Gimli's cold Walk to the Rock

Many braved the cold and the wind to walk from Gimli to Willow Island to honour the original Icelandic settlers in the area on Oct. 21.

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A small but dedicated group from Gimli walked to the big, white rock at Willow Island to honour the first Icelandic settlers who arrived on the shores of Lake Winnipeg on a frigid, windy day on Oct. 21, 1875.

This same date in 2019 was no different than 144 years ago with strong winds from the northwest, crashing waves and bitter icy reminders of winter approaching.

According to the Manitoba Historical Society, after leaving famine in Iceland and finding poor prospects for work and housing in Kinmount, Ontario, a party of delegates acted on their behalf to bring the Icelandic settlers to the newly formed province of Manitoba.

Having arrived first in Winnipeg, the settlers discovered that though well received, no provisions had been made for their reception. No haying had been done, no cattle could be brought with them to the settlement, grasshoppers plagued the sky and the streets and things progressed from there.

That was Oct. 11. A storm was brewing. One flatboat was destroyed along the crossing of the rivers plus some of their winter stores and sickness from four weeks and four days of exposure only hastened the Captain’s decision to stop short of the Town of Gimli to drop the party off.

After getting to Gimli by land, the group had to hastily build temporary shelters, shanties and loose log cabins, but even their hosts’ house could not have been warm enough that first winter.

Though no one died in transport, one male child arrived that night in the new settlement. This first birth brought much to celebrate, but it took months to catch the first fish, a gold eye.

Much like today, debate over mesh width governed the fisheries and untold help from the local native population as well as a loan from the Dominion government may have saved some from early death and disease. However, unscrupulous merchants sold bad stores to the government’s officials. With shortages of food, work and housing, the smallpox came quickly with the next wave of settlers.

Local resident, Dilla Narfason, read a few words to commemorate the event and handed out photos of the rock and others like it that were found near the harbour of Gimli.

Narfason also handed out photos for viewing and an original letter from John Taylor, of the Canadian Government, written to John Howe, the Secretary for the Department of Agriculture, on Oct 21, 1875.

“I have the honour to announce to you the safe arrival here of the party of Icelanders under my charge.

After great difficulty and no little danger, I have succeeded in bringing six flat boats from Fort Garry down Red River 50 miles and 15 miles more on the lake.

One boat was struck by the scow of the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer (the Colville) which towed us the last 20 miles and was destroyed.”

Were it not for kindness, initial contact and courage, many Interlake citizens would not be here to walk to the rock today.

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