SS Keenora — a valuable lifeline to the outside world

by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
The SS Keenora served for decades as a lifeline to the outside world for otherwise isolated Lake Winnipeg communities. Without the vessel’s ability to carry 200-tons of freight during its weekly trips north, great quantities of supplies could not be readily delivered during the shipping season. After all, the Keenora was far bigger in size than the other vessels used as freighters on the lake.
“For Thor Goodman, a fisherman and grocer at Jackhead Harbour, Matheson Island, there were 40 bags of flour, sacks of rolled oats, cans of condensed milk, lard, shampoo, baking powder and a bundle of hard iron for canoes,” wrote Beth Paterson in a May 26, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press article describing the goods delivered by the vessel. “For the Bloodvein Indian Reserve at the same point there were 28 bags of seed potatoes distributed by the government ...”
“Ma” Kemp, an “English woman” who had once lived in Winnipeg, and was the proprietor of the Log Cabin Inn at Berens River, received 425 cases of beer. In seven years, the “venerable white-haired vendor” hadn’t set foot back in Winnipeg, although Kemp indicated to Paterson that she may some day make the trip. 
At Hecla, nets, corks and lead weights needed for the fishing season were unloaded
“The Keenora’s  most important cargo was food ...,” wrote Paterson. “The Grey Nuns who run the Oblate Hospital at Berens River said the village had been short of food since mid-March. Cases of malnutrition had been treated in the hospital. The shortage was caused when the last tractor train before break-up had sunk in the ice in March and had lost its cargo of groceries in extricating itself.”
At the Norway House Cree Nation agency, clerk James Sheane said he and his family had been eating fish and beaver for the past three weeks.
“I hope the Keenora’s got some meat,” he said to Paterson. “You never realize how good roast beef is until you miss it for a month.”
According to Paterson, every passenger on the Keenora had business in the north. Those aboard included engineers, surveyors, nurses, doctors, lighthouse keepers and their families, and children of trappers and fishermen who had been visiting in the south.
As the ship steamed into each community, people gathered en masse on docks and landings to greet its arrival. At Berens River, more than 200 men, women and children “swarmed the wharf.”
“Her first trip, heralding spring and bringing regular contact with the outside world is a tremendous event on the lake,” wrote Paterson.
A treat that the Keenora supplied for eager children was ice cream, according to a July 14, 1962, Free Press article by Capt. Ed Nelson. At stops along the lake, children clutched their dimes and waited in blissful anticipation to be served at the impromptu ice cream stand.
One group in 1952 that was particularly pleased to see the Keenora at Warren’s Landing was the crew of the Chickama, nicknamed the “Chick.” The carrier of freight and passengers became stuck in the ice at the landing when there was an early and sudden freeze-up during the past winter. Normally, with the delivery of its last load for the navigation season, the Chick spent the winter moored in the Selkirk Slough. The small vessel was sawn out of the ice and hauled up to shore for about 150 metres where the boat sat for the winter (Free Press, May 30, 1952).
Two holes punched in the Chick’s hull by the ice had to be repaired before it could be returned to the water. Once the repairs were completed, a tow line went out from the Keenora and was attached to the land-locked craft.
The line attached to a block and tackle and a donkey engine on the main deck of the Keenora broke three times, and when later firmly secured, the ship shuddered and creaked under the strain of pulling the 60-ton Chickama. “All through the evening and into the next day the work continued. Because of a rapid current at the river’s mouth, it was a tricky job to get the Chickama into the navigation channel. Finally, she was off and it was too good to believe.”
To celebrate the arduous accomplishment, a bottle of beer, rather than a bottle of champagne, was busted against the bow of the Chick to rechristen the boat as it lurched into the water. It had taken 26 hours of hard labour for the vessel to be refloated.
The tables were turned in the fall of 1959, when the Keenora, itself, was imperiled by a freak snow storm. That year, the Free Press on November 5 reported that the vessel was bound for Selkirk from the “upper lake on the last trip of the season and operating a week later than usual,” when it was unable to penetrate the slush while leaving Lake Winnipeg to enter the main channel of the Red River. At the time, it was manned by a crew of 25 and had “several” passengers aboard.
Normally, lake vessels returned to the Selkirk Slough by November 1 to overwinter.
(Next week: part 5)