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Núna (now) will be back next spring for a fifth year after wrapping up a successful fourth edition of the Canada-Iceland Arts Festival last weekend.


That was the confident prediction of Arne MacPherson and Tristin Tergesen, members of the Núna organizing committee which staged a series of music, theatre and art events in Winnipeg and the Interlake during the first four weekends in May.


“We had the best ever attendance of 2,000 to 3,000 people this year,” MacPherson said following a performance of the play “Humanimal” in Gimli. “The festival will happen again in 2011.”


Núna strengthened cultural ties between Canada and Iceland by featuring Manitoba and Icelandic performers in shows in Winnipeg, Gimli and Riverton. The Gimli events wrapped last Saturday and Sunday with the presentation of three plays and a lecture by Laurie K. Bertram, a University of Toronto PhD. candidate who outlined the importance of vínarterta dessert cake and coffee to Canadian Icelanders.


There was a good crowd on-hand when Reykjavík’s “Me and My Friends” theatre company presented “Humanimal” Saturday night in the Johnson Hall of the Waterfront Centre. The cast of half-a-dozen Icelandic actors entertained the audience with a frisky, light and playful look at human foibles.


“The Icelandic performers often mention how well they are treated here,” Tergesen said. “Their experience has been positive and they all want to come to Manitoba.”


Opening the evening before “Humanimal” was “Second Vision of Love”, a short dramatic work by prominent Icelandic writer Ingibjorg Magnadottir. The Icelanders filled out the cast with “locals” such as Helga Malis and Svava Simundsson, of the Gimli Theatre Association, who partnered in a dance with MacPherson, one of Winnipeg’s leading actors.


The third play was “The Sound of Your Eyes Closing”, a bleak horror thriller set in the early days of the Manitoba Icelandic settlement.


Author Stephen Furmaniuk directed a cast of three in this piece performed Sunday afternoon at the A-Spire Theatre. One of the actors was Brenda McLean, a Geysir native, who returned to the Interlake after making a name for herself in Winnipeg theatre circles.


She is particularly associated with Theatre Incarnate and a Winnipeg Fringe Festival show where she portrayed Dorothy Parker, the famous U.S. humourist of the 1930s.


“This was the first time that my family had seen me act,” McLean said after her Gimli performance.


Bertram, meanwhile, had a busy Saturday, performing in “Second Vision of Love” after giving her well-received lecture Saturday afternoon in Lady of the Lake Theatre. Originally from Winnipeg and Icelandic on her mother’s side of the family, she said during her lecture that vínarterta and coffee have long been cultural symbols of the Icelandic-Canadian community.


“These are two pillars that are edible,” she added. “Some have said it is identity by way of digestion.”


Bertram said vínarterta and coffee were often consumed in large quantities when leading members of Winnipeg’s Icelandic community met in a Sargent Ave. cafe to discuss the issues of the 1920s and 1930s. One of them was Charlie Thorson, a political cartoonist turned animator who is reputed to have later developed the “Snow White” character when he worked for Walt Disney in Los Angeles. Thorson apparently modelled the character on one of the cafe’s waitresses, meaning perhaps that Snow White is Icelandic.


Bertram also said Icelandic settlers clung to their traditional way of making coffee with tea bags even though many of them became Anglophiles. “They changed their names, language and clothes, but not their coffee,” she said. “That’s where they drew the line.”


According to Bertram, vínarterta gained an external following with the public after the Second War. “Phobia against immigrants was replaced by rejection of racism after the war,” she said.


Her lecture reflected the diversity of the Núna four-weekend program which ranged from theatre and art to music performances by FM Belfast, Olöf Arnolds, Christine Fellows and Old Folks Home.


Funding for the festival came from a number of sponsors, including the Government of Iceland, Icelandair and Winnipeg companies such as Indus Automation Inc. and Shelter Canadian Properties.


