The boats pitched and swayed in the violent lake. Nathanael Olason thought they were all going to die trying to find the new land they had dreamt about for so long. They had already named it Gimli, which meant paradise in Icelandic. As far as he was concerned, currently, it was nothing close to heaven.
Nath watched with trepidation as the lake swelled ahead of them. The dark clouds scowled threateningly. He was certain they were heading into a nasty storm. Nath felt his stomach lurch as the seasickness waved over him. Several passengers had already vomited, but thankfully the putrid smell was hurled overboard. Nath grit his teeth and peered over at his father. His dad’s face was robust and steady. The square of his jaw conveyed that they were strong people, they will make it, and nothing will stop them now.
Nathan grabbed hold of whatever he could. He looked at his father and pointed towards a small railing to his left. His father nodded in agreement and carefully walked over to the banister, the boat swaying with every step. The older man temporarily lost his balance and Nath braced himself to rescue him immediately, but thankfully, it was okay; his agile father had regained his footing.
His father made it safely to the small railing, gripping it fiercely. Nathan smiled. His father was as tough as nails. They both leaned down in a half-crouched position, knees bent, bracing themselves.
Suddenly, the boat sloped to the right, sliding some personal belongings dangerously close to the water. Several people clambered to catch them before the lake swallowed their meagre possessions in its giant mouth. Nathan watched helplessly as a bag flew into the swells, a large splash claiming the belongings. A robust woman screamed and then was pulled back by her husband.
Nath held onto his bag securely, the waves lulling momentarily, offering a tiny reprieve before the storm ahead.
This was not what he had expected. This new land had been nothing but hardship, far from any kind of paradise, and it just kept getting worse, although Nathan wasn’t sure there were any other options.
The forces of nature had given the Icelanders little choice but to seek a new country. The volcanic eruptions, of his homeland, had forced vast amounts of his people to flee. Then a man named Sigtryggur Jonasson had come up with a plan. The Icelandic entrepreneur had returned to Iceland with news of a beautiful country called Canada and began organizing mass boat trips to save his countrymen from the volcanic rumblings.
Nathanael’s family refused to leave initially. His mother and father were intent on staying until the ground finally shook violently. When the ash spewed in clouds from Mount Askja in March 1875, it was horrific. The volcano had killed most of their livestock and destroyed their land, coating everything in thick ash. The property was useless, nearly impossible to cultivate. There wasn’t much left to farm or eat; their entire livelihood had vanished in a plume of ash. Thankfully, no family members were injured, but there was simply nothing left. Home had become a desolate land of destruction.
Leaving wasn’t easy; there were many problems, and it took months for them to decide. The cost of the boat trip to Canada was so expensive that they could only afford to send his father and himself. His mother and sisters were left behind. Some of the more impoverished families had decided that they would send the strongest, hardiest women, men and children. Nathanael did notice some of his cousins on the boat as well, so that was comforting. Nath was turning eighteen in a few months, and he was rapidly changing into a man, eager to begin a new adult life. He felt the challenges ahead were just part of becoming an adult, although it was much harder than he had ever imagined.
It had been a harrowing trip immigrating to Canada so far. Initially, they had travelled by boat to Kinmount, Ontario. They spent a few months there, working long gruelling hours, with little pay. Conditions were brutal; lots of women and children had died. Nathanael had lost 10 pounds in the first few months. On his 6-foot frame at 155 pounds, he was very slim. But he still felt strong, very much so actually. The hard work had changed him into a tougher man.
The railroad work they had commissioned to complete became suspended because of a lack of funds. The project could not continue. There was no more work in Kinmount, no more food and the soil was not suitable for farming. They began to plan as a group where they would travel to next, but the Icelanders would have to go soon before they all perished in the isolated community of Kinmount.
Rumours went around that Sig Jonasson was currently living in Riverton, just north of Gimli. A group came back telling them of the beautiful beaches there. Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada, had called this expansive piece of land New Iceland. Rumours said that this land was given to the Icelandic people. Icelanders just had to create a settlement there. The Dominion of Canada would help them with additional financial aid and travel.
They made a collective decision to join an expedition to travel to Manitoba, across land and sea. All of the Icelandic people in Kinmount left, some to Nova Scotia, the remaining to Manitoba. Kinmount was a ghost town. They moved on September 21, 1875. The group travelled by rail to Sarnia, then a barge overseas, train and boat again. They journeyed across Canada into the Americas, then back into Manitoba. It was an arduous, month-long voyage, but they remained committed.
It was now October 21, 1875. The strange flatboats that they were travelling on were approximately thirty-six feet in length and quite narrow. There was an entire fleet of these flatboats. They had been travelling by steamboat for several days with nearly two hundred and fifty other Icelandic explorers. But when they left Winnipeg, it was October 16, and they were all transferred to the flatboats. Initially, they simply floated along the Red River current. The beginning of the trip up the Red River from Winnipeg was pleasant but chilly, although arduously slow. It took four long days of drifting. But so far, their luck was holding up. They all knew it was risky for them to travel during the fall, but the settlers were determined to claim their land. They discussed it as a group several times since leaving Kinmount, and they concluded that the risks far outweighed the present options. Similar to Mount Askja, they had little choice but to leave.
