personify the Lake Winnipeg fishery to this day, for an article in Icelandic Connection. I now join arms with them and hope others will soon join this cohort information in their own way.

That this incredible food source (as I said, with even more omega fats than its cousin, the salmon) is left to rot on the shores is mindboggling. This should not be. Those of you who have read Vikings on A Prairie Ocean: The Saga of a Lake, a People, a Family and a Man, will know the values and influences from a boyhood on Lake Winnipeg have informed and shaped my career working in the middle of complex issues connected to water and land across the country. I wrote in those pages: “Fish have been central to my life from the beginning, and professionally I have been in the middle of a lot of ‘fish wars,’ in many places, but that has been only one component of a very diverse body of work. You can learn a lot from fish, and from the people whose lives and lifestyles revolve around them. I have taken that experience and wisdom and applied it in many different contexts. There are no more complex problems than those of a fishing identity and culture. They embrace the past and the future, mystery and uncertainty, traditional knowledge and scientific reasoning, knowns and unknowns, lives and livelihoods. If you can work on fish problems, you can work on anything. My place in the world is grounded in people and fish, and that in the deepest sense of the word, is ‘home.’”

I am “home” in the deepest sense of that word as I write this. Recovering the markets will take time and effort. How and why they were lost could preoccupy us for some time, but to what end? Oh, I know there is always the old smoking gun that someone is convinced is hidden in a trunk somewhere. Or bemoaning the fact that the Great Lakes fishery is more accessible to eastern markets and that many other white flesh fish from Southeast Asia are now competitors. It’s easy to get into the blame game. Seldom is that productive. That just turns into fighting. What we need is talking. Moving from fighting to talking, seemingly a short distance, but I can assure you from long experience that it is a perilous and complicated road to travel. Better in my judgment to make a sharp turn down the talking road.

Surely forcing the fishermen to take the whitefish to the dump, not the dock, without compromising their ability to earn a livelihood is a problem that can yield to a solution. And since the market has declared them worthless, there seems to be a compelling case for a simple provincial regulatory change that take whitefish out of this quota conundrum into a special category, like in earlier eras, when there were distinct license allocations for whitefish and pickerel. The Lake Winnipeg fishery was built on the backs of a deep history of drive, determination, and creativity. Let’s resurrect that spirit around the whitefish, and allow entrepreneurial creativity to take hold and transform “garbage” into gold, which is all the rage these days with endless articles on human ingenuity at work. There is no shortage of innovation across the world of fish and markets, in how it is being produced, and differentiated, and the value equations being transformed. Surely there should be a way around restrictions to enable someone to turn nothing into something, where everyone wins, starting with the fisherman.

What we need is to start talking about doable solutions. So what can be done? We can start bringing back to life the story of the whitefish. Selling ‘tasty’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘fancy packages’ is good, but not good enough. Marketing needs a story to sell. Let’s start at home, giving whitefish the respect it deserves in our own kitchens. Let’s take it baked and stuffed, wrapped in the romance of its story, to great chefs and seek their inspiration for new ways of bringing it back into fashion. Let’s remember the magic that unfolds under the skillful coaching of great smokers. Or that frying it brings out another distinctive set of flavors. Or the wizardry that it took to bring golden caviar to the palate of global markets. Not many have ever tasted the delight of whitefish livers brought to life on the pan. There are no doubt endless possibilities, including harvesting their rich omega oils, endlessly touted as the key to the health of our arteries and brains and packaging them up in fancy bottles with pictures of seniors with glittering skin, and babies with a rosy glow!

We have that story within us. We need to recover it. Let’s remember the power in the story of the goldeye. It became famous at home, then abroad. An Englishman accidentally over smoked some goldeye around 1886, that he had brought home to feed the mouths of his family, and unlocked its full potential. In 1910, the chef at the fabled Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg, sourcing local delicacies, featured the smoked goldeye in its great dining rooms, and then to the world. Famous at home, famous abroad – in great dining rooms and in the dining car of every train crossing the country. When you went into the Charterhouse Hotel in Winnipeg, the story of the goldeye was told on an embossed card on every table. With each plate served until today, the echoes of that story are still alive in the popular imagination and markets. And goldeye’s triumph helped amplify the fame of the Lake Winnipeg fishery and all its species. And we have no shortage of storytellers. Billy, this is my call to you, and many others.