“What we can do every year depends on funding,” MacPherson said. “We haven’t received anything from Canadian governments, but now that we have a track record, I think we may apply to their arts granting bodies.”




Courtesy of the Interlake Spectator

In this first episode, Gisli and his four friends from Winnipegosis ride the “Muskeg Express” train far into the northern Manitoba boreal forest and then wend their way further north in two canoes. En route, they become painfully aware that they are all greenhorns, but the tradition of northern hospitality comes to their aid.

They are soon tutored in survival and woodcraft by sympathetic Aboriginal boatmen and Swedish immigrant trappers. Shortly after they begin trapping, Siggi escapes an attack by a trapped wolf, and the boys look forward to the caribou migrating from the tundra back into the forest.
In the spring of 1920, just after the first World War, fur took a big jump in prices on account of its scarcity. Muskrats averaged $5, mink went to $130, and silver foxes over $1200. So four young Icelanders in Winnipegosis figured they could make money trapping even if they only knew how to trap rats. These four were Leo Hjalmarson, Oskar Frederickson, Siggi Oliver, and myself, Gisli Norman.

After a lot of discussing they decided the north end of South Indian Lake would be virgin territory, so they decided that was the place to go.

Now they gathered up what they figured they needed for an outfit. Leo and Oskar had quite a few traps to begin with and all together they managed to gather up two hundred traps, mostly ones and one and a halfs. They also took four rifles, four revolvers, and bought four hundred shells for each rifle, one hundred shells for each revolver, and all their grub in Winnipegosis. When they finally were ready to go they had forty five hundred pounds, four dogs and two canoes which were a twenty foot and eighteen foot. They made sails for both canoes in case they had a fair wind, a pair of oars for each and a spare oar in case one broke.

On August first, we finally set out for The Pas, which was at that time the gateway to the north for all travel in Northern Manitoba.
We arrived at The Pas the following day only to find that the Muskeg Special, as the train was called, had left the day before and the next trip was not until the fifteenth. We had a two week hold up here.

The Muskeg Express landed us at Thicket Portage about two p.m. on the sixteenth of August, and we hustled all our stuff down to the lake shore. There we found a six canoe brigade of Indians picking up freight for the Hudson Bay Company. Their head man was Mr. Angus Thomas, who was in his late forties; a real nice man who gave us many pointers. He spoke fairly good English and told us we were welcome to follow them if we could.

Siggi said, “Angus seemed a bit doubtful that we could keep up to them. I’d like to see the day four Icelanders get left behind by a bunch of Indians!”

We all thought that was a big joke, but we had to eat crow the next day.

Believe me, we were grateful to Angus. He was one of nature’s noblemen to go out of his way to help strange greenhorns. It is too bad we never seen him again so we could thank him. We met him and his men going back for another trip to mile 185, but they had their sails up and we were rowing so it was just a friendly wave as we passed and when they came back to Nelson House from that trip we were gone up the Rat River.

Now we had hardened up. Each one of us was taking two hundred to two hundred and fifty pounds to a trip across the portages. We no longer needed to take a back seat to anyone portaging, as we could dogtrot along with two hundred pounds in the tumplines.

Here it was all up stream and we snaked up some of the rapids until we came to Kepuche Falls. The portage was only two hundred yards, but as we left it behind we got careless simply because we were too green. We didn’t realize how fast the current was just above the falls. As the water appeared so quiet Leo and Oskar in the big canoe pushed off shore before they had the oars ready and the current at once took hold and swept them towards the falls.

By the time Leo took the first pull on the oars they had already been pulled half way to the top of the falls. For a good minute they just seemed to sit in the same place. Siggi and I stood helpless watching and I believe we both sent a silent prayer up to the One who looks after fools and infants (and we were no infants), that the oars would hold. Then they seemed to gain a foot or so and slowly paddled to the shore where we could grab hold of the canoe as it glided into the shallow water.

We tied the canoe up and made a pot of tea, contemplating the situation, vowing to be more careful and have more respect for the river power.