Upon arrangement with the Hudson Bay Company, the steamer Colvile came to tow the fleet of flatboats from the mouth of the Red River this morning. At first, they were excited and energized. They would finally be arriving at their wonderful Gimli land today!
Then the bad weather started.
Nathanael and his dad ate dried meat for lunch, sharing a flask of cold water, while the boat began to pitch again. “What do you think Gimli will be like, Pabbi?” Nathanael asked between chewy bites.
The gruff father chuckled, “It will surely be better than what we’ve had to live with so far.”
Nathanael nodded. They had been through some tough times, he thought, surely it could only get better.
“Do you think it will be beaches and paradise?” Nathan asked. “Lord Dufferin called it such.”
“I would like to hope so, Nath,” Pabbi replied. “I tend to think more realistically. Better to keep expectations low, work hard for what you want, never expect it to be handed to you as a paradise.” Pabbi gulped down water and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Something tells me we should be prepared for a long hard winter. Look, the wind is picking up already.”
The wind swirled ahead on Lake Winnipeg, and the temperature felt several degrees colder. They wrapped the heavy fur coats tighter around themselves. A freezing fog blew over the lake ahead, obscuring visibility.
Nathanael quickly ate the rest of his dried meat and secured his belongings onto his back. “Pabbi, hurry up and eat, we need to get ready for some bad weather. Look, up ahead.”
His father quickly stuffed the remaining dried meat away and secured his backpack. A gust of freezing wind blew onto the flatboat, swirling the first flakes of snow across the boat.
Lake Winnipeg churned up angry white caps in response to the increasing winds, creating a misty whitish fog rising above the seascape. The boat began to lurch and rock front to back again.
“Looks like we might be heading into some lake swells.” Pabbi pointed north.
Nathanael watched as the lake rose menacingly and swelled directly ahead of the boats.
Five minutes later, they were amidst the swells. The boats pitched dangerously, tied together; they threatened to capsize each other. The boats banged alongside each other, lightly at first, then increasingly harder. Nathanael motioned for his dad to follow him to the railing. They gripped the rail and stationed their feet firmly, bracing themselves. Gusts of wind blew steadily across the boat, splashing water and snow onto the deck.
They noticed the captain of the steamer Colville talking loudly then shouting. He was gesturing to several deckhands towards the back of the ship. Several minutes later, the deckhands cut the ropes to the flatboats. The Colville was turning around and returning to Winnipeg! Nathanael couldn’t believe their terrible luck. The captain had obviously determined that the risks were too high. The boats being tied so closely together in the storm all the way to Gimli would surely cause them to capsize. But they would be safer being blown across the lake!
The flatboat he had been living on was now rocking violently and travelling at dangerous speeds across the lake. This was undoubtedly the end. They would all end up in the frigid waters.
It was late afternoon, as he watched his father bracing himself against the post, the wind blowing his beard across his face. “We will be alright, son,” he shouted. “We didn’t come this far to be defeated. Get your rope out and wrap it onto something, son. Like an anchor. We don’t want to be hurled into these cold waters.”
Nathanael wedged himself against the post, holding onto it with an iron grip, unravelling the rope from his backpack and began securing it onto the small rail, watching as his father did the same. Blustering waves of thick icy fog gusted over the boat, reducing visibility. He tried to work as fast as he could, but the freezing humidity was forming ice onto his beard and lashes. The flatboat jerked and rumbled. He looked up at his father. Then the boat sharply hit something. The impact was enough to send people overboard. Nathanael lost his grip momentarily, but recovered quickly and clambered back to the posts. Bodies scrambled overtop each other. When he looked up, his father was gone! He panicked. He saw his father sliding on the flatboat, feet first towards the water. He prayed for strength and tied the rope more securely into a tight knot from his waist and pushed towards his father.
The boat was slick with water, his feet slipped, and he crashed into his dad, grabbing hold of him at the same time, sliding further, until the rope saved them both from the freezing waters. He gripped his father’s hands onto the line, and they both climbed up until they were once again near the small rail. His father had some cuts on his forehead, but he seemed alright.
Many people were groaning and complaining. Some were splashing in the water. Nathanael used his father’s rope to lower it into the water.
“Grab the rope!” He shouted to a young man in the water. “The rope!! Grab the rope!”
Finally, the young man swam to the rope, gripped it and pulled himself aboard. Wet and shivering, the man thanked Nathanael. The freezing man pulled his damp hair back, and Nathanael noticed it was his second cousin! “Viktor!!” He slapped him on the back. “You should really be more careful!” he laughed.
“Damn boat!” Viktor laughed. “What did we hit?”
His father pointed in the distance. Trees were dotting the landscape, showing themselves between the waves of fog. “We hit land, my boys! We did it! Welcome to New Iceland!”
Roars of laughter rose over Willow Point. The Icelandic explorers had reached paradise, approximately 20 miles from their intended destination.
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