Harry Husak and Gier Thorden

Fishing and Freighting

Pickerel. Pickerel.
Commercial fishing is more than a job, it's a way of life.

Fishing has always been traditionally important to the Native population of northern Saskatchewan. During the fur trade era, fishing contributed significantly to the Native economy. Indians not only traded furs at the Hudson's Bay Company Posts, but also brought their fish here. Fish brought to the posts was either consumed by the post residents, or shipped to nearby markets. Due to the large influx of European immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s, settlements rapidly grew and developed in southern Saskatchewan. This development allowed the commercial fishing industry to locate new and larger markets. The industry gained in importance during the early 1900s and fish was being exported to other provinces and the United States.

With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, a major expansion occurred in the commercial fishing industry as countries secured their export markets to increase their economic stability during the war years.

Since 1914 there was a continuous growth in markets, the quantity and value of production and areas exploited. Expansion of the fishing industry, especially in the north, was facilitated by improvements in transportation, supply and demand of markets, and new facilities for handling and processing fish. Today, most of the catch is exported to the mid-western and eastern United States.

Commercial fisherman with sleigh load of fish.
Commercial fisherman with
sleigh load of fish.

Commercial fisherman having lunch on the fishline.
Commercial fisherman having lunch on the fishline.

The Early Years

Many European groups immigrated to western Canada at the turn of the century; British, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Scandinavians, French and Russians. The Scandinavians were the fourth largest immigrant group, with a population of 33, 991, to settle in Saskatchewan. With the rapid development of the commercial fishing industry during the war years, a demand was created for skilled fishermen. Of all the ethnic groups to settle in southern Saskatchewan, It was mainly Scandinavians and Icelanders, who moved north to pioneer the commercial fishing industry.

One can only speculate, as to why these people were attracted to the northern wilderness. It appears that the Scandinavians and Icelanders found a similarity between their environment in the "old country" and the Canadian north. They adapted easily to the cold climate and rugged bush and possessed the knowledge of survival needed to cope in these conditions. Furthermore, the traditional occupation of these people since the days of their forefathers, the Vikings, was fishing. Together, the Native population, Scandinavians and Icelanders, pioneered the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan. Both cultures possessed a rich knowledge of the fishing trade, which they co-operatively shared.

In 1908 the railway was constructed to Big River, which allowed for easier access into northwestern Saskatchewan lakes. The first Scandinavian and Icelandic fishermen arrived at Big River in the fall of 1908. Familiar names such as Johnson, Stefansson, Erickson, Olsen, Swanson, Skivik, Anderson, and Arison, are just a few of the men who arrived during this time. Many were homesteaders from southern Saskatchewan, seeking a few extra dollars during the winter months to supplement their income.

The first commercial fishing camps in northwestern Saskatchewan, were established on Stoney Lake. A Metis, by the name of Alex Delaronde, was hired as a guide by those first pioneers. Alex Delaronde eventually constructed a stopping place at the south end of Stoney Lake. Later the lake was named in his honour.

The following winter, roads were cut into the surrounding smaller lakes allowing more fishing camps to be established.

Historical records indicate that a commercial fishing industry existed on Dore Lake before 1911. The fishermen around Big River had heard of the abundance of whitefish to be caught at Dore. Therefore in the spring of 1909, it was decided that a winter trail be cut into Dore Lake. At this time the area was relatively unexploited.

There was only one inhabitant known to have resided on Dore Lake before the influx of the first Scandinavian fisherman. He was a Metis, by the name of Michael Durocher, who resided at the East Bay of Dore Lake. Nels Edson and Eric Erickson, two of the earliest fishermen, and Gaudoise Trembley, a freighter, described Michael Durocher as being a generous man and a skilled hunter. Michael often provided food and shelter to these first fishermen, as well as acting as their guide. Later, the point at which he lived on was named in his honour.

One of the first men to commercial fish Dore Lake in 1909 was Joe Stefansson, an Icelandic farmer, from Kandahar, Saskatchewan. By 1911-12 there were twenty-three licensed fishermen on the Lake.

This rapid expansion of the fishing industry on Dore Lake and other surrounding lakes, such as Stoney and Ile-a-la-Crosse, created the need for a fish company. The fishermen needed a market to bring their fish, to be sold. Big River was the closest market with a railroad, therefore it was logical that a fish company should develop here.