If the boys had gone over the falls our trip would have ended right there. Even if they’d got out alive (as they were both expert swimmers), we’d have lost all of our traps and guns and the rest of the stuff and the canoe would have been sunk or ruined.

Still worse, the boys themselves could very easily have been knocked unconscious on the rocks at the bottom of the falls.

Here it is Tuesday, August twenty-fourth, we are in Nelson House camped on the river below Lamont and Quincy’s trading post. The Swedes were still here and told us they would not be ready to move for at least three days or more, as Jackson was getting some potatoes from the Indians.

It is now the twenty ninth of August. At last we are leaving the Nelson House. On our second day we were a bit ahead of the Swedes as we were two in each canoe. We came to a fairly good sized lake and decided to wait for them. It didn’t seem sensible to start across it not knowing where the river came into it.


Christina Sunley describes herself as “an unknown writer.” However, whether or not people respond quickly to her name, they remember her book, The Tricking of Freya, described by Booklist as “Astonishingly accomplished . . . a bewitching tale...” “Sunley and her book, now translated into Icelandic as Freyjuginning, will tour Iceland in early June under the auspices of the INL International Visits Program (IVP).

The tour has been facilitated by complementary airfare from Icelandair.

It is quite a coup for someone who describes herself as “unknown” to have her English book translated into Icelandic, and to have interviews and articles in Icelandic newspapers.

A clue to the answer to “why” might lie in a review of the book, written by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir and published in Iceland Review on-line on April 4. “I have read – or tried to read but given up on – such American books before,” the reviewer said. “I gave Sunley the benefit of a doubt, though, because she actually has a real connection with Iceland.... sThe Tricking of Freya was a pleasantly surprising read... I enjoyed every page of it... I love it how Sunley managed to weave some Icelandicness into the plot without making it dominant and it was interesting to learn more about the Icelandic settlements in North America.”

Christina is a uniquely ideal IVP candidate. Her grandparents came from Iceland, her mother grew up in Winnipeg, and Christina, who grew up on her mother’s stories of Winnipeg, was born in New York City and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While researching for the book, she made three trips to Iceland, and spent a       month as a writer-in-residence at Klaustrið (The Monastery), near her grandfather’s home.“My grandfather, Ólafur Björnsson, emigrated from the east of Iceland (Gíslastaðir near Egilsstaðir,) to New Iceland with his family when he was six years old, after the volcano Askja erupted,” Christina said. His parents were Björn Pétursson, and Olafía Olafsdóttir, who was the sister of editor, Jón Olafsson, and poet, Páll Olafsson. Her grandmother was Sigríður Elínborg Brandson, who was born in Gardar, North Dakota in 1889. The daughter of Jón Brandsson and Margrét Guðbrandsdóttir, from Fremribrekku in Dalasýsly, her grandmother was the Fjallkona at the 1932 Icelandic Festival.Christina’s mother, Edith Björnson, was born in Winnipeg in 1924.

“My mother’s parents died while she was still young, and she was adopted by an Icelandic relative in the United States,” said Christina. In Christina’s novel, Freya, granddaughter of an Icelandic poet, lives in New York, travels to Gimli to meet family, senses a dark family secret, and travels to Iceland to                    discover the truth.Christina has a BFA in Film from New York University, and received her Masters in English/Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.

Although The Tricking of Freya is her first novel, she has had short fiction published in literary journals. She will blog about her book tour and travels around Iceland, so for some armchair travel fun, visit
Her tour stops will include the National Culture House in Reykjavík, the Reykjavík Academy, the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute, and the Amts Library in Akureyri.

They did it in saga times. They did it through the centuries.


Then intrepid tourists arrived and since there were no roads, only trails across desert and mountain, they did it some more.


Now, even though there are roads, there’s an opportunity to follow those early travelers by trekking through Iceland by horse.


