by Ken Kristjanson
The idyllic July weather of 1952 was about to dramatically change on this beautiful day during my third summer as a shore hand at Georges Island. The barometer just hit the roof and we knew an early summer storm was brewing. Storms are a part of the great lake, but what we did not know was that a rare Arctic high was coming right at us with gale force winds. The nor’wester hit in the evening after 9 o’clock coffee. It turned very cold. The momentum built as the sun set in an uncertain sky.
We felt secure on our little island. We were, after all, located on one of the finest manmade harbours on Lake Winnipeg. Our boats could ride out any storm as they were protected from the elements by high sand ridges on three sides. The south end had a manmade rock breakwater. This was all thanks to the Canadian Government who built the harbour in the 1920s. In their wisdom and wishing to support the fishing industry, they realized a safe harbour on the North Basin was needed.
Our temporary summer home was about to be the centre of a real life drama.
By now it was 4 a.m. and the breakfast bell was ringing. Even though our boats could not go out to lift their nets due to the severity of the storm, the crews still wanted breakfast. The weather had by now turned even colder.
During the night two other lake freighters — the J.R. Spear and the Luanna — had taken refuge in our snug harbour. Their captains decided to forgo their tight schedules for the comforts of our harbour.
I was assigned to man the store. The station manager and my father were going to spend the day working on the accounts. We had 32 fishermen plus six shore hands and three cooks on our station. Now, we had an additional 15 crew from the two freighters. Armstong Gimli Fisheries had the same number of personnel as us. As our store was better stocked, we rightfully expected to do some business.
My father kept our two-way radio activated all the time, even though it required that our lighting plant would constantly have to charge up the batteries. The radio was located in the store/office. On a good day, 10 people could squeeze inside the store, but the transmissions were loud enough for everyone to hear outside on the board sidewalk. There was always a steady stream of messages and general banter.
At 8 a.m., all hell broke loose. A heavy Icelandic accented voice cut through the messages and in a calm voice said, “SS Keenora calling Georges Island. Do you read over?”
The store went as quiet as a graveyard. Before I could blurt out, “Why is the Keenora calling us?” my father calmly answered, “Georges Island to SS Keenora. Go ahead.”
The captain said in a steady voice: “Ted, everyone on board is tired. The passengers are all seasick. The wind is abating a bit. I am going to bring the Keenora into Georges Harbour. Would you see that Armstong’s dock is clear as I will follow the range lights directly into their dock.”
My father said out loud to no one in particular, “We better ready two boats just in case.”
Two boat runners or captains immediately jumped up to volunteer and rushed to ready their crew. In no time, their motors were running and they were ready to cast-off.
The shock of the radio transmission now set in. Ten voices said at once where had the Keenora been?
The Georges Island lighthouse keeper, Willard Olson, had joined the group and he spoke up: “Well, I can tell you the Keenora passed Georges Light about midnight on her regularly scheduled run to Warren's Landing.”
Word spread like wildfire. Some personnel rushed to the north side of the Island to catch a glimpse of the great boat. Our thoughts were with the passengers and crew. They would have spent a hellish night somewhere. But where? We all knew the Keenora. She was the best known and best loved of all the lake boats.
All available personnel on the island were on Armstrong's dock to greet the Keenora. We were all curious as to her mysterious appearance at our harbour. So with nerve born of curiosity my brother Robert and I boarded the Keenora. A scene of destruction greeted us. Cargo was strewn everywhere. She had been in a battle with the great lake. But where?
We sought out the captain and the first mate for a first-hand accounting. Both were exhausted. They told us that the storm appeared to be manageable when they passed Georges Lighthouse. They proceeded approximately another 16 kilometres north when the full fury of the storm hit them. They were opposite Poplar Reefs, a very dangerous part of the lake, and it was pitch black. They could not go ahead or turn back because the waves were too great, so the two men held onto the wheel all night.
The crew woke the passengers and assembled them in the dining room. Everyone was frightened. They had booked the state rooms on the upper deck and up until yesterday had been enjoying a relaxing cruise. They had never been on a lake this big before. The crew handed out life belts — not so much for the safety of the passengers, the crew confided to us, but to make it easier to find the bodies if the ship went down. The Keenora, with her huge cargo load, could have gone straight down.
But the Keenora was a superb sea boat and she had a veteran crew to run her. In talking to some of the passengers, who were mainly from the U.S. Midwest, we learned how they spent the night. In true Titanic fashion, a piano player was recruited from the passengers and he pounded the piano all night while the rest huddled together and sang songs. No doubt, Abide With Me, was one of them. At daybreak, the captain and first mate timed a turn so that they could head south for the safety of Georges Island.
Although the ship had made it to safe harbour, the excitement was not yet over. The ship was secured by the bow and the captain wanted to make the ship tied parallel to Armstong Gimli Fisheries dock. One of the over-tired deck hands started hauling the stern hawser to the front, but the rope slipped out of his hand. From the dock, we frantically yelled to attract the captain’s attention as the one-inch hawser sank into the water and wrapped itself around one of the propeller shafts.
Someone in the wheel house heard us and stopped the engine, but the damage had been done. Now, volunteers from the crew had to dive into the water with sharp butcher knives to cut through the rope so that the propeller could be freed It took all day to finish the job.
The next morning, the fishermen went out in a still blustery day to try and untangle their nets. Long hours would be spent on this unwanted, make-work project. While the crew was readying the big ship for travel, some of the passengers came to our store for a visit. They liked the quaintness of our little fishing village. They visited our processing plant, although those with still squeamish stomachs didn’t stay long. They all said that they would have stories to tell their grandkids, but there were some who were not all that keen on continuing the voyage.
The good-ship SS Keenora continued on her journey, although now temporarily behind schedule.
(Ken Kristjanson is a member of a family with a long tradition of commercial fishing out of Gimli, Manitoba.)