Martin Olsen immigrated from Denmark to Dauphin, Manitoba in 1909. In the autumn of 1910, Martin Olsen arrived at Big River as a representative of Boothe Fisheries of Winnipeg. He realized the need for a fish company and seized upon the opportunity of establishing a fish exporting business. He began his business with one hundred dollars in his pocket. Mr Olsen's newly formed establishment became known as the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fish Company or the I.C. Fish Company. A warehouse was built at Big River and another one at Ile-a-la-Crosse. Fishermen from Dore Lake and lakes surrounding Big River would haul their fish by horses and sleigh to the warehouse in Big River. The fish was then loaded on the freight trains and shipped to national and foreign export markets.

A survey report of the Dore Lake area compiled in 1913-14, describes how the I.C. Fish Company operated in Dore Lake.

"Fish abound Dore . . . whitefish and lake trout are netted during the winter. In this connection, it may be said that winter commercial fishing is quite an important industry on Dore Lake. The fish are bought on the ice by the I.C. Fish Company, who freight them to the railway at Big River. Last winter there were thirty-three fishermen employed. The total catch amounted to 864,000 pounds (the limit), at two and one-half cents per pound (the price paid on the Lake). This amounted to $21,600.00."

The I.C. Fish Company ceased to operate after 1914.

While Martin Olsen was establishing his fish company in 1910, another group of men were attempting the same project. In 1909, Dave Overly, came from Chicago to Saskatchewan to go big game hunting. He met Mr Brownfield in Prince Albert. Mr Brownfield talked to him about the lakes further north, their fishing potential, and the opportunities available for the establishment of a fish company.

In 1910 Dave Overly persuaded his uncle, George Rizer, to come to Saskatchewan and inquire into the fishing potential of the northern lakes. The two men established a camp on Smoothstone lake (east of Dore Lake) that winter. The fishing expedition was not successful and George Rizer returned to Chicago.

George B. Rizer (left) and Dave Overly (right), winter of 1911-12.
George B. Rizer (left) and Dave Overly (right), winter of 1911-12.

George Rizer's fishing camp on Dore Lake.
George Rizer's fishing camp on Dore Lake.

In 1913, George Rizer and Dave Overly again heard of the economic potential of Saskatchewan's northern lakes. They heard of the successful fishing operations being conducted on Dore Lake by the I.C. Fish Company. With the idea of hoping to establish a fish business, George Rizer and Dave Overly established a camp on Dore Lake with an experienced fisherman by the name of Ari Arinson. By 1913-14, there were already thirty-three licensed fishermen operating on the Lake, including such men as, Helga Johnson, Eric Erickson, Joe Stefansson, Ole Skivik, Ragwal Anderson and George Saunders.

Mrs. C. Rizer, describes her husband's first fishing
expedition at Dore Lake.

"They went up to Dore in the fall and built a cabin. They set their nets when the season opened. Before they got all the nets set, Dave Overly stated that perhaps it might be a good idea to lift some of the first nets set, to see if they had any fish. Well, there were so many fish in them, that they never did get all the nets set that winter."

"It soon became apparent that arrangements would have to be made to get these fish to Big River. So my husband walked back to Big River, which was seventy miles, and got Alex Lamone. They got a few teams of horses together, to go after the fish on Dore Lake. In due time they arrived back in Big River. The fish was shipped by rail to Chicago for Boothe Fisheries to inspect. The fish passed Boothe's standards. This was the beginning of a long business association between Boothe Fisheries and George's future fish company."

Martin Olsen's I.C. Fish Company had been dissolved only a short while when George Rizer decided to form his company. Martin Olsen was still enthusiastic about the successful prospects of a fish company in Big River. In that winter of 1914, Martin Olsen joined George Rizer, Dave Overly and Ari Arinson in forming the Big River Consolidated Fisheries.

The commercial fishing industry expanded at a rapid pace on the northern Saskatchewan lakes. Over the next thirty years, Big River Consolidated Fisheries opened up fishing operations on Dore Lake, Lac La Ronge, Ile-a-la-Crosse, Smoothstone Lake, Dogback Lake, Stoney Lake, Wolfe Lake, Deep River and Big Buffalo Lake.

