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old helgi's keeper

Fishing is much more than fish.  It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.  ~ Herbert Hoover

Growing up near the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in rural Nova Scotia, commercial fishermen were always present in my life in some small form or another. It was common to see seafood being peddled on the side of the road and boats leaving the harbour in search of the big catch. I’ve even had the misfortune of knowing fishermen who have suffered the ultimate sacrifice for their career and lost their lives to the sea. Their memory always stands as a deep reminder that fishing can be very rewarding but at times it is not an easy job. Commercial fishing is for the hardy type, people who enjoy a challenge. It is more than just a job, it is a way of life and becomes part of your soul and personality. When it grabs you, you are hooked.

Even though I have met my fair share of fishermen, I had never met a commercial ice fisherman. To be completely honest, I didn’t even realize that commercial ice fishing existed. I thought it was just something people do on the weekend for fun, to help them beat those winter blues. When Travel Manitoba invited me to attend a media trip that included an experiential tourism afternoon with a 4th generation commercial ice fisherman on Hecla Island, I immediately knew I wanted to attend. It had piqued my interest.

Our group bundled up, piled into vehicles and left Lakeview Hecla Resort with Heather Hinam, owner of Second Nature, which offers a variety of nature experiences in Manitoba. Travel Manitoba and Heather Hinam had arranged for us to meet Ivan Grimolfson, an ice fisherman who lives in Hecla Village which is on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Hecla Provincial Park, approximately 200 km north of Winnipeg.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a more authentic fisherman. Ivan is the real deal, and serves as a great example of the type of people that are woven together to help form the backbone of the commercial fishing industry in Manitoba. From the thick white beard reminiscent of Santa, to the slight accent and colloquial expressions, Ivan’s personality and life experiences shine the minute you meet him. He is a tall, sturdy, robust man, but when you catch a glimpse of his piercing blue eyes you immediately sense the softer side of his personality, the gentle giant, the fish whisperer within. He tells us he is 70 years old and has been fishing off the shores of Hecla Island his entire life. At one point he cracks a smile and states “some day I’ll retire from fishing” but I get the feeling he’ll never fully let it go as it is so profoundly part of his identity and life.

Ivan piles us into his trusted companion, Old Helgi, a 1951 Bombardier with a rough interior. This is a working man’s vehicle, no bells and whistles for show, but rather a strong smell of fish and gasoline and lots of room to load gear and fish. I imagine the fish tales Old Helgi must have, all the dings and scratches representing yet another great story and experience. As we chugged through the snow and across the ice of Lake Winnipeg to the fishing hole, I caught a glimpse of the horizon. Ivan and Old Helgi’s office view is spectacular - crisp, clean, calm, and I can't help but breathe a little deeper and feel a little more harmonious with the land and sea. It hits me how simply amazing it must be to see this view every single day, it sure beats any cubicle view in my work history.

Once out on the ice by his fishing hole with Old Helgi resting close by and a few frozen fish laying gently in the snow, Ivan gives us a general overview of his ice fishing practices and procedures. At one point his gloves come off and his large worn hands tell a story all to themselves. It is evident they’ve been exposed to the harsh Manitoba winter conditions that are part of the job, but Ivan doesn’t seem to mind. His rough red skin and large knuckles are a small price to pay to have the rewarding and fascinating job of hauling in fish and feeding people. I pause and think about how each morsel of fish I have ever eaten has a fisherman on the other end of the line, working hard to put that food on my table.

Back on land, we have a short jigger demonstration and then standing outside by fishing gear, old snowmobiles and piles of fish heads, we bid our new friends Ivan and Old Helgi farewell. Reflecting on this unique Manitoba experience has left me feeling wiser and more in touch with the local heritage and people of Manitoba. Now when I eat fish I will pause for a moment, remember my experience with Ivan and Old Helgi on Hecla Island, and whisper a gracious thank you in their honour.

For more information on experiential tours in Manitoba please visit Travel Manitoba at www.travelmanitoba.com.

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