Cookhouse Christmas 1941
By Ken Kristjanson

In early August of 1941 my father and his brother Hannes, along with my uncles Pete Peterson and Eddie Jonasson, returned to Gimli in time for the Icelandic Celebration. They had been white fishing at Big Black River for two-and-a-half months on board Booth Boat #10.

After a very few weeks at home, my parents drained the rain barrels and locked the door of their modest home on Fifth Avenue and, with my brother Robert in tow, we all walked the four blocks to Gimli Harbour. Along the way we were joined by my uncle Hannes, aunt Sophie and my cousins Beverley and Eddie.

At the Harbour was Booth Boat #10. All week long my father and other men had been loading this gas boat with all sorts of wondrous goods. There were twelve inch spikes, lumber, axes, mallets, cooking equipment, bedding and groceries. This was going to be a great adventure for us kids none of us were yet of school age. I remember that trip in late August as if it was yesterday. It was a beautiful summer's day as we travelled at seven knots around Gull Harbour lighthouse. As I remember, the trip took about nine hours.

We were going to Albert's Point on Humbuck Bay. First to build a dock and then to await the arrival of the m.v. Barney Thomas which would bring an additional group of men and provisions. These men were independent fishermen who contracted to sell their catch to my father. They brought their own gear but my family would provide the room and board. My mother, Annie, and her sister Sophie were the cooks. The freight boat would also bring Victoria Malinowski who would also act as cookie and to help keep an eye on the kids.

On arrival at Albert's Point and before the heavily loaded gas boat was barely tied up, we kids set out to explore what was to be our home for the next seven months.

The first thing that caught our eye was an eight foot stove sitting incongruously on the beach. My father and Hannes had bought the stove the previous winter from a Winnipeg hotel that was converting from wood to gas. The freighter had brought it to its current location on their last trip of the winter. It was to be the crown jewel in the new cook shack that was as at the moment merely a good idea. In the meantime it sat in all its majesty on the shore, looking rather a beached whale.

Looks notwithstanding, my mother immediately took to the iron beast like a long lost friend. We helped her gather up drift wood and in a very short period of time she had a fire roaring. Looking back on the scene, I am sure that even Sam McGee would have approved of the blaze.

And so in the middle of a pristine beach, under a flawless canopy of blue sky, my mother and aunt made a huge cauldron of coffee. From the oven where the finest chefs in the fancy Winnipeg hotel had cooked standing rib roasts came the smell of freshly baked buns.

The boat was unloaded shortly before dark and someone lit the Coleman lantern. We all sat on fish boxes enjoying the summer evening. The men smoking and drinking coffee and we kids trying to stay awake. My mother squeezed my father's hand and said, "It doesn't get any better than this."

The next day construction of the dock began in earnest. The previous winter, in preparation, the men had cut down giant spruce trees and, with the aid of a small crawler tractor affectionately called "mule train", the logs had been hauled just to the water's edge. Now these timbers were floated out and with brute force and a giant pulley, they were hoisted vertical.

My uncle Siborg was a bear of a man who swung a sledge that must have weighed 200 pounds. He did this standing on the cabin of Booth Boat #10 and the piles were quickly embedded in the silt at the bottom. Cross beams were spiked in place and the process was repeated.

One of the new hired men was a young aboriginal by the name of Arnold Harper, a man who would work for the Kristjanson brothers almost steadily for the next 40 years. He wanted to swing the giant maul. My father said be very careful for if you drop it in the lake you will go in after it. As fate would have it, Arnold took a mighty swing and both he and the giant sledge went straight into the lake. When he surfaced and while still treading water, he yelled out with a grin, "Don't worry, I am still holding on to the sledge!"

The completed dock constructed in 1941

The days flew by in a flurry of activity. The dock got built. The new cookhouse got built. The stove, with the help of green poplar trees acting as rollers, and 12 men pushing and the mule train pulling, was set in its place of honour. The men then applied themselves to the task they had come for ... and fishing was good that fall. The tug Barney Thomas regularly brought in the mail and provisions and in turn took away the fishermen's catch.

With fishing under way, we kids worked hard at playing from morning until dark and every day brought something new.

Albert's Point is situated in a sheltered bay with currents ideally designed for the entrapment of all manner of flotsam and jetsam. After a storm, we would find drift wood and lumber, boxes and fishing gear. The wood would be salvaged to be piled neatly to dry and then it would be cut to length to feed the ravenous monster in the new cook house. There would also be all sorts of items that we kids could use to build castles forts or even pirate ships. One time an old 20 foot skiff drifted in. The men pulled the half submerged wreck on shore. They then cut it in half, fastened a makeshift door on it and for years used it as a smoke house for savory smoked goldeye.

The fall fishing season came to a fruitful conclusion that year and some of the men went home. Most, however, stayed to wait for the lake to freeze over and spent their time preparing the gear for the winter season and laying in a supply of wood. But the lake was in one of her ornery moods that year. She would freeze and then a strong south wind would come and break up the ice. This was excruciating for us kids, since a frozen lake was our signal that Christmas was finally coming.

We were allowed to choose one toy which Santa would ship via the tractor train and so we had each studied the toy section of the Eaton's catalogue in great detail and agonized over the decision in order to make the best possible choice. The boys picked trucks and Beverley chose a Shirley Temple doll. The orders were discreetly placed with strict instructions to Eaton's mail order to ship the items to Riverton. From there the freighters would bring them to Albert's Point when the ice was strong enough to hold the weight of their tractors, which should have been well before Christmas.

But the day before Christmas arrived open water still showed. My parents quickly mobilized the crew. They cut down spruce trees and made small wheels. Boards were painted and wooden wheels were attached. Pop bottle tops adorned the sides of the handmade trucks and old cigarette packages were pressed into action as windshields and cargo. One of Beverley's old dolls was given a passable make over. Fishermen with gnarled hands and weather beaten faces were given the task of stringing freshly popped popcorn for tree decorations. Others used foil from cigarette packages to make stars and other tree ornaments. Like school boys again, they tried to outdo each other.

After the endless wait that only really children know, it was finally Christmas Day. Following a magnificent feast of venison and ruffed grouse, the sound of sleigh bells could be heard outside. The Coleman lamps were dimmed and a rumpled Santa entered amidst loud singing to disguise his voice. We kids awaited with wild anticipation while Santa explained that his sleigh had broken down and he would bring our expected toys later.

In the meantime, he said, he had the elves do a makeshift job for us and thousands of other kids around the world. He handed out the wonderful handmade gifts and then left amidst loud choruses of White Christmas.

This was 1941. War was raging all over the world. Before us lay Dieppe, Stalingrad, D Day and countless other battles. A new order would emerge when it was all over. But tonight there was a different sort of battle on our agenda. It was 7 o'clock. The new cook house, which had served as our boisterous Christmas headquarters, was suddenly silent. A dozen or so men, three women and four kids sat perfectly still. The battery powered radio was turned on and we held our breath until it had warmed up enough for the familiar voice of Foster Hewitt to fill the room: "Hello hockey fans in Canada, the United States and Newfoundland!"

And as we all settled in to close our perfect Christmas Day, we were warmed on the outside by the massive stove brought from the fancy hotel in Winnipeg and warmed on the inside by the closeness of our family and the kindness of the fishermen who worked late into the night to bring joy to the kids at our cookhouse Christmas.

There were many unexpected treasures and humble heroes during that adventure at the fishing station in 1941 even our beloved Leafs seemed touched by the cookhouse magic and we listened on the radio as they won the Stanley Cup that year.

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