Around a century-and-a-half ago, thousands of Vikings left the homeland they’d created in Iceland to settle in North America. Their rich tradition of myths and legends and sagas continue in New Iceland, which was a 50-mile reserve of land on the west coast of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, originally established by the Canadian government for Icelanders within Canada.
Gimli was the heart of New Iceland then — and still is today. The small community, named for the home of the Gods in Norse mythology, hosts many celebrations throughout the year, with totally free Islendingadagurinn in August the crowning jewel.
Gimli’s Viking Village is the best place to begin when you visit the Icelandic Festival — or certainly was for us! In fact, we arrived early at the festival specifically to have lots of time to spend talking to the reenactors in the village.
The Viking Village comes to life for Friday afternoon of the Icelandic Festival with other events kicking off on Saturday, and running until Monday of the August long weekend. The premier event of the year for Viking reenactors, it draws participants from across North America and, when we attended, even the United Kingdom.
Villagers come equipped to pitch their tents and live as Vikings on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. As one reenactor told me, the cool breeze off the water is welcome during the heat of the day, but can make for chilly nights!
Taking a leisurely stroll through the newly set-up camp, we were soon able to build a comprehensive picture of what life in Iceland was like some 1000 years ago. As we walked, the smell of stew pots of bacon, apples, nuts and assorted ingredients definitely tickled my taste buds at several tents! While I didn’t return to see how the pie turned out, we even watched a woman making her own clay oven for the weekend. And the clay? Well, it was from a layer under the beach’s sandy surface at Gimli.
At another tent we watched a demonstration on how to make a bow and arrows. Who knew the hardest part would be watching it slowly being pulled into its curved shape?
From clothing and the fibers used to produce it, to medicinal plants and how they were used, to trying out the shields and chain mail, it was an educational — and fun way to add to my knowledge about the Vikings.
The Viking battle takes place daily from Saturday through Monday of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba.
However, you don’t have to wait until then to see Vikings wandering through the grounds wearing helmets and carrying shields and swords! We met a number of them answering questions and talking to people throughout the exhibit area.
Of course, you can’t have a battle without sides, so before the battle starts an announcer gives you the details on who is on the battlefield. Then, the challenges begin! Which side has the better archers? Which the best with the Dane (or long) ax? Or the seax, a type of knife?
Weapons like the dane and seax are all hand-made using traditional weapons as models. They are, however, dulled, so the steel blades don’t slice and dice, and the arrows have a blunt end instead of being sharpened.
Besides creating their weapons, the warriors also spend a lot of time training to use them. Only the best-trained, most-experienced reenactors use the swords and axes. You can even catch some warrior training in the Viking Village throughout the event.
Icelandic Festival of Manitoba Weekend Events
The Friday schedule of events begins at 1 pm and is short, mainly including access to the village during the afternoon and the music events — or Sigur Rök — at the free Gimli Harbour Stage. However, we thoroughly enjoyed this first, crowd-free day just mingling with the locals.
Saturday, Sunday, and Monday host a number of events. My favorite? Well, I had a few. For family fun, the sandcastle contest was fun to either compete in or watch. It takes place on the Gimli Beach, right off the boardwalk that runs behind the resort.
And of course, the Islendingadunk is great for spectators too. I’m not so sure about the participants though, who try to knock each other off a long pipe (imagine walking the plank using a round pipe instead of flat board) into the murky water!
However, the competitors got in enough knocks with their soft-sided bats to keep the crowd cheering.
The Firs-Nok tournament is also popular. Never heard of it? Neither had I. However, I soon discovered it was played with a post, an empty bottle, and a Frisbee. The object of the game was to knock the bottle balanced on the top of the post with the Frisbee. Feel free to try this one at home — many others already have, making it popular throughout Manitoba’s Interlake region.
Add a midway, more kids games, music and poetry in the park, one of Manitoba’s largest parades (Monday only), along with lots of craft and food vendors, and I can guarantee there’s more than enough to keep your whole family busy throughout the weekend.
