winnipeg free press

Interlake history a stellar saga

Lake Winnipeg is central to the tale told by Glenn Sigurdson. It has profoundly influenced the people travelling on its waters and occupying the lands along its shores.

Joining the Cree, who have lived in the environs for generations, were the Icelanders.

Author W.D. Valgardson provides a strong start to Vikings on a Prairie Ocean in his foreward, offering insight into Iceland’s population (some 300,000) and social/political situation a century ago. He details how the migration of people from Iceland to what is now Manitoba was prompted by volcanic eruptions in the 1870s. These eruptions destroyed grazing land, and the weather turned so bitterly cold that a shortage of fodder for animals forced Icelanders to consider emigration. Though some went to Brazil and the United States, several thousand relocated to Canada.

Sigurdson draws on the diary of his great-great-grandfather, Sigurdur Erlendson, to tell the story of the fish in the lake being the salvation of the early settlers, who managed to feed themselves and, in the following generations, build an economy around fishing.

Trained as a lawyer, Glenn Sigurdson is a person of many talents and skill sets. He’s an academic, a problem solver and, with this memoir, proves to be a serious historian, presenting a detailed account of the Icelandic migration and settlement in what is now Manitoba.

In many respects, this memoir is a kind of family history. Sigurdson relates facts about his grandparents and their life working in the fishing industry.

He provides colourful anecdotes about his own experiences. “This book started on an airplane,” notes the author, before proceeding to tell about a pilot who flew for Sigurdson Fisheries, one Jack Clarkson. He was a legend for his “way of staying alive in the air and on the ground no matter what misfortunes befell him.”

Sigurdson has many such stories, recounting how he “was used to the smell of fish.” But his insightful comments go far beyond fishing, with some remarks probing complex concepts and topics such as the nature of history itself.

Riverton, a town with a “frontier feel,” has long been a kind of capital of the fishing world in Manitoba. Not surprisingly, the office of Sigurdson Fisheries (or Sig Fish, as everyone called it) is located here.

Eventually, Riverton became the base camp for Sigfusson’s winter road empire across northern Manitoba, a kind of family-owned “gateway to the North.” Monarch Construction, meanwhile, served as both an important business and a major social centre in the area.

The building of the indoor rink in Riverton meant an important facility for hockey and curling. The figure-skating club developed a long association with the Winnipeg Winter Club thanks to prominent lawyer Solli Thorvaldson. NHL star Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, honed his skating skills at the town’s rink, and still maintains a close association with Riverton.

Aside from his documenting Icelandic history in the region, Sigurdson recounts a variety of stories about his own growing up. Moreover, he offers fascinating trivia; for example, the fact that when the water on Lake Winnipeg was rough, the tables were covered with wet tablecloths so the plates and utensils wouldn’t slide. Further, the dogs of Lake Winnipeg were apparently famous.

Beyond the historical treatment, Sigurdson updates contemporary developments, especially involving various levels of government.

Vikings on a Prairie Ocean is an important book rich in local content, and is eminently readable.

Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer, and values his Icelandic connections.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 G8