Unfrozen in Time

A trip through Manitoba reveals an Icelandic population still influenced by the old ways a century later.

“Sometimes I feel they are more Icelandic than me,” says Birgir Robertsson, owner of the Reykjavik Bakery in Gimli, Manitoba. He’s referring to the Icelandic-Manitobans who gather here to snack on vínarterta, a traditional prune-filled, cardamom-flavoured torte, and to exchange gossip in Icelandic, a language their ancestors brought to this fishing town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg five generations ago. The fortysomething Robertsson is a more recent immigrant. In the wake of his country’s economic collapse, he moved from Reykjavik to a town whose denizens Icelanders refer to quaintly, if stubbornly, as “West Icelanders.”

The first Icelandic exodus happened well before their most recent banking crisis. In the late 19th century, about 20 percent of the country’s population came to Canada after volcanic eruptions crippled their economy and livestock industry. They left an isolated place of unearthly beauty for an isolated place of ungodly cold – even by their standards. After learning how to fish on lakes and rivers covered by metre-thick ice, the survivors went on to found New Iceland, a.k.a. Gimli (Norse for “home of the gods”). They brought with them to the New World a strong work ethic and a touch of magic – including huldufólk, the “hidden people,” or elves, who are believed in by even the most rational of Icelanders and whose presence can affect everything from the routing of streets to the design of a new building.

Icelanders brought with them to the New World a strong work ethic and a touch of magic.”

Fast-forward to the present day and Manitoba is feeling more New Iceland than ever. I’m spending a week trying to get to the bottom of this proud patriotism, and already I find this recursive nostalgia extends beyond Gimli to other Icelandic-Manitoban towns in the Interlake Region, and to Winnipeg, where a new generation is celebrating its Icelandic heritage in measures that stand out even in multiculti Manitoba. Among its luminaries are John K. Samson, front man of celebrated Canadian folk-punk group the Weakerthans, who stages a hipster cabaret dubbed Icelandic Vaudeville; filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose myth-making movies My Winnipeg and Tales from the Gimli Hospital are tied to his Icelandic-Manitoban childhood; and intermedia artist Freya Björg Olafson, co-founder of Núna, a Canadian-Icelandic arts festival.

Modern tart

Before setting off, I meet Olafson at Coffee, one of several stylish third-wave Scandinavian-style cafés that have recently opened in Winnipeg. She’s taking a break from rehearsals for a new work for Núna: HYPER_, an ethereal piece of choreography that merges movement and lighting technology. “Is it a renaissance or a continuation by a particularly creative bunch?” she wonders aloud before adding, simply: “We’re a stubborn lot.”

So why are there so many Icelandic-Manitobans in Manitoba’s art scene? Olafson chalks it up partly to Iceland’s famous literary bent (the country boasts one of the strongest publishing industries, per capita, in the world). “I found myself through stories of family history,” says Olafson. Her friend, filmmaker Caelum Vatnsdal, agrees: “Guy [Maddin] used to say the immigrants packed books and bookshelves to the exclusion of their children.” But both she and Vatnsdal admit that at least some of their generation’s appreciation for the homeland has to do with Iceland’s current cool factor. “It’s exotic and remote and, at the same time, it’s super-cosmopolitan,” says Vatnsdal. “And it has Björk.”

My drive to Gimli is through a prairie landscape so flat, it recalls the pictures a child makes before learning about perspective – a big band of blue for sky, a small strip of green at the bottom. Less than an hour north of Winnipeg, a sign welcomes me to New Iceland. I begin to see exits for streets named Husavik and Siglavik.

At the Reykjavik Bakery, Robertsson serves me a lethally strong cup of coffee and kleinur – think twisted donuts, but better – telling me, “You know, ‘cake’ is an Icelandic word.” I barely have time for a bite before a man introduces himself as the Lutheran minister and, joining the conversation, asks if I’d like to meet the former mayor, Tammy Axelsson. “She speaks fluent Icelandic.”

I tell the minister I will have to take a rain check because, well, I’m already late for church. A movie at the town church, that is, one of the venues of the Gimli Film Festival, a showcase of artsy Manitoban, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic cinema held every July. I slip onto a hard wooden pew just as the lights dim for A Boy Like Her, a documentary about Hrafnhildur, a transgendered Icelander. Only in Gimli.

During my time in the town, I see more Icelandic flags than must exist in Iceland, and countless blue signs in front of homes and cottages with names of Icelandic villages, sagas or homesteads. A larger-than-life Viking sculpture dominates the town (many a first kiss was had behind the marauder). Nearby, Lifa Home, a new Scandi-chic home decor shop, is being unveiled by three local sisters. On this cool summer day, I’m struck by the number of blond people in Icelandic sweaters, notable for their muted colours and distinctive yoke pattern around the neck and worn by fishermen and fashionistas alike. And, everywhere I go, the grainy, intoxicating smell of rye permeates the air – the Gimli Distillery produces Crown Royal whisky – only adding to the dreamy atmosphere.

Heritage minutes

After a day of Nordic moviegoing, I leave Gimli knowing I’ll be back soon for Islendingadagurinn, or the Icelandic Festival, the big-ticket event for the whole North American Icelandic community. Meanwhile, I head north up Lake Winnipeg to Hecla, named after one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. The change in scenery creeps up in a slow and dramatic fashion from prairie to pine trees. Flat land becomes hilly (well, hilly by Manitoba standards), and wheat and canola fields give way to poplars and pine, and then a causeway – Hecla used to be an island until it was artificially joined to the mainland.