The whitefish story is the story of new Iceland. Had it not been for the fish, first to survive and then to thrive, the Icelanders would have simply drifted across North America and the sense of place which goes arm-in-arm with identity would have been lost. The Icelanders’ story in North America would be no different than any other immigrant group who absorbed into the wider community of people then taking shape. The fish rescued them from starvation. Fish as a basis for the future was a continuing topic in Framfari with many extraordinary articles written from 1877 to 1881. By 1882 there were only a few hundred left in the colony. The future came quickly. By 1883, fish was beginning to power those left to self-sufficiency. New immigrants followed. The story of the whitefish and the Western Icelanders is deeply interlocked. Simply, it is our history and the reason there is a New Iceland and a Gimli.

Fishing, not farming, became the basis of their economy. Family enterprises emerged. From 1900, every cheque issued by Sigurdson Fisheries was distinguished by a whitefish image as its marquee. The communities began standing on their own two feet. New people were attracted to come. The future was secured. We need to make the story part of the brand. It is no different than the distinctive terroir of the climate and soil that becomes the “soul” and the “sale” of great bottles of wine sold around the world. Ask the fishermen of Copper River how they attached their name to the salmon they pulled from the Alaskan coast, aggressively marketed their story, and pole-vaulted to the head of the line with the same salmon as everyone else on the coast was catching. The story of the Lake Winnipeg fishery has the potential to be much more powerful than the Copper River story. It is the story of families and the enterprises they built around fish on open water and on ice. The mighty whitefish fleets under the command of larger-than-life personalities, leaving and returning each year from Selkirk, Gimli, Riverton, and Hecla, and countless smaller locations along the shoreline, were the symbols which gave life and identity to New Iceland.

The Lake Winnipeg fishery has flourished on a diversity of species, but it was the great whitefish fleets, 45-foot long boats carrying three to four men, Icelanders and Indians together, as they each knew and described each other, that went to the North End to the “Big Lake” for two months each summer – first under sail, then steam, then gas. These are the images in the mind’s eye when you walked onto the Gimli Dock, completed in 1900, itself with a special history that involved the short political life of my great-grandfather Stefan, who as the first reeve of the municipality and who aggressively pursued its construction. In late May, the mighty fleets left, returning by mid-August, and then pulled up before freeze-up and left alone to brave the winter cold and snow with only crutches to hold them upright. The Goldfield, their freighter patiently frozen in at the dock, awaiting open water so it could go back to work. In Riverton, the scene was the same, only with a different frame. This same story continued on decade after decade, through several generations, with slow decline in the 1980s to where we are today. That is far too big a story to write, and I leave it to somebody much more knowledgeable than me to do so. Even if I could, I would not waste my time doing that now. My focus, and I believe our collective focus, should be on going forward with new and creative energy, powered by the recognition that in telling the story of the whitefish, we are telling the story of the lake and its people. And surely finding ways to build this kind of energy should be the inspiration that the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board will want to embrace, and find creative ways to embrace, and encourage inside their regulatory framework.

I begin the story of New Iceland and the whitefish in Vikings on a Prairie Ocean with this extract, which I shared in this book drawn from the diary of my great-great-grandfather Sigurdur Erlendson:
“The end of the year was indeed bleak. Sigurdur wondered constantly if his decision to leave Iceland had doomed them. Sigurdur and Stefan waded through deep snow into the woods most days to find dry firewood. It warmed them just a little in the clay fireplace, and they choked on the smoke. They were freezing cold, surrounded by smallpox, and on the edge of starvation. Much of what they had spent a lifetime learning in Iceland meant nothing on Lake Winnipeg. Sigurdur’s worsening stomach troubles haunted him. ‘I was beginning to think that every day would be my last,’ he wrote, ‘and I worried constantly about what would become of my wife and four children.’ His one consolation was watching how his boys were shaping up. Sigurdur believed they would be successful if they lived, that his dream of building a better future for his children would be realized. The only thing he was truly certain of, though, was that it would not be sheep farming that would sustain the family on Lake Winnipeg.

“Sigurdur’s health began to improve in January 1877, a few months after arrival. He attributed it to the coffee he had brought along. To Icelanders, coffee is the nectar of the gods. Whether the coffee had restorative powers or not, Sigurdur believed it did, and that alone may have made a difference. He was soon strong enough to make a much bigger fishing net than the one he had brought from Iceland. With the first bearable weather in the New Year, Sigurdur and Stefan ventured out onto the Lake Winnipeg ice. After two days the net was in the water.”

