You’re a fan of History Channel’s “Vikings,” and you’re not afraid to admit it.
But historical docudrama can only do so much to slake your thirst for knowledge about one of the Old World’s coolest cultures. There’s no substitute for the real thing.
Happily, you don’t have to travel to the far reaches of Scandinavia to absorb Norse culture firsthand. The Vikings themselves might not have penetrated the vast interior of the North American continent, but their descendants certainly did — and they’ve left an indelible cultural mark that remains to this day.
Where Is New Iceland, Anyway?
One of the best places to experience Norse culture in the New World is New Iceland, a historic Icelandic enclave on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. The region extends from the popular lakeside resort town of Gimli north to Hecla Island, a beautiful expanse of nearly untouched wilderness in the middle of Lake Winnipeg’s southern lobe.
“Our area is known first and foremost as an outdoor recreation destination,” says longtime local resident David Janeson, who owns a small marina and resort on Hecla Island, “but outsiders are rapidly getting up to speed on our unique cultural heritage as well.”
New Iceland’s Origins
New Iceland can trace its origins back to the early 1870s, hen tens of thousands of Icelanders fled the economic and environmental catastrophe precipitated by the eruption of Mount Askja.
Many landed in Canada, whose comparable climate and sparsely populated hinterland held out the promise of a new start. By 1875, a hardy band had settled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, just north of what was then the northern border of Manitoba. For a time, they enjoyed a quasi-independent existence — though technically within Canada’s borders, they interacted only sporadically with the national government.
After a harsh winter and succession of epidemics that nearly wiped out the settlement, New Iceland’s dreams of true self-government came to an end. But locals remained committed to a humble, of-the-land-and-water existence, presiding over thriving fisheries and carving out a distinctive local culture until well into the second half of the 20th century.
New Iceland Today: Why You Need to See It for Yourself
New Iceland’s commercial fisheries went into terminal decline during the 1960s, and many younger residents fled.
Today, the local economy is driven by recreational and cultural tourism. When you visit, don’t miss:
- The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, the largest celebration of Icelandic heritage anywhere in Canada
- Viking Park, Gimli’s quirky homage to Norse culture
- Hecla Village, a well-preserved fishing settlement restored to its 1920s heyday
Reaching New Iceland
Contrary to popular belief, Manitoba isn’t an inaccessible waste. Thanks to Winnipeg’s bustling James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, New Iceland is within a day’s journey of every major North American city. Gimli, the region’s de facto capital, is less than an hour north of Winnipeg in good conditions, and beautiful Hecla Island is just an hour beyond.
So, what are you waiting for? New Iceland is open for business — and ready to welcome you in any season.