The company brought stability to the fishing trade. Fishermen received a guaranteed market to bring their fish, which then assured them of an income. This stability attracted many more men to the fishing occupation, especially those who held summer season jobs, such as mill workers and farmers. It allowed these men to collect a steady income during the winter months, as well as the summer months. The same farmers and mill workers from areas around Big River and southern Saskatchewan would migrate north every winter to become the fishermen on Dore Lake and other northern lakes. Other ethnic groups such as Ukrainians and Russians also migrated north to fish on Dore Lake.

Commercial fishing operations on Dore Lake expanded quickly, with the formation of George Rizer's new company. By the 1920-21 season, there were seventy fishing licenses held on Dore lake, compared to the thirty-three licenses held in 1914. During the next twenty-year period, the number of licenses held, fluctuated between seventy-seven in 1924 and forty-one in 1938.

The fishermen constructed camps at various places around Dore lake. During the early years, camps were usually occupied during the winter season and abandoned during the summer months. Commercial fishing operations did not operate in the summer months during these early years. Refrigeration methods had not been developed to preserve fish during the summer season. Secondly, nets were made of cotton and tended to rot quickly in hot weather.

There is little available evidence, as to where fish camps were located between 1909 and 1914. According to Eric Erickson's account, "My First Fishing Trip North", most camps were located on Big Island and Dore lake Island (Camp Four, Geir's Island). It wasn't until Big River Consolidated Fisheries was established in 1914, that more information was recorded as to where camps were located around the Lake.

By 1920, Big River Consolidated Fisheries had established four large fishing camps on Dore lake. One camp was situated on the northeast shore of Dore Lake, six miles from what is known as the Smoothstone Portage. A second camp, with a 24 by 24-foot cabin, was constructed at the southeast end of Dore Lake, commonly known as Smoothstone Bay. Ari Arinson operated a third camp, five miles northeast of Smoothstone Bay. This camp contained an 18 by 24-foot log building with lumber roof and floors and a 24 by 28 foot stable for horses and ponies. A fourth camp, with a 10 by 14-foot cabin, was set up two miles northeast of the Smoothstone Portage.

Hundreds of men came to Dore Lake to fish during the next thirty years. Many of them operated camps of their own, while others were hired, helpers. The following is a list of some of the men, who fished Dore lake and the camps they were situated at around the Lake.

1909 to 1920.

Joe Stephanson

Ari Arinson - Spruce Point
Smoothstone Bay

Dave Overly - Smoothstone Bay

George Rizer - Smoothstone Bay

Eric Erickson - Big Island

Helga Johnson - Big Island

Thorstein Sigurdson - Big Island

Max Erickson - Big Island

Ole Skivak - Big Island

Ragwal Anderson - Big Island

Jean Howe - Dore lake Island

Earl Applebee - Dore Lake Island

George Smith - Smith's Island

Michael Durocher - East bay

George Saunders - Dore Lake Island

Harry Sharpe - Dore lake Island

Nels Edson - Spruce Point, Whelan's Bay

Nels Edson - Spruce Point, Whelan's Bay

1920 to 1930.

Martin Olsen

Ole Anderson - West Shore

Carl Ziegler - Michel Point

J.K. Johnson - Big island

Tote Johnson - Big Island

Julius Stromm - Spruce Point

Frank Schloegel - Joseph's Point

Frank Clinton - Joseph's Point

Joe Schmidt - Joseph's Point

Tony Erickson - Big island

John and Len Waite - Smoothstone Bay

Verner Johnson - Michel Point

Dave Patterson - Camp Four Island

Einar Bergothson - Camp Four Island

Halli Freeman - Camp Four Island

John Swanson - Whelan's Point

Gus, Howard, Carl, Alfred and Eric
Swanson Swanson's Point

Dave Briggs - Whelan's Point

Frank and Victor Pruden - Whelan's Point

Sam and Oly Neilson - Whelan's Point

Don and Claire Harriette - Whelan's Point

John Markly - Whelan's Point

Jim Cowie - Whelan's Point

Miles Isbister - Whelan's Point

Philiph Clement - Whelan's Point

Harold Fredrikson - Smith's Bay

Emanuel Wynn - Michel Point

John Thompson - Big Island, Joseph's Point

Kris Palmasson - Big Island

Chris Wopnford - Big Island

Mundi Johnson - Big Island

Fraser Brothers - Whelan's Point

Kelly Offafson - Big Island

George Mirasty - South Bay

1920 to 1930.