“They were energetic men, but with no tools or clothes to protect them from the cold. How they broke open a large enough hole through five to six feet of ice is unclear. Sigurdur must have learned from the Indians how to set the nets using poles cut from the forest. The Indians slid long lines attached to poles under the ice, watching the progress if clear and thin ice allowed, otherwise estimating where to cut the hole to anchor the other end of the net. However he did it, Sigurdur rejoiced to pull three plump whitefish from the deep. They wrapped them in canvas and rushed back to show Gudrun.

“Sigurdur had located and fixed a broken stove and a pot. Later, with a belly fuller than it had been in a long time, Sigurdur wrote that ‘those who have experienced hunger will understand how much we relished the first meal after the whitefish was cooked.’ From then on, they had fish to bake or fry, even enough to share with those less fortunate. They finally had a glimmer of hope that things would work out for them.
“In April, Sigurdur chose land one mile north of their shack and built a log cabin. He called the house ‘Skogar,’ for ‘heavily wooded.’ Sigurdur was proud of his boys:
“‘Stefan was my main helper, and assisted me in all the work although he was only twelve years old. My younger son, Johannes, then eight years of age, brought the dinner to us daily, fried whitefish. I thought he did well…to walk all that distance against a cold north wind and no road along the lake. We enjoyed good times together then, my boys and I.’
“They cleared land near the shore for potatoes and planted a few rows full of optimism, but the weather was relentless. The rains came and the bushel of potatoes Sigurdur had seeded floated away.”

There is a story inside the story of what Sigurdur writes. It is the story of the Icelanders and the Indians, who got smallpox together, learned from each other, fished together, and laughed together in the gutting sheds. Telling the story of the whitefish must be done in a way that understands and honors the Cree and Ojibway connection with the whitefish for food, a basis for the local fur trade economies, and far beyond into the depth of time immemorial and Lake Agassiz. These rich stories must be told together. There is much to tell, including the bigger story of the threats to the mighty lake, which must be countered. Telling the whitefish story can inspire much bigger and more powerful stories that will reach the hearts and minds of many in many important ways, for fish and water are the great challenges facing us this century and for generations ahead.
Last night, while reading Billy’s post, I was listening to a program commemorating the great legacy of Peter, Paul and Mary, whose humanity, advocacy and music came together in perfect harmony. In listening to the immortal lyrics penned by Pete Seeger, who joined them for this rendition of his song they pinned on the hearts and soul of the world, “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” I thought of the musical legacy of Riverton, and its many diverse strands that came together as the sounds of the soul of the lake and its people, and though it is time to call them back into action, just as Peter, Paul and Mary with Pete Seeger came together late in their careers, before Mary’s death, to sing one last time together – and now Peter and Paul carry on the work alone as their greatest tribute to her. I boldly call on the likes of Solli Sigurdson, Brian and Freddy Oleson, Dennis Olson, to call their Whisky Jacks and all back together to produce a sequel to the album as they did in 1970 from Manitoba’s Centennial, Lake Winnipeg Fisherman, for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. In making the call, I have the total audacity to offer Sigurdur’s Lament, which I expect they will see as sufficiently amateurish that they will be motivated to spring into action with their powerful words and music – and maybe even a new generation alongside them.

Sigurdur’s Lament
Where have all the whitefish gone, long time passing?
Where have all the whitefish gone, a long time ago?
They are here, swimming everywhere, every one
We went away, and left them behind, not so long ago
Can anyone tell me why?
Why don’t we bring our whitefish home? Why, tell me why?
We let our markets die, but our families are everywhere.
Smoked and feted, baked and stuffed, enjoyed by everyone
For me it was the breath of life that made this home.
Can anyone tell me why?
When you go away, you let our history die, tell me why?
Why do the voices sing out true for the salmon and the cod?
While amongst the lot of you, the mighty white, not even a nod.
You may not see it so, but you let our story die.
Tell me why? Tell me why?

See you in 2017 at the Gimli Pavilion, eating smoked whitefish and, hopefully, listening once more to the boys.

1 Comment

  • Beryl Ellen Walsh Posted 6th September 2020 1:54 pm

    Just finished reading your delightful piece about the vibrant tapestry of Gimli and the Whitefish. I discovered it, happily, heading into Gimli for pickerel from the Beach Boy after stopping at Smiths to pick up smoked whitefish to enjoy back in Winnipeg. Will experience a more savoury and much enhanced whitefish now, having read your work.
    Thank you.

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