Gimli Viking Statue and Park
While the Viking festival is only held once a year, Gimli is home to a year-round viking in the newly created Viking Park around the existing Viking statue.
The Viking came to life in 1967 as a Centennial project for Canada’s 100th birthday. Made of fibreglass, the statue is 4.6 meters or 15 feet tall. It was designed by Gissur Eliasson from the University of Manitoba, and constructed by George Barone, a Manitoban artist.
Fifty years after the statue was finished, the park added many more elements that preserve Icelandic heritage along with indigenous plants, grasses and flowers. It’s made of up three parts: the Troll Storm Garden, Elf Garden, and Breakwater Garden and draws on Norse legend where trolls turn to stone.
While the Viking Village taught me a lot about Viking life over the millennia, the New Iceland Heritage Museum proved to be a treasure trove of information on the history of New Iceland and Gimli.
Housed in The Waterfront Centre, the museum is open to visitors year-round. The admission fee is minimal for the well-curated, thorough story of the Viking presence in Canada, particularly New Iceland.
Your visit begins with an informative video that sets the stage to follow through all of the displays.
Iceland, originally called Thule, was first discovered by the Greek explorer Pytheas, around 325 BC. It took a number of centuries, however, for settlers from the Scandinavian countries and the Norse Viking Age settlements in the British Isles to migrate and settle it. By 930 AD, chieftans established a form of governance, which was followed by centuries of sagas of changing political formations.
However, it was economic conditions and climactic change following volcanic eruptions, which sent 1/4 (about 20,000 people) of the country’s population looking for new homes between 1870 and 1915. Many of those immigrants ended up in Canada, in fact, Manitoba is home to the largest Icelandic population outside Iceland.
I found the featured display of volcanic rocks and minerals from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, one of the museum’s most fascinating exhibits. This is the first time the display has left Iceland. In addition to the rocks, there are also many cultural artifacts that build a rich history of the community’s challenges in establishing itself on Lake Winnipeg.
While the nearby Gimli Glider Museum isn’t related to the Icelandic heritage of the area, it’s still another fascinating story to check out when you visit. If you’re not familiar with this piece of Canadian aeronautic history, this short YouTube video does a great job of pulling it together.
While the museum itself is small, it does have a simulator that lets you try landing the glider yourself. There’s no additional fee to try it, so see how you do! My landing went smoothly — no crashes here!
Gimli Seawall Gallery
The Gimli Seawall Gallery started life as a dull, cement-gray protective wall that ran for 977 feet along the harbour. However, with a little ingenuity and a lot of artistic talent, a gallery of 72 murals now cover its previously boring front with fascinating stories.
I loved walking the pier, examining the paintings, checking out the artists’ names. Back in 1977 when the Gimli Art Club started the project, there were just 36 murals gracing the pier. Now, more than 40 years later, many of the originals have been touched up to help them retain their beauty.
Lakeview Resort Gimli
The Lakeview Resort Gimli is right on the harbourfront, so the perfect location to enjoy the weekend’s festivities. However, I soon discovered that getting a room at this popular spot is pretty tough for Islendingadagurinn! Sometimes Lady Luck does smile on me though, so after booking a room for Thursday night before the action started, I was able to stay for Friday night as well due to a cancellation.
The rooms were great, even though I didn’t get a view of the lake — oh well, can’t have everything. We enjoyed the lounge patio, even watching all of the Friday night bands right from the comfort of our table. Dinner in the Seagull Restaurant was delicious, too.
I always find that location is everything when it comes to picking a place to stay when you’re on vacation, and the resort is the perfect spot to hit all the highlights in Gimli, whether it’s Icelandic Festival, or some other weekend.
If, however, you find the hotel rooms and camping spots taken when you get to the Icelandic Festival, Winnipeg is just 90 km away. You’ll find accommodations to fit any budget there — https://www.tourismwinnipeg.com/
Plan your visit to Gimli, Manitoba — https://www.travelmanitoba.com/places-to-go/cities/gimli/
Icelandic Festival of Manitoba — https://www.icelandicfestival.com/