Henry Goliath - Camp Four Island

John Hoehn - Spruce Point

Albert Dumat - Spruce Point

Emil Zinovich - West Shore

Robert Kochendorfer - Spruce Point

Pete Busch - Spruce Point

Cliff Kemp - Spruce Point

Ed Zeigler - Smith's Bay

Jake Doerksen - West Shore

Bill Kaese - Smith's Bay

Louis Smith - West Shore

Mike Shinkaruk - West Shore

Harry Husak - South Bay

Andrew Boychuk - South Bay

Louis Kogiash - West Shore

Max Wilson - West Shore

Victor Bond - West Shore

George Lyons - West Shore

Russell St. Jean - West Shore

Bernard Johnson - West Shore

Walter Lofstrom - West Shore

Walter Borg - West Shore

Fred Bilanger - West Shore

Lawrence La Fontaine - West Shore

George Arcand - West Shore

Gier Thorden - Camp Four Island

Stan Campbell - Big Island, Camp Four Island

Joe Jurisich - South Bay

Fritz Rothweiler - Dog Island

Ted Figeland - Michel Point

Joe Schindale - Camp Four Island

Harold Eldridge - North Shore

Mr. Van Dyke - ?  

In 1908, William Cowan built a sawmill on the southeastern shores of Big River. It was considered the largest mill in the British Empire at that time. The mill had the capacity of producing one million feet of lumber every twenty-four hours. On June 13th, 1913, the Big River Lumber Company suffered a fire and production at the mill was terminated. In 1914, the Winton Brothers, from the U.S.A., bought the establishment and renamed it the Ladder lake Lumber Company. In 1919, a forest fire broke out and destroyed the mill's most valuable timber from Big River to as far as Green lake. The mill was only able to operate until 1921, due to lack of quality timber. The Winton Brothers dismantled the mill and moved it to The Pas, Manitoba. The loss of the mill left most of Big River's population unemployed. Some followed the mill to its new location, while others headed north. Those who headed north chose the occupation of freighting and commercial fishing on Saskatchewan's northern lakes.

During the Depression years of the 1930s, Big River Consolidated Fisheries went bankrupt. During the 1933 season, the fish business was so bad that many buyers ceased business as "prices dropped so low that it wasn't worth the cost of freight and boxes" to buy and ship fish. Dave Overly, Martin Olsen and Ari Arinson no longer continued in the business. However, George Rizer and his wife Carson formed a new company called the Big River Fisheries and continued to operate until 1943. In 1943, George Rizer sold his entire establishment to Len Waite of Big River.

George Rizer had significantly contributed to the development of the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan. With lots of determination, good business sense, and foresight, he expanded his fishing industry to approximately fifteen northern Saskatchewan lakes, during the thirty years he operated. The industry provided a livelihood and economic stability to many northern residents.

Big River Mill and Burner.
Big River mill and burner.

Big River around 1912.
Big River around 1912.

A Fisherman's Day.

Fishing usually began shortly after the lake froze in mid-December and ended around mid-February. Winter fishing was always considered to be a strenuous and time-consuming occupation. The fishermen had to contend with the bitter cold and the long hours of setting and lifting nets and packing and loading fish.

A fisherman's day began, by arising early in the morning and collecting the supplies needed for the day on the Lake. Equipment consisted of a horse, (later replaced by "cats", trucks, and Bombardiers) sleigh, horse feed, nets, floats, and ice chisel, a needle bar, axes, shovel and grub.

During the early years of commercial fishing, dogs were used on the Lake to pull sleighs loaded with equipment and fish. Nels Edson, who once fished on Dore lake, cared for fifty to sixty dogs during the summer of 1916.

As the catch increased, over a short time, loads became too heavy for dogs to pull and soon were replaced by ponies. Nels Edson was the first fisherman on Dore Lake to use a small pony hooked to a sleigh, to pull loads. By the 1920s, loads became larger and horses replaced ponies, to transport fish and equipment.

