The small area on the main deck, now our bedroom, had been alive with the smell of the engine at work, and the grinding of cables moving and the grunting of the elevator as it jerked its way up and down.
They took 1000 boxes of fish off the boat, 100 pounds each, 60 pounds of fish and the rest ice. Then all the supplies had to be loaded.
At least two men worked in the hold, two more at the top of the elevator moving boxes on and off the rollers onto the platform, men pushing boxes on the rollers, moving them off the end and on and off trucks. And then finally the big 45 gallon barrels of fuel were rolled down the gangway and positioned on the decks.
The first milestone we passed on the way north was the lighthouse at Gull Harbour on the north end of Hecla Island. It was here that both sides of my family began their lives in Canada after leaving Iceland. Mikley (Magnificent Island), as it was known by the Icelanders back then, was where my mother grew up. It’s the largest island on the lake, about 120 miles north of Winnipeg. At the south end is a vast marsh, home to legions of ducks and geese. The marshland gives way to low-lying plains, heavily treed with birch and poplar, and an abundance of moose and deer.
As you move north from Hecla, one of the largest indentations is Washow Bay, which morphs north eastward into a great expanse of often-fearsome water known as Humbug Bay. Twenty miles further north this “sea within a sea,” starts narrowing down into “the Channel,” a tenmile stretch that winnows down to its narrowest between the points of land known as East and West Doghead. Then the lake breaks out into the North End. We passed the lighthouse at the tip of Black Bear Island around midnight.
“We’re in the big lake now, Glenn,” the captain said, “and next time we turn will be at Cox’s Light.”
So there we were on course for Cox’s, and in six hours we’d turn east onto the ranges.
The ranges were the navigational markers that helped vessels traverse the tricky channel into Berens River. From a distance you could see these large, white wooden structures reaching above the horizon, like skeletons of lighthouses, with triangular pieces of plywood mounted to their frames. The Captain would take out his binoculars around there and search the mainland until he spotted a similar triangular marker. Then, at the buoy at Barrel Rock, he would pull the big wheel hard to the right and turn the ship tightly to the east, charting a course that tracked the line extended between the two points defined by the ranges. And he kept a close eye for the buoys that we passed periodically as we made our way through the treacherous waters to the dock in front of the fish station at Berens River, at our destination on a small granite island about a mile out from where Berens River empties into Lake Winnipeg.
I followed him Mundi Tomasson to peer through the iron grids as he made his way down the steel pole ladder that plunged vertically into the engine room. This was his home for nearly five months every year. The Fairbanks Morse engine was scary big, as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. The monstrous flywheel was taller than me at least until I was eight. It was brand new in 1934 when it was first lowered into the hold, one of the first, if not the first diesel marine engine on the lake. Although now near antiquity, its age didn’t hinder its ability to get the job done with the steady, distinctive thump of its pistons. There was a cord that stretched down from the wheelhouse to the engine room, and the captain or mate pulled it to ring a bell to alert the engineer at the controls below. The old Fairbanks switched instantly from forward to reverse – one bell ahead, two reverse – especially critical for manoeuvring the boat into harbour and to the dock.
There was a shiny steel walkway around the entire motor, and at the front, a huge iron flywheel. The engine room was brightly lit, more so than any other place on the boat, and almost hospital clean. You knew you were entering a special place as soon as your hands slid over the smooth, bright red metallic paint on the railings alongside the ladder.
The Spear changed course sharply from north to east at Cox’s Light, and proceeded into the mouth of Berens River, on course for the ranges that would take us to our destination. The sun was still rising, but the sky was flooded with first light as we slid past a necklace of tiny granite islands. Millions of birds nest here.
When we passed the last island, we took dead aim at the last of the ranges, a big white beacon on a small rock outcropping. We were almost there. The tug began to arc back to the south, and as it swung about, the front of the station came into full view, one long contiguous structure, every building barn red.