An internet search shows that there are numerous companies such at Íshestar providing an opportunity to see Iceland from the back of one of those famous Icelandic horses we keep hearing about.


There are day trips for the inexperienced rider. You can go for a half hour but you can also go for an hour and a half or longer. You can ride through deserted lava fields or at famous tourist spots. 


For the experienced rider, there is a wide variety of choices. You can go on countryside tours, highland tours, roundup tours.


In the countryside tours, you can visit Gullfoss and Geysir. You can make an overnight tour. Imagine riding on the sands of Snaefellsness. What a way to experience the landscape, ocean, sand beaches, countryside. The beach is the perfect place to experience the famous “tölt”.


The Highland tours are for more experienced riders. There are numerous areas to visit including Goðafoss, Mývatn, and Þeistareykir.


If you are in Iceland at the right time of year, you can even join in the annual sheep round-up. In the past, home fields needed to be kept for harvesting winter hay so the animals were moved to the mountains for the summer. In the fall, the sheep needed to be brought back from the mountains, sorted out and returned to their owners. This ritual is still followed and it is possible to join in the roundup and get a sense of what life was like in the past.


If all this horse talk intimidates you, relax. Iceland is the best place in the world for a horse riding holiday. The horses are small and sturdy. It’s easier for older people to mount them. The horses themselves are sure-footed as mountain goats and are known for their gentleness. If you manage to fall off one, it’s not so far to the ground.


If you’ve got old bones or are just not used to riding, you can arrange a ride where you return to the comfort of a room, bed and hot tub every evening. If you’re a bit sprier or more used to riding, you can go on tours with more rustic accommodation, sleeping in sleeping bags, sharing rooms, sleeping in bunk beds.


You don’t need to bring any riding gear. It is all supplied. As a matter of fact, because of the fear of disease, you can only bring new, unused equipment.


Many people have been to Iceland without ever having ridden on Iceland’s famous horses. When you are visiting Iceland, it is an opportunity not to be missed. Many years later, you’ll be able to say “When I went horseback riding in Iceland.” It will be one of those unforgettable experiences. Icelanders are in love with their horses. Although they are no longer essential to daily life as they once were, there are still 80,000 horses in a country with 320,000 people. Go for a ride. See Iceland the way your ancestors saw Iceland.






What makes the Icelandic Sheepdog special is a question we often hear as they become more widely known.


Icelandic Sheepdogs are the national breed of Iceland.


These just-under-medium size spitz dogs came to Iceland with the first settlers as early as 874.


Spitz type dogs were the typical farm and herding dog found in Norway, and archeological remains of their distant ancestors have been found dating back to the Bronze Age. The Iceland dogs remained an uniquely pure population as only small numbers of other breeds of dog were ever imported into Iceland, and starting in 1909 it was forbidden to bring foreign animals into Iceland. 


Their closest canine relatives, in a modern breed form, are probably the Norwegian Buhund. DNA research has detected a genetic relationship to the Karelian Bear Dog.


They are a very friendly dog, happy to meet people, and easily make friends. It seems that because the breed was developed by farmers, and lived in their homes, they had to be trustworthy and affectionate. They are great alarm dogs, and they will let you know when there’s a knock at the door, but don’t expect them to threaten or chase away strangers.


They are described in the breed standard as having little hunting instinct. That’s not surprising as there were no large animals to hunt in Iceland. However, many Icelandic Sheepdog owners report that their dogs will hunt small rodents under the snow and some even catch fish in streams. In days past it was a good thing if a dog could get some meals on its own. On farms, Icelandic Sheepdogs protect young animals like lambs and foals by being alert to birds of prey and driving them away. These are also qualities that are useful on farms in the US and Canada. They sound the alarm against intruders and will keep their flocks within bounds even without fences, a type of herding work known as tending.