The town was one of Icelandic Manitoba’s most important settlements, but most of the population left when it was transformed into a provincial park featuring 1,000 square kilometres of hiking and biking trails as well as one of Manitoba’s best golf courses. Hecla’s causeway is named after Grimolfur “Grimsi” Grimolfson, who captained the local ferry for decades. Entering the park, I swerve as a deer darts out of the coniferous forest, then regain my composure as I drive past the restored Icelandic village to the shed where commercial fisherman Ivan Grimolfson, Grimsi’s son, is waiting to take me out on his boat. Now in his seventies, Grimolfson has been fishing here since he was a boy. He seems to embody Hecla’s moody atmosphere. With his quiet manner, his full white beard and eyes the colour of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, he’s part Norse god, part lone wolf. From here, Grimolfson ships his hearty fish all over the world. The summer fishing moratorium is on when we head out, but he tells me the next time I visit he’ll show me how to smoke pickerel over pear wood, the way he likes it.

After Hecla, I drive back south, stopping in Riverton to meet Nelson Gerrard, a historian and gentleman farmer who is trying his hand at raising Icelandic sheep. Gerrard is a fountain of knowledge and a stickler for historical truth. “All that Gimli ‘heart of New Iceland’ is nice, but Riverton is where the story began,” he tells me.

Gerrard’s non-profit Icelandic River Heritage Sites has also created Icelandic River Roast Coffee, a locally roasted brand that raises funds for projects, including a life-size bronze statue of Sigtryggur Jónasson, “Father of New Iceland,” and the restoration of the historic house at Engimyri, where Gerrard and I meet. He has plans to turn the homestead, with its New Iceland maps hanging on old flowered wallpaper, into a coffee house like the beautiful cafés he’s visited in rural Iceland. When I ask why Icelanders are crazy for their baked goods and java, Gerrard explains that “we like sweet pastry like all Scandinavians, and strong coffee goes with that.”

At his nearby farm, Icelandic sheep are peeking out of a ramshackle barn overlooking the Icelandic River and the eerie Nes Cemetery, which dates back to 1876. If it looks familiar, it’s because the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson filmed videos here for his EP Provincial Road 222. He says, explaining his choice of location to me, “I’ve always felt the Interlake, and especially Riverton, is an extremely evocative and haunted place.”

I’ve always felt the Interlake is an extremely evocative and haunted place.” John K. Samson, Lead Singer, the Weakerthans

Fighting chance

Samson’s words are wildly different in tone from what’s going on in Gimli when I arrive back in time for the start of Islendingadagurinn, where headlining Icelandic indie music act Snorri Helgason greets the crowd with a hearty “Gott Kvöld, Gimli!” During the festival, the town of 5,000 swells to 50,000. Icelandic clans, clad in shirts ending in “–dóttir” or “–sson,” are out shopping for herring, Brennivín (the Icelandic liquor of choice) and dark, dense rugbraud (rye bread) from the Reykjavik Bakery. The Prime Minister of Iceland is here for the festivities, staying at the same hotel as me and, when I step into the lobby, I find six fully dressed Vikings drinking coffee.

I later wander to the Viking Village. While there are demonstrations on Icelandic spices and fishnet-making, Islendingadagurinn’s biggest draw is clearly the battle re-enactment, and the ruthlessness is played out for the crowd. “There was no art to their fighting!” cries the announcer. “It was do what you must to stay alive!” Thousands of attendees whoop with glee, but it’s impossible to tell who’s a descendant of Vikings, who’s visiting from Reykjavik and who’s just here to revel for the day.

As I scan the crowd, I’m reminded of words filmmaker Caelum Vatnsdal shared with me at the start of this trip. Explaining a rather Viking-like dominance of their genetic makeup, Vatnsdal – himself only a quarter Icelandic “despite my ridiculously Icelandic name” – said, “If you have even a drop of Icelandic blood, you gravitate toward it. It dominates the rest of your blood, therefore you are Icelandic.”

Stay and Play

  1. Scandi Structures

    When jobs in their field started to decrease in Iceland, Reykjavik’s Batteriid Architects looked to Manitoba. Now they are partnering with Winnipeg firm Cibinel Architects on the Active Living Centre at the University of Manitoba, one of Winnipeg’s more interesting construction projects. Plans for the all-glass building show a structure with a decidedly Scandinavian look.

  2. Best of the Fests

    Take your pick of summer’s Icelandic-themed festivals. Find Viking displays and games every summer at the Icelandic Festival in Gimli, an hour north of Winnipeg. There you’ll also find the Gimli Film Festival, a showcase of over 100 Manitoban, Canadian and international shorts and features. Núna features Icelandic-Canadian arts, including literature, music and theatre, curated by local artists with ties to Iceland.

  3. Hip Hotels

    In Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park, the newly opened Lakeview Hecla Resort is brimming with Nordic chic. Rooms have bare wood floors and overlook poplar forests. The property features Scandinavian thermal pools and the Salka Spa, offering luxury treatments inspired by the water, ice and fire of Iceland. There is also an adjacent, top-rated 18-hole golf course.

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