We have just spent a couple of days on a family trip to Hecla Island, on Lake Winnipeg’s south basin. It is the “in between” season now. The ice on the lake is still thick, but it is becoming soft enough that all the ice fishing huts have been removed. On the land, the snow is not sufficiently continuous for skiing or snowshoeing, but deep enough in places that you can sink up to your knee and get a bootful of granular frostbite. Sadly it is not a season to wander around looking for fossils, but there are enough other sights to keep things interesting.
Yesterday was a soft, grey day, with a stiff damp breeze; a Scottish day, you might say. Hecla Village was empty of any evidence of human activity, but immediately south of the village there was plenty of action; we were able to watch a flock of six bald eagles clustered in the trees along the shore. Nowhere near the numbers that can be viewed farther up the lake in the fall, but still wonderful to see.
Just north of Riverton, more interesting sights. We could see a small ship, the Mukutawa, familiarly resting on the shore where it has been for several years, but what was the other vessel hunkered down nearby, barely visible from the road? Leaving the car outside the padlocked gate, we tramped a few hundred metres to the little harbour. A large brownish fox scampered away across the field, but there was no other animal or human life. Nevertheless, the ship lodged at an angle in the ice was worth the walk, because it was the vessel I had guessed: the Goldfield.
I first encountered this blunt-ended boat in 1997, on a golden June evening far from here. We were camped at McBeth Point on the north basin, doing reconnaissance work on the remarkable fossil sites in that area. We were surprised and impressed to see a ship pull into the harbour; it seemed very large and purposeful beside the outboard-powered fishing boats. The people at the fishing station told us that this was the Goldfield, which was used by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation to transport the catch from the various fishing stations to Matheson Island. We discussed the idea of travelling by boat the next time we went to McBeth Point (we had flown in), but otherwise I thought no more about the ship.
A couple of years later at the local museum in the town of Gimli, in a mini-diorama of Gimli harbour in the 1930s I noticed a ship that was labelled as the Goldfield. There were several photos in the museum of the same ship, showing it moored in the harbour or towing the antiquated sail-powered boats out to their fishing grounds. I didn’t think this was likely to be the ship we had seen at McBeth, but spending time in the library I was shocked to discover that it was not only the same, but that it had been launched in about 1912, rebuilt in the 1950s, abandoned in about 1970, and then brought back into service again.
But that still wasn’t the entire story. According to a variety of sources, the 1912 version of the Goldfield was apparently a rebuild of an even earlier wooden hull, dating back as far as 1886! That rebuild was as a supply ship for the new gold mines on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, hence the name it still bears. In its 123 years or so on Lake Winnipeg, this ship has hauled freight, passengers, and fish to every remote harbour on this immense body of water. It is, in short, the embodiment of the economic history of this region. This ship may not be beautiful, and the square utilitarian superstructure is clearly far newer than the more elegant hull, but every part of it is relevant to that story of settlement and industrial development.
But what does the future hold? The Goldfield was apparently damaged in a minor accident a couple of years ago, and also failed its safety certification, so it has been taken out of service. I had heard that it was destined for the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk, and I hope that the resources can be found to get it there soon. After such a remarkably long and productive life, it deserves to take on a new role as the “senior ship” at a museum. We often hear that there is little history to be found in western Canada; that view is negated by such hidden treasures as the Goldfield.
Yesterday was not a day to hang around paying our respects, however. The wind was becoming bitter and the dog was complaining about the cold. I had to satisfy myself with a few quick snapshots, then turned the car once more toward Winnipeg and home.