Travel sometimes requires eating foods outside of your comfort zone; it’s just part of the adventure. Yet oddly, the line outside the tent selling rotten shark meat at the Icelandic Festival in Gimli, Manitoba was filled primarily with locals. I guess culinary risks only go so far.
Gimli, Manitoba, a community of about 2,000 folks with fair hair and blue eyes about an hour north of Winnipeg, is the largest population of immigrants from Iceland anywhere in the world. And rotten shark meat, called hákarl, is a traditional favorite.
Gimli was originally called New Iceland, settled by Icelanders in the 1870s. A festival celebrating their heritage began not long afterwards. The actual word for the festival is "Islendingadagurinn," but only locals can pronounce it with any sense of authenticity. There is a festival queen known as a Fjallkona and a Viking Village and plenty of games for people of all ages.
All of these activities take place the first full weekend in August each year on the banks of Lake Winnipeg, quite a lovely destination in its own right, especially in the heat of the summer.
Perhaps the most visually interesting of the festival events is the Viking Village. About 100 or more re-enactors pitch tents and spend three days living as the Vikings would have back in the day. Men, women, children and even their dogs take part in the reenactment and openly share the details of their clothing, their cooking and the tools with which these tasks were accomplished centuries ago.
Then, each day at 3 p.m., the re-enactors demonstrate Viking warfare tactics. There’s a good deal of shouting, grunting, plundering and pillaging and before long, a victor is declared. It’s kind of like a Civil War re-enactment, but without guns and cannons. Get to the battlefield at least 30 minutes early for a good seat.
More shouting and cheering takes place with the daily round of Islendingadunk, a water-based event where opponents straddle a soap-lubricated plastic pole suspended over Gimli Harbour. Swinging a water-logged bag, the idea is to knock your opponent into the water without losing balance and ending up in the drink yourself.
Another fun game that was actually invented in Gimli for the festival is Fris-Nok. It’s basically Frisbee knocking bottles of beer off of a stick. Teams of two toss Frisbees back and forth at empty beer bottles, scoring each time one topples to the ground.
The competitions continue with shot-put competitions, children’s jousting events, skating boarding demonstrations and even beach volleyball tournaments. But for those who prefer to absorb the Viking culture without physical engagement, the Icelandic Horse show and demonstration is absolutely the most charming event of the festival. Icelandic horses are tiny little creatures, really the size of ponies, but with a strength and stamina that far exceeds their size. Usually no more than about five feet tall, an Icelandic horse can live up to 50 years old, which is really old in horse years. They are incredibly friendly and well-tempered animals and just as cute as can be, thus making their appearance in the parades and other events very popular.
For a complete understanding of the Icelandic horses and other aspects of this culture, a visit to the New Iceland Heritage Museum on the festival grounds at Harbour Park is a necessity. The Icelandic people are hardy souls and this museum explains many of the myths, legends and realities of their culture, like why eating rotten shark meat is a good thing.
Plus, it’s a great place to buy your very own horned Viking helmet, by far the coolest souvenir of any of your summer travels.
What unusual festivals have you visited during your travels?