Paradise gained

On October 21, 1875, when a group of 235 Icelanders stepped off nine barges that had carried them from Winnipeg to Willow Point, they already had a name picked out for their new community. In a spirit of optimism that has typically marked all immigration to the New World, the Icelanders settled upon Gimli, a name which means home of the gods in Norse mythology and is a synonym for paradise.

It may have been wishful thinking that a parcel of forested, swampy meadow land along a large bay — a couple of kilometres north of their original landing spot — could become a paradise on earth, but their optimism has been recognized in recent weeks.

It has taken nearly 130 years, but the descendants of those original settlers and the numerous others who followed apparently have created one of the better places to live in small-town Canada. It is something that may soon be recognized on the global stage, since Gimli is the only finalist in the under-10,000 people category in North America which is being considered by a United Nations-sponsored contest as one of most livable communities in the world. 

A world-wide committee’s panel of judges will pick a winner in mid-October during the Reading, Berkshire, England-based committee’s annual meeting in the Sheraton Hotel, Niagara Falls, Ontario. There are only 13 other entries in the category from such countries as England, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Tunisia. Gimli was chosen as a finalist based upon a 4,000-word submission by Catherine Strong, the RM of Gimli’s municipal services clerk.

Gimli has already been selected as one of Canada’s 20 Great Places to Live — the other Manitoba community was Portage la Prairie — by 50Plus magazine, a publication of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

Under the heading What They’re Saying in the article naming the 20 communities, resident Kristine Sigurdson said, “Simply stated, Gimli is paradise!” 

The Toronto magazine used criteria such as climate, home prices, medical services and lifestyle amenities in making its 20 selections across Canada.

Gimli Mayor Kevin Chudd called the community of 5,200 people, living along the shores of the world’s 13th largest lake, one of Canada’s best kept secrets.

As a child growing up in Gimli, I considered it paradise, although I had little knowledge about the outside world except what I read in books, newspapers and magazines. 

During summer holidays from school, I could swim in the lake or fish off one of the two piers. In the spring, we would even wade into the water and pluck out huge jackfish (pike) which came down the town’s streams and ditches to spawn. The wild outdoors, where we could catch snakes and frogs and glimpse turtles basking on logs in ponds, was only a short walk from town. Pelicans soared in formation above the lake and eagles swooped down to spear fish on their talons, carrying them off to a metre-wide nest where eaglets cried out to be fed. 

On winter weekends, we would clear off a piece of lake ice and play hockey until the sun set. In our more venturesome moments, we skated from Gimli to Willow Island, the original landing place of the Icelanders, climbing the piles of heaped-up ice caused by the lake’s shifting, knowing that a clear patch of ice was just over the crest.  When I think back, we were lucky not to have fallen into a snow-hidden patch of water and drowned — it was foolish, if not downright stupid. Even today, there are reports of the occasional Bombardier or snowmobile going through the lake’s ice and a fisherman drowning. But we were too young, fearless and really didn’t know any better. Unlike today’s regimented recreational activities when children are accompanied by soccer moms and hockey dads, the fun we experienced was of our own making. 

In between these adventures, a group of us would set off to the waterfront to chat with the commercial fishermen, caulking their boats for the fishing season ahead, and be regaled by tales of exploits which seemed to rival the accomplishments of their Viking ancestors who sailed to North America 500 years before Columbus. The fishermen of Gimli were, and still are, great storytellers, which helps to explain the abundance of 

writers who have spread out across North America from this small community on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. 

Since my youth, Gimli has had to 

rethink its existence a few times over. 

In the 1970s, the Canadian Armed Forces air base was closed, and the economic well-being of the community was thrown into a tailspin; but the people, taking a lesson from their pioneer  ancestors, didn’t give up. Some small and large industries were opened at the 

former air base. Some like Saunders 

Aircraft simply ate up millions of government dollars and failed, but others prospered. A large distillery just outside of town was the first real success story and offered a solid base upon which to build. 

But, what really made Gimli thrive in recent years was the foresight to develop the community as a tourist attraction — a natural given the community’s setting. 

So was building upon the community’s heritage —  the annual Islendigadagurinn (Icelandic Festival of Manitoba), the Viking Statue and the local museum which includes a Viking longship. 

Gimli also has the good fortune of being located along Lake Winnipeg. A 500-kilometre-long inland sea has made it possible to create a harbour that wouldn’t look out of place on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Each summer, yachts, sailboats and fishing boats line the Gimli  harbour. On either side of the harbour, families swim and picnic 

on the beach. Others windsurf or Seadoo, skimming over the lake’s waves. Still others select a vantage point on the sand to sit and watch as the sun rises over the lake, casting a shimmering golden trail.

In  total, over 100,000 people make the trek to the community which is just an hour’s drive from Winnipeg. Of these, 10,000 cottagers come each year to experience their own slice of paradise. Some of them have even decided to insulate their cottages so that they can come down on weekends to enjoy snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. 

Seniors have also settled in Gimli after retirement to enjoy its relaxing and picturesque atmosphere.

A Welsh writer for the BBC-TV program Ted’s Travels, stumbling upon Gimli, described it as “a real cracker ... A day in the town and I’m hooked ... Nice selection of retail shops, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants all tidy and neat.” He said he could have chosen a trip to Grand Beach to “observe lots and lots of young ladies wearing skimpy bikinis. The alternative was Gimli which has a history and a story. Not a hard choice — the latter wins hands down.”

Within Manitoba, there are actually plenty of communities with their own rich history and unique attractions that deserve to be recognized. Some would even argue that their town is the best of the best, whether they come from Neepawa, Morden, Churchill, Lac du Bonnet or Killarney. Each has their own claim to fame, and the pride their communities instill is well founded. 

But, few can argue that Gimli has not succeeded in at least approaching the meaning of its name — a paradise set in the midst of the Prairie.