Fishermen usually worked in pairs. They trekked out to the lake early in the morning in the bitter cold. Temperatures often registered fifty to sixty below zero. Andrew Boychuk, who fished on Dore Lake during the 1930s, describes those early mornings when the temperature dropped this low.

"Usually when it got this cold, there would never be any wind and the mirages' would be fantastic. Our nearest neighbours were about three and a half miles away, but when a mirage appeared, we would see each other's camps, just as if they were about only ten feet apart. Just as fast as it came, it would be gone."

When the men arrived on the Lake, they would chisel a two-foot hole in the ice. The jigger was then run out about one hundred yards. Another hole was then cut directly behind the far end of the jigger. The line was hauled through the hole using a wooden hook. Post were then weighted down and frozen into each hole, in the ice. Nets were strung in a series of not more than twenty in a row. The nets were lifted through the main basin hole. Two men could usually handle about thirty-five nets during the winter fishing.

Andrew Boychuk describes the daily routine of a fisherman.

"We used to go out in the morning and fish all day long for about eight or nine hours and come home with hundreds of fish all neatly stacked like cordwood on a flat rack on the sleighs. Then as soon as we got home at night, we fed the animals. We would then proceed to assemble the fish boxes and pack the fish. we would put approximately one hundred pounds of fish in a box."

When the evening meal and chores were completed, men gathered together for conversation and entertainment. Eric Erickson, one of the first men to fish Dore lake, described a typical winter evening at camp.

"When our chores were done, at night for entertainment we had two remarkable characters at camp. One of them would recite "Rimur" by the hour. Rimur is a type of epic poetry delivered in a sing-song manner - it was much used in Icelandic entertainment in the long winter evenings. The other man entertained us by reciting from memory, Cals 12's exploits and wars."

The men also spent their evenings making fish boxes, washing and mending mitts and nets, oiling floats, as well as developing good conversations and lasting friendships.

Nels Edson bringing his nets back to his fish camp, after the season is over.
Nels Edson bringing his fish nets back to his fish camp, after the season is over.

Two fishermen on their way to a fish camp at Dore Lake.
Two fishermen on their way to a fish camp at Dore Lake.

Warming up and eating dinner on the ice.
Warming up and eating dinner
on the ice.

Fishing on the ice.
Fishing on the ice.

Stan Campbell with Geir Thorden's fishing outfit.
Stan Campbell with Geir Thorden's fishing outfit.

Two fishermen standing on top of boxed fish at Camp Four Island.
Two fishermen standing on top of boxed fish at Camp Four Island.

Leslie Bodie hauled fish from Dore Lake.
My great uncle Leslie Bodie, hauled fish from Dore Lake in the winter of 1929-30. Notably on the back of one it said "Fish haul on Dore Lake, back load upset on ice, had to load it alone, 3600 lbs, 1930".

Leslie Bodie hauled fish from Dore Lake.
Back load upset on ice, had to load it alone, 3600 lbs, 1930. Photos courtesy of Keith Cunningham.

Mrs. Alfred Swanson and her daughter Deanna.
Mrs. Alfred Swanson and her daughter Deanna, at Whelan's Point in front of the fish camp. All this fish in one day's catch.

The fish plant at Murry's Point, 1952.
The fish plant at Murry's Point, 1952.

Waite's cabins built to house workers at the fish plant.
Waite's cabins built to house workers at the fish plant. Men seated on store step are waiting for the dinner bell. From left to right: Jack Olson, Lloyd Snell, Orlon Olson, Dawson Beckett, Andrew Snell, Frank Johnson, Jake Belfrey.

Mrs george mirasty holding geir thorden's hand.
Front left: Mrs. George Mirasty holding Geir Thorden's hand.
Back left: Verner Johnson beside Bob Roberts. Back far right: Mary McBride beside Miss Crow. In front of the cook shack at Waite's fish plant.

Bill of Sale (Yellow).
Bill of Sale (Yellow),
May 26, 1939.

Wharehouse Receipt for 65 boxes of fish, 1940.
Wharehouse Receipt for 65 boxes
of fish, December 8, 1940.


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: July 9, 2024."

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