The Icelandic Sheepdog has some unique physical characteristics. Like other spitz breeds, it has triangular ears that stand upright, and a tail that curls over the back. The coat has a dense undercoat that sheds at least twice a year, and a longer topcoat of somewhat coarse guard-hairs. The coat is very protective and waterproof, and fierce weather will not bother the dogs. The ears are very mobile and the dogs fold them backwards to show submission or playfulness, and can even fold them tightly against their head to keep out wind and rain.




One special characteristic are the dewclaws on the rear legs. Icelandic Sheepdogs have dewclaws on their front legs like many other dogs do, and they also have a single or double rear dewclaw on each rear leg. It is a distinctive trait and the dewclaws provide extra traction on steep or slippery terrain.




Coat length ranges from fairly short to very long, dense and full coats. The texture shouldn’t be soft or silky, or the coat would mat and get wet more easily. The breed is said to be self-cleaning because with the correct type coat, the dog can get very wet and dirty and when the coat dries, the mud and dirt will just fall off. This kind of coat doesn’t need to be washed with shampoo, in fact bathing too often will damage the coat and make it harder to maintain.




The breed has historically been important to the sheep farmers. Sheep farming was important to the survival of Icelandic settlers and to building the economy of Iceland in the medieval and early modern period. In Iceland, the sheep spent the summer in the mountain pastures, and were rounded up in the fall to spend the winter on the home farms. Then again in the spring they were moved back to the pastures. 


This was a group effort with men on horseback riding along the valleys and sending the dogs into the mountains. The dogs needed to be able to move stubborn sheep who weren’t all that nervous about dogs. The dogs also needed to bark so that the men on horseback could hear where they were.


This seasonal movement of sheep was a hard job, and lasted about two to three weeks, a couple of times a year. The Icelandic horses are also kept in herds, and due to their special temperament, they are not as flighty around dogs as other domestic horses. Therefore, the dogs are also used to move herds of horses and to get horses into the stables for saddling. They also accompany trail rides.


The dogs would accompany farmers in winter on their travels, and would ride on horseback with the farmer when he was crossing a river. The dogs were said to be smart enough to find individual sheep in a flock by name, they would know when a sheep was lost and could find that sheep even buried in snow. Some dogs had a unique talent for collecting eggs of wild birds, and bringing them to their owners unbroken. The dogs were considered indispensable by farmers. At times, the price of an Icelandic sheepdog was equivalent to a cow or a couple of sheep, or even a horse.


In the 18th and 19th century, farmers were criticized for keeping too many dogs. One major public health issue in Iceland was a species of tapeworm that caused disease in sheep and also intestinal infections in humans. The dogs were an intermediate host for this tapeworm. This culminated in a tax on dogs that subsequently cut the population by more than half, from an estimated 24,000 dogs in 1869 to about 10,000 dogs in the 1880s.  In 1924, the ownership of dogs in Reykjavík itself was banned.


By the 20th century the survival of the Icelandic Sheepdog was in doubt. By the 1950s it was very rare to see pure Icelandic Sheepdogs except in very remote areas. 


Some dogs were exported to California. In Iceland the chief veterinarian and an Icelandic woman named Sigríður Pétursdóttir located as many pure examples of the breed as they could and began an organized breeding program. 


Dogs continued to be exported from Iceland to the US even though in those decades the breed wasn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club. Some dogs had been acquired by American families who had been living in Iceland, others came when Canadians and Americans visited Iceland to choose horses to import, and brought back dogs as well.  Also, some Icelandic people who emigrated to North America simply wanted to bring their kind of dog along with them. In Canada one Icelandic woman, the late Stefania Dignum of Yeoman Farms in Ontario, not only bred Icelandic Sheepdogs in Canada but also brought the first Icelandic sheep to North America.


The breed, thankfully, is no longer in danger of extinction. Generally, about 100 puppies a year are born in Iceland. In the US in 2008 there were 23 litters registered by the American Kennel Club, for a total of 102 puppies. In Canada there have been a few litters born and registered each year since the breed